May 25, 2011

Labyrinth of the Underdark

from the movie Labyrinth (1986)

Many times in D&D, I have tried (or read an adventure that tried) to create a scenario with the dungeoneers trapped in some sort of maze which they must find their way out of. Time and again, however, the adventure idea has fallen on its face. I've had boring, uninspired implementations one after another. I've done timed pan and paper maze puzzles, skill challenges, complex dungeon tile setups; you name it. While helping out on some work on a Project That Shall Not Be Named, I was inspired by the author to create a card-based mini-game to represent the maze that is the namesake of H2: Thunderspire Labyrinth.

In the original module, exploring the maze left behind by the Saruun Khel Minotaur civilization surrounding the Seven-Pillared Hall was mostly an uninteresting die roll. Roll badly and you are penalized with a boring, hour-long, unimportant combat. In revamping this game element, I wanted to create a sense of danger and mystery, a feeling of exploration and accomplishment. The cards are specific to Thunderspire Labyrinth, and even more specifically to the Demon-Prince of Orcus Conversion; however, the idea can be modified to fit any maze-like scenario.

The Labyrinth

1). Print and cut out the following cards: Grab them here! Make sure to print double sided; or if you can't do that, skip the even numbered pages.

The image of the card backs has been taken from WotC's H2 Art Gallery.

2). Pick out the two Seven-Pillared Hall cards and set them face up. This is the dungeoneer's home base and is known to them from the start.

3). Pick out and set aside one of the Well of Demons and one of the Palace of Zaamdul cards; locations that cannot physically be ventured into at this time. In my adventure, the Well of Demons can only be accessed through the Sea of Shadows; and the Palace of Zaamdul's doors can only be opened by completing the puzzle at the end of Well of Demons. The dungeoneers can find one piece of this puzzle, foreshadowing the end two locations, but cannot complete their quest until the path is shown to them later.

4). Shuffle the remaining cards and lay them out face-down. Any dungeoneer may now lead the group on an expedition into the Underdark. The sequence now follows a similar pattern to the classic ‘Memory’ game. The leading dungeoneer chooses to reveal two cards, sequentially. Each card is revealed for a moment before being flipped back over. If the two cards revealed are a match, that event happens, and the two cards are set aside. That path has been found and can be visited or avoided at the group's whim.

Any card with the joker symbol (a Location) is considered a wild card, and is an automatic match for the other card chosen. Two drawn mismatched Locations have no effect.

5). This mini game works best when each player takes a turn picking cards in the Labyrinth. Once each player has chosen their two cards, the matched Obstacles and Ambushes revealed are played out, and 8 hours time in the game world passes. As per Rules As Written, taking an extended rest can only be done once per day, adding additional time spent if the group returns to town to rest often. When the group is completed their expedition for the day and returns to rest, collect the remaining, unmatched cards and shuffle them together.

In an adventure with no time limit, exploration becomes easy to the point of worthlessness. However, if one takes the implied time limit of an adventure like Thunderspire Labyrinth and implements a real time pressure (ie. 8 days until the captive slaves are killed, two weeks until the evil ritual is complete) with real consequences, the threat of penalty will spur the dungeoneers to make frantic, bold explorations.

List of Cards and Effects

+ You Are Lost! - Each dungeoneer immediately loses a healing surge as you wander aimlessly for hours on end through the winding passageways of The Labyrinth.

+ You are Ambushed by ... ! - Run a short combat encounter, automatically giving the dungeoneer's opponents a surprise round, using the Labyrinth Ambush Encounters. To make your own, create a series of (N-1) encounters that focus on uneven combats which can be quickly and decisively ended. A single, high-level elite opponent or a mob of minions are good examples, as both of these setups can be easily won by a few quick rolls and smart moves.

+ Location (Joker) Card - When matching cards are found, the dungeoneers have stumbled onto an adventure location! This area might be the one they are looking to find, or one that foreshadows future events in the adventure. If the dungeoneers have hired a guide or receive outside help, they automatically know the location of one of the cards of the location they are trying to find. A joker card is considered a wild card for any other non-joker card, triggering the event, but does not count as a match for purposes of removing cards from The Labyrinth.

+ Obstacle - These are non-combat encounters that test the players’ skill and ingenuity. They typically represent hazardous terrain or obstacles that must be overcome through descriptive roleplaying and skill checks only as appropriate. These cards are only vaguely described, and rely on creative problems made by the Dungeon Master on the fly. If you do not feel comfortable with this level of improvisation, feel free to remove these cards.

Future posts here will describe example obstacles and how they were presented at my table.


  1. I really like this a lot. I'm looking forward to your additional posts. Thanks for sharing!

  2. This sounds brilliant.

    I do not understand this part tho "If the dungeoneers have hired a guide or receive outside help, they automatically know the location of one of the cards of the location they are trying to find."

    Can you explain this again please?

    Also how would you handle Dungeneering rolls to let a player shine with his trained skill?

  3. Glad you like the idea, and I hope you (and everyone reading) finds a use for this is their own home game.

    For hiring a guide, this sort of immersive, story-based forethought grants the dungeoneers one card played face up for the location they are trying to find. For example, in my own group, the find location they were trying to scout out in the twisting labyrinth was known as "The Chamber of Eyes". If they had hired a guide, I would have found one of the two "The Chamber of Eyes" cards and played it face-up for them to see at the start of the expedition. Then, they would have only been tasked with hunting down the second "The Chamber of Eyes" card at the gaming table for their characters to find the safe path to that location in the gaming world.

    Skill checks (such as dungeoneering) are not a part of this particular challenge. It is meant to test the abilities of the players, not the characters, as they attempt to navigate the deadly maze.

  4. Thanks for the quick answer.

    Testing the abilities of the player instead of the characters is a golden rule of 0e D&D. I found out that you need the right people for this who are all willing to accept this kind of challenge.

    For a mixed group I'd rather see a little mix with skill checks involved. If you are not a person who can memorize the cards well but you actually roleplay an old dungeon veteran hero, then I as the DM want to give this player a little something so his character feels special for him.

    I was was thinking something in the lines of (in 4E terms):
    If you are trained in Dungeoneering you are entitled a Dungeoneering roll while travelling between two locations against moderate DC once. On success this player can prevent a combat encounter (Combat or Onstacle) to happen and can immediately reveal another card instead. He this dice roll even surpasses the Hard DC for his level, he can do this twice.

    What do you think about this?

    The other players will be happy to have this person (and his labyrinth-savy character) on the table and gives a good opportunity for roleplay, too. I see this as quite important for shy players, too.