Picture a band of explorers deep underground in huge dwarven underground complex they have been exploring for what to most of them feels like an eternity. They come to hub like chamber with a dozen or so openings to tunnels apparently identical to the one they came from. The elf groans: "We will never find the surface again and feel the sun and wind on our skin."

The dwarf gives the elf a contemptuous glance, grunts, and points to an opening indistinguishable from its peers: "Nearest exit to surface, that way, one hour of walking. No water en route." He then points another opening and continues: "Alternate exit, one and a half hours. Fresh water only half hour away."

Elf eyes the indicated openings with suspicion. Snorts and asks: "And did the stones themselves speak to you and tell you this?" The answer is short and curt: "Yes."

So, underground complexes can grow to be confusing if they become large. People living in such would need a system for, well, not getting lost every time they go away from their daily route. With the underground usually described as fairly hostile, they would want to make this assist unavailable to invaders and then fill their structure with weird dead ends and traps.

While inhabitants of a particular area might rely on memorization — dwarves would probably be awesome in remembering tunnel topology — any confusion might get even the locals lost at a bad time when the structure was deliberately designed to confuse. So subtle form of memory assist that prevents anyone who can use it from losing sense of direction and going around circles would have value.

Is it possible to encode such data into the architecture itself in an non-obvious way? What architectural features would be usable for such subtle encoding? How much information could be encoded? What information would be most useful to encode? Can a trivial cipher be included, so that even outsiders who know about the code will need to wander around for some time before they can fully read the local code?


5 Answers 5


Basically, anything that you can influence on construction is a way to transport information.

I can think of multiple approaches:

  • Engravings: As mentioned, subtile engravings can serve the purpose of encoding path information. An engraved set of lines can easily be interpreted if you know about it.

  • Archs and architecture: Similar to engravings, the way an arch is build can also contain information, like the amount of support structs, or (not so) decorative elements like layered plates ot the form, amount and direction of steps and stairs as well as height and width of the opening.

  • Tiles: Closely related, I can imagine seams between tiles or bricks to represent a map of your labrinth. Aside from those, the same principle can be applied to cracks in a wall, or quartz-veins in a wall, which are a more natural encounter in your scenario.

  • Deflection: try to confuse your enemy. Besides above mentioned hidden information, you could display (seemingly) obvious signs on your tunnels, that don't have any meaning at all and exist only to make intruders believe they are up to something. For example: draw a sun on your tunnel gateway, to make intruders believe they found an exit, but instead are lead straight to their doom.

  • Ciphering: you could cipher your information depending on your surroundings. For example, that if the information on a gateway does in fact always belong to the gate on the right hand side instead?

  • Obfuscation: The relevant symbols could be mixed in between other, irrelevant symbols of the same alphabet. Every dwarf passing the labyrinth requires a stencil he could place over the symbol mix. The stencil is some form of metal plate, like a chipcard, but with several holes cut in it. When held over the symbol mess, all unimportant symbols get covered by the stencil and only the relevant ones remain visible. This idea allows the usage of multiple stencils (or one stencil, held in different orientations), to hide multiple (parts of) information in a single symbol grid. Imagine a dwarf holding the stencil on the symbol grid once, to see the routes to the exit, then turns his card around and holds it on the same grid, revealing all water sources on the way. This image (taken from the german Wikipedia, within the first four images it says "Wikipedia the free encyclopedia") shows the effect of placing the stencil in different orientations over the same grid: enter image description here

  • Materials and color: Just like @AndyD273 mentioned in his answer, variation in material and color can be also used as code.

  • History: Even history of your path can be used. Thin about marking each archway in a crossing with letters. If you now want to find the exit, follow the path which mark contains the next letter of the word "outside". Or require, that in a room without any marks or code, you always need to take the same opening that you took in the room before (meaning if you took the second opening in a room, and the next is empty, take the second opening again)

  • Traps adjusted to non-dwarfs: @AndyD273's edit reminded me of the infamous Indiana Jones movie, where a sawblade would come out of the wall and decapitate anyone not humbly bowing his head (or being dwarf-sized!). enter image description here This one is less about mapping, but another way to secure your labyrinth.

I guess that there are more options, maybe I can add some later on, but in my opinion, these (especially in combination) will get you some way along.


It could be a pattern of different types of stone surrounding the doorway, or even different finishes on the stone.
This could be a binary thing, like Morse code, with rough cut for 1 and smooth cut for 0, or predesignated pattern.
Maybe first couple blocks indicate if the doorway is toward or away from the exit. second set indicates how far away the exit is, third if you can get to water, fourth if there lodgings, fifth if there are traps, etc.

The patterns wouldn't have to be confined to the doorways either. Patterns of rocks in the walls/floors/ceilings could be a floor and room number, so any dwarf could be dropped into any room and know where they were for instance.

A dwarf who knows stone type and cuts would be able to pick them out easily, but anyone else would just see rocks. And the patterns could be unique for each mine/dungeon, so that a dwarf from one mine wouldn't have free reign in someone else's mine unless they got a hold of the key.
This would be useful if you wanted to have the dwarf be lost for a while, find the key, and then be able to navigate with ease.
Even without a key, knowing how to look for the patterns, a cleaver dwarf might be able to figure it out after a certain amount of time wandering around by simple deduction.

Something that can be read by feel would be extremely important in a mine, when lights can go out, leaving the adventurers in darkness. Someone able to read the patterns by touch would be able to navigate with no problems.

Thinking of traps, something that might be useful in the tunnels would be a (dwarf) shoulder high area where rough and smooth block patterns could be placed among the normal tunnel stones. This would be useful for signs along the way, where even in the dark a dwarf could reach out and run their hand along the wall while they walk, reading about whats around them.

For instance, they could be walking through the pitch black, with the dwarf feeling the walls, and he says "Everyone stay close to the right wall."
"Why?" asks the elf.
"Pit trap up ahead on the left side."

Being able to feel the signs is a lot more important than being able to see them, though being able to see them without having to touch them would be useful.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ +1 I really like your edit! darkness is quite important. Considering, that darfst are described to have improved sight in the darkness, it might be a good idea to keep the light Level lower anyway - already ruling out most intruders. Unfortunately a simple torch or candle invalidates the effect... $\endgroup$
    – T3 H40
    Oct 20, 2015 at 18:07
  • $\begingroup$ @T3H40 Maybe invalidates it, but a torch or candle wont last forever. If a torch lasts for an hour, and your expedition lasts for a couple days, there is going to be at least one party member who will be carrying nothing but his own body weight in torches. Throw in drafty tunnels, dripping water, and other things like that... Conserving torches for when you need them might not be a terrible idea. $\endgroup$
    – AndyD273
    Oct 20, 2015 at 20:23
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    $\begingroup$ True. A simple oil lamp however - well protected from water and wind - will last about 150 hours of burning time with less than two litres of oil, according to this source. $\endgroup$
    – T3 H40
    Oct 20, 2015 at 20:33

by any chance, dude, did you ever play Dwarf Fortress (Masterwork)?

Anyway... you may be unable to hide such notifications at a stone wall. Someone with much knowledge in digging who is not a dwarf should be able to tell, if a tunnel has been shaped in a way that is more than functional. Even if they do not know what this might tell them, they will notice.

So why not hide your information in plain sight? My fortresses usually wont use such marks, because all you have to do is to find the central stairway, which you might reach by following the paths that grow more wide the more close you are. Well, maybe the size and dimensions could be used to tell this.

But what I was thinking about from the beginning were engravings. I remember pictures from mushrooms and other underground plants, from animals, from (laboring) dwarfs and battles and creations of artifacts and even a masterful picture of red sand (wonder how this could be done at a gneiss wall without using paint). And not to forget the mega-beasts that strike boastful poses at the one picture and got struck down by Urist Whoever with his/her faithful steel battleaxe at the next one. And elections results, undead elephants, a brontosaurus in the food stockpile (uh, that one was painful). And pictures of goat cheese... well, you get the point.

If you need another thing to think of, think of an Egyptian tomb. Hieroglyphs do look pretty to people who cannot read them, but the others do know, that you would get a instant-meeting with Seth if you step at the plates that are exact 2 royal cubits times 3 royal cubits in size.

So if you choose this way, make your pictogram noteworthy in their appearance. No, make them overwhelming in details, but equip the dwarfs shown shoes with three shoelaces for a walking distance of three half hours, place a cloud that isn't raining for a way without water supply... well, no water is something a number of my fortresses would have been happy about. But some actually did die of thirst because the well did freeze in winter.

Anyway. That's my offer: hide you information in crazy detailed engravings. But to be honest... labyrinth like fortresses would be pretty inefficient in a economic way. Beside the central stairway, my dwarfs ever build symmetrical settlements; most times in one axis, sometimes even in two, but when there is enough place even three axis (these tend to be the most efficient ones for some reason). However, most times you have to adapt your surroundings and loose any symmetry.

Oh, if you send you explorers in such a fortress except them to find interesting switches in the middle of nowhere, the hidden secret fun containment room, at least one dwarf atom smasher, a quantum stockpile, exceptional statues of nothing, unexplainable complex drainage-systems (may incorporate interesting switches too), the upright spear training room and long suspicious hallways with well hidden stone-fall, cage and serrated green glass saw disk traps. ^^

Now strike the earth!


So, you want messages that are hidden from a random passer-by even when he tries to look for those, but anyone who knows where to look can read it? What you need is steganography. Messages can be hidden in subtle manipulations of things that an ordinary person even won't think to look at. The actual placement of stone blocks in the walls, slight variations in their dimensions and relative positions, the ways stones are cut and polished, those things can carry in conjunction a few bytes of necessary information, while remaining just a wall for humans.

Some macro signs, engravings or even variations in arch form, can be picked up by anyone after some observation, and after trial and error enemy can recognise that an arch height correlates to the exit distance, or that behind the sign sun there is a doomtrap. On the other hand, reading of the stonework can be a taught over many years skill amongst dwarves, and with too much "junk" data in the open messages it would be nigh impossible for humans to even guess where to look.

As an added bonus, many steganography techniques have significant redundancy, which means even if half the wall collapsed in an abandoned centuries ago tunnel, a dwarf would still be able to read the sign.

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    $\begingroup$ You have the basic idea, I am specifically wondering how much data you can put into architecture so that it is easy to read if you know about it without making it obvious there is something extra added. And what would be the most valuable data to encode. $\endgroup$ Oct 20, 2015 at 10:00

IMO, Information that is intentionally encoded (arches like X lead to Ys, finishes like As lead to Bs) should have to have its decoding be culturally-transmitted. This messes with a stonesense-like ability because the stonesense-endowed race would only possess functioning stonesense in structures created by their own culture or a culture with which they had a fair amount of contact. This might be narratively sensible, but for a gameplay scenario it causes stonesense to be of very limited usefulness (since RPGs often drop characters into foreign/alien locales.) And while I recognize we're not all building worlds for RPGs, the critical gaze of the reader can be just as troublesome as that of a player. (Look at what they've done to poor Tolkien on account of square mountain ranges around Mordor.)

The main alternatives I can see to render stonesense usefully robust again are 1) The "comprehend languages spell" analogue route: a magical ability to understand any information that has been intentionally encoded. This seems much more extreme (can a "comprehend languages" spell break 2048 bit RSA encryption? Arguably, it must) than... 2) A magical sense that extends through space and/or time. The remote viewing crowd in reality attempts to explain the phenomenon of dowsing for water in just this way: the dowser's consciousness is accessing a possible future in which they drilled a well at the spot they are examining, enabling them to know in advance whether water would be located if they did. This seems the much more sensible way to handle stonesense, to me.

Of course, a competent rules lawyer could abuse 2 as least as badly as 1 if the GM allowed it, but the amount of information obtainable could be much more sensibly-limited in the case of 2 than in 1. Seeking sunlight, water, or even a person or community requires a much lesser amount of information to be magically fetched than decoding any encoded information.

A further disadvantage of option 1 is that it is inoperative in natural caverns. That's not very dwarfy at all, in this respondent's opinion.

  • $\begingroup$ Good points, but the question is specifically about a culturally transmitted, non-magical method and how far you can push it and how. Although I would accept a good answer that assumed a special stonesense that allowed dwarves to see differences humans cannot. Even if the stonesense was based on magic. $\endgroup$ Oct 19, 2015 at 23:06

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