D&D 5E How to run a small, shifting maze

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
I'm putting together a 1st-2nd level adventure that involves a small hedgemaze that shifts around as the PCs navigate it.

In previous editions, i've done mazes with varying results. In my experience, simply running a maze as-is just becomes a tedious mapping exercise. So I'd like run it another way, more like overcoming a complex obstacle than explicitly exploring a bunch of confusing corridors and dead-ends. At the same time, it needs to retainplenty of opportunity to horror elements like claustrophobia, threat of getting/feeling lost, etc, plus the occasional monster to bump into/avoid.

TL;DR:
Any suggestions (or examples) how to run a small-ish, low-low-level maze that changes over time in 5e?
 

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My main suggestion: let the characters see the maze shift so they know that mapping alone (or following the left wall) isn't an answer. This will make getting lost a real threat - one they can probably manage with effort, but one that requires effort.

Second idea: give them a consumable magic item that will take them out of the maze completely, but force them to start over if they want to go back in.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Good idea. I'm anticipating they'd climb a tree or talk to a bird or something to keep their bearings; or even just try to hack their way through the foliage. But showing them that it shifts and heals as they're watching would be a more effective telegraph than relying on a "wait.. this isn't right" revelation that they might never have.

I'm still kind of stymied on whether there's a more engaging way to run a maze that doesn't boil down to a long string of "Left, right or ahead?" questions interrupted by dead ends and occasional encounters.
 

Perhaps you can take a choose-your-own-adventure approach. It's less about the map of the maze and more about mapping between points of interest. As players explore they come upon these points that can branch off to other points. For instance The Fountain has paths that lead to the Row of Doors, Angry Goose Pond, and Sundial. Each of these new points of interest may or may not have a direct path back to The Fountain. You can describe the twists and turns, how the maze seems to rearrange itself, and how the player's sense of direction keeps getting thrown off, but you don't have to actually draw the maze.

To get to the center or end point of the maze you might need to gate a few paths. Perhaps the Sundial has a path that exits the maze but it requires tools and a missing part to fix the sundial first. Those things are found in other parts of the maze. This ensures the players have to hit at least a few points in the maze and don't accidently get to the end super fast.

Not every point in the maze needs to be interesting or required for exiting. Having dead ends, avoidable combat encounters, or scenic diversions interspersed in the maze will give it a nice feel.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Oh, nice.. THat's got me thinking in terms of dividing the maze into thematic zones, each one with a couple sites-- like the fountain, the sundial, etc-- and a handful of wandering encounters (sometimes monsters, but also the dead ends, the "scenic diversions", and so forth).

Getting between zones could be where the navigation checks, etc, happen. A poor check ends the party in a farther out zone (or some other part of the maze they didn't intend); whereas a success gets them closer to their goal. They earn opportunities to make such checks by interacting with the various sites and denizens of each zone.

I can work with this!

(Funny, I've run other types of short adventures similarly to this, it just didn't occur to me to do it for a maze, heh!)
 


J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Find the board game “Labyrinth”Labyrinth (board game) - Wikipedia (or Labyrinth Master for a less kiddy/cartoony look) and use that to generate your maze. Better still, buy two: one for you, and one for the players’ fog-of-war version
Cool, I'll look into the Labyrinth game & how it works. And thematically, that's definitely part of fthe vibe I'm aiming for.
(It's one of those boardgames I've never played, but has been on my radar forever.)
 

Oh, nice.. THat's got me thinking in terms of dividing the maze into thematic zones, each one with a couple sites-- like the fountain, the sundial, etc-- and a handful of wandering encounters (sometimes monsters, but also the dead ends, the "scenic diversions", and so forth).

Getting between zones could be where the navigation checks, etc, happen. A poor check ends the party in a farther out zone (or some other part of the maze they didn't intend); whereas a success gets them closer to their goal. They earn opportunities to make such checks by interacting with the various sites and denizens of each zone.

I can work with this!

(Funny, I've run other types of short adventures similarly to this, it just didn't occur to me to do it for a maze, heh!)
Different thematic zones sounds fun. It's almost like a mini maze within a larger maze. Do you think you'll want/need to track time in the maze? If you intend for them to be in there for multiple days it could matter but if it's supposed to be small then it's probably not worth worrying about.

I can picture someone screwing up the navigation check and everyone else groaning knowing they have to get through swamp zone of the maze again.
 

Galandris

Foggy Bottom Campaign Setting Fan
What's the purpose of your maze? If I read your post correctly, you want to give the PCs the opportunity to use various skills/competences to overcome the problem and shine, all the while letting a mounting impression of failure and tension as they get loster and loster into the maze?

If your maze is featureless (ie, just hedges magically growing and shifting to make them lose their track), then the only solution is to go forward and find the exit before... something bad happen.

I'd use the countdown mechanics. Set an exhaustible dice pool appropriate to the challenge you set and a duration of a round. Exemple: if they have to reach their destination before the dragon eats the princess, select a rough time range and 15' rounds... THey don't really know when the dragon will have his lunch, but it is bound to happen if they are late... and in the interim, they must do something... On the other hand, the players must achieve X successes to exit the maze (hopefully in time). Successes can be granted by pertinent use of abilities. Burning it down? Sure you go forward, but the maze react by regrowing quickly, so you do progress but can't burn the maze all the way, and so on like with the bird or chopping hedges with an axe... Select the number of success right to adjust the difficulty relative to the size of the "Dragon's appetite" dice pool. Stupid ideas or fumbles can be sanctionned by discretionary shaving of the dice pool as the character gets lost and lose time to just get back to the point they were.

If your maze has feature like the aforementioned Fountain of Doom and Angry Goose Pond , you can have them "pop" after Y successs are achieved.
 

UngainlyTitan

Legend
Supporter
I think it is the Rise of Tiamat adventure but there is a hedge maze: Xonthal's Tower. I really like the way it is done. There is a central puzzle that changes each time it is encountered. If the party takes the correct path each time they come back to this location (and get presented with the next stage of tye puzzle.)otherwise they end up in a selection of random locations where they have and encounter/puzzle to continue back to the sundial (the main puzzle).
The exact layout of the maze is immaterial.
 

aco175

Legend
I would like just make several encounters and planned places along with a wandering encounter chart. I like the ideas of a showing the players the shifting walls and the ideas of a sundial and locating the way to repair it. Some players may feel a bit railroaded and not feel their choosing directions have worth.

Is there a way to roll a die to get to the 'right' locations to retrieve the parts to fix the sundial and leave. Yes, but maybe add a survival check to get closer to the right location. Maybe some sort of bonus points to the amount of time in the maze and likely influenced by the number of successes to keep the players motivated to keep going foreword.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Do you think you'll want/need to track time in the maze?
What's the purpose of your maze? If I read your post correctly, you want to give the PCs the opportunity to use various skills/competences to overcome the problem and shine, all the while letting a mounting impression of failure and tension as they get loster and loster into the maze?

The labyrinth itself is embedded in a wood adjacent to a garden estate, and basically serves as defense for a corrupted fey living at its center: the maze wards away casual wanderers and consumes incautious explorers.

I'm still on the fence if there should be a time constraint. Initially, I was a thinking a VIP would be kidnapped by the fey's minions (lesser things and livestock have already gone missing) to be consumed "at the full moon" or whatever. But going in, the PCs probably won't know what they're up against or why; so having a countdown toward an event they're unaware of seems somehow "unfair". I don't really want them to finally arrive on the scene only to find a wet pile of bones, without ever understanding they were racing a clock! So I may just keep the end goal as "defeat the Thing in the Wood to end the threat to the village", and leave it at that.

That said, I do like the idea of applying countdowns for certain events or sites to "pop". The longer it takes them, the more worn out they are when they finally get to the boss. By the same token, longer time also means more opportunity to come across items or aid to help with the climax encounter. So a countdown could be a mixed blessing/curse.

Will definitely have to consider that.
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
I think it is the Rise of Tiamat adventure but there is a hedge maze: Xonthal's Tower. I really like the way it is done. There is a central puzzle that changes each time it is encountered. If the party takes the correct path each time they come back to this location (and get presented with the next stage of tye puzzle.)otherwise they end up in a selection of random locations where they have and encounter/puzzle to continue back to the sundial (the main puzzle).
The exact layout of the maze is immaterial.
That sounds like just the sort of map-independent way to manage it I might be looking for.
I'll check it out.
 

I ran a campaign where the climax involved entering psychic mindscape of the Demon Lord Baphomet, which took the form of a labyrinth whose ground was crushed bones and whose walls were immense ivory tusks, and in which a rain of blood fell from crimson clouds.

There was actual map, and I even erased a few walls of the original labyrinth so that they would be more routes through it than just one. However, there were enemies in the labyrinth: people. The party knew from the real world whose minds had been sucked in and who had been driven to rage. Every time someone died in the labyrinth, the nearest bonus exit sealed shut.

Also, the rain started to gradually flood the area with blood, and if someone was knocked prone , while submerged, they would see glimpses of the real world, wherein a handful of people in the town who had resisted being pulled into the mindscape were fighting off savage beasts coming in from all directions.

So there was a ticking clock and a penalty for stowing across people that they could not subdue non-lethally. And then the actual exit to the labyrinth was guarded by Baphomet himself, whom the party engaged while riding a raft of corpses through a torrential river of blood.

It was good times.

But actually navigating the labyrinth was indeed me just tracing a map out for them. Or, more accurately, I had a map digitized, and I had a layer providing a fog of war, and as the party explored they got to see more of the map because I would erase portions of the fog of war. I don't know how you could do that face to face without a lot of drawing.
 

aco175

Legend
I could see a campsite or a type of inn outside the maze and the shifting walls keep leading the PCs back out to the safe place. Maybe have some other groups staying there as well.
 


J.Quondam

CR 1/8
But actually navigating the labyrinth was indeed me just tracing a map out for them. Or, more accurately, I had a map digitized, and I had a layer providing a fog of war, and as the party explored they got to see more of the map because I would erase portions of the fog of war. I don't know how you could do that face to face without a lot of drawing.
Yeah, I'm trying to keep it face to face, but using an explicit map with a VTT at the table could be an option, i suppose. As an adventure, this particular maze is intended to be short-ish (investigation + maze + boss all run in just one or sessions, ideally), so that might be more trouble than it's worth.

That said.... There is a psychic element to the bbeg, so maybe this little hedgemaze could be a prelude to a more elaborate delve into a Dreamlands labyrinth later on.... :unsure:
 

Mazes themselves are pretty boring, both from the DM and player perspective. I'd consider making a skill challenge for it, depending on your overall goal. Ask the players what they'd like to do to get through the maze, then figure out what ability checks would appropriate. Allow everyone to pick a check they're participating in, and if half the party fails a DC 10, there's some punishment (reduced time to complete, an encounter, etc).

Some example actions
  • Climb a tree/get a view: Str/Athletics
  • Speak with plant/animals: Cha/Persuasion
  • Contemplate the layout: Int/Investigation
  • Use sky/landmarks to move towards a specific area: Wis/Survival
  • Bust though the maze: Con (maybe Athletics)
  • Scout beyond the nearby walls by wiggling through: Dex/Acrobatics
Some example failures
  • Lost time against limited clock (or Con Saves for Forced March)
  • Combat Encounter
  • Trap/Hazard Encounter
  • Mazeophobia (apparently the actual name): PCs make a Wis Save DC: 10 or become frightened of the maze for the next 1d4 checks (disadvantage on checks)
 

J.Quondam

CR 1/8
Mazes themselves are pretty boring, both from the DM and player perspective.
Yeah, that's been my experience, too.

I'd consider making a skill challenge for it, depending on your overall goal. Ask the players what they'd like to do to get through the maze, then figure out what ability checks would appropriate. Allow everyone to pick a check they're participating in, and if half the party fails a DC 10, there's some punishment (reduced time to complete, an encounter, etc).
Good list. I think I'll probably break the maze into sections, and run these sorts of checks to navigate between them. Maybe each section will have more or less optimal solutions, depending upon its theme: sort of a small abstract maze of smaller abstract mazes. I'll aim to put a handful of short encounters or "micro-sites" in each section, with the goal of having the whole thing completable in a few hours of table time.
 


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