5 Room Dungeon
Tips on how to create five room dungeons that can be used for any location, are short, are quick to plan, easy to polish and plan, flexible in size and easy to integrate into your campaign.
Why Do I Like 5 Room Dungeons?
This format, or creation method, has a number of advantages:
- Any location. Though I call them 5 Room Dungeons, they actually apply to any location with five or so areas. They dont have to be fantasy or dungeons. They could take the form of a small space craft, a floor in a business tower, a wing of a mansion, a camp site, a neighbourhood.
- Short. Many players dislike long dungeon crawls, and ADD GMs like to switch environments up often. In addition, some players dislike dungeons all together, but will go along with the play if they know its just a short romp. This helps ease conflicts between play styles and desires.
- Quick to plan. With just five rooms to configure, design is manageable and fast. Next time you are killing time, whip out your notepad and write down ideas for themes, locations, and rooms. Knock off as many designs as you can and choose the best to flesh out when you have more time and to GM next session.
- Easier to polish. Large designs often take so long to complete that game night arrives before you can return to the beginning and do one or more rounds of tweaking and polishing. The design speed of 5 Room Dungeons leaves room most of the time to iterate.
- Easy to move. 5 Room Dungeons can squeeze into many places larger locations and designs cant. If your dungeon goes unused or if you want to pick it up and drop it on a new path the PCs take, its often easier to do than when wielding a larger crawl.
- Flexible size. They are called 5 Room Dungeons, but this is just a guideline. Feel free to make 3-area locations or 10-cave complexes. The idea works for any small, self-contained area.
- Easy to integrate. A two to four hour dungeon romp quickens flagging campaign and session pacing, and can be squeezed into almost any story thread. It also grants a quick success (or failure) to keep the players engaged. The format is also easy to drop into most settings with minimal consistency issues.
Room One: Entrance And Guardian
There needs to be a reason why your dungeon hasnt been plundered before or why the PCs are the heroes for the job.Â A guardian or challenge at the entrance is a good rejustification why the location remains intact. Also, a guardian sets up early action to capture player interest and energize a session.
Room One challenge ideas:
- The entrance is trapped.
- The entrance is cleverly hidden.
- The entrance requires a special key, such as a ceremony, command word, or physical object.
- The guardian was deliberately placed to keep intruders out. Examples: a golem, robot, or electric fence.
- The guardian is not indigenous to the dungeon and is a tough creature or force whos made its lair in room one.
Room One is also your opportunity to establish mood and theme to your dungeon, so dress it up with care.
Room Two: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
The PCs are victorious over the challenge of the first room and are now presented with a trial that cannot be solved with steel. This keeps problem solvers in your group happy and breaks the action up for good pacing.
Make Room Two a puzzle, skill-based, or roleplaying encounter, if possible. Room Two should shine the limelight on different PCs than Room One, change gameplay up, and offer variety between the challenge at the entrance and the challenge at the end.
Note, if Room One was this type of encounter, then feel free to make Room Two combat-oriented.
Room Two should allow for multiple solutions to prevent the game from stalling.
Room Two ideas:
- Magic puzzle, such as a chessboard tile floor with special squares.
- An AI blocks access to the rest of the complex and must be befriended, not fought.
- A buzzer panel for all the apartments, but the person the PCs are looking for has listed themselves under a different name, which can be figured out through previous clues youve dropped.
- A concierge at the front desk must be bluffed or coerced without him raising the alarm.
- A dirt floor crawls with poisonous snakes that will slither out of the way to avoid open flame. (A few might follow at a distance and strike later on.)
Once youve figured out what Room Two is, try to plant one or more clues in Room One about potential solutions. This ties the adventure together a little tighter, will delight the problem solvers, and can be a back-up for you if the players get stuck.
Room Three: Trick or Setback
The purpose of this room is to build tension. Do this using a trick, trap, or setback. For example, after defeating a tough monster, and players think theyve finally found the treasure and achieved their goal, they learn theyve been tricked and the room is a false crypt.
Depending on your game system, use this room to cater to any player or character types not yet served by the first two areas. Alternatively, give your group a double-dose of gameplay that they enjoy the most, such as more combat or roleplaying.
Room Three ideas:
- The PCs rescue a number of prisoners or hostages. However, the victims might be enemies in disguise, are booby-trapped, or create a dilemma as they plead to be escorted back to safety immediately.
- Contains a one-way exit (the PCs must return and deal with Rooms One and Two again). i.e. Teleport trap, one-way door, 2000 foot water slide trap.
- The PCs finally find the artifact required to defeat the villain, but the artifact is broken, cursed, or has parts missing, and clues reveal a solution lies ahead.
- Believing the object of the quest now lays within easy reach, an NPC companion turns traitor and betrays the PCs.
Another potential payoff for Room Three is to weaken the PCs as build-up to a dramatic struggle in Room Four. It might contain a tough combat encounter, take down a key defense, exhaust an important resource, or make the party susceptible to a certain type of attack.
For example, if Room Four contains a mummy whose secret weakness is fire, then make Room Three a troll lair (or another creature susceptible to fire) so the PCs might be tempted to burn off a lot of their fire magic, oil, and other flammable resources. This would turn a plain old troll battle into a gotcha once the PCs hit Room Four and realize the are out of fire resources.
Dont forget to dress Room Three up with your theme elements.
Room Four: Climax, Big Battle or Conflict
This room is The Big Show. Its the final combat or conflict encounter of the dungeon. Use all the tactics you can summon to make this encounter memorable and entertaining.
Room Four ideas:
- As always, generate interesting terrain that will impact the battle.
- Start or end with roleplay. Maybe the bad guy needs to stall for time to let PC buffs wear out, to wait for help to arrive, or to stir himself into a rage. Perhaps the combat ends with the bad guy bleeding to death and a few short words can be exchanged, or there are helpless minions or prisoners to roleplay with once the threat is dealt with.
- Give the bad guy unexpected powers, abilities, or equipment.
- Previous rooms might contain warning signals or an alarm, so the bad guy has had time to prepare.
- The bay guys tries to settle things in an unusual way, such as through a wager or a duel.
- The lair is trapped. The bad guy knows what or where to avoid, or has the ability to set off the traps at opportune moments.
- The bad guy reveals The Big Reward and threatens to break it or put it out of the PCs so reach so theyll never collect it.
- The bad guy has a secret weakness that the PCs figure out how to exploit.
- A variety of PC skills and talents are required to successfully complete the encounter.
Room Five: Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist
Heres your opportunity to change the players bragging to
we came, we saw, we slipped on a banana peel. Room Five doesnt always represent a complication or point of failure for the PCs, but it can. Room Five doesnt always need to be a physical location either - it can be a twist revealed in Room Four.
Room Five is where your creativity can shine and is often what will make the dungeon different and memorable from the other crawls in your campaigns.
In addition, if you havent supplied the reward yet for conquering the dungeon, here is a good place to put the object of the quest, chests of loot, or the valuable information the PCs need to save the kingdom.
As accounting tasks take over from recent, thrilling, combat tasks, this would also be a good time to make a campaign or world revelation, or a plot twist. Perhaps the location of the next 5 Room Dungeon is uncovered, along with sufficient motivation to accept the quest. Maybe the true identity of the bad guy is revealed. New clues and information pertaining to a major plot arc might be embedded in the treasure, perhaps sewn into a valuable carpet, drawn in painting, or written on a slip of paper stuffed into a scroll tube or encoded on a data chip.
Room Five ideas:
- Another guardian awaits in the treasure container. A trap that resurrects or renews the challenge from Room Four.
- Bonus treasure is discovered that leads to another adventure, such as a piece of a magic item or a map fragment.
- A rival enters and tries to steal the reward while the PCs are weakened after the big challenge of Room Four.
- The object of the quest/final reward isnt what it seems or has a complication. i.e. The kidnapped king doesnt want to return.
- The quest was a trick. By killing the dungeons bad guy the PCs have actually helped the campaign villain or a rival. Perhaps the bad guy was actually a good guy under a curse, transformed, or placed into difficult circumstances.
- The bad guy turns out to be a PCs father.
- The true, gruesome meaning behind a national holiday is discovered.
- The source of an alien races hostility towards others is uncovered, transforming them from villains to sympathetic characters in the story.
- The entrance is hazardous and requires special skills and equipment to bypass. For example: radiation leaks, security clearance, wall of fire.
- The PCs must convince a bouncer to let them in without confiscating their weapons.
- A collapsed structure blocks part of the area. The debris is dangerous and blocks nothing of importance, another trap, or a new threat.
- The true meaning of the prophecy or poem that lead the PCs to the dungeon is finally understood, and its not what the PCs thought.
Dungeons • Water • Rooms/ Halls
Here is an example 5 Room Dungeon to inspire your contest entries. In your campaign, you'll need to flesh out some of the details, but this skeleton format is perfect for GMs to pick up and customize for their own memorable sessions.
Locations • Fortification • Desert
The Great King long ago ceased attempting to police the wastelands of his Border Marches, and these debatable lands fell into the hands of petty counts, retired generals, and warlords, who constructed and then abandoned many keeps ripe for plunder.
Dungeons • Any • Rooms/ Halls
In the ramshackle town of Spear Malice only a single building still stands. It has defied the Great War and its spears of light; nuclear blasts that devastated the entire state, and ever since then it has defied the onslaught of time.
Its halls have not yet been breached, and a wealth of technological treasure await, ripe for plunder! But there are others who crave this treasure; others that will do anything to claim it.
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? Responses (28)
To keep a bad joke running: interesting.
Bad jokes and one-liners aside, I like the thought put behind this. As a whole, this is probably what most dungeons should be designed like. Give'em a few twists, some good old fashioned swordplay, and a tricky boss-ish fight. And by dungeon, I don't mean a hole in the ground filled with monsters. The local tavern could very well become a dungeon of this kind, if strange events were to happen.
I love the format and already have an idea cooking!
Well done. It is clear that you have spent some time on this.
This is great! You cant help but want to write one up, even as you're reading. This is Old-Skool at its finest.
And excellently written by the way. Simple, humorous, clever, no detail left unmentioned and perfectly instructional. Kudos!
We shall answer your call to arms.
A nice way to organize adventures!
Well, I'm going to have to jump into this one as well.
Helps you think a little deeper about your typical dungeon. Good tips to create a great romp.
Aye, 'tis is a beauty.
And if you liked the basic idea, you may like the many dungeons based on it, created during the Quest: http://www.strolen.com/view.php?node=quest&act=12
A good concept.
Bump. This should be required reading.
Yup. I second that, BK coming up;)
Very nice, short and sweet. I'm going to be giving thsi one a go for my next game. It's surprising how many times I've used a simple design like this and it's bloomed into a much longer and richer game.
Really helpful. I would ruin myself in preparation for the weekend by designing overly elaborate, long dungeons, only to feel 'meh' about them when game night came round. I can really own a 5 room dungeon, which is better for myself and my player's enjoyment.
An excellent job!
I think this idea had alot of merit, the 5 room layout simplified the basic design of the dungeon. Of course you can still have a labyrinth of passages, blind turns and chambers and doors leading nowhere, but that is all set dressing.
This model represents a good balance of activities for building adventures. If you want to build a larger scenario, just repeat the steps a few times over: The finale simply becomes the midpoint of the new structure.
Can't believe I never voted on this one...
A very good addition to my repertoire. Thanks, JohnnFour.
Very, very good. I'm surprised, however, that the entries to the 5-Room Dungeon Quest haven't been linked to this directly. Seems like it would be an ideal place for it.
5/5 and my patented "Smashing Sub of the Day" award. Have an HoH!
The 5 Room Dungeon on roleplayingtips.com was what brought me to Strolen's in the first place.
It puts me in mind of Robin's Laws and tailoring the game to the different needs of the various types of players.
Looking for inspiration for a "raid the secret enemy military base" (i.e. dungeon!) adventure in a sci-fi setting and StumbleUpon brought me here. Recognised the author from roleplayingtips which I really enjoy. Up to his high standards - a simple idea, conveyed so it looks easy, and sounds effective. I'm definitely keeping this article handy!
I love this format. Simple, easy, to the point. I have all ready used it once, and am currently writing up an awesome five room dungeon right now. This sub bears the caesar193 seal of approval. As you may of guessed from the HoH I gave it.
A modern classic. Easily adapted to anything.
Well-defined dungeon definition! Perfect for guiding, but not limiting, citadel posts.
I love this concept. I use it in my sessions and it works really well.
My take on this one would be as follows, let me know if I managed to get it right. The Rooms are of course not actual rooms, more like encounters. The party goes in a pub to collect information on Jack who had perhaps some shady business there. "Room" 1: they need to overcome the distrust of the bartender: prepare to throw money at him or prepare to be like his patrons which would involve disguise and acting like the patrons of the pub (can the characters actually do that?). "Room" 2: they need to ask questions without some of the other patrons hearing it, they don't like inquisitive strangers here, and this can turn into a bar-fight. "Room" 3: the bartender throws a bunch of lies and truths at them, they can leave with that or just figure out that he is a gambler, give him some good odds on something, win the bet and in exchange in: "Room" 4: get just the truth out of him with some extra information. "Room" 5. Of course Jack had some scrying on the place installed, now he is warned, and dispatched a street-gang to intercept the investigators. They do so as the investigators step out of the bar.
I think you got it. It is more about the process than the rooms. It forces you to look at a series of events to make the encounter or session a little deeper than your normal one-off. If you are making strategy to move through an encounter, it already richer for the process. Although in the traditional sense, this challenge would be more about a physical movement through some key requirements. But, if it got you thinking about different ways to use it, it worked and that is good enough for us!