Mapless Mazes

Today we are going to talk about how to run mapless dungeons. Why would we want that? Because it is a handy tool for when you come unprepared. The title of this post might be a bit misleading for we are not talking about mazes specifically, but it was how this concept was created and thus how I relate to it.

Concretely we are going to talk about:

  1. How to construct a mapless dungeon, maze, space station, or etc.?
  2. How to run said mapless location?

Let's tackle the first point. Before we even try to construct it, we need to figure out what the dungeon, or maze, is for. What are these needs? They vary. Example, if you are running a dungeon you might want a treasure room, at least 2 secret rooms, and a chamber with an ever-sleeping prince who can only be awaken by the kiss from someone of a similar mind. Or you could do is just to wing it and see where the players actions bring you. Here is my guideline for how to do it:

  1. Write down what the characters might explore in a few words. Example: treasure room, secret rooms, the prince, and the necromancer who is in love with this prince.
  2. Now decide if there are supposed to be any challenges along the way. Note them down, and map these to a die. Examples: If the result (on a d4) is 1 or 2 there is nothing, if 3 3d4 hiding skeletons, and if 4 a necrotic slug.

Now that we have these basic building blocks we can talk about what is in between the different notable rooms. I recommend the following approach.

  • Decide on an amount of generic rooms before arriving to those specific rooms. Decide whether or not there might be some goodies and minor interesting things in some of these. Example: The entrance has 2 rooms before the first secret room can be found, the second one is behind the treasure room. There are two ways (left and right) to the treasure room with 3 rooms each. The prince is in a room in the right hallway.

Do not care about how the rooms are connected, it is rather more interesting to leave it vague as it allows you more freedom when playing. This is what we need for our mapless dungeon and maze

So now comes the important bit. To tackle the second point, we need a system to decide for how long people stay in said room. Let me present to you the Actions per Room system I use in my games. I do the following:

  1. I decide what the number of actions are before something happens to the player. Note: I consider each player’s action to use up 1 action, so if 1 player does 3 actions, it counts as 3 actions spend. Example: the treasure room has 4 actions available before a skeleton comes wandering in. Player One investigates the treasure rooms for traps and hidden doors (1st action). Player Two begins to take some of the treasure (2nd action). Player One finds a tomb with an inscription on it, they begin to investigate it (3rd action). Player Three checks what Player One is doing (4th action). The skeleton patrol wobbles into the treasure room.
  2. Map the amount of actions onto a die, if you want more variance use a higher range and larger die. Example: The range of 3-6 on a d4. The result of 1 = 3 actions, 2 = 4 actions, 3 = 5 actions, 4 = 6 actions.
  3. When a player enters a new room, I roll the dice and note down how many actions they have before something happens and leads them to another room or a dead end. Example: I rolled a 2, thus the players have 4 actions in the room where there are 5 hiding skeletons (Because I rolled 3 on another d4).
  4. Always provide multiple paths. Let some of them go to the next room on your list, twisting illogically around. While other paths function as a shortcut to a previous room. If you want a system roll a d2, where 1 is the next room and 2 is a shortcut.

So what if the players find a way to stop your challenge or encounter? They stop it, it will not happen. Save down the encounter for a later time.

So here is a practical play example of how I do it:

Me: You enter an open room where you are able to see that there is balcony with a second floor to it. After a bit of looking, you see that there is something that looks like a shopfront and it seems like it has stairs going up. You also notice a tugged away corner that might lead to some stairs.

Player 1: I go to the store front, what type of store is it?

Me: It is a perfume shop, in the middle it has a spiral staircase going upwards.

[... Jumping a bit here, the player rummages through the perfume shop before moving upstairs and this room has no encounter....]

Me: As you approach the top of the stairs you see a body lying at the entrance to the upper shop on the left, on your right you see another door. The shop has mannequins and is a clothing shop. How do you approach? (I note down that this room has an encounter and 6 actions before I propel the encounter).

Player 1: I crouch down and observe the shop for a good hiding place that does not inhibit my movements and is close to the door to the right (1st action).

Me: [I describe what options the player has]

Player 1: I move over to the cashier desk and hide (2nd action).

Me: As you move over there, you hear a creaking around you. It sounds like movement.

Player 1: I look toward the direction of the creaking, what do I see (3rd action)?

Me: You see the mannequins and racks of clothes. After a little bit, you hear voices from the outside toward the left, where the body is.

Player 1: I try to listen to what they are talking about (4th action).

Me: They sound human, and what you can hear it seems like they are talking about finding shelter, but you are unsure.

Player 1: I wait for them (5th action).

Me: As you wait, you hear creaking moving and getting closer. How do you continue?

Player 1: I try to figure out where it comes from (6th action).

Player 2: [radios in and says something. On this one I was lucky that player 2 decided to join in at that moment and say something, it gave me a clean segway to the encounter.]

Encounter begins.

[This has been modified, you can see the original text here.]

This article was updated on 24/09/2019

A 'Fungi & Weirdness' enthusiast. I enjoy writing about everybodies most disliked dice, my game ideas, and GM tools and tips.