Designing the Dungeon: Gauntlet vs. Labyrinth
“What a dilemma,” the drow moaned, looking over a blank page of parchment. His quill hovered over the paper, the slight silver glow of magic around it shimmering in the darkness. A drop of ink dripped onto the paper, staining it with a messy blot of black ink. The drow roared and threw his arms up in frustration, magically hurling his quill, parchment, and all of his cartographical supplies into the air. He collapsed back in his throne and pouted as the contents of his desk crashed upon the floor in front of him.
Moments later, the door to the drow’s chamber burst open and a breathless goblin scurried in. “Dark master, what happened? Are you under attack? Have the adventurers snuck in undetected?”
The drow affixed his servant with a withering look. “Nothing so dire, worm. I am simply… Oh!” He looked at the goblin with a sudden appreciation and straightened his slumped posture. “Servant of mine, you are a goblin, no?”
“I, uh, am. My family and I all work as your clerks, dark master, should I gather them?”
“No need, no need at all. Your kind live in mines, do you not? Dark, twisty passages filled with countless dead ends, switchbacks, and trapped to high heaven?”
“My cousins did, but my clan were gauntlet-builders,” the goblin replied. A tone of pride tinged his voice, and he permitted himself to smile. “We made deathtraps to protect our home from adventurers. No tricksy turnbacks or secret doors. We captured big, nasty monsters and made vile traps—then put them all one after another. Kept ‘em out well enough, and we didn’t have to dig all those extra tunnels.”
The drow steeped his fingers and nodded. A wicked grin spread across his face, and raised his right hand. With a flourish, his broken inkpots mended themselves and his scattered papers flew back onto his desk. “My faithful servant, I believe you have given me a delightfully devious idea.”
If you’ve ever read a D&D dungeon, explored a twisting, labyrinthine dungeon in an adventure game like Skyrim or The Legend of Zelda, or fought through a straightforward gauntlet of challenges like in World of Warcraft, then you have some idea of how to create a dungeon. You can create an exciting experience in Dungeons & Dragons with either type of dungeon, but your game will be more fun if you can figure out which kind of dungeon is best for your adventure: Gauntlet or Labyrinth?
Unraveling the Labyrinth
In Greek Mythology, King Minos of Crete bade the legendary artificer Daedalus to create an inescapable maze to contain the minotaur, a monstrous half-man, half-bull creature. Creating literal mazes is considered poor form in Dungeons & Dragons, but creating confusing, labyrinthine structures with branching paths and secret passages is a time-honored D&D tradition! This type of dungeon is probably most common in published D&D adventures, whose authors were paid to craft complex, interwoven adventure areas.
The best Labyrinth dungeons are vast, interconnected spaces that give the adventurers lots of information so that they can make informed decisions about how to explore the dungeon. Take for instance a dungeon that has a colony of troglodytes in one area and an abandoned cave filled with stirges nearby. The troglodytes have set up a sturdy barricade at the entrance to their cavern, but there is a relatively unguarded entrance at the back of the stirge cave. The adventurers now have the choice of attacking the troglodyte cave head-on or fighting a small battle in the stirge cave so that they can sneak into the troglodyte lair from behind and catch them off-guard.
Or, if they wish, the party can ignore the troglodytes and stirges altogether and explore another part of the dungeon entirely! Labyrinth dungeons are all about choice and personal exploration. While most labyrinths are expansive, even smaller dungeons can be labyrinths. Take a look at the map of the Moathouse dungeon from T1 – The Village of Hommlet, by Gary Gygax. The dungeon is rarely interconnected, but there are always choices to be made, even if those choices are as simple as deciding which room to explore next.
The Moathouse, map courtesy of Wizards of the Coast
Why a Labyrinth?
Some people may tell you that labyrinth-style dungeons are the only way to design a dungeon. I disagree. Winding, multi-path dungeons have their uses, but they are hardly the be-all and end-all of dungeon design. A labyrinth dungeon is simply interconnected spaces that the characters must explore, granting the characters more agency but stripping some pacing power from the DM.
The greatest benefit of creating a labyrinth dungeon is the level of agency it gives the players. They are the captains of their own ship, and can explore in any direction they want. Whenever you give the players a choice, however, make sure it’s meaningful, otherwise they may as well flip a coin to decide. Choosing between “right door or left door” is meaningless, but choosing between “door covered in leaves of a man-eating plant or door covered in poisonous fungus” is exciting.
Dungeons don’t have to just be filled with fights and traps. Labyrinth-style dungeons are famous for conflict between the different factions of monsters living within its walls. A dungeon may be occupied by both orcs and hobgoblins, but while they both want to kill the player characters, they also want to kill each other and take their territory and loot! Smart players can negotiate with one or more factions in order to make their lives easier as they explore the dungeon.
Labyrinth dungeons allow you to tell emergent stories. Trying to tell a story with tight pacing and a three-act structure in a vast and interconnected space is a fool’s errand. Instead, let go of the pacing, the plot hooks, and the clear-cut objectives, and let your players find their own fun by making foolish decisions, getting sliced up by traps, stumbling upon treasure, and striking deals with greedy hobgoblin generals. If your players would rather skip writing backstories and just want to jump into telling stories through play, you may want to create a labyrinth dungeon.
When is the Right Time for a Labyrinth?
Don’t feel like labyrinth dungeons are a lifestyle. You may find yourself in need of an intricate and winding dungeon in the midst of your story-focused campaigns with lots of pre-planned character beats. If your players are feeling burned out on making realm-changing decisions and dealing with a single major villain, you can direct them to a labyrinth dungeon that gives them lots of small-scale choices and allows them to interact with minor villainous factions. This change of pace could help reinvigorate their interest in your campaign!
Braving the Gauntlet
Running the gauntlet is a form of physical punishment—or even execution, in Roman times!—in which a guilty person must strip naked and run between two lines of soldiers wielding clubs, switches, or blades, and are struck by each soldier in succession. These days, running the gauntlet simply refers to overcoming an intense, straightforward trial. Here, a gauntlet-style dungeon is a linear experience in which characters have little room to explore, but are faced with challenge after challenge until they reap a massive reward at the end.
Some players may find gauntlet dungeons boring, insofar as they are simply funneled along to challenge after challenge, with no personal choice in the matter. Other players are simply here to experience a story and prefer that their choices be tactical ones made in combat, and love that gauntlet dungeons get right to the fun stuff. Most gaming groups have some mix of both types of players, and one of the biggest challenges as a DM is finding how to please both kinds. More on that later.
Why a Gauntlet?
Gauntlet dungeons are straightforward, often linear experiences that test the player characters' combat abilities and their player's puzzle-solving abilities.
The greatest benefit of a linear gauntlet is that you can prep efficiently. In a labyrinth dungeon, you may end up only using about half the encounters you prepared, essentially wasting half of your prep time. Either that, or you created all of your encounters as scribbled notes with only a barebones level of prep, increasing the amount of improvising you had to do at the table. In a gauntlet, you know exactly what encounters your players will face and in exactly what order. This means that you can dedicate your time to creating complex, tactical encounters that will reward your players for understanding the ins and outs of their characters’ combat abilities.
Gauntlet dungeons also make it easy for you to tell a story with your dungeon. If your players can only explore a dungeon in a specific direction, you can control how they experience the dungeon’s story. In a labyrinth dungeon, the players may wander from room to room getting snippets of a story, but in a gauntlet you can carefully portion out information, build tension, and deliver plot twists at crucial moments.
When is the Right Time for a Gauntlet?
Ultimately, some players revile linear dungeon experiences because of how they take away player agency. The word railroading is thrown about as a way to revile linear gameplay. Their opinions are their own. If you want to tell a straightforward story and your players are okay with being along for the ride, drop in a gauntlet of challenging fights and puzzles. Just remember that variety is the spice of life.
A Mixed Style
Generally speaking, no dungeon is a pure gauntlet or a pure labyrinth. Like most everything else in the world, nothing is actually black and white—all perceived binaries exist on a spectrum. Most of the dungeons I design, whether for my home group or for publication, fall somewhere in this spectrum of straightforward to complex. A hybrid design works for me because it lets me tell a story with each dungeon like I could in a linear gauntlet, while still maintaining that exploratory feel of a labyrinthine dungeon, even if it is sometimes all just smoke and mirrors.
One structure I like to use in dungeons I create for my home games was nicked directly from The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess—though I really lifted it from Mark Brown's superb analysis of the game’s levels in “Boss Keys,” his remarkable series of essays on dungeon design in the Legend of Zelda franchise.
Mark noticed that nearly all of Twilight Princess’s dungeons are characterized by a simple pattern of exploration. Upon entering the dungeon, you face a short challenge and then find a hub room with three main exits. All but one of these exits are blocked off by some barrier, so you take the door that is accessible and explore one wing of the dungeon. Then, you accomplish a goal that unlocks another wing of the dungeon, so you return to the hub room and go into the next wing, accomplish a goal there to unlock the third and final wing, and explore through the third wing until you reach the boss.
Most of the dungeons use this exact “hub, east, hub, west, hub, boss” structure—and even those that don’t still see the player returning to a hub room three times before fighting the boss. In Mark’s words, “it didn’t immediately impact my enjoyment of the game back [when it launched], but it does perhaps explain why all the dungeons feel a bit unremarkable.”
Mark was critical of Twilight Princess’s dungeons in his analysis, but don’t let this scare you off from using this spectacular dungeon layout. But this isn’t the fault of the dungeon structure; rather it’s the fault of the game’s overreliance on it. This structure is actually remarkably clever. Mark himself said “On its own merits, [this repeated structure] is actually pretty good. […] For one, it splits the dungeon into small chunks that can be accomplished in isolation. […] This structure also keeps the player focused on their long-term goal in the central room. […] And by repeatedly bringing the player back to that previously explored room, it feels less linear than just putting the chunks in a big row, one after another, which is effectively how you’re going to play them.”
There’s a lot of good advice for D&D dungeon builders to unpack here. First of all, this hub-room structure allows you to break your dungeon up into sections for the players to explore at will. Breaking your dungeon up into bite-sized chunks sidesteps the greatest downfall of the labyrinth-style of dungeon: its broken pacing. By creating a central hub chamber and allowing your dungeon to be explored one wing at a time, you can tailor each wing to fit a single game session. (Maybe each wing is its own Five Room Dungeon, like we talked about in the first Designing the Dungeon article?) This lets each game session have its own mini-arc, with the players feeling like they’ve overcome a great challenge and actually managed to accomplish something at the end of each wing.
Returning to the hub room allows you to give the players a sense of the progress their characters have made. This can be a difficult line to walk. If you’re too obvious about it, the whole venture can feel very artificial and video-gamey. Putting a giant iron door in your hub room with three keyholes that can only be locked by three magic keys that are each guarded by a mini-boss in the three wings of your dungeon… that feels bad. But if the players are raiding an orc army camp and can see the growing effects of flooding their foundry, then burning their barracks, then exploding their shipyard? That creates excitement.
Most importantly, this knotted structure allows you to create a labyrinth out of tiny gauntlets. This is actually in contrast with the dungeons of Twilight Princess, which are complex structures made simple by locking you out of all paths but the critical path. We don’t have to go that far. Tricking your players by offering them an expansive experience and then revealing it to be a linear artifice is just poor sportsmanship. Instead, I recommend allowing your players to tackle any wing of the dungeon they want to in any order, save for the boss wing—which must be tackled last. This lets your players choose which challenges they want to tackle, but still lets you conserve prep work by only creating challenges that you’re sure they will face.
Season to Taste
I conclude this article with my usual word of warning for Dungeon Masters. I’ve given you a few extreme examples to help guide your design, and then tempered those extremes with my preferred style. I love the way I design dungeons, and it works great for my gaming group. I put thought and consideration into how I structure them so that they engage my players and still serve my story-first style of gameplay.
But you’re not me. If you like my style, please steal it. I’d be flattered. But the point of this article isn’t to argue that one style of dungeon is better than another, or that you’re a more valid D&D player for exploring dungeons instead of fighting straight through them. Identify your favorite dungeons in games you love, both video games and tabletop games alike. Figure out why you like them, and put that same level of thought and enthusiasm into creating a dungeon for your players.
James Haeck is the lead writer for D&D Beyond, the co-author of the Critical Role Tal'Dorei Campaign Setting, and a freelance writer for Wizards of the Coast, the D&D Adventurers League, and Kobold Press. He lives in a five-room apartment/dungeon in Seattle, Washington with his partner Hannah and his two furry goblins, Mei and Marzipan. You can usually find him wasting time on Twitter at @jamesjhaeck.