Tabletop Meditations #3: Mazes

What comes to mind when either of the words ‘maze’ and ‘labyrinth’ are uttered anytime in a roleplaying session, at least to me, is the moist stench of mist haunted corridors carrying the promise of treasure at the goal, the danger of hidden traps along the way, and the ever-present threat of monsters lurking in musty shadowy depths. The idea of the maze or labyrinth has been around since what seems like the beginning of history.

“Patterns for mazes are very ancient and have been found incised on rocks or tablets in many prehistoric cultures around the world, from Ireland to Greece.” [McGovern, Una. ed., 2007. Chambers Dictionary of the Unexplained. Chambers Harrap Publishers Ltd. Mazes]

The basic ideas which they connote can be found in virtually every roleplaying game ever played especially in the form of the ever ubiquitous ‘dungeon’ but seem to not be particularly common outside of the dungeon context in my experience and often not utilized to their full potential when they are. Apparently they’re seen as simple puzzles, a minor obstruction to the players’ progress through an adventure often solved with a single die roll.

Puzzles that are often droll and take too long to figure out for those wandering aimlessly through them or too easy for those with a handful of time-tested tricks at their disposal. When mazes and labyrinths are implemented in a roleplaying game it’s typically as a design choice when dealing with dungeons; complexes of chambers studded with traps, treasures, and monsters, commonly subterranean. Mazes in roleplaying games do serve as a challenge to be overcome, a complex puzzle to be solved, a set-piece which can carry some symbolic weight. They carry an air of strange fascination and a certain mythical richness which a clever game-master can turn to the advantage of their game. The first place to start would be the inherent vagueness of the terminology namely the difference between a maze and a labyrinth.

The usage of the words ‘maze’ and ‘labyrinth’ for the most part are interchangeable but have been, and will be in this article, defined by the branching or singularity of their path(s).

“Technically, a maze contains many pathways, only one of which leads to the center (multicursal), while a labyrinth has only a single path that always leads to the center (unicursal). Ancient labyrinths and mazes were devised as symbolic traps for malevolent spirits, while medieval ones represented symbolic pilgrimages.” [Wilkinson, Kathryn ed., 2008. Signs & Symbols. First American Edition. Dorling Kindersley Ltd. pg.290]

Basically mazes and labyrinths can be said to “be roughly divided into two types as regards the principle of their design, namely, into unicursal and multicursal types, or, as some say, into “non-puzzle” and “puzzle” types respectively.” [Matthews, W.H., c.1922. Mazes and Labyrinths: Their History and Development. Kessinger Legacy Reprints ed., Kessinger Publishing LLC. pg.184]

But to be fair “Neither the etymology nor the origin of the labyrinth has been fully explained.” [Grafton, Most, & Settis. 2010. The Classical Tradition. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London, England, The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. pg.505]

I will however for the sake of both brevity and clarity refer to ‘labyrinths’ as those with a single meditative path and ‘mazes’ as labyrinths that are more puzzle-like “where the path is determined by the choices made at intersections[.]”(Grafton. Labyrinth.)

As symbols mazes and labyrinths carry some mythic potency that has captivated the human imagination through the ages aside from them being simple distractions. The spiral on which the first labyrinths were undoubtedly based was a symbol of significant meaning representing both the path of life and encompassing the entire world within it.

“[The spiral] is an ancient symbol of energy (which was thought to flow in spirals) and of life’s rhythm.” [Wilkinson. 285]

The meander which came from the spiral became the symbolic circuitous route of the human lifetime and from these ritual walkways the labyrinth and then ultimately the maze evolved.

“[T]he archetypical maze was a pattern, usually cut in turf, to be traversed in a religious or magical ceremony, while the archetypical – though not the first – labyrinth was that built by DAEDALUS to hold the MINOTAUR. Usage has blurred the distinction, but mazes tend to be submitted to voluntarily as a GAME or RITUAL[.]” [Clute & Grant. 1997. The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. New York, St. Martin’s Press. Labyrinths]

The pagan roots of the symbolic maze inevitably became obscured and the maze found its way into medieval Christianity to be set into the polished floors of cathedrals and churches.

“Medieval culture Christianized the symbol [-] the path that leads via turnings and detours to the center represents the circumambulations of human existence in a world of sin[.]” [Grafton. 505]

The concept of the maze/labyrinth dates back thousands of years deep into antiquity arising from the mists of history at first with symbolic and pseudo-magical importance gaining religious significance later then as they became secularized they evolved into a form of entertainment taking on the puzzle aspect.

“Spirals and meanders, precursors to the labyrinth, have been found among the cave paintings of prehistoric peoples[.]” [Ronnberg, Amy ed., 2010. The Book of Symbols: Reflections on Archetypal Images. Cologne, Germany. TASCHEN]

Later examples of the labyrinth concept can also be found on Mycenaean clay tablets from Pylos dated as early as 1200 BCE [Grafton] illustrating the immense length of time the labyrinth has occupied the mind of humanity but the most ancient designs are hardly those that come to mind when the words labyrinth or maze are mentioned the precursors of the modern concept being more akin to the spiral as they were unicursal.

When thinking back on the history of the concept however what comes to mind and what draws more interest especially that of gamers if I don’t say so myself, are Egyptian tombs, the maze of the Minotaur, among a few other examples.

The chief labyrinths of antiquity, those which may fit more with the current fantasy concept, were that of Egypt (1800 CE built by Petesuchis or Tithoes near Lake Moeris; it had 3,000 apartments, half of which were underground), the Cretan Labyrinth (1st Century BC, built by Daedalus to imprison the minotaur), the Cretan Conduit (had 1,000 branches or turnings), that of the Lemnians (built by Smilis, Rholus, and Theodorus, it had 150 columns so finely adjusted a child could turn them; vestiges of it were still in existence in the time of Pliny around the 1st century AD), the Labyrinth of Clusium (built by Lars Porsena, king of Etruria for his tomb), that of the Samians (540 BC built by Theodorus, its mentioned by Pliny, Herodotus, and Strabo among others), and the Labyrinth at Woodstock, Oxfordshire (built by Henry II to protect the fair Rosamond). [Rockwood, Camilla ed., 2009. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. 18th ed. Hopetoun Crescent, Edinburgh. Chamber Harrap Publishers Ltd.]

The Cretan Labyrinth also known as the Maze of the Minotaur being the most famous of the aforementioned and probably the single most influential when it comes to the inspiration of the modern-day fantasy maze. In Greek myth it was said to have been constructed by Daedalus to contain the monstrous offspring of the Minoan Queen Pasiphae (conceived between her and the Cretan Bull after a love spell/curse put on her by the god Poseidon) built by the command of Minos the Cretan king.

This maze over the other mytho-historical examples is singularly vital to the concept of current fantasy dungeons as, like the fantastical dungeons of today, it contained a monster, the bull-headed Minotaur, and was solved by the hero, Theseus, after slaying the monster. Even Theseus’ solution, a ball of magic twine given to him by the Minoan Princess Ariadne, has become the go to archetypical solution the very first thing most dungeon delvers think of when they enter any labyrinthine complex suspected of being a maze. It’s also telling that the name of the path of a labyrinth/maze, the meander, found its etymology in Daedalus’ inspiration for the Cretan maze.

“Daedalus is said to have taken his inspiration for the Cretan labyrinth from the Menderes, a winding river of Phrygia.” [Rockwood. Meander]

Another well-known maze probably loosely based on the Cretan myth brings us to Britain circa the 1100’s.

“In Britain, mazes were carved into turf as long ago as pre-Roman times and many of great antiquity have survived.” [McGovern. Mazes]

Rosamond’s maze, the name probably originated from the Latin phrase rosa mundi meaning the ‘rose of the world’, was built as a strangely ostentatious method of concealing an English king’s illicit affair. The central part of the story, a prominent story in English historical lore mentioned briefly by Charles Dickens in his Child’s History of England, concerns Rosamond de Clifford as the mistress of English king Henry II whom had the maze built as a measure to conceal his indiscretions with the fair lady in his park at Woodstock in Oxfordshire.

Eventually of course the queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine, heard of the affair, penetrated the maze by following a thread [Rockwood], found and forced poor Rosamond a choice between a dagger and a bowl of poison to end her life and “she drained the latter and became forthwith defunct”. [Matthews. 164]. This story does involve historical figures but is on its face just a myth as its core story elements are parallel to those of the Cretan myth; it was built by royal command, the story involved the imprisonment/concealment of a secret a result of the fidelity of the royal couple, and the presence of a fiendishly clever architect.

The architect of this tale being “a certain workman named Louis of Bourbourg, with a skill in woodwork very little different from that of Daedalus, was employed in building the house and made there a nearly inextricable labyrinth, containing recess within recess, room within room, turning within turning”. [Matthews. 111]

Popular belief portrays this maze as a hedge or garden maze though the famous ‘bower’ (house) of the myth was described as being of stone and timber.

“It would appear…that the “bower” was a labyrinth of an architectural kind…not, as popularly believed, a maze of evergreens”. [Matthews. 165]

For a significant length of time outdoor hedge-mazes dominated the popular imagination starting around the 1600’s the zeitgeist probably coloring the myth of the Lady of the Bower. The other major influence besides the type of labyrinth present in the previous myths and probably the second if not the first image to spring to mind when mentioning labyrinths or mazes are the turf labyrinths of Britain and the hedge-mazes of Victorian Europe.

“Hundreds of topiary & hedge mazes were realized for amusement in the gardens of Europe in the 16th through the 18th centuries.” [Grafton. 606]

These open air mazes with walls of living foliage served as game-like distractions for nearly 300 years, and some continue to this day, evolving from the Knot Gardens of Renaissance Europe themselves probably modeled after the turf spirals that can be found throughout Europe and Britain dating back to the iron and possibly stone ages. Knot gardens, or parterre, are very formal square-framed gardens planted with a variety of aromatic plants and culinary herbs laid out in an intricate design and serve to illustrate the human mastery of nature.

“The square enclosure represents stability and the Earth; the pattern and chosen plants may symbolize love or religion.” [Wilkinson. 245]

The paths between these gardens were laid with fine gravel as were often the meanders between the hedges of mazes. It’s not unfathomable that as a spiral could give birth to the knot design thus the knot garden could change into the contemplative labyrinth and then the game-like maze. The boundaries and passages of these hedge-mazes were of course composed from hedges of aromatic herbs then aromatic shrubs with later and current mazes using boxwood.

“In some cases limes or hornbeams were “plashed,” i.e., their branches were so trained and intertwined as to form a continuous wall of verdure.” [Matthews. 117]

Labyrinths had moved from having a mystical or religious connotation to a secular form of entertainment.

“The more secular image of Daedalus as the personification of human skill and of the genius of the architect gained momentum with the Renaissance.” [Grafton. 505]

Hedge mazes had gained a playful atmosphere by this time with undoubtedly at least a few souls probably still traipsing along the meanders as a contemplative exercise subconsciously harkening back to the early turf labyrinths. The playful airs may have also had some romantic possibilities for couples out on a late night stroll as well; at least one would like to think. Of course, hedge mazes have a few practical considerations such as upkeep and the obvious weakness that walls of verdure imply.

“The hedges require very frequent trimming, and sometimes partial renewal, the latter especially in those cases where unscrupulous visitors are not prevented, by barbed wire or other means, from short-circuiting the convolutions.” [Matthews. 145]

Hedge mazes became a sort of fad throughout this period and continued to evolve with those with the means to have these sorts of gardens planned and planted adding in decorations and statuary to the green with the best specimen of these highly refined hedge mazes to be found in 17th-century France.

“In practically all types of maze it became the fashion to relieve the monotony of the walks by placing statues, vases, seats, fountains, and other ornaments at various points. This kind of thing reached a climax of extravagance in the latter part of the seventeenth century, when J.Hardouin-Mansart constructed for Louis XIV the famous labyrinth in the smaller park at Versailles.” [Matthews. 117]

The hedge maze at Versailles had water fountains and statuary based on Aesop’s Fables with portions of poetry on plaques by each statue. Of course eventually the upkeep, the requirement on the horticultural skill of the groundkeepers, and the waning of the trend saw the end of the hedge maze as common public feature.

“Towards the end of the eighteenth century the taste for mazes in private gardens had to some extent declined, but as an adjunct to places of public amusement the topiary labyrinth was still in great demand.” [Matthews. 137]

It’s these latter types of hedge mazes that are no doubt the primary inspirations (especially that of Versailles unfortunately destroyed in 1778 when it was replaced by an arboretum by Louis XVI) for the roleplaying dungeon-maze which benefited from the mythical complexity of the Cretan maze and the extravagance and game-feel of a hedge-maze.

Mazes had progressed from mystical symbols with magical powers to imprison spirits to contemplative exercises of religion into a pastime, a game.

“By the time maze-makers in Britain began using hedges instead of patterns cut into turf the original motivations may have been lost, leaving an amusing pastime in the place of meaningful ritual.” [McGovern. Mazes]

Essentially in the context of roleplaying games a maze is a tour puzzle (a puzzle where the player takes a trip around the game-zone from beginning to end retrieving certain objects along the way). A maze is a puzzle that must be solved by finding the exit (or goal) after entering meaning the player must accept the challenge by entering into the labyrinth essentially trapping themselves within; only victory or death awaits at the end.

These mazes are most often constructed of various chambers linked by a confusing network of passageways and corridors. Traditionally constructed mazes, those consisting of only corridors and twisty passages, are rarely played through in a roleplaying game session usually relegated to a single “intelligence check” representing a specific amount of in-game time per singular check in which the player characters can solve the maze-puzzle  (in my experience typically 1 day).

This is due to the shear monotony of traversing only passageways even those sprinkled with monsters, traps, and hazards. Labyrinths on the other hand are more frequent in the form of ruins, caves, and the lairs of villains usually consisting of various chambers and corridors which have a roundabout, primarily single path of travel allowing both the occupants and the player characters to move freely through them, the aim usually being to confront the villains and monsters on their own turf.

Labyrinths really only lengthen the time the players spend working their way towards their ultimate goal, a duel with the ‘big bad’ serving more in the capacity of a gauntlet rather than a contemplative trip though GM’s shouldn’t discount this aspect if there is a twist when it comes to the final villain. When it comes to the puzzle-like mazes however, if the players are aware of what they’re about to enter they will usually take some precautions which are frankly, ages old but nonetheless effective, mostly.

Answering these tricks of the trade is always the responsibility of the master of the maze. These titular tricks being – the ball of twine, leaving a trail of crumbs or pebbles, making marks with chalk or charcoal, and following either the left or right hand wall. The ball of twine (Ariadne’s golden thread) as employed by Theseus is utilized by attaching it to an anchor at the entrance and then as the meanderer walks away they let the string unspool and thus leaving behind an easy to follow trail.

This can be just as easily defeated by creating a lack of anchor points, using string snipping doors, fiber-chewing pests that infest the maze, or cleverly placed flames. Dropping a trail of crumbs/pebbles (the old Hansel and Gretel trick) is just as easily defeated by having pests or other such creatures following the trail and either eating it up or sweeping it away also chasms and flowing water can stop this strategy dead creating a cut-off point for the trail.

Using chalk or charcoal markings at certain intervals typically on a wall (a strategy taken from spelunking) can be defeated with moist or slick walls, mark erasing pests, and even some sort of mischief involving duplicating or moving the marks around via some sort of enchantment or by resident spirits/faeries or sliding/flipping panels. It is also wise not to ignore the possibility of moving or rotating walls as well. The only real way to defeat the following of a single wall is to have the start or finish of the maze at the center which is surrounded by a looping passageway possibly employing a few other design tactics to lead the cheater(s) astray. In order to make a maze that is more difficult to solve a Game Master (GM) has a few options to work with.

The GM can limit the number of solutions (a single solution being the hardest), the longer the solution path is the more difficult the maze or at least the longer someone has to spend within it giving more time for them to get lost, and adding in irregular features to the maze can increase its difficulty greatly. Adding loops can throw off meanderers (those not on the solution path being the most effective) as well as subtle curves and odd angles which can discombobulate the players’ spatial sense especially if you use certain magical features such as extra-dimensional spaces.

Multi-level mazes can definitely confuse things where the solution path travels through multiple floors. Roundabout passages that lead meanderers to a destination other than expected are also in the maze-master’s toolbox. These passages should appear that they go in one direction but are designed in such a way, typically a spiral, so that they go in another. Landmark features can also be manipulated in order to fool those trying to use landmarks and memorization to mark their way. Adding in statuary or frescoes that are duplicated elsewhere in the maze will always confuse those attempting this most basic but usually fairly effective method. Of course, the standard GM toolbox suffices especially when it comes to enticements in the form of sparkly treasures and gems in order to lure adventurers off of the true path and into a trap or interesting encounter.

The maze with its long legacy, its mytho-symbolic power, and the fun of a puzzle is infinitely useful to game-masters and to roleplaying in general. In either its unicursal or multicursal guise mazes are a common staple of the fantasy adventure (maybe the fantasy genre in Toto) and functions in a dual capacity first as an action set-piece and then serving the story at a symbolic level adding a little literary dimension to a campaign. Essentially a maze in a roleplaying game is attached to three basic ideas: imprisonment (like the titular dungeon), puzzlement (like a physical riddle, a travel puzzle), and exploration (what’s around the next corner).

It’s the Game Master functioning as the Maze-Master whose responsibility it is to add an air of mystery to the dungeon-mazes that are to be explored by the players as well as making them challenging (but not impossibly hard, use your best judgment based on the individuals in your group and their level of teamwork) and add in the fantastic elements. The maze, an element of mythology, history, and fantasy known and recognizable by virtually everyone is a useful element likewise, in fantasy roleplaying games. Mazes and labyrinths lend themselves to the roleplaying hobby in a few potent respects; they can serve as more than simple puzzles or obstacles, bringing with them a certain symbolic significance which can surface regardless of the level of subtlety or crudeness with which they are presented in-game. “The twists and turns of a maze represent life’s pathway. Entering it is equated with death, while emerging is rebirth.” (Wilkinson. 245 – emphasis mine)

Tags 2

Leave a Reply