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From the Archive of the Maze Controller

Dungeon design for Mazes Fantasy Roleplaying with Patrick Clapp

Hello, I am the Maze Controller. Your fate is in my hands.

But on a lighter note, my name is Patrick Clapp and I write Mazes modules for 9th Level Games. I wrote the Seasonal Zines (except the Magic sections) and I write the ongoing module series Mazes Monthly (available on DriveThruRPG as a subscription or single servings). Today I am going to write about how I create Mazes for the Mazes RPG.

Is that enough of an appeal to authority? Are the bonafides out of the way?

Webster has its own definition of a maze, but to me, it is anywhere that adventurers can explore in pursuit of knowledge or treasure at the risk of their well-being. It's a challenge. It's why we are at the table - to tell a story filled with interesting moments, exciting danger and (hopefully) a hard won victory against encroaching darkness.

My process begins with one of three entry points: a mini, a build, or a theme.


I have a lot of miniatures. I have miniatures from when my brothers were playing D&D in the early 80's. There is a metal case with old plastic drawers on my shelf filled with Ral Partha pewter miniatures that have all seen table time. The tops of my bookshelves are covered with more modern fantasy minis from WizKids and WotC. The floor in front of my bookshelves are scattered with minis that my cats have decided to dethrone from their original positions.

The point is, sometimes I look at one and say "That one. That Cyclops looking thing is going to be the Marquee Hazard in a Maze." (M2: Against the EyeClops) or "The Remorhaz mini is basically a bug god avatar — I'm going to feature that as a Marquee." (M6: The Catacombs of Kryyx'ixyl). I fold the Maze around the mini and start adding in the things I would expect to see supporting it or trapping it inside. You don't need to have a bunch of inspiring minis around to do this, though. Comb through your favorite tome of beasts and pick something that jumps out at you (or you want to have jump out at your players). Look for fan art of monsters online — people out there are posting new monsters every week. Find something big and dangerous and ask your players to take it down a peg.


Entry point number two — a build. When I was a kid, my younger brother and I would dump out all our Legos on the floor of the living room and spend the next two or three days trading pieces and building castles and spaceships (my mother was a saint with infinite patience). When the need to build overtakes me now, at least I have an end goal — I turn it into a Maze. And I switched from Legos as my terrain of choice to Dwarven Forge a few decades ago.

Typically, I define a space that is going to work to give people at the table some elbow room. Then I try to absolutely fill that space to the brim with chambers, traps, cotton ball fog, and hints of treasure. If you have a terrain collection (printed, purchased, or hand-crafted out of foam), this can be a delightful avenue of discovery. What currently occupies your build might not be what was there when it was created. Who is there now and what happened and why are great questions to ponder while you while away the hours trying to find the perfect fit for an interesting piece of terrain (as happened to me when building M5: Temple of the Water Elemental). And of course it doesn't need to be physical terrain. Make a map! Go on DungeonScrawl and start putting rooms and corridors together. Get out a piece of graph paper and make a 10'x10' room with a door and an orc guarding a chest. Build the place, then fill it.


Entry point number three — a theme. Or a question. It could be either. This is the type of Maze I start creating during a commute while my brain is busy trying to ignore the world around me (public transportation — not driving!). It can start with a theme around the terrain — "It's an underwater adventure" (D2: The Wreck of the King Cobra), or "It's high up on a cold mountain" (D1: Temple of the Frost Phoenix). For me, it often begins with a question around a particular challenge I have yet to attempt in a game of Mazes. "What if the party started at the end of an adventure and the Maze was just them trying to escape?" (D5: Through the Halls of Darkness). It is this third entry point that leads into a set of questions I ask myself for any maze I write. Answering these will paint in the edges and give you everything you need to entertain for several hours.

Make Your Own

Here is a list of vague questions, the answers to which will reveal the maze to you in all its splendor. You don't need the answers to any or all of these. Each answer will give you something concrete to use as a crafting block for your maze. Here we go.

What is here? Easiest to answer if you already have a mini picked out. But it also might be What else is here?

What can be discovered? Give players some scenery to chew on, give them lore as to why things are the way they are. Don't hide it. Start tacking it onto the first successful Books roll that hits the table.

What is a threat? Put some traps in there. Make an NPC that is going to lead them into trouble. Start collapsing the place. Buried under a mountain of rubble for all eternity is a pretty good threat!

What can be gained? This works especially well if you have a series of adventures. But it can also work across the rising action and resolution of a single Maze. What can be gained to win through to the end of this quest?

What must be overcome? What is missing? light? air? the floor? Take something the players expect to be there and remove it. See what they do and how they handle it.

Where does this lead? This can be used to zoom in on a particular chamber or corridor. It could be part of a grand plan you have for additional adventures.

The biggest overall question I use when deciding what to put where in a Maze and how to fit it all together is this: Why is this the way it is? What led up to this thing right here being where it is? If you can answer that for anything in the Maze it will feel like a real adventure and not just five random rooms with a trap in the middle and a boss battle at the end.

My final bit of advice is exemplified by area 9 in M6: The Catacombs of Kryyx'ixyl:

[read] This room is dominated by a large and life-like mural of another place filled with great trees and lush gardens. There are several unfortunates trapped in amber prisons here.

[lamp] This room is intentionally vague and left to the Maze Controller to adapt. Etching in the walls could describe a magical means of transportation to the scene pictured in the mural. This could provide a means of escape, retreat, or a hook to an entirely new adventure.

Leave some dark corners and some unexplored bits in your Maze. Give your players some agency in deciding what an unknown thing means and how it is connected to the whole. At the end of the day, we tell stories. The best stories are the ones we tell together. However you go about creating your Maze, give the story the most headspace and you can't go wrong.


Headshot of Patrick Clapp

Patrick Clapp designs monthly modules for Mazes Fantasy Roleplaying. Sold on DriveThruRPG, these modules contain everything you need to run a one-shot session of Mazes, from maps to new hazards to cool storytelling and worldbuilding:

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