Monday, February 5, 2024

Considerations on Jaquaysing the Dungeon

In celebrating the life of Jennell Jaquays and observing the renewed interest in her work, I wanted to go over the method of Jaquaysing dungeons, facets of the practice, and its limitations. I am retreading the work of others, but by putting it in my own way I help myself to crystalize the thought and may put the idea in a way that better suits some readers.

from Caverns of Thracia

Use of the term "Jaquaysing" to refer to interconnecting and looping designs in dungeon goes back to 2010, after OSR luminary Justin Alexande's tribute to game designer Jennell Jaquays, going through her 1979 adventure module "The Caverns of Thracia'' and highlighting how it was designed with a freedom of explorative route in mind. Jaquaysing was coined by the blog's readers, riffing off of a similar term the author employed.

By making the order in which a party proceeds through dungeon areas nonlinear, you have an easy way of introducing meaningful choices and interesting discoveries. When the only way to a certain point is to go through the swinging blades room, you get to make the interesting choice of how to avoid the blades. If you have to go through either the swinging blades room or somehow cross the bottomless pit, then you get to make the decision of which problem you want to try to solve. Suddenly, you might find yourself coming at problems from behind or discovering new routes of escape and ways to cut monsters off. Neat!

When PCs might explore an area in many different ways, the person designing the dungeon is discouraged from using certain tricks. They can't as easily contrive a linear story for the PCs to proceed through, and instead have to design a space where it makes sense for the players to interact with elements in a varied order. The designer can't assume too much about how PCs are coming to interact with "set pieces" and "scripted encounters."

The simplest kind of loop is for a door or hallway to connect two dungeon areas which would otherwise be separated by multiple other areas. The more of a shortcut this is, the bigger the loop. If a connection is only a shortcut by one or two areas, we normally don't even call it a loop. 

When a dungeon has multiple entrances or exits to the outside world, it becomes a loop too. You can usually think of the outside world as a single dungeon area for the purposes of Jaquaysing, and thus two dungeon entrances that may be very far apart can connect disparate areas, especially when the overworld is relatively safe. If a dungeon area is housed in a large building with windows and scaleable walls, there might be many forms of egress.

from Caverns of Thracia

Many dungeons have multiple levels, often increasing in danger the further down you go. When there are multiple ways to access a level, that too becomes a loop. These can be very rewarding to figure out, as canny players can use a safer level to skirt danger on their way to an area on a lower level.

a labyrinth

Sometimes, you can have sections of a dungeon composed of many closely-intersecting rooms, like a checkerboard of connections. This annex of rooms sort of functions as one really big connection rather than one very-well jaquaysed one. I call these areas "spongy" because they are so porous to traversal. Going through a spongy area feels like you're traversing a labyrinth,  even when its layout is relatively simple. Using spongy areas is its own kind of technique, but a related principle to Jaquaysing.

Few rooms in this dungeon are far off from main thoroughfare. What are the pros and cons of laying out a dungeon this way?

I think Jaquaysing is a really valuable tool in the dungeon design toolbelt, but there are times when its thoughtless application is unwise. For one, the dungeon designer must be careful that they are not placing so many connections in a space that it becomes confusing. Players with too many choices can struggle overlong in trying to figure out the best way to go, which is why I generally try to have no more than four ways out of a dungeon area, including the way the PCs just came through.

Part of why we are Jaquaysing in the first place is to give the players interesting decisions when planning their routes. If we add too many connections, there will be an increasing number of no-brainer routes to take, routes which avoid every major obstacle. Ideally, PCs will sometimes have to brave the more dangerous and inconvenient paths, but if everything connects to everything that's never going to happen.

a dungeon layout that's a little too overconnected

When we look at the floorplans of many historical structures, we find they are Jaquaysed as hell. But if we seek verisimilitude in designing a layout, as we sometimes might, we find there are some kinds of structure that really aren't that Jaquaysed, and we may decide that keeping with that is more interesting than shoe-horning in a few extra connections.

In Jaquaysing a dungeon, there are several tricks we can employ to keep a loop a bit more interesting to deal with. This can preserve the difficulty that keeps the decision of a route interesting, or prevent a loop from being used in all circumstances. I call these qualified loops.

The simplest example is using a locked door to cut off a loop. Until the key is found or the door is destroyed, PCs will have to take the long route. This is best employed when the blocked-off loop is really juicy or would be useful for many visits to the dungeon. It would be lame to mostly clear a dungeon, finally find the key, and realize that it just connects two areas you're never going to visit again.

The secret doors off of 38 can shortcut a much more indirect journey. Adapted from Tomb of the Serpent Kings.

Another common qualified loop is making the loop connection secret, as with a secret door. Perceptive plays may learn a new route to employ, while others may not discover it.

You can make a loop connection clear, but obstruct the way with some kind of hazard or barricade. A hallway that is mostly caved-in and would take time and tools to clear is a good example. The cost to access the loop is a logistical one. This kind of qualified loop is also a useful way to introduce a new hazard to old sections of a dungeon, as it creates a loop that wandering monsters or intelligent factions can use too. 

Alternatively, the obstruction could be one that is only present some of the time. A heavy drawbridge that lowers for twelve hours in a day will only sometimes allow a party to use its loop, and until they figure out exactly when it raises and lowers they may fall victim to a nasty surprise as their exit is cut off.

A loop connection is also a good place to put monsters and guards. This presents yet another kind of cost to access the loop.

One of the more interesting qualified loops to me is the one-way passage, any connection that lets you go one way but not another. This makes for a great alternative dungeon entrance, something that injects you deep in a dungeon but that requires you to take another way out.

Finally, a loop connection might impose some kind of restriction on what can go through it. Players will have to consider whether it's worth it to leave their metal objects behind when they walk through the Hypermagnet Chamber, or who among them can most afford to open the door whose key is fresh blood.

When laying out a dungeon, keep in mind which areas are siloed off, which are looped, where natural intersections form, and what the potential flow through that dungeon will be. After you lay out and key a dungeon, consider how the different obstacles and challenges may redirect a party through the dungeon. A thoughtfully Jaquaysed dungeon can be more dynamic, interesting, and enjoyable.

You are ready for A D V E N T U R E !


  1. Good post! Jacquaysing is always a good way to make a dungeon better. It's good to learn from the work of the greats

  2. Great article, and I see what you did there. Very nice!