The benefits of a five room dungeon:
- It's a formula that's easy to follow, but generates a lot of unique adventures without seeming cookie-cutter.
- The dungeon can be explored in a single short session of play, making it a discrete story unit. Use two or more for longer format games.
- You can build a larger dungeon out of multiple five-room dungeons; or use several isolated ones in a hex crawl.
- The curtailed design eliminates a lot of the filler encounters that you're tempted to include for larger dungeons or themed dungeons.
- The formula requires you to include scenes that play to diverse strengths and fantasy character archetypes. There's a scene for the brain, a scene for the face, a scene for the big guy, etc.
- The diversity of scenes also gives you ample opportunity to insert any kind of character plot hooks you want. Really, there is no excuse for not doing so.
- It packs a whole three-act structure into a short time, so it has great pacing and a thrilling conclusion.
- If you're running D&D or Pathfinder, the dungeon is a good amount of content for one adventuring day, containing 2-4 combat encounters and a 1-3 exploration and roleplay scenes. There should be no reason for the PCs to camp to recover resources in the middle of the dungeon, and no need for time pressure.
And the drawbacks are limited. Except for Johnn Four's contest, there's no reason you can't modify the five-room dungeon formula to suit your needs. Do you want a lot of combat? Add two combat scenes. More roleplay? Add some more NPCs. Want to make it longer? Stick two or three five room dungeons together, or add some scenes in the middle. More exploration? Add a maze with some puzzles, traps and wandering monsters in the middle.
Here's a summary of the technique:
1. The PCs are blocked from getting in by a guardian. The dramatic question is "How can the heroes get into the dungeon?" The guardian could be in an antechamber or outside the dungeon; or the guardian could be a trap, puzzle, complex lock, etc. Combat might help overcome the guardian, or it might be useless.
2. The PCs encounter a puzzle or social challenge. This can be a locked door with a password and a riddle, or a complex trap, or a guardian. It seems to me that rooms 1 and 2 are almost the same, except that room 2 should not be a combat scene; and room 1 might be a combat scene. The reason Four uses these two scenes at the beginning is that he intends to ratchet up the pace later, and puzzles and roleplay don't have the thrilling, tense nature of a direct conflict. Try to raise the stakes in room 2, though - the challenge in room 1 might be a sealed door with guards the PCs sneak past. The challenge in room 2 might be a locked room filling with poison gas; or an angry NPC who escalates matters to a shouting argument that the PCs can't win by killing him.
3. A red herring. This is the most confusing room. The dramatic question of room 3 is "Does room 3 cost the PCs something?" It's an opportunity for the players to choose between completeness and resource conservation. Do we clear out the zombies in the crypt or move past it to deal with the main crypt? Do we explore the dusty, half-collapsed passage or stay focused? Do we have to fight the trained wolves guarding the supplies or can we sneak past them? This room adds tension by forcing the players to give something up: If you sneak past the wolves, you keep more spells and hit points, but lose out on searching the supply sacks.
The challenge of the red herring for the GM is that the players will ask, "can we just come back here after we get to the end?" If the answer is "we're sure we can," there is no tension. They'll ignore the crypt, skip the dusty passage, and sneak past the wolves. The problem is that running a red herring challenge after the PCs have resolved the main reason they came here in the first place is anti-climactic (literally opposite of the climax, in this case). Make sure you have an answer to the question "why can't we just come back here after we finish our main goal?" but don't make it so pressing that there is no real choice. Often the reason is hidden in room 5, and applies time pressure: The Sapphire has already been stolen? There's no time to search that side passage! We have to chase down the tiefling thief! Sometimes the reason is part of room 3: After the necromancer is slain, the zombies will be free to wander out into the countryside. Finally, if you made room 3 a challenge already, you can hand-wave this part: The wolves ran off after their master was slain.
4. The climax. This room is the "boss fight," to use a video game term; and that's probably a better name for it. The PCs have come to the dungeon to accomplish something. This is the opponent standing in their way. Did they come to the old crypt to kill the necromancer? This is the necromancer's toughest undead monstrosity. Did they explore the Lost Caves to get the Sapphire of Destiny? This is the Archon that protects it. Did they chase the killer of the Baron of Radua to this abandoned hunting lodge? This is the cloaked assassin they discover in the basement.
5. The twist. This room might not be an actual room at all, according to Four. It's a plot twist that changes the nature of the story and lets you end the session on a cliffhanger; or causes the PCs a setback; or just serves as an unwelcome surprise. The necromancer re-animates the undead monster, and now you have to fight the monster again, and it has the necromancer's aid! The Sapphire of Destiny has already been stolen? No! But there's a clue here as to who stole it -- a tiefling hoofprint! The assassin turns out to be just a lackey for a greater secret organization, but he takes poison before giving up his handler! Sometimes the twist is just new plot information. Say the PCs were breaking an infamous pirate out of prison because only the pirate knows how to navigate the reefs to get to the Isle of Dread. When they get to the pirate, she explains that she was able to navigate the reefs because she had a deal with the sahuagin, but when the Commodore captured her and seized her ship, he took the ivory she owes them, so they won't help until they get the ivory that they want for some reason.
Three-Act Structure and Five Room Dungeons
Like I said above, five room dungeons are great because they come packaged with the elements of the three-act story structure.
Act 1: You need to place your plot hooks outside the dungeon, to get the PCs interested in coming here and motivated to bypass the guardian. The guardian could be the first act twist - where the protagonists commit to the adventure.
Act 2: Room 2 and 3 are definitely rising action. Room 2 is a non-combat challenge which can be deadly, but doesn't have the high tension of an active, lethal opponent. Room 3 likely has a serious threat; and in addition, it forces the protagonists to make a hard choice.
Act 3: How you use room 5 depends on the milieu that the five room dungeon is being designed for. You might use it as the second act twist, darkest hour (which may last all of one combat round!), and climax all in one. Or you may use it as a second act twist for your larger adventure. That in turn helps you decide how to use room 4:
- If your story structure spans only the five-room dungeon, the peak of the rising action is Room 4; the second act twist is Room 5; and the third act - the climax - is overcoming the new challenge. In a one-shot, you have to wrap up the story at the end, so you have to let the PCs resolve the new problem in room 5. The example of the necromancer reviving the undead monster so the PCs have to fight it again works well here, because they have a twist that's immediately resolved.
- If you are using the five room dungeon as part of a greater story, you can end on a cliffhanger, with the second act twist coming in room 5. The PCs then enter the "darkest hour" where they have another adventure (maybe another five room dungeon) where they scramble to resolve the twist before the climactic showdown against the antagonist (which might be yet another five room dungeon).
- If you are using the five room dungeon as part of a greater story, but don't need to use this moment for a twist or cliffhanger, end it on a bang. A "bang" is something exciting that happens in the story to raise the stakes. Let's say you're using a series of five room dungeons in the rising action of an adventure where the PCs are taking down a villain's resources to make him vulnerable. One such sub-adventure is freeing all the villain's slaves. The twist doesn't have to be a big surprise or even a defeat: It can be a horrific revelation that establishes the main villain's evil. Imagine a "room 5" scene where the PCs open the slave pit where the villain kept the children to force the adults to work with threats to their families. Describe how the PCs see the scarred, stone-faced slaves break into tears as they are reunited with their abused, malnourished children. To make it personal, let each player take an action to heal a sick child who can't stand, or to help a panicked parent find their baby amid the confusion, et cetera.
A and B Plots and Five Room Dungeons
Previously, I showed how to build richness into a dungeon by layering an A plot and a B plot. The A plot is the reason the PCs have come to the dungeon. The B plot is the tale of the history of the people, place, and geography around the dungeon that has mysterious effects on the A plot.
Room 1, A Plot: The antagonists placed a guardian here to keep meddling adventurers out.
Room 1, B Plot: The antagonists used this place because of its pre-existing defenses. They know the trick to getting in and out - can the PCs figure it out?
Room 2, A Plot: There is an NPC or trap here that the antagonists left. This NPC is not immediately hostile to the PCs - and they may want to offer the PCs an alternative way to resolve the A Plot. If it is a trap, it stands out as different from the older architecture.
Room 2, B Plot: If you use an NPC, it's likely to be a creature native to the dungeon or the area around it, connected to the B Plot's story, such as a ghost or an intelligent monster. This NPC will give exposition as well as present a roleplaying challenge. B Plot in Room 2 could be an ancient puzzle that the A plot antagonists know how to bypass. Or maybe they don't - and the puzzle merely opens up Room 3 (there are lots of different ways to structure a five room dungeon).
Room 3, A Plot: The obvious A Plot for room 3 is a guard that the PCs need to sneak past. Other opportunities include A Plot treasure guarded by a trap.
Room 3, B Plot: If you've developed a B Plot that can be resolved, Room 3 could be a red herring for the A Plot, but also the climax for the B Plot. Let's say that 2B was a ghost who, after being persuaded that the PCs were reverential, offered to aid the PCs if they would bury her body. Room 3 may have the ghost's bones, but the carrion crawler in there isn't likely to give them up.
Room 4, A Plot: Typically room 4 is going to be the centerpiece of your A Plot.
Room 4, B Plot: Because room 4 is usually an A Plot climax scene, you may not use B Plot. If you do, it's often to show the effect of the B Plot on the A Plot. Here's where your ghost either comes in and attacks everyone for disturbing its rest, or comes in to help the PCs defeat their A Plot antagonist as part of their bargain.
Room 5, A Plot: If you're doing a one-shot, the twist likely relates to whatever you did in room 4. If you're using the dungeon as your second act twist in a larger adventure, it definitely involves the A Plot.
Room 5, B Plot: If you're using the five room dungeon in the middle of a larger adventure, you can make the twist part of the B Plot. The room 5 twist is a great place to resolve the B Plot. This is where you can introduce a twist or bang related to the history of the people and place around the dungeon. This is where the volcano starts to erupt or ancient crypt opens, the ghost gets her revenge, etc. These developments can often be surprising and exciting. Ask yourself "What would Michael Bay do?"
Hex Crawling for Five Room Dungeons
Five room dungeons are amazing points of interest (POIs) for a hex crawl adventure. POIs usually don't need to be long mega-dungeons. They should be short one-session nuggets of story that the PCs encounter and investigate as they explore the map.
That's about all I have to say on five room dungeons. May the Fourth be With You!