by Phoebe Wood-Wheelhouse
PLEASE NOTE: This encounter contains horror elements and may not be suitable for your party. Please do always check the comfort level of your players before proceeding with horror themes.
The party pass through a magical portal and are transported into a maze of their own personal dreams and nightmares. They must navigate to the centre together to escape. This maze can be used as an entire adventure if you choose, depending on how complex you wish to make it.
Imagine the maze as a series of pocket worlds, created from the PC’s own minds as they step into the portal, strung together in a circular web with the only exit at the exact centre. When set up for 8 players, it should look something like this:
The centre point of the concentric circles is the exit and each PC is separately deposited in either their Dream or their Nightmare to begin with (depending on a dice roll). There is no singular entrance.
Each ring of the maze should have 4 pocket worlds, two Dreams and two Nightmares, placed so that they alternate around the circle.
Each pocket world (whether dream or nightmare) has 3 exits, unless it is on the outer rim. Every pocket world has at least 2 exits that connect to the two adjacent worlds on the same ring as them.
So, in the example above: PC3 Dream world has an exit leading to PC1 Nightmare and PC7 Nightmare.
In addition to this, Nightmare worlds have an exit leading inwards towards the centre and Dreams have an exit leading outwards towards the rim. The only exception to this are the two Dreams on the outer rim, which have only the two adjacent world exits.
So, in the example above: PC8 Nightmare has an exit leading to PC7 Dream, PC5 Dream and PC1 Nightmare.
This puzzle requires a bit of preparation and information from your players, to get the best experience out of it and personalise it for your campaign/party. This maze works best with a party that knows each other well and have been adventuring together for a while. It works particularly well as a preface to the finale of a campaign.
Step one: Create the pocket worlds
Ask your players to send you brief summaries of their PC’s:
- Best ever memory: A time that they wish they could live in forever. Something that they consider the best moment of their life. It can be a specific day (e.g. the day I discovered my magic) or can even be an idealised amalgam of a time in their life (e.g. hunting in the mountains with my father).
- Worst ever memory: A time that haunts them. Something they consider the very worst/darkest time of their life. It can be a specific day (e.g. the day my clan cast me out) or even a composite memory of a terrible time for them (e.g. growing up starving and alone in the sewers).
The summaries should each be somewhere between one sentence and a 50 word paragraph (no longer than 100 words each).
Once you have the summaries, you can begin to build the Dreams and Nightmares of your players. You can do this by identifying the core wish/fear of the memory and expanding that or by literally recreating the memory. It is good to have a mix of the two.
Remember that the Dreams and Nightmares will be most effective if they are highly tailored to the PCs and focus on the core emotions of the memories.
With that in mind, please remember that your players all have different comfort levels around the table and may not be happy with their characters being placed in extreme situations. Please see the examples below for ideas on how to tailor for different players. If you have a player who is uncomfortable with horror, advise them to pick a terrible memory that they personally find unaffecting and has no bearing on their real life (e.g. fear of wolves for a player who adores dogs/wolves and would never really be frightened of them).
Example PC: Liah (Paladin)
Player is comfortable with violence and tragedy. Uncomfortable with sexual/abusive situations.
Best memory: When she and her twin brother Leo ran away to have an adventure aged 8 and spent two nights out in the forest before their parents found them. Note they weren’t running away from their parents, they just wanted an adventure. They never told anyone about what happened but they probably met fairies and goblins and all sorts of awesome things that kids want to happen when they want an adventure (or maybe it was imaginary?)
Worst memory: The day Leo died falling from his horse aged 12
Core Wish – Liah desperately wants back the freedom, innocence and happiness of her childhood with her brother.
Core Fear – Liah has been traumatised by the loss of her brother and the fact that she could not save him. Her helplessness in this moment has made her determined to never feel that way again.
GM’s Dream world:
The full moon shines into the forest, lining every tree with silver and illuminating tiny wisps that float through the air. The night shimmers and shines. There is magic here.
You spot it, peeking at you from the petals of a lily. You reach out to it but the fairy darts away from you. Leo laughs and dashes forward, wooden sword drawn, his hat falling back and loosing his vivid red hair, washed to black in the moonlight. The fairy swoops around him, almost too fast to see and is off through the woods. He grabs your hand. Come on, Liah! His teeth are bright white, flashing from his grin. It’s getting away! You squeeze his hand and together you race after it.
GM’s Nightmare world:
The smell of blood fills the room. Underneath, the sickly sweet stench of infection. The doctors murmur sorrowfully in the corner. The boy in the bed is still, his chest barely moving as the breath whistles through his broken body.
There is nothing you can do. Father has already killed the horse. A small revenge. A pointless death. Leo will never wake up. You try to will his eyes open. His hand is limp and lifeless in yours. He cannot even feel you kiss his brow. Leo is dying. You are going to be alone. You smooth his red red hair from his brow. Did his eye twitch? Your heart leaps. You hold your breath. You wait. You wait. You watch your brothers broken face. You pray. You rage inside your head. Nothing you can do. Leo is dying.
Example PC: Antus (Assassin/Poisoner)
Player is comfortable with pretty much anything. Enjoys the chance to put his character in extremely uncomfortable/tragic/emotional situations.
Best: Kneeling by his father’s deathbed and hearing his last words: A poisoned body does not mean a poisoned soul, remember that and become an antidote to evil, my son. This is my final wish for you. I’m proud to be your father, please know that always.
Nightmare: Assassinating a landowner who was suspected of imprisoning dozens of children. The bastard confessed but died before revealing the location of the children. Antus never found the children.
Core Wish – Antus finds comfort in the memory of his father’s love and wishes he had more time to spend with him in acceptance and happiness.
Core Fear – Antus is terrified that his sins have made him an evil person. He is tortured by what he regards as his biggest failure: not saving the children.
GM’s Dream world:
The darkness is soft and kind, sheltering and soothing. This place is timeless and endless, a place protected. The light of a single candle glows next to the bed.
He is free from pain now and his smile is a thing of true beauty. You feel his love for you in his gaze, in the warm, dry comfort of his hand in yours. Always unspoken, uncertain, before but, in this place, at this time, you know the truth of it. He is proud of you, of the man you have become. You know he would share this time with no other.
GM’s Nightmare world:
The caverns stretch out, a labyrinth of dank stone. Your footfalls echo weirdly, coming back at you from every direction. Water drips maddeningly from somewhere, always nearby but never visible.
They are here, somewhere. You hear them calling you. Taunting you with their nearness. But every twist, every turn is empty. It is your fault, your sin, their deaths are yours. How long before the first one dies? How long before your soul is irredeemable? Are you damned already? You hear a shuffle and dart down a passage towards it. Where are they? Where?
Example PC: Luna (Druid)
Player is highly sensitive and uncomfortable with extreme situations. Player is happy with mildly scary situations and emotional roleplay as long as not too extreme.
Best – climbing to the top of the canopy for the first time and seeing the unending sea of trees
Worst – the first time she realised that she was alone.
Core Wish – Luna revels in the beauty and wonder of the natural world. The freedom and joy of being part of the forest is what drives her.
Core Fear – Luna hates feeling that she is alone and unimportant. She is terrified of the idea that her life has meant nothing and that no one cares for her. Possibly link to a place devoid of life/natural beauty to contrast with the wish.
GM’s Dream world:
The canopy stretches below you, an emerald sea swaying below a crystalline sky. The branches beneath your feet are woven into a springy blanket and a rainbow of coloured birds flit here and there, trilling and singing.
You breathe in the fresh, warm, happy scent of life and let out a great whoop. You let yourself drop into the canopy, grab a vine and swing back up to the sunshine. The leaves rush past as you rise and fall, plunging into the cool dimness of the forest and swooping into the brightness. You feel the laughter bubbling through you as the birds race alongside you. You are free.
GM’s Nightmare world:
The bog stretches on forever. The stench of rotting plants hangs in the air, seeping damply into your skin.
You are alone. No one is coming for you. Things chitter and click in the darkness. Something brushes past your face and is gone, too quick to see. Your feet have sunk into the mud, dragging you downwards. You will die here and no one will know that you ever existed. You have achieved nothing and to nothing you will return.
Step two: Building the maze
Now that you have the Dreams and Nightmares prepared, you can begin building the maze. The easiest way to keep track of it is to physically build it because, during the encounter, the Dreams and Nightmares will move.
To build a physical copy of the maze, you will need:
- Stiff, light-coloured or white card
- A thumbtack, pin or brass fastener
- Coloured pens
The first thing to do is to cut out a circle of card for each ring of the maze. The size of the maze will be determined by the number of players in the party. The number of rings should be half the number of players. If there are 8 players, there will be 4 rings; if there are 6 players, there will be 3 rings; and so on. If there are an odd number of players, invent an NPC to be stuck in the maze as well to round up the number.
Next, cut the circles into increasingly smaller sizes so that, when placed on top of each other, you can see distinct rings. To make things easier for yourself, draw in dark pen around the outside of each circle.
Place the circles of card on top of each other, then take your pin, tack or fastener and push it through the middle of the maze. Bend over the sharp side of the pin or tack so that it is flush with the back of the card. You should now have a series of rings that you can spin independently of each other.
The pin at the centre represents the exit to the maze. You now need to mark out the separate Dreams and Nightmares. Draw a cross over the top of all of the rings in dark pen.
Now that your maze is separated into separate pocket worlds, you can assign a Dream or Nightmare to each section. Remember to alternate Dreams and Nightmares around each ring.
The last thing to do is mark the exits from each Dream and Nightmare. Using a bright coloured pen, draw arrows in the directions PCs can move to and from the pocket worlds. Remember that they can also exit inwards from Nightmares and outwards from Dreams.
Now that your map is ready, keep it secret from the players. It is very important that they do not see the map for the full difficulty of the puzzle to work, as they will, most likely, not realise initially that it moves or that it is circular. It is highly recommended that you use a GM screen while running this encounter.
To help you keep track of the doors and where they go, and give your players a visual representation, you may also wish to create individual, disconnected rooms to lay out on the table. The players can try to use these to map the maze, or draw their own maps. Here are three rooms taken from the above examples:
Running the Maze
There are two levels of puzzle to the maze. Firstly, navigating the moving and oddly placed rooms. Secondly, all living characters (both PCs and NPCs) still within the maze, must assemble at the exits in order for anyone to leave.
Due to the personal and emotional content of each room, the players can become trapped within their own Dreams/Nightmares. Whenever a PC or NPC enters their own Dream or Nightmare for the first time (including them waking up there when they enter the maze) they must make a medium difficulty Wisdom/Insight/Willpower check in order to recognise that it is not real. Once they have passed this check once, they will still have to make the check if they re-enter the room but it should be an easier check.
It will be very easy for your players to metagame this maze and so this puzzle works best with players who enjoy roleplaying and expanding their characters. However, you can still run this purely for the puzzle challenge, due to the shifting nature of the maze.
Rules of the Maze
- When Characters enter a room that is tailored to them for the first time, they make a medium difficulty WIS check. Success = PC recognises that the room is not real. Fail = PC fully believes the room is real and will act accordingly.
- When Characters leave a room tailored to them they can recognise with no check that it is not real.
- When Characters re-enter a room tailored to them, they make an easier WIS check. Same results.
- Characters do not need to roll a check for rooms that are not tailored to them.
- When a room is left empty, it resets.
- When Characters enter/exit room, it is as though they are passing through a magic portal. They are deposited in the middle of the room they are entering.
- When a room is left empty, the ring that the room is on spins one section clockwise.
- PCs may only exit the maze together with all living Characters (including NPCs) trapped in the maze together from one of the two Nightmares on the innermost ring.
- PCs may kill Characters (both NPCs and PCs) that refuse to leave the maze so that they can exit the maze.
- When a Character is killed in the maze, their Dream & Nightmare disappears. The entrances to these rooms then connect to the nearest room.
- If the two exit Nightmares disappear because their characters have died, the exits appear in the inner ring Dreams (i.e. the inner ring dreams now have 4 doors each).
- If all rooms on the inner ring disappear because their characters have died, the next ring out becomes the inner ring.
I hope you enjoy this Puzzle!