This article was first broadcast in Episode Nineteen on 11th April 2018.
Ryu: Hey Ostron! Good to see you back in one piece! Whatchya doing there?
Ostron: Oh, trying to come up with something for my next session. I know the players are likely to make it to a dungeon, but I have no inspiration for layout, monsters, or even what’s lighting the walls.
Ryu: Well, you could always use the Five Room Dungeon technique
Ostron: Isn’t five rooms a little restrictive?
Lennon: Not if you do it right.
See, whilst you may look at modules, even the shorter ones like those presented in Tales from the Yawning Portal, it can be a little overwhelming to create something of your own and follow in that example; but you needn’t create a 110 chamber monstrosity like the Doomvault from Dead in Thay to give your players an exciting session, or indeed sessions. Originally an idea developed by JohnnFour and later used by Wizards of the Coast in the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide (although they never laid out their steps), Five Room Dungeons are meant to be quick ideas that you can run ad-hoc on the spur of the moment, or can write down for further development later.
The premise is simple. Each dungeon consists of five “rooms” or encounter areas, divided up as follows: The Entrance with a Guardian, a Roleplaying or Puzzle Challenge, the Trick or Setback, the Big Climax and then the Reward/Revelation. It’s worth noting that whilst the examples we’re going to give will be dungeon-based, this technique can also apply to other types of adventures, and it’s even possible to construct a five-room-campaign, each “room” consisting of its own five-room-dungeon. Just be sure to follow the structure, and you’ll be churning out content in no time. Also, Five Room Dungeons are great if you follow WotC’s expectation that your players will have six encounters per adventuring day.
Entrance, with a Guardian
So the first step on our list: the entrance, with a guardian. It’s a simple enough premise, your dungeon has to start somewhere, but the main question you need to ask is this: why has nobody else been here before? The easiest answer to this question is “because there’s a guardian”. Whilst the obvious go-to here would be an enemy patrol of some kind, to mix things up a little you could always have a guardian that doesn’t know it’s guarding a dungeon. Classic examples of this would be that the tomb adventurers are seeking lies across the river on the other side of the bridge, but a troll lives under the bridge who will attack anyone who crosses it. The point is to open your adventure with a strong start, and a fight or stealth mission is generally the best way to get adrenaline up and the dice rolling. To use the example given in the 4th Edition DMG, a portcullis that Kobold guards can pass through easily, but in order for the heroes to raise it, they have to reveal themselves. This fight should definitely be on the easier side of things, as we don’t want our characters blowing all their high level spells on just getting a foot in the door.
Roleplay or Puzzle Challenge
Alright, so the dice have been rolled, we’re on to room 2: the roleplay or puzzle challenge. The design intention behind this room is that it gives those players (and also characters) that aren’t best suited to (or maybe don’t like) fighting the chance to shine. It also helps to break up the pacing of the dungeon and ensures that it’s not all combat-combat-combat. The puzzle or RP challenge doesn’t have to be difficult, but should present a minor challenge to the players. At this point, they ideally shouldn’t need to waste any combat abilities to solve the challenge, as these will be needed for the upcoming rooms, but there’s no harm in needing something pushed, pulled or hit with a skilful arrow shot to allow the characters to advance. Using the official example of the Kobold Hall, the room is covered in pressure-plates for dart traps that Kobolds are light enough to not activate them. Another example could be using something like a riddle, or visual puzzle to unlock the door to the next chamber. As always with these types of encounters, be sure to provide multiple solutions, because nobody enjoys trying to guess exactly what the DM was thinking when they made this STUPID PUZZLE UP, ANTHONY!
Trick or Setback
So the players have located the dungeon, defeated the guards and navigated through the trapped hallway. The third room is where the DM gets to have a bit of fun. The Trick or Setback room has two objectives: take the player’s confidence down a few notches, and get them to waste a few abilities ahead of the next room where the big boss of the dungeon resides. However you wish to do this is largely up to you, though I’d recommend tailoring it to your groups likes and dislikes. If you have a group that enjoys combat, maybe give them a battle that appears like it’s the main boss, but actually it’s only a lieutenant. Anyone who’s played Tomb of Horrors will remember fighting the lich in his lair, though he did seem to be a little weaker than imagined. If your group is more RP or puzzle oriented, feel free to give them a second helping, though be sure to raise the ante a little and make them waste a few spells, potions or abilities in doing so — perhaps the Sphinx Guardian attacks if they fail the riddles, for example. At the end of this room, the characters ideally would have used half of their abilities overall and should be considering a short rest before proceeding on to the final battle.
Finally, the heroes make it through to the fourth room. This is what the whole dungeon has been leading up to. This is the one room that you’re likely to need to put the most preparation into, as it should be a big, tactical fight. This is the room that gives your dungeon its name. This is the Tomb of Horrors, the Lair of the Kobold King, the Rise of Tiamat. This is what your players have come for. If you’ve not bothered making maps for the rest of the dungeon, be sure to make one for this encounter. Also, a straight fight can get quite boring quickly, so make sure that you involve terrain and lair actions if appropriate. To use the example given in the 4th Edition DMG, in this room the kobold chief has a magic staff, a pet that steals player’s gear, and a rolling boulder trap that his followers can avoid by climbing ledges and using ranged attacks. By the end of this room, your characters should have run pretty much to empty, and this will likely be a make-or-break fight for them. Breathless, exhausted, they should finish the fight and be ready for the fifth and final room.
The Reward and Revelation
This room can best be thought of as a cooldown period from the dungeon so far — a chance for the characters to stop, take in everything that’s happened so far, and to congratulate themselves on another temple well raided. It doesn’t have to be an actual room, but simply the place where the reward and revelation comes in. Looting the main bosses treasure chest will likely occur here, but this is also the place where you get to do the ol’ switcharoo and reveal the plot twist, or possibly an adventure hook for your next session: diaries reveal the cultists have all been duped by a powerful wizard; a map is discovered that has a giant X over some nearby ruins with only the word “CATAPULT” written in blood; or you find the real Captain of the Guard hidden in a DC5 secret room… so who was that who sent you on your quest here?! This is also the chance where, if you feel your players weren’t treated roughly enough so far, you could spring a trap on them: the bad guy comes back as a zombie or lich; or maybe the dungeon starts collapsing once they take the golden idol from the pedastool. Either way, this room should provide one last bit of excitement, payoff and intrigue before the adventure comes to a close.
Most of the examples we gave so far have dealt with a literal dungeon, but as we said in the beginning, this technique can be used just as well for things other than dungeons, and can be applied almost anywhere. As an example, a twist on the above could be a situation that’s almost reversed: the characters are arrested and sent to jail. They awaken in their cells weapon and armourless. So let’s walk through the rooms:
- The entrance or guardian? Well, they’re already inside, so in this case the prison guards are literally the guardians. A brief combat here, and our heroes are free from their cells
- Room 2: The puzzle or RP. Maybe they were blindfolded when lead into the prison, so they need to navigate their way through. They’ll also need to find an armoury to get their gear back.
- Room 3: The setback. Walking down a corridor, some of the inmates call for the guard. Another fight ensues, unless the heroes can talk their way out of it.
- Room 4: The Big Climax. In order to escape, they need to defeat the jailmaster. A big, hulking bugbear who doesn’t like taking prisoners, and the heroes have just given him the excuse he needed to test out his new greatsword
- Room 5: The reward/revelation. They defeat the bugbear and earn their freedom, only to meet a mysterious stranger on the road who tells them that, actually, they’ve been released intentionally and are being followed. By whom? Why? And to what end? That’s all for the next session…
Lennon: So, has this given you a few ideas?
Ostron: Definitely! But before I get carried away, let’s look into the scrying pool and see what our listeners have to say.