Wisdom of the Masters: Architectural Philosophy and the Five Room Dungeon
This article was first broadcast in Episode Two Hundred and One on 3rd March 2022.
Lennon: All right, I’ve gathered you all here because I’m afraid we have to let something go.
Ostron: Okay, first of all there’s only myself and Ryu, and I’m not 100% sure Ryu’s not an HR clone, so it may just be the two of us.
Lennon: How do you know I’m not an HR clone?
Ryu: I’m pretty sure HR would not allow anything associated with it to start off with an idea that’s this silly.
Lennon: I haven’t even told you what it is yet!
Ostron: Your track record is not encouraging. For the sake of argument, though, lay it out for us.
Lennon: Right, so the guild house has too many rooms. We need to get rid of two of them.
Ostron: And we’re done here.
Ryu: Hang on, hang on let’s…give him a little more. Why does it have too many rooms?
Lennon: It’s supposed to have five. We have seven.
Ryu: Who says it’s supposed to have five? I thought I told you to stop messing with ROSTRO!?
Ostron: No, no, I know where he’s going here, and once again he’s taken a simple concept and buried it in literal interpretation.
Lennon: Because that’s the way you wrote my character. I’m also capable of breaking the fourth wall
Ostron: I’d prefer it if you didn’t break any walls. Anyway, people who have been involved with tabletop roleplaying, particularly from the perspective of running the game (either as the game or dungeon master depending on what system you’re working with) may have heard of or used the philosophy of the five room dungeon.
While it can and often is used literally to create an encounter location comprised of five rooms, it’s also more of a design philosophy for encounter building that can be scaled all the way up to forming the basis of a campaign.
We’ll start with the basic description of each room. The first one is the Entrance and Guardian. This is arguably the simplest room. It presents the characters with an obvious entryway or gate that leads into the rest of the dungeon, and also has a mostly straightforward guardian that prevents any odd person or creature from wandering in.
Now in most cases it’s better to take this at face value and not embellish too much, but we should mention that the guardian here doesn’t necessarily have to be a combat encounter. However, if you aren’t throwing an obviously hostile creature or person in there to be the guardian, it should still be a relatively simple obstacle to overcome. If it’s a social encounter, for example it should be at the level of “get past the boorish secretary,” not “negotiate a peace treaty with a raving megalomaniac. Ultimately, the Entrance or Guardian should answer the question “Why has nobody else been here yet?”
Room two is called the puzzle. There’s a little bit more interpretation encouraged here as opposed to room one. Someone designing this part can and often will use a fairly elaborate puzzle for the characters to solve, but the point of this room is that there should be a challenge that’s different from whatever the characters had to do to get in. So if they spent seven rounds slinging spells, arrows, and swords to take down a vicious beast at the entrance, they should be sliding blocks around or talking to people in this one. This isn’t a rule, but unless you’re tailoring a dungeon for a specific play group where you know they will want the same kind of gameplay multiple times, it’s better to switch it up.
Room three is called the trick or setback. The key to this room is that whatever happens should be mostly unexpected and should represent a challenge to overcome that is harder than whatever the characters faced in the previous rooms. Traps are the most obvious go-to that most people rely on for this room, but the type of challenge here can really be anything. Some people suggest that if you’ve done two types of gameplay through rooms one and two, the third should be something different again. So for example if you had combat followed by puzzle solving, the third room should be social or a skill challenge. However if you’re custom-designing the dungeon it can also be a chance to engage any characters you know would have been somewhat left out in the previous rooms, or to use a type of gameplay they prefer.
Make sure, though, that if you are rehashing an encounter type, it should still be different in some way from the previous experience. If they were fighting three big beasts at the gate, make this room full of a larger swarm of intelligent fighters. If there was one person they had to talk their way past in the previous room, give them a tribunal to deal with in this one. If they had to solve an algebra puzzle to get in the gate, give them a parametric equation to solve here.
Okay you’re never allowed to complain about KayDee’s gaming ideas again. You’re a monster.
Anyway, after room three comes room four; the climax, big battle, or conflict. At face value, this is the boss fight. The big monster or leader that’s running things in the area where the characters are. What makes for a good boss fight or climactic encounter is an entirely separate topic and also something that can vary from group to group, but whatever you decide to use, it goes here.
After they make it past that they get to room five. That is called the Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist room. This is probably the hardest room to design because it’s the payoff. If this is a self-contained location, this room is where all the questions the characters might have had while going through the dungeon should be answered. If the dungeon is part of a larger campaign, this is where it gets tied back in.
That’s why the label is a bit of a misnomer. It isn’t necessarily a list of things found in the last room. The reward could be the revelation of something the characters have been trying to figure out. The revelation could also be a plot twist. Or it could be all three together. For example, if the final room contains a treasure chest, and the chest happens to be a mimic, that’s a reward, a revelation, and a plot twist all together in one package.
However, it’s generally not a good idea to completely skip the reward; the characters just went through a bit of an ordeal, they deserve something for their trouble. So put some actual gold or goodies piled around the chest that will try to eat them.
Anyway, the theory is that if you take all five of those rooms and chain them together, you will have the makings of a simple, entertaining dungeon for the characters. So where does this go from a quick DM tip to save a session into a larger philosophy. Well, the other nice thing about the five room dungeon idea is that it’s both modular and expandable. For example, there’s nothing that says the five rooms have to be in order. You can have the entrance way, and then a branching path splitting off to the puzzle or the setback room. Or you can do the Cave of Wonders thing from Aladdin and put the reward right after the entranceway, but also immediately introduce a setback that prevents them from just grabbing it and running. Or you can do the Monty Hall thing and give them four doors right after the entrance, making the boss door obvious but leaving the players to guess at which of the remaining three is which.
The other part of this is that it’s a design philosophy. The five room dungeon doesn’t literally have to be a dungeon. It can be the basis for a pure social encounter. Example: the characters have to get in to a palace and gain an audience with the monarch. Entranceway; the characters need a way past the guards. Killing them is probably not an option here. Puzzle room: talk to the courtiers and win enough favor with the right ones so they’ll introduce the characters at court. Setback: plate mail and loincloths are not appropriate attire for an audience with the ruler, so the characters need to figure out how and where to get clothes for the event. And then the boss is the actual monarch who, again, they probably can’t walk in and kill to achieve their objective. Then the reward is whatever the characters needed to visit the monarch for in the first place.
In this case the five rooms weren’t actually rooms, probably, but the same design philosophy applied and dictated what the characters needed to do for the encounter.
The other thing is scalability. The five room concept can be replicated and stretched as needed to fill any amount of design or storytelling needed.
A common idea when people want to create megadungeons is to start replicating the room types and having them loop back on each other. Setbacks can teleport the characters out of the dungeon and force them to use another entrance. Puzzles can stretch across multiple rooms in different sections of the dungeon. And the concept of mini-bosses and minor rewards as the characters make their way through a dungeon is a well-known concept.
Beyond crafting a megadungeon, the five room design concept can even be used to create an entire campaign. The entranceway fight can be with multiple waves of enemies. The puzzle could actually be a quest that requires days of travel. The setback could be a sidequest related to a character’s backstory or an NPC. Already you’ve taken rooms one through three and created several sessions’ worth of things for the characters to get through. In fact, if you look at a lot of the more linear types of campaigns, particularly those in video games, you can find the five room format in there. The Zelda games in particular are often good examples of this: Link will encounter some initial challenge straight away, the entranceway. Overcoming that will reveal a prophesy or quest he needs to fulfill, the puzzle. Completing the initial quest will usually result in Ganon or one of his minions or alter-egoes throwing a wrench in the fulfillment of the prophecy, the setback. And over coming that setback leads Link to his final confrontation.
The five room dungeon concept has been around for two decades or more and a lot of people swear by it, so if you want more information there are many places you can go. There are books on the concept, articles from multiple well-known designers and authors, and even generators on some sites that will populate five room dungeons for you at the click of a button.
Hopefully this information will either give you another tool for your Dungeon Mastering, or will inspire you to look into it more and create some new ideas.
Ryu: And it will convince you that five rooms isn’t a requirement. Besides, this place isn’t even a dungeon. I mean, there was that time the door got stuck but we fixed that.
Ostron: There are certainly enough puzzles around here though. The latest one being how annoyed will RaeRae be when we tell her we’re late because Lennon had another “idea.” You coming.
Lennon: Yeah, fine, I’ll be there in a sec… … … Look, I know you’re there. I can’t prove it, but I know you’re there. And I’m just telling you… if my co-hosts end up with a few weird cuts or pieces missing… I’ve got your back… or hinges… or whatever.