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Games within Games: The Shifting Tower

Written by rcmayo - Published on August 11, 2014

Everyone has their own kind of favorite dungeon. Some of my players prefer gauntlets of traps and monsters, while others prefer dungeons from the likes of Legend of Zelda, where puzzles appear frequently and everything revolves around a central theme or element. My kind of dungeon is the unpredictable, seemingly random one. A dungeon where you never know what the next room holds. A magical place where the only thing separating near death experiences from wondrous treasure is a simple matter of chance. The Shifting Tower is an idea that plays upon this kind of encounter.


For this game, I recommend a session or two and a Jenga tower. To those unfamiliar with it, a Jenga tower is a large tower of 54 rectangular blocks, each stacked three by three. In Jenga, a player removes blocks for the tower and places it on the top, hoping not to knock down the tower. In the Shifting Tower, each Jenga tile represents a “room” of the dungeon, a self contained piece of the Shifting Tower. While you need not prepare a separate encounter/setup for every single room, I recommend making 15-30 different designs (Jenga tower typically has 54 pieces, though I often use 15, 24 or 32 for smaller towers). Each can house anything a slowly falling ceiling, to a maze of pits and tripwire traps, to monsters and guardian, and even house little areas of respite and rewards. As each room is self contained, each can have their own little theme or mindset.  Don’t feel any obligation to make the rooms long, rectangular or jenga block shaped, vary them up a bit. For maximum enjoyment, balance how much puzzles, combat sets and relaxing respites your tower might have.  Roll each room as it appears, and always take note to what the room has in it, as chances are, it might be found in a future floor of the tower.


The premise is simple. The players encounter a tower, flavored however the GM desires. This tower can be said to hold the MacGuffin they need, house ancient treasure, or perhaps they just want to explore for explorations sake. As they ascend the tower, pieces of it move around, causing the tower to change shape. Prepare your Jenga table, and place it somewhere that it hopefully won’t get knocked down.


Players enter the first room, and they are informed how this works by a sentinel of sorts. As they proceed, the tower shifts, altering its form. When players clear rooms, they alternate removing any room from the tower, whether conquered or not, and placing it on the top of the tower. The sentinel warns them that by forces unknown (hint: a player’s shaky hand, earthquake or maybe a cat knocking the tower down), the tower sometimes kicks out its guests, only to reshape itself once more. Clearing the contents of a floor leads takes the players to the next one. As such, more stable structures result in more rooms for the players to undertake, while riskier, more dangerous structures minimize the number of rooms, but increase the danger of the tower falling. Players may arrange that some tower floors have only one room, but if so, the integrity of the tower is at risk. The DM might want to put a goal in mind, such as 10 floors, or let it go on until the tower falls.


Three doors exists on both sides (the long sides, not the stubby sides), ensuring that players can access the next room. If the center piece is removed, the players travel across the “roof” of a previously clear room into their next destination. Most doors will open and just reveal the sky if they don’t lead anywhere, giving the players a bit of knowledge of how high they are in the tower to help prevent them metagaming those details. Lastly, every five or ten rooms or so, let the sentinel appear after clearing and offer the players a way out. If resources are dangerously low and you don’t feel like killing the party, you can even extend it to them when things look dire.


The most interesting part of the game is when players begin to catch the metagame of the scenario. If you offer them a room with a fountain in it, allowing them to replenish their health, a smart player will take note of it, and move it to the top in anticipation of future use. As the players near the top of their tower, they are encountering old scenarios, and must shape the tower to their advantage if they want keep progressing. Players can reduce the number of rooms in a floor by removing rooms from floors above, but doing so makes future floors’ content a secret. If the players remove floors only below them, they are encountering more rooms, but have greater control of the future look of the temple.
So here is what the Shifting Tower is. It is a 1.) random/procedurally generated dungeon that 2.) has unique elements not found in a typical dungeon crawl that 3.) offers DMs the ability to present self contained locations, enemies, friends and puzzles. While I have seen Jenga towers used in D&D and Pathfinder games before, I believe this idea to be fairly unique and while awfully experimental, can lead to some interesting sessions and breath some life into the dungeon crawl.

Written by rcmayo


Homebrew loving GM from Ithaca, NY. Send me an email if you have questions, comments or complaints about anything I say!

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3 Responses to “Games within Games: The Shifting Tower”
  1. Spencer says:

    I love this idea, and am going to actually use it in my next session (after some experimentation of course), but I’m actually a little confused on how the room transition works. Could you please try to explain to me in a way different than that of how the paragraph(s) above do? That would be great

  2. Rob says:

    Hey Spencer! The main idea was that every room was self-contained, and also able to connect to every other room. Each room has six doors, three on opposite sides, located in the center, top and bottom of the wall (I’ll talk about why later).

    Imagine you are on the third floor, and all three of the pieces of that floor have not been moved. If you are on the left-most room, the left-side doors would open to nothing, it would just be the sky as they are now looking outside the tower. The right-side doors of that room would lead to the middle Tower Piece, the center door of the room you are in leads to the left-side center door of the middle tower piece. The bottom-right door leads to the bottom-left door of the middle piece, and so on with the top door. When all the pieces are in a single floor, all is fine.

    Now lets say that earlier, the players took a piece from the floor that they are now on, in attempts to reduce how many rooms they have to clear. Lets say that they removed the center piece so the tower is still structurally sound. When leaving the left-most room now, there is no room that they walk into, as they moved it. Now, the players walk on the roof of the floor below. As the previous floor lies in opposite directions than the current one, the players use it as a “path” to the next room. Furthermore, if the players removed a piece of the floor below them earlier as well, one of their paths is blocked.

    So say the middle piece on their floor, and the floor below them is gone. The players clear the room of the left-most piece. All doors on the left will look out of the tower, and the doors on the right would lead inward. However, as the center piece on the floor below is missing, they cannot use the center door, as it leads to nowhere. In this scenario, the players must access the right-most room from its top or bottom doors.

    If you really want to be tricky, you can throw combat at them out here, where they might not be expecting it. Perhaps a roc, or a collection of bats attack the party, trying to drag them off the tower. Maybe you want your party to think smart, and will let them climb the sides of the tower to essentially “skip” a floor or some rooms. It’s all up to you, the Shifting Tower is more of a medium for a dungeon crawl and can be tailored to do what you like. If you have anymore questions, feel free to ask!
    Robert Mayo

  3. Rob says:

    Here is a visualization I just quickly made, hope it helps!

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