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Destroying Clever Maps

In the early days of published adventures, quite a few dungeon features were used in a clever* manner to add confusion to the mix. This confusion was largely placed on the shoulders of the players, especially those that tried to create a player map to track where the party had been and where they need to go. This level of “cleverness” did nothing more than up the frustration levels of the players without really challenging the characters. In addition to being frustrating, they really weren’t all that plausible in the first place. Let’s talk about some of these implausible dungeon features.

Imperceptible Slopes

I put this one at the top of my list because it always gets my goat when a GM (or adventure creator) deems a slope to be too gentle to be noticed by someone walking on it. Then, when you look at the map, the slope covers a 20 foot decline into the next dungeon level, but is only 60 feet long. How can this be “imperceptible?”

 A 12 inch rise ramp must be at least 12 feet long. 

The American Disability Act declares that for a slope to be considered wheelchair accessible it can’t be taller in inches than it is long. In other words, a 12 inch (1 foot) rise ramp must be at least 12 feet long. It’s preferable that it be even longer for ease of access. These slopes are clearly noticeable by anyone on them or observing them from either end.

Let’s go back to my example. A 20 foot decline comes out to 240 inches. This means for the slope to meet ADA requirements, it needs to be 240 feet long, not a mere 60 feet. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for a slope to be truly imperceptible, it would need to be at least 6 times longer than ADA requirements, maybe more. That’s a slope that’s 1,440 feet in length. That’s about a third of a mile.

Spinning Rooms/Floors

 This leads to a player cleverness vs. GM cleverness battle. 

There are rooms and/or intersections with floors that rotate in a manner that confuse the mapper and players. Sometimes this is done in a manner that is so violent that the resulting facing of the party is unknown. I’ve also seen it described where the entire dungeon rotates around the room while all four doors are closed, so the party doesn’t know that the orientation of the passages on the other side of the doors is now shuffled.

This, quite honestly, leads to a player cleverness vs. GM cleverness battle. The players, once they are aware that their perception of relative space is being messed with, will start chalking walls, doors, and floors with symbology and numbers to allow them to easily figure out where they are at all times. The discussion of “our standard operating procedure” to chalk arrows in the direction we were walking and sequential numbers on each arrow is a waste of time and really not fun for most folks. Then, once the party is lost in the cleverness, there is the ensuing conversation to figure out which arrow and number combination they come across next. That’s bookkeeping of minutiae, not role playing or storytelling.

Undetectable Elevators

This is similar to the imperceptible slope in that the adventure states that the players are being lowered deeper into the dungeon (which in those days meant increased danger and higher rewards for survival), but they can’t tell they are being lowered down because the elevator is moving so slowly. Of course, there was usually a caveat that if the party had a dwarf with them, then the dwarven character could detect the movement through some mystical connection to the earth or some such that’s never explained.

I don’t know about those of you out in Gnome Stew land, but when even the slowest elevator in the world starts to move, I feel it in my guts (if going down) or in my knees (if going up). I’ve been on some really slow elevators in Europe, too.

The undetectable elevator is something I can’t get behind as a gimmick to confuse the players.


There’s magic in the world. Use it!

Of course, all of these methods are there to confuse the players or trick them into thinking they’re safely on level one of the dungeon when they’re actually on level three. There are approaches to getting players into lower levels without being secretive about it, but still forcing the issue. Here are a few of my favorites:

In the original Ravenloft adventure, a panel in a long hallway would fold into a ramp and drop one character (maybe two if the second person was quick enough to react) onto a slope that eventually slid the character(s) into the depths of the castle. This forced the party to explore deeper and faster. It also intentionally split the party, so they could more easily fall prey to Strahd’s machinations. This is more of a trap than a secretive manner to get the party to delve deeper, but it works very well.

The good old “pit trap that leads to the lower levels” trick is good. This is especially good if the party is higher level and has the hit points to spare in taking that falling damage. Don’t forget that the denizens of the lower level are probably aware that “food falls from that hole in the ceiling” and will be waiting for the next meal to arrive.

There’s magic in the world. Use it! Permanent dimension doors that go to somewhere else in the dungeon are always “fun” (for some definition of that word). Teleportation traps are good as well, but don’t go down the road of “you’ve been teleported, but you don’t know it” road. Just let them know that they’ve been transported. The PCs won’t know where they’re at in relation to the former location and that’s the right level of “being clever.”


What other ways can the party be shifted around a dungeon that doesn’t trigger the “don’t be clever” warning? How do you go about adding a drab of uncertainty to the PCs’ mapping efforts without getting it to the level of frustration?

*As Senda and Phil have said many times on Panda’s Talking Games, don’t be clever. It just leads to unnecessary confusion at the table.

6 Comments (Open | Close)

6 Comments To "Destroying Clever Maps"

#1 Comment By Sean S On January 27, 2020 @ 1:29 pm

There are a number of mundane, non magical tricks a DM can use to throw off mapping, or to push/channel players into a particular direction.

1. Slipping. Natural mud, slime/fungus growing on the wet floors of a cave, or a partially collapsed constructed floor, or even just a few inches of running water flowing down in to a hole or crevasse. One character slips and slides down to the level below forcing the rest of the party to follow suit. Players attempting to use ropes to pull their friend up run the risk of slipping as well. The attraction of using mud or water is that the players can be channeled but not injured, the mud or water at the bottom can break their fall with minimal damage.These natural slip n’ slide traps could be placed randomly around the dungeon or used as a ‘push’ to force players down to the next level through the simple expedient of deciding one player has failed their roll. By making the lower tier a soft landing you remove the player’s hesitancy to jump down.

2. Floor Collapse. The floor suddenly gives way causing players to fall to and indeterminable depth. If you wanted to make it more of a challenge it could be a bridge with the players not only falling down, but then being pushed downstream as well.

3. General Collapse/Destruction. As players proceed into the adventure some sort of effect causes parts of the dungeon to collapse or become inaccessible. Earthquakes could cause cave ins. A fire could be spreading through the warehouse. A gigantic swarm of insects could be slowly over running the castle. The ship could be gradually sinking. By adding a bit of dynamism to the environment you add uncertainty and a sense of urgency to the adventure.

4. Forced Flight/Avoiding Powerful Enemies. In The Lord of the Rings when team Frodo enters the Mines of Moria they are eventually pushed deeper into the mines as they flee from the goblins. This could be used as well, though players are notoriously stubborn when it comes to running away so you may need an NPC companion to point out the necessity of retreat and perhaps point out a new route. Moving at a high speed disrupts mapping and makes it difficult for players to remember room particulars. If facing your players off against overly powerful foes you could use an illusion, or a wounded/damaged foe with the threat of his companions from nearby coming to aid him. If players don’t have dark/night vision fleeing through an area that is dark, or in a night time setting adds even more uncertainty to the player’s knowledge of the map. The danger with forced flight is that it removes agency from players and can dispirit them. The danger with forcing players to avoid more powerful foes is that they begin to ask why there are so many high level enemies in the adventure. I personally am ok with adding much tougher enemies in a dungeon, maybe a recurring villain the players will eventually defeat but need to dodge/trick until that day comes (i.e. they level up). Still I would use this strategy sparingly.

#2 Comment By J.T. Evans On January 27, 2020 @ 6:22 pm

All excellent ideas! Thanks for the comment, Sean. I really appreciate the extra goods and additions to my article. That’s great.

The “use an NPC to suggest retreat” idea made me laugh because you’re SO RIGHT! Players rarely want to acknowledge that retreat is an option and when they do… it’s either too late or heavily debated among the party in the midst of the crisis.


#3 Comment By Blackjack On January 27, 2020 @ 11:17 pm

These are great techniques for creating exciting tension in the game: tension between what the players would choose in ideal circumstances vs. what they’re able to do in the reality of the story. One additional technique I almost always use is Race Against Time. If the party had their druthers they’d check every square for traps and map every corridor of the dungeon. But the villain is escaping, or a victim is known to be in peril, and that “Plan A” would take far too long. (If the players don’t get it, work out with them what their rate of movement is when checking every square for traps, compare that to how fast they saw the villain moving, and invite them to imagine what the villain will have time to do as a result.) They’ll realize they have to take some heightened risks to achieve their goals.

#4 Comment By J.T. Evans On January 28, 2020 @ 9:43 am

Adding a ticking clock or a chase element to a dungeon delve will certainly add some spice to the stew! I’ve been in that situation several times as a player where I was 5 steps behind the Bad Guy, then 4 steps, then 3 steps, then we caught him right before his escape, but he had buddies…. Things didn’t go so well for us in that epic battle, though. Ah well….. Was still a blast, though!

#5 Comment By Blackjack On January 27, 2020 @ 3:44 pm

An important question to ask is, “What do you want this game to be about?” I ask it of myself as a GM when I’m designing an adventure, and I ask it of my players when I’m running a game. The question applies both to the long term, high level themes of the game as well as what the players are doing minute-to-minute during the gaming session.

When there’s a game setting filled with clever mazes, sloping corridors, and traps, the answer to the question is obviously, “This game is about solving map based puzzles.” But is that what the players want?

When I started gaming in the 1980s that’s kind of all there was. That’s what pre-gen settings delivered, and we all kind of expected it’s what we were supposed to do in FRPGs. Fortunately for me, enough of my friends and I enjoyed those puzzles so we dove into them. But after a while, and certainly as I and most of the people I gamed with got older, we had less patience for taking a long, slow slog through map-based puzzles. Without careful management they became obstacles to enjoyment.

#6 Comment By J.T. Evans On January 27, 2020 @ 6:24 pm

Excellent point about making sure you know what the dungeon/adventure/campaign is about and get the players on board. This truly is something that should be explored during session zero (especially before characters are created to make sure they “fit” the purpose of the campaign).

For me, a one-shot of puzzle-based dungeon delving would be fun. Anything longer than that would probably be too exhausting to carry on with. That’s just my preference, though.

Thanks for pointing out a crucial element to developing a dungeon or larger-scale setting.