Waiting for Theseus or: How the players react to a Labyrinth
So, in the latest adventure the poor heroes have been thrown into I decided on using a rather traditional mythological concept. You see, their time had come to defeat one of the Big Bads (well, technically an aspect of him) and I decided to plumb through mythology for something fitting. As it turns out I decided on using the classic myth, which you’ve no doubt guessed, by the title: Theseus and the Minotaur. In this case it happened to fit perfectly because the Big Bad was a predatory hunting type of semi-intelligent entity, similar to how the minotaur is classically depicted, but after constructing the maze I learned a few things.
1) How much tension is too much?
I decided to have them explore the maze on initiative count, and this was both a good idea and a bad idea, and going into it I knew it would either work well or flop horribly. It mostly did the latter, but hear me out. Using combat initiative run exploration is a technique that can prove useful in a very specific environment. To be precise it is useful in an environment where at any moment something may attack the party and you don’t want to deal with the awkward interruption of saying “no, wait, stop, move back, there was a trap…” and having the thrill already be gone by the time you’re halfway through it. The original intention of the labyrinthine maze the heroes were subjected to was to be riddled with traps (mostly of the movement-restricting variety) such that a Combat Out could be tricking the “minotaur” (in this case a horrific far-realm mutated abomination about ten feet tall, covered in tentacles, and possessing rather wicked claws and many eyes) into getting itself restrained by the trap (not literally, those of you jumping to the “restrained” condition, but in the sense that it is rendered helpless, which I do mean literally) and then declaring victory when their version of Ariadne popped in and vaporized the critter for them.
Anyway, the original decision was made figuring that there would be plenty of interruptions as they navigated the labyrinth. This turned out, due to time constraints, not to be the case. There was tension, alright, and it was there for about thirty minutes… but once they realized nothing was going to attack them and that the enforced-initiative was a farce they were less than impressed.
This method also resulted in a dramatic slowdown of exploration since they figured something was going to jump out at them. This was not good, as the boss was at (or near) the center of the maze, and it turns out that, even after some extreme encouraging, they took the better part of three hours to find him and I had to wrap the session as the monster revealed itself rather than when the monster was defeated. While the timing lined up nicely, part 2 of the 2 part boss-killing-series was about a thousand times more exciting and about a thousand times less a waste of time than the slow trawl through a maze that couldn’t hurt them in any way.
In retrospect what I probably should’ve done was the age-old staple of playing at tabletop. Simply put, the same way a text-based roguelike works. You ask the party where they’re going, then you move them there, and when there’s a decision to be made or they reach where they’re going you present it to them. Unfortunately, this method of movement presents its own problem, which I’ll expound upon under header #3 momentarily. But, for now –
2) How much MAZE is too much?
Well, the maze was beautifully designed. The visual representation the players got to see was well constructed and fully decked out with things like vision-blocking layer (to show realistic character vision for immersive purposes) and very nice looking layers of visual assets. The walls were wrought gold in intricate patterns and the floor… well, alright, I’ll stop waxing poetic about what it looked like, that’s not too important. What is important is how much maze is too much maze. In other words, once combat with the boss began, how far would the heroes REALLY be willing to trek from the spot he attacked them?
As the answer turns out: not very far. Despite the boss’s habit of repositioning party members through walls, the others refused to budge to go help them. In other words, if I kept playing the boss brutally, the party was going to die because the design was not conducive to them doing what I wanted them to do – have a running fight all across the maze with the boss who can phase through (and later break down) the walls.
The maze, in retrospect, was probably twice as big as it needed to be, and the combat only took place across a patch of terrain around 15 squares on a side. While the combat turned out to be interesting anyway, the rest of the maze went to waste. In fact, they didn’t even explore a full 25% of it! The things the players never see is just wasted effort on the DM’s part, unfortunately.
3) Some things don’t work as nicely with a map…
It’s true, and this is one of them. A lot of people who play this game at a real table have a fond memory of their party having a “party cartographer” who maps the dungeon as they walk through it to keep from getting lost and wandering around aimlessly, much like what might occur in real life. Similarly, in real life, you can get easily lost and turned around in a labyrinth or maze and this behavior is accurately reflected at a table with only your imagination to guide you (or, again, a cartographer-drawn map). Exploring in a roguelike text based game is very similar to a tabletop experience in that it doesn’t give any visuals and it’s easy to become lost. The problem with this, of course, is in the format of a virtual tabletop. Since nobody is near each other you can’t easily keep a map as a cartographer, so of course nobody does (that I know of, though perhaps I can convince them… more on that in future posts!) and as a DM it falls on you to provide the visuals. If you provide a top-down map of a labyrinth, though, each dead end is not a chance to get lost, it is instead simply an annoyance as the party turns around and easily backtracks on the map you provided for them.
As a result, I would not run a maze again with a map provided by myself to the players simply for visual purposes, and instead I would (try) to convince them to make a party cartographer, perhaps sharing the drawing as they go on something like Google Docs.
So, let’s break it down. What did we learn?
A) Try to pick an appropriate pace for the exploration phase of the game. This is often depicted in example form whenever the players want to travel between cities and nothing ambushes them along the way – they, in essence, simply skip over the blank part since nothing eventful happened. If nothing eventful could even possibly happen then don’t make the players take their time going through it. If I had included a bunch of traps or puzzles along the way then the pace of exploration would’ve been much more appropriate while on the other hand since I hadn’t I needed to change the pace of exploration from what I had intended.
B) Don’t make things bigger than they need to be. Wasted space leads not only to frustration on your part (since your work was never seen or used by the players), but also on the players’ part as they have to trawl through a ton of filler hallways to reach the end rather than having a more exciting time. There is an argument to be made that filler hallways provide a natural low point to contrast the natural high point of a fight or big negotiation, and they do, but so do things like puzzles, so there’s no excuse for overusing empty hallways. One now and again is a good idea, but making an entire 3 hour session out of (practically) empty hallways is not a good plan for success, especially if –
C) You need to remember the medium you’re working with. A maze totally devoid of enemies CAN be a fun mental problem to solve… assuming you aren’t presented with a map that fills itself in as you go, in which case there is absolutely no way you can make an error and become lost or anything that might impede your progress and act as an adversary.
Finally, as a fun anecdote to end this analysis, I’d like to point out the inclusion of the fifty kilogram key-ring. The keys didn’t go to anything and they were three feet long and made of wrought iron… but that didn’t stop the players from assuming they would be useful and hauling them along behind them for a couple of hours until their Ariadne informed them that they were entirely useless for comedic effect. Don’t be afraid to throw in a red herring now and again, if only to give yourself a laugh and make a go at studying player psychology along the lines of “well, the DM spent time describing it so it must be important…”
– The Hydra DM