Transcendent(?) horizontal-ity in encounter design?


So often times on the podcast when level design comes up Danielle talks about incorporating vertical-ity into levels. I understand the appeal of this. Vertical spaces add another dimension for players to think about and add a sense of height or depth to what would otherwise be a flat surface. This is especially important in table top games because often times the player perspective is top down towards a grid-ed field, so feelings of flatness are reinforced by the perspective.

I don’t feel like I struggle with adding elements of vertical-ity to my encounters but what I would like to accomplish is to find a way of incorporating horizontal space into my encounters in a way that feels impactful. What comes to mind is that wind angle shot from the film ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ in which a character approaches a well from the horizon.

The only thing I can think of is making a labyrinth, but there’s always the chance of them just climbing on top of the walls and cheating their way out of it,

How do I make cool horizontal spaces?


Something you could check out, and this might sound weird, are the more experimental/nontraditional Doom maps out there. If you want wide open spaces, I’ve used Firetop Mountain, ALT, Epic 2, & Phocas Island 2 for tabletop inspiration when it came to encounter design and map layout. The limitations of the engine regarding vertical movement and the lack of rooms-over-rooms mean the community has adapted in some really neat ways. I started making D&D maps exclusively in DoomBuilder because I could also make images of where the players were and what they were seeing. Lo-fi but pretty handy!

China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels (specifically Perdido Street Station) are a good starting point for city-scale worldbuilding, if that’s what you’re wanting to do:
Bonetown: A poor district, known for its random, maze-like streets and named for the Ribs—its prominent landmark feature of a gargantuan, partially buried skeleton. The origin of the bones is unknown, but they have mystical emanations, seemingly causing increased misfortunes and accidents during construction attempts in the area. Widely considered as “thieves quarter”.

Doesn’t that sound cool?

Verticality and horizontality don’t mean much if your players get bored, though. You can describe the most beautiful stretch of land imaginable, but if there’s nothing to do, in practice it’ll feel like I-90 between Sioux City and Mankato in the winter: 4 solid hours of unending dead, grey-brown cornfields.

Pepper the map with small bits of flavor. Landmarks, small fights or NPCs, rewards for going off the beaten path… Add sub-areas (your example of a labyrinth, say your group finds a crack in the wall and they decide to bust through. Do they simply break through to the other side and continue on their way, or do they find a hidden chamber with some sick skeleton dudes to fight (maybe other adventurers trapped in the labyrinth ages ago and kept undead by the Big Bad [or maybe they sequence-broke and straight-up found the Big Bad]). As for them climbing over it, you could always add a ceiling, but wouldn’t it be more fun if they did climb over it, but remember that part in Hellraiser 2 where you actually see Hell and Leviathan? What if that? Maybe the labyrinth itself is aware of everything your group is doing, and tries to actively impede their progress, creating false exits that lead to a dungeon glamoured to look like the outside world.

But obviously, it depends on the scope of your game, and how much your players are willing to do.


another problem horizontality runs into is that long distance travel in tabletop RPG gets crunched into a quick bout of “pick a waypoint and roll x days of random encounters” I think for that horizontality to mean something you need to expand the encounters to fill it. I’m thinking of small armies of mounted combatants chasing each other across open fields. or the party having to pick their way across an area dotted with enemy encampments over a number of days. but instead of rolling a dice to see if they get caught zoom the map out, instead of five feet make a square into fifty feet or an hours travel and have them chase down a horde or sneak across a battlefield over a period of days dodging military patrols and picking off smaller bands.
if you have the time and inclination do up a reasonably detailed city map maybe the party has to chase down somebody inside the city or even inside your maze climbing the walls is a viable strategy with the tradeoff being a loss of speed if you are chasing somebody, or being chased. a highlight in my gaming career was when an assassin snuck into an Inn window and tried to kill a party member. we stopped him but he made his escape out the window, being the plucky rogue and cat burglar I naturally followed them out the window and chased him across the rooftops ended up dispatching who was supposed to be a recurring threat. now I caught the DM offguard with that so it was resolved in a series of dex checks and storytelling but with some prep or improv map design that could have turned into tabletop mirrors edge finding the fastest rout across the rooftops, jumping alleys, setting up ambushes.
Another thing I can think of is setting up events in the distance or across chasms. maybe they see a goblin bands campfires across the lake at night, maybe deep in a dungeon they are attacked by archers from across an impassible chasm. if they figure out how to pass that chasm, well maybe that’s not a bad thing. if you implement enough verticality that can even give your players a greater perspective to literally broaden their horizons and increase the horizontality in that way. have them look out over the area ahead before they climb down the cliff face to their next challenge.


II think what you are looking for is more a feeling than the actual space. Remember that the meat of roleplaying is (or should be) talking. It is the GM describing scenes, in character interactions, and player descriptions of actions. So, use your words to create a feeling of horizontal-ity. Don’t try to make a huge empty desert with a well at the edge of the map and plop the party at the opposite edge, create the feeling of the scene. Describe how the well just always seems out of reach, or seems to only slowly get closer. Create a feeling of trudging through a desert toward a well, the anticipation of relief that seems like you just won’t make it, use repetition and other storytelling techniques to craft the feeling of your scene. The words are real, the grid and map that you created are just representations.

I have found that too many GMs rely on maps and miniatures to show a scene. Personally, I stopped using all that and just talk through every encounter with my players, sometimes drawing out quick diagrams to show relative position if needed. By focusing more on the storytelling aspect, you can create grander and more memorable encounters.