A Scathingly Positive Review
Jim Henson's Labyrinth: the Adventure Game is a self-contained system and adventure adapted from the 1986 film Labyrinth, published in 2019 by River Horse Games. The main creators behind it are the brothers Jack and Chris Caesar, but the adventure is mostly written by Ben Milton (AKA Questing Beast). The book is 294 pages and uses the original concept artwork for the movie by Brian Froud, with additional artwork by Ralph Horsley and Johnny Fraser-Allen.
I own the PDF of the game and am currently running it for the second time, both campaigns using Discord voice+text and Roll20 as a VTT. As probably indicated by the fact that I'm running it again, I am a big fan. Short review: 10/10, quite likely the finest experience I've ever had using published RPG material at my table. But this book already has a lot of positive reviews, and I felt like it might be worth it to spotlight some of the qualities that I haven't seen discussed in those. The things which I didn't really discover until I played it myself.
[By the way, the artwork in this post was done by my friend Norn, a groovy firey whose face was stolen by the Goblin King. You can find their stuff and contact them about commissions at norn-noszka.com]
My critical lens
I'm not super into RPG reviews. I don't read or watch them very often, and I've never set out to write one myself. Mostly I just don't think there's anything uniquely valuable about my perspective for your purchasing decisions (as a potential consumer) or design decisions (as a designer). But Labyrinth helped me recognize at least one thing that's a bit special about my perspective: I play games.
An uncomfortable truth that is rarely acknowledged in RPG discourse is that there are a lot more people who want to play D&D than there are people who actually play D&D. It's really hard! Most adults can't form a successful RPG group. They either don't know enough interested people, or the people they know can't commit to it. Or they, themselves, can't fit it into their life. And even if it does work out for a while, it rarely lasts more than a few months or maybe years. It's extremely difficult to maintain an active participation in this hobby. Some of your favorite game designers, bloggers, and YouTubers secretly haven't played an RPGs in literally years. It's true. Meanwhile, I have a group of 8 that meets every single week to play, for just over six years now. On top of that, I have at least three other groups of people in my life who I can reliably summon for a one-shot or even mini-campaign on an ad-hoc basis.
I am extraordinarily lucky, and I try never to take this for granted.
But the more time I've spent playing games, the more it sticks out to me when I'm reading RPG discussions, reviews, and other discourse that this division is present. That the strongly opinionated and verbose RPG connoisseur who's making all these assertions about how this-or-that should have been done or what sorts of things should be prioritized or what's deserving of an award... clearly does not actually play games very often, if at all.
Don't get me wrong. Some of those folks often still have a lot of extremely valuable insights. They are your favorite designers, bloggers, and YouTubers, after all. In many ways, they are the ones who drive the medium forward. But it can be easy to become overly concerned with some made up ethos of design purity and a cohesive fidelity to high-minded ideals when you spend more time thinking about games than playing them.
I say all this as somebody who is extremely prone to making judgments about RPG products based on an ethos like that one. Labyrinth is a perfect example of the kind of game that I needed to actually play in order to make a fair assessment. So in a greater sense, think of this review as really being about "games made for game design nerds vs games made for people playing a game together."
Labyrinth's appeal is obvious
This book is basically engineered to make you say, "oh that's cute" every 5 minutes. Visually, it's made to look just like Sarah's book in the movie, almost as though it's an in-universe artifact. It's got the famous gimmick of the inserted dice that come with the game. The GM is called "the Goblin King" and is encouraged to come up with their own Goblin King character. The end of the adventure has a "Guest Book" page that the players are invited to sign their names on once they've beaten it. And of course, the adventure itself is full of playful, Muppet-y whimsy.
It's also just plainly luxurious. The book quality, I'm told, is very impressive. Plus it's got a ribbon bookmark. Everyone knows all the best RPG books have those. And the Brian Froud artwork is truly sublime. But you likely knew all of this already. What's not to love?
But if Labyrinth didn't have those surface-level charms, I feel like it might be subject to a lot more criticism!
1. The players have no agency.
You are told what your goal is: get to the center of the Labyrinth. You are free to come up with a reason why, but that's largely insubstantial. You can't really adapt the adventure for a different goal, either. Every single aspect of it is constructed around that goal and wouldn't make sense or work otherwise.
The players don't have any input on their path to victory, either. Navigation of the maze has been abstracted away into a mechanic that is GM-facing and involves no choices. There's no way to tackle the goal strategically. The Goblin King marks the party's progress and then rolls a die to determine the next scene, throwing it at the players and saying "here, play with this." And even though there's a neat depthcrawl-like procedure going on behind the scenes to simulate maze exploration... from the players' perspective, this is functionally indistinguishable from if the GM just made one sequence of encounters and railroaded the players through them.
2. The encounters are extremely contrived.
There's a lot of advice out there on "how to make a good encounter." Let's take a look at Prismatic Wasteland's checklist. With few exceptions, the scenes in Labyrinth fail on several or all of these points. They often have nothing to do with the player characters, and are instead just some situation that an NPC is currently going through. They are occasionally toyetic, but are just as often pretty one-dimensional. They are usually open-ended in the strategies you can employ, but many of them have a specific, singular listed solution. The players often have nothing to gain from them, except sometimes the arbitrary "doing this thing will somehow update your progress marker in the depthcrawl." Many of the encounters have no motive at all, occasionally even just being passive bystanders or objects. And there's frequently no consequence to ignoring an encounter, except maybe that the Goblin King will have to roll for a different one that the players find more interesting.
The most justifiable ones boil down to, "you are traveling down a linear hallway, but there's this big thing in the way. You must get passed it to keep going down this hallway." But also, like, that's most people's mental idea of a classic railroad-y feeling encounter. A literal choke point in the adventure. More commonly, the encounters will be something like, "you're meandering through all sorts of crisscrossing paths aimlessly, and you see a guy minding his own business staring down at a chess board." And like, why wouldn't the players just ignore that, right? I mean come on, how is that even an "encounter" in any real sense?
3. There's basically no stakes.
Because it's a Muppet-y sort of thing, the nastiest content you'll see is cartoon violence. Meaning that death is pretty firmly off the table! In place of that, there's a really clever alternative consequence for failure: losing time. Time passes at the speed of failure. The players have 13 hours to complete the adventure, and will lose 1 hour every time they muck up a scene or waste time. In theory, this is an amazing idea. It's such a perfect, clear and usable consequence to inflict so that challenges carry meaningful weight in the overall adventure.
In reality, this just isn't actually going to be used. The first Labyrinth campaign I ran, the players literally did not lose a single hour. Not one. At least, not fair and square. There was one moment where I pulled the bullshit move from the movie where Jareth decided to just steal a few hours to be a dick. I felt comfortable doing such an unfair thing because I knew that even stealing 6 hours from the players would be negligible. Same thing with my second campaign: the players got about 4/5 of the way through and had only lost 1 hour by that point. They just aren't actually going to fail at the challenges, y'know? It's not like I'm pulling my punches. The instructions and the scene descriptions are quite explicit in what triggers the passage of time. And my only explanation is that it just comes down to how easy the challenges are!
Even if the party were to fail somehow, the book isn't really prepared for that possibility. The only thing the text says about losing is this: "If the group loses all 13 hours, they run out of the time and become lost, forgetting why they ever entered." Personally, I wouldn't feel super comfortable with just that alone to handle the party failing at their quest. The players are only ever told "you have 13 hours to do this." If they had any idea what happens if they fail, I think they'd immediately combat it as rather flimsy.
…But none of that matters
Because it's fun. Like, it's really fun.
Labyrinth is the most instant fun right-out-of-the-box game I've ever seen. It's like hitting a button that generates a good time and an evening well spent.
I'm not recommending you do that... but you could get away with it more easily in this adventure than in basically any other. Every scene is a scenario that you can just quickly set up and then watch the players go. They always take 20-40 minutes, very consistently.
But what about all that lack of player agency? The railroading? Ehhh. Doesn't matter. Nobody's complaining. Nobody's disappointed. The scenes are enough! Sure, we can imagine a hypothetical version of this game where the Labyrinth is like a sandbox and the players get to pick and choose where they want to go and what their ultimate aim is. And that could be cool. But it's not really necessary for having a good time. The scenes are already fun enough that every player is super eager for the next session. Eager for the next time the adventure tells them what they're going to be doing.
But didn't I say the encounters are all contrived? That they don't conform to commonly agreed upon standards of good encounter design? Ehhh. Doesn't matter. They work anyway. The players want to engage. They want to say yes to whatever you offer them. Partly I think it comes down to the material and its tone. Everything is silly and charming and fun. Players like goblins. Players like worms. They like puzzles and games. And it doesn't matter how contrived things are. Without fail, somebody will say, "eh... I'll bite." And they give it a shot and then you've just bought the easiest 20-40 minutes of laughter of your life.
I can understand why, if you just read the book, you'd think, "why the hell would my players interact with this guy playing chess by himself?" It sounds like a bad encounter. But somebody is going to be interested anyway, and they'll interact with the guy and then they solve a chess puzzle and they feel great. There are so many scenes that show no outward indication that they'd help the players progress (and, occasionally, they might really not!), but which they'll want to do anyway. "This cricket is challenging you to a race. Want in?" "These goblins are all playing a game of Lunchball. Want in?" "These dwarves are landscaping. Want in?"
Even a scene like “get from one end of the room to the other” has all the right ingredients to generate fun, from the adventure’s side to the GM’s side to the players’ side. Is it silly and game-y for there to be literal cube-shaped obstacles to climb which correspond with d6s? Yes. Is it fun for players to strategically rotate them to the best sides possible for them to traverse, as each one has an equally-gamey obstacle on it? Also yes. Will the players ever get tired of using their weird tricks and equipment and talents to solve obstacles? Of course not. Singing and dancing your way past goblins or tossing magic fruit at objects and adversaries to shrink them never gets old.
Of course, it's not like they're all amazing. In my first campaign, there were 3 or 4 scenes that my players decided to ignore. I had to roll for a new one instead. And... what's wrong with that? It's not exactly a meaningful expression of agency in-game. But having the real-world agency to choose how you spend your evening together, and agreeing to do what everyone will have the most fun doing, is the single most important part of playing games with your friends. Why don't we acknowledge that more when discussing game theory? We're so keen to discuss the abstract, nebulous, theoretical game space that we construct and how to perfect it, but we forget that games are an activity conducted by humans.
Yeah, it's true. If you don't like the scene in front of you in Labyrinth, you can just reject it and ask for a different one. But who cares how that "weakens" the imagined scenario? I don't really mind if that undermines the challenge, because we're not just seeking a challenge. We're seeking stimulation and creativity and laughter. You can claim that consequences are the root of true challenge, that a task cannot be meaningfully difficult to achieve in a game of make-believe without stakes to contextualize it. But the truth is that players set their own challenge merely by the very act of choosing to try things. The text's offer of the 13-hour time limit as stakes is nice as a backup, but it never ended up being necessary. Because the players are already motivated to tackle each scene by their own desire to have a good time and do cool shit they can tell stories about later.
Moreover, the priorities of the game clearly show an intention that it be played. As soon as possible, as much as possible. The prose is not terribly evocative or engrossing. That's a priority for writers who intend their RPGs to be read. The rules and character creation are not very deep or interesting. That's a priority for designers who intend their RPG to be dissected. The world it shares is neither coherent nor consistent, a flimsy setting that often sits atop the fourth wall and doesn't have answers to your questions about it. But that's a priority for worldbuilders who intend their RPG to be dreamt about. But Labyrinth knows exactly what it's here for.
Everything about the product is beginner friendly. Most RPGs open with a tiresome description of "what exactly is an RPG?" and this one sincerely is among the best I've ever come across. It actually seems as though the author understood what needed to be explained for the layman. Because the single biggest barrier to games being played is accessibility, this product makes it extremely easy to jump right in.
The details necessary to grasp the setting, how things behave in this world, and how to populate it are all established quickly, cleanly, and exactly when you need them. There is no setting gazetteer to guide you. No write-ups on goblin culture and society. If you're expecting to go into the campaign prepared with answers, this book might disappoint you at first. Instead, the book is a toolkit. It teaches you how to key into the setting's tone, and then offers tables and details as necessary to aid in improvisation which consistently aligns with that tone. Because another major barrier to games being played is fact-checking, detail-memorization, lore-researching, and scavenging for answers in an adventure module, this product makes it extremely easy to spontaneously worldbuild without ever contradicting established truths.
And of course, there's endless variety and potential. As mentioned, every single scene has at least one element that can be randomized. Not just some cosmetic detail, either. Sometimes, the entire point of the whole scene is selected from a random table. Moreover, the selection of scenes themselves is randomized by the maze-navigation procedure. There are exactly 100 scenes in the book, but the players won't experience all 100. As they make progress, the GM is always rolling dice to determine the next scene, so the players will probably only experience 20-30 in total. And of course, the Goblin King themself is a villain that you have to design yourself, which you could potentially use to drastically change the adventure. Because finding or creating high-quality, usable content is a very taxing part of GMing and adventures can be rather expensive, this product emphasized replayability as a core selling point. Replayability is a value nearly ubiquitous in the world of video games but is almost never even considered in RPGs, even though it rules.
A few genuine quibbles
Some of this is a warning to anyone out there who's thinking of running the adventure, but some of it might end up being read by the creators and could be addressed (if not in this product, then at least future ones).
Many of the hyperlinks in the PDF are broken. For example, the link to the Toolkit chapter in the Table of Contents instead takes you to a scene in the Land of Yore chapter, a full 100 pages off.
The website has some downloadables! This is very nice, but form-fillable versions of the character sheets would be appreciated. I made my own and the result is clumsy and sloppy but functional.
Another offering found in the downloads seemed to be a VTT asset pack of a sort. I was super stoked for this because I was running the game online. But I was let down. It's a PDF containing an image of every single "battle map" including in every scene of the adventure, with all the numbers and annotations removed. Seems perfect for using on a VTT, right? Just take each one and upload it as the background layer. Except... the resolution is absolutely terribly. Like, unusably bad. They're also all recolored yellow and are shrunk down to the center of a page with a huge margin of dead space, for some reason.
The first page of the Castle chapter shows a map of the castle's layout with all the rooms numbered and keyed appropriately, but the castle is oriented the wrong way. In all the subsequent pages showing maps and room layouts, everything is 90 degrees counterclockwise. This confused me for an embarrassingly long time.
Some bonus advice
I am a big believer in one-shots and mini-campaigns. As somebody who frequently actually plays RPGs, it is my belief that one of the other biggest barriers to play is the insistent norm of only ever attempting long-running campaigns. Don't get me wrong, I've played quite a few of them myself. They can be immensely satisfying. But the expectation of them, at the exclusion of nearly all other forms of play, is detrimental to the hobby as a whole. It is a completely unreasonable expectation for the vast majority of people who are just getting into the hobby and it creates problems that shouldn't exist. The world of RPGs would be a lot healthier if long-term campaigns were treated as the exception rather than the rule, because then more people would get to play more often.
Labyrinth works remarkably well as a mid-length campaign, good for about 7-10 sessions. But if you can't manage that kind of commitment, I don't think it's the worst idea to run it as a one-shot. A lot of the book's potential and brilliance would be sacrificed, but you'll still have fun. In order to complete the adventure in a single evening, my advice would be to take 1 juicy scene from each layer of the Labyrinth and just run those. Forget the depthcrawl procedure and forget the 13 hours thing. Just pick out 5 or 6 awesome scenes and you've bought yourself 2.5 hours of fun. My recommendations would be:
Stone Walls 5: Brick Keepers
Hedge Maze 11: Orchard or 19: The Hunt
Land of Yore 2: The Land of Stench or 4: Quicksand
Goblin City 12: The Checkpoint
The Castle is tricky because it's a dungeoncrawl. If you need to reduce it to 1 room of substance or maybe a sequence of 2-3 rooms, then I recommend 7: The Stairway as most important, and optionally 6: The Throne Room, and if you're playing in person, 8: The Simulacroom.
Give yourself at least 30-40 minutes of buffer space. The adventure's opening, wrap-up, and scene transitions will eat up that time. I have not attempted this myself, but I'd love to hear if anyone does.
Like many GMs, I almost exclusively ran my own content when I was new to the job. I love designing adventures. But something I love a lot more than designing adventures is playing adventures. And I have discovered that these two loves, which seem like they should complement one another, are instead in fierce and unforgiving competition.
Finally giving in and running published adventures was the best decision I've ever made. There are so many amazing offerings out there which people have poured passion and creativity into. I cannot recommend it enough. I still write adventures now and then, but I have to credit games like this one for allowing me to play as much as I do and as richly as I do.
I have a blog. I write about game design and theory. I write about adventure design. I write about homebrewing. I write about themes and narrative. I write about politics and discourse. And I write a lot about semantic bullshit. But trust me, I get tired of it all. That stuff is not why I'm into RPGs. It stimulates my brain and gives me a side hobby. But I wouldn't be interested in any of that if I didn't also get to play. And through play, I discover far more than I do just from reading and writing and discussing and thinking.
Really, the worst thing I have to say about Jim Henson's Labyrinth: the Adventure Game is that it has an unwieldy title.