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The Horror! of Labyrinths

Adventures in Dungeons & Dragons have been rooted in dungeons, mazes where branching paths lead to different rooms, constricting player choice but not limiting it to one path. Labyrinths are a slightly different beast, and given they lead to a single path, provide unique challenges in gaming.

labyrinth.jpg

Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

Maze vs. Labyrinth

Simply put, mazes and labyrinths are related but not the same. Both are meant to confuse those who enter; but mazes can have multiple outcomes (multicursal), branching further with each additional choice to go left, right, or forward. Traditional dungeons are mazes. Labyrinths, on the other hand, are unicursal (a single, non-branching path) which leads to the center. Labyrinths aren't necessarily hard to navigate, they're just long. Unlike a maze, the entrance is also the exit. It's getting to the center that matters.

Labyrinths have been traditionally associated with the lair of the Minotaur, a twisting series of passages created by Daedalus for King Minos of Crete at Knossos. It wasn't until the hero Theseus arrived that the Minotaur was finally defeated, and even then in most versions of the tale he had help from Ariadne in navigating the maze.

It's worth noting that the distinction between maze and labyrinth isn't always clear. Multicursal mazes were more common until 430 BC, where the labyrinth became the standard, with that style being the fashion until hedge mazes were introduced during the Renaissance. James Haeck on D&D Beyond classifies traditional maze dungeons as labyrinths, and the unicursal labyrinth as a gauntlet. James makes an astute observation:

The greatest benefit of creating a labyrinth dungeon is the level of agency it gives the players. They are the captains of their own ship, and can explore in any direction they want. Whenever you give the players a choice, however, make sure it’s meaningful, otherwise they may as well flip a coin to decide. Choosing between “right door or left door” is meaningless, but choosing between “door covered in leaves of a man-eating plant or door covered in poisonous fungus” is exciting.

That difference changes a game from a series of events that happen to players to events the players choose. Which is perhaps why labyrinths tend to show up in the horror genre more than fantasy.

Taking Away Agency

As we mentioned in our discussion of gamebooks, restricting agency of a protagonist is part of what makes gamebooks challenging. The player still has agency, but not as much as in a role-playing game. Mazes, in horror, can be unsettling but theoretically can be "solved" through diligent exploration. This is why mapping dungeons were so important in early D&D.

Horror that involves mazes rarely plays by these rules. Horror movies like Cube and the transmedia book House of Leaves set up a maze structure only to break its boundaries, inevitably killing characters in the process. The author is free to create new horrors behind each room, unconstrained by dimensions. These sorts of "moving dungeons" are particularly deadly because protagonists may not be able to find their way out.

Gauntlets and labyrinths, on the other hand, are essentially battles of attrition. Protagonists can move forward and backward, but their paths are limited to those two choices. The further in they go, the further from the exit (and potentially freedom or a long rest) they become. This isn't frequently explored in movies but there are some exceptions.

Dave Made a Maze is a movie (despite the title) about a cardboard labyrinth with a Minotaur at its center. The characters avoid some of the labyrinthine restrictions by punching through walls and death results in red-and-pink silly string. In some regards it's a reductionist commentary on House of Leaves, and openly mocks any high-minded discussion of the topic with its simple (but effective!) use of cardboard special effects.

For a particularly brutal version of a labyrinth that goes straight down, The Platform tells the story of random captives who appear at certain levels a room abutting a plunging shaft. The catch is that food is lowered on the platform, with less and less food available for those below. Theoretically, if each prisoner only eats enough food to be full, many more people could survive. Each month, a prisoner is randomly assigned to a different level. Throughout, the protagonist tries to team up with his cellmate with varying degrees of success. The reason it's a horror movie is because the worst aspects of human nature inevitably come out.

The Labyrinth as Gauntlet

PaganUnicorn on Reddit was unhappy with the basics of maze dungeons and set out to fix them with a deck of cards:

In my experience playing D&D there are a few ways to deal with mazes, none of them attractive. First, you can slowly plod through it in character, endlessly repeating yourself, "You enter a small corridor, there is a path to the left and a path to the right... What do you do?" until both you and your party have gone insane. Another and equally terrible option is to simply hand the players a map and have them relive kindergarten for a few moments as they plot their course out with a pen. The third and possibly worst option is to simply have the wizard roll an intelligence check, or the ranger a survival check and defeat the maze with a few dice rolls. None of these methods do a proper labyrinth justice, so I've done my best to make an alternative.

Applying a labyrinth to a tabletop game is challenging because the only choices available to players are how they manage their resources. Dave Made a Maze regularly throws traps at its navigators as well as a Minotaur, not unlike a typical dungeon. But unlike a dungeon, the only choice players have is to move forward and backward. Resting is key, but any wandering monster will inevitably encounter them (like a Minotaur) so at best rest is limited or requires shoring up significant defenses, like creating artificial walls.

A labyrinth will wear characters down quickly if wandering monsters are a factor. If they aren't, it risks becoming boring. Rob Donoghue of The Walking Mind posits this as "single elimination vs. press your luck" or an all-or-nothing win vs. increasing series of difficult challenges that can result in failure:

But that does get us pointing in the right direction – it is uncommon for any single encounter in a dungeon to be enough to overpower the party. Rather, it is the accrued cost and effort of multiple conflicts that will make them more vulnerable, increasing the odds that the next fight will break the camel’s back. Which points to something interesting – Dungeon fights are supposed to be easy (on an individual basis). In fact, the best trick they pull is making them FEEL challenging while the reality is that the first few rooms are more or less guaranteed wins. How is this possible? Well, let’s consider – a game like D&D has a lot of different currencies in play (Spells, abilities, and hit points most notable) and they’re set up so you can buy success. That is, the more willing you are to spend your currency, the easier the victory. This sounds obvious when said this way, but consider that if that was true, the way to make adventures more challenging would be to add more encounters and more reasons to press on. Instead, the go-to method is to make things harder, which just pushes players to tactics like the 5 minute workday, where they use all their currency to win, then withdraw.

In essence, dungeons are interesting because of their variability that conceals (depending on player choice) the press-your-luck difficulty. A labyrinth strips that away so that it's ONLY pressing your luck, adding more encounters without the possibility of easily withdrawing to complete safety.

Labyrinths can certainly be used in a fantasy setting, but given the "currencies" that power D&D, they can't be very long lest they be too boring or too deadly. Unless as a game designer your plan was to kill the characters all along, in which case you've shifted into the horror genre.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

imagineGod

Adventurer
Labyrinths can certainly be used in a fantasy setting, but given the "currencies" that power D&D, they can't be very long lest they be too boring or too deadly. Unless as a game designer your plan was to kill the characters all along, in which case you've shifted into the horror genre.
Best last sentence to summarize the whole article. Unless your Dungeon Master is plotting a Total Party Kill, any good adventure in a dungeon crawl type situation should be survivable with little or no permanent damage, after all, people play for fun, not trauma.
 

aco175

Hero
I never had a way to make them fun for players and myself. They seem to turn into a "We keep turning right" until someone cries Uncle! I wonder if a deck of cards encounters would work with some minor advantage/disadvantage from choices and previous encounters. Maybe remove some of the cards if certain things happened. At least I would not be making a maze on the table with tiles or trying to tell the players how to map it.
 

univoxs

That's my dog, Walter
Supporter
I made a Pathfinder adventure based on the movie the Labyrinth. I decided to gamify solving it rather than have them do it square by square.

I made a hex map where they had to advance through the different sections of the Labyrinth, like how the movie had different sections, some being longer than others and with there own themes. They had to make skill checks (which depended on the hex) to move forward, failing meant they did not progress or they went backward. When they got to the border of a section there was a static encounter that had to be passed, these static encounters were based on the major encounters in the movie.

It worked out well.
 

Ed_Laprade

Adventurer
I made a Pathfinder adventure based on the movie the Labyrinth. I decided to gamify solving it rather than have them do it square by square.

I made a hex map where they had to advance through the different sections of the Labyrinth, like how the movie had different sections, some being longer than others and with there own themes. They had to make skill checks (which depended on the hex) to move forward, failing meant they did not progress or they went backward. When they got to the border of a section there was a static encounter that had to be passed, these static encounters were based on the major encounters in the movie.

It worked out well.
I've said this before, and I'll keep on saying it: Why didn't they just climb the wall and proceed that way? (Love the movie, but that always bugged me about it.)
 




Eltab

Hero
During 4e I made up some labyrinth-y encounters and set up a skill check to indicate progress through the labyrinth / maze. The goal in the middle was to beat up a Minotaur (of course) who was actually BBEG's "Head of the Security Department" . If the PCs rolled well they would reach the center quickly. If they rolled poorly they would discover placed traps, random encounters, nasty monsters, alert the guards, &c. I had a few "flavor" encounters too - a deceased explorer, a supply cache, dead end(s), a spot where you could peek between the wall and the ceiling to get your bearings / look around - just to relieve tension.
 

I once wrote an adventure that included a maze whose walls were invisible walls of force. So the party could see the outer edges of the area the maze was in, just not the interior walls of the maze - they had to touch the walls to feel where they were.

And then I filled the invisible-walled maze with zombies they had to fight.

And then I dressed the zombies up as mimes. Everybody was doing the "trapped behind an invisible wall" mime game, only for real. You could have a zombie mime right next to you, following you behind the other side of the invisible wall of force, only to have the wall come to an abrupt end and the zombie mime suddenly in your face.

Johnathan
 

Raduin711

Adventurer
I've said this before, and I'll keep on saying it: Why didn't they just climb the wall and proceed that way? (Love the movie, but that always bugged me about it.)

Jarreth challenges her to "solve" the labyrinth. If I solve a maze by drawing a line out of bounds to the other side, or just ignoring the intervening walls, have I solved it?

Maybe you could say yes, because that's demonstrating "outside of the box" thinking. Maybe you could say no, because that's cheating.
 

Jarreth is clearly chaotic, and would both accept a cheating solution - if it was clever enough, and cheat himself - especially to counter something obvious like climbing the walls. The walls in Jarreth's realm obviously grow taller at the same rate as the person is climbing them.

Jarreth's labyrinth was never a physical obstacle. To solve it you have to find - yourself.
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
Hang on a second this discussion of unicursal versus branching mazes is surely a rabbit whole.

The original labyrinth was designed by Daedalus to contain the Minotaur. It could not have been unicursal otherwise it wouldn’t have trapped anything.

Surely unicursal depictions are just the result of it being easier to carve a direct line on a coin or amphora rather than come up with your own maze. This is an artistic depiction not proof that labyrinths were unicursal!
 

talien

Community Supporter
Hang on a second this discussion of unicursal versus branching mazes is surely a rabbit whole. The original labyrinth was designed by Daedalus to contain the Minotaur. It could not have been unicursal otherwise it wouldn’t have trapped anything. Surely unicursal depictions are just the result of it being easier to carve a direct line on a coin or amphora rather than come up with your own maze. This is an artistic depiction not proof that labyrinths were unicursal!
To your point, the only way a labyrinth is so deadly that you "get lost" is that you go so far in that it takes too long to get out (presumably days) before the minotaur catches you.

From a RPG standpoint, much more common is the gauntlet/labyrinth which is a narrative construct, not a physical one. It's basically DM railroading where the plot moves forward no matter what choices you make. This is problematic because D&D's dungeon-crawling system is all about "press-your-luck" low-stakes gambles in choosing doors, detecting traps, and fighting low level monsters. A railroaded plot effectively forces players to go straight down a path until they run out of resources, and there's no player agency in "gambling" their choices other than to retreat.

You don't get lost in labyrinths, they eventually wear you down until you either defeat the big boss, die trying, or retreat.
 

In the video game Darkest Dungeon one 'resource' characters have is basically their composure in the face of how terrifying it is to be in a dungeon. Eventually your stress level gets high enough that you start acquiring mental disorders, or you attack your allies, or do other bad stuff.

I wonder if you could do a similar mechanic to represent how lost you are.
 

To your point, the only way a labyrinth is so deadly that you "get lost" is that you go so far in that it takes too long to get out (presumably days) before the minotaur catches you.

...

You don't get lost in labyrinths, they eventually wear you down until you either defeat the big boss, die trying, or retreat.
If that were the case for the labyrinth of Daedalus & the Minotaur, then there would have been no need for Ariadne to provide Theseus with the "secret weapon" of a ball of string to find his way out (after beating the big bad) - he would just have to turn around and walk back out. The need for string to retrace his path proves that the labyrinth had, at the very least, branches that led to dead ends, if not multiple paths to the centre and back. The string let him avoid dead ends or taking a path that didn't lead to the exit, or getting caught in a loop.
 

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