How Making Up a Dungeon on the Fly is as Simple as Counting to 5
There are a lot of old school D&D techniques that have become so ubiquitous that we take them for granted. The “five room dungeon” is one such example.
A 5 Room Dungeon is a pattern for building a quick dungeon crawl. With five simple steps you get enough for a session around the kitchen table and you can hammer it out over a lunch break at work.You simply plot your five rooms, then add details like maps and CR balance later.
Here are the 5 rooms:
- The Entrance that typically has a guardian of some type.
- The Puzzle or a roleplaying challenge.
- The Setback or a trick of some sort that impedes the heroes.
- The Boss Fight room that provides a climax to the delve.
- The Reward, which could be an antechamber that provides some loot or a potential revelation that ties the story together satisfactorily.
With modern day gaming trends shifting us away from classic dungeon crawls, many Dungeon Masters are unintentionally overlooking simple techniques like the 5 Room Dungeon, thinking instead that they need to spend hours upon hours designing complex and sophisticated crawls.
The problem is that most of these over-designed Rube Goldbergesque dungeons go unexplored, plus they often contain room after room full of fluff that doesn’t add anything to the story.
Really, 5 rooms are all you need. Run the above basic layout over and over until one of your players eventually starts to catch on that it was similar to last week’s.
Let’s draw a few just so you can picture it. Take a peek, then we’ll say a bit more below.
Keep in mind that this is a storytelling technique much more than it is a descriptor of space. While “The Railroad” might make you bristle, it presents players with a puzzle, a setback, a satisfying combat, then gives them some sort of loot and exposition that puts a bow on the whole thing.
Whereas “The Decision” and “The Wrong Way” provides a bit of mis-direction, “The Spiral” is simply “The Railroad” with some stairs. This makes it perfect for a wizard’s tower or some other such thing.
“The Rooster” is an example of how you can do something unexpected. What if the setback mis-directs heroes toward the Puzzle, then the Boss circles around and attacks them from behind? And what if the passage to the Reward is a secret passage that the heroes miss?
Anyway, keep the following in mind:
They are simple. Keep in mind that a 5 Room Dungeon is not your magnum opus, but they are quick and straightforward, and the players typically hit every room.
Not just dungeons. The five room layout doesn’t need to be a dungeon. It can be a tavern cellar, a warehouse, and starship, a noble’s home, or whatever locale you come up with. It doesn’t even need to be a place. Use the technique to structure a nefarious faction or as an investigation tree.
Be flexible. Don’t consider the structure to be chiseled in granite. Slide it around, move rooms, create your own shapes, change the length of passages, have rooms be above or below another, and add cosmetic flourishes. A passage can be stairs or a water chute. Any vertical transition can open you up to creating a two-level 5 room dungeon.
Ease populating them as well. Try something like Propp’s 31 to help form story motivations. Instantly create an NPC by using this quirk list and name cloud. Or use any of the random encounter generators in books like the Dungeon Masters Guide or Xanathar’s Guide. The point is that you don’t need to bang your head against the dungeon floor to populate a 5 Room Dungeon.
Use real life inspiration. I’ll often go to a website like National Geographic or Atlas Obscura to find sound weird or interesting real-world locale or animal, then I’ll use them as the thematic starting point. I’ll sometimes even use Google Earth. Here’s an example of real-world inspiration in a couple of single encounters.
Don’t get in the trap that bigger is always better. I live in a community where some bloke built an 88,000 square foot GUEST house. Yet us humans spend the majority of our time between a kitchen, bathroom, bedroom, and whatever room you use to house your Playstation. Don’t waste your time designing the dungeon equivalent of an 88,000 guest house.
The 5 Room Dungeon is just a simple tool, a template. Use it to get you started making straightforward, story-driven dungeons that will make for a satisfying experience around the table.