I want to share an adventure-writing technique with you that has saved me in countless emergency situations.
My secret lies in the Five Room Dungeon! Hats off to expert game designer Johnn Four for originating the idea. If you’ve heard of these before, you know their power. And if not… welcome to the ancient order, my friend.
Full disclosure: I've also used the Five Room Dungeon technique to write full-out adventures, most notably Crypts of Azarumme. So they're not just for emergency situations. But you can rely on them in a pinch!
In this article, I'm going to write a complete Five Room Dungeon to illustrate how they work. You can put it in your back pocket if you need a quick dungeon to throw at your players.
First, imagine this not-uncommon scenario: The players said they were headed down to the sewers at the end of last game, so you spent your most recent prep time working up a map and planting all the devious crocodiles, falling portcullises, and stalking thieves needed to make for a great session.
Fast forward to game night when the players announce they’ve decided to kick in the teeth of the cult they know is lurking inside the abandoned Temple of Krull instead.
Now, you can either panic, or you can grit your teeth and say, "Cowabunga it is!"
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It's on! Let's write a Five Room Dungeon for the Temple of Krull! We'll call it a 4th-level adventure (feel free to use this mini-dungeon next time you need one).
A Five Room Dungeon has, as you might have guessed, five main parts. You can mix up the order of these parts (especially the middle sections), and they don't all have to be actual rooms — think of them as encounters.
So let's jump in!
1. Entrance with Guardian: Throw some gatekeepers at the players! This could be monster or barrier. The Temple of Krull is stocked with overconfident acolytes of the Plague Mother (I'm making this up as we go), so they rely on a secret entrance inside a shabby, abandoned church sept in a bad part of town. The sept is filled with disease-stricken beggars.
Find the secret entrance to the cult's underground lair with a DC 20 Intelligence (Investigation) check, or automatically after three failed checks (otherwise there's no adventure). We'll add some kind of punishment for failing too many times.
If the players help some of the unfortunate folk here, they give clues about the door's location.
Disease is all around — if the players move into a square with a beggar (they're in a lot of places), pass a DC 11 Constitution saving throw or contract sewer plague.
Now, some time pressure for failing to find the secret door. In 1d4 rounds, a fever-addled berserker who has been muttering to himself leaps up and attacks the players. Note, this is an easy fight. Challenge variety is important.
Dramatic Question: Can the players find the secret door and survive the beggars?
2. Puzzle/Roleplaying Challenge:The second encounter is a changeup from combat. Here, we test the players who love roleplaying and problem-solving. Past the door, in a shadowy foyer, an ill woman hides in the corner. She holds a sick infant and will trade information in exchange for aid for her child. Make the players' hearts hurt.
The ill mother, Katalina, knows there are five cultists who lurk below.
If the players aid her child, she tells them the cultists can kill with a touch (we'll make sure the cultists have the inflict wounds spell), and they hate bright light (we'll give them disadvantage on attack rolls in the presence of strong light).
If the players harm Katalina's child or ignore or her pleas for mercy, she flings a curse at them. Treat it as the bane spell that lasts 1d4 days. Cruelty is rewarded with its own.
Dramatic Question: Will the players help Katalina?
3. Trick or Setback: The trick or setback is a combat, barrier, or even puzzle that threatens the players' plans. One of the best ways to do this is by compromising their advantages; we'll make it so the players' stealthy entrance and their potential edge of surprise is challenged.
The stairs lead down to a round room with vile, red markings on the walls. Discerning players recognize the marks as prayers to the Plague Mother written in old blood.
A chilling ritual is under way! Two of the boil-covered cultists are here and are about to flay a dying beggar alive!
The players may get a surprise round if the cultists (let's use the cult fanatic stat block) don't notice them coming.
If the players don't stop the cultists in 1d4 rounds, the cultists open a stone door and alert their three brethren in the next room. Two cultists is a normal fight; five is a deadly one.
Harkening back to our foreshadowing with Katalina: The cultists already have the inflict wounds spell, perfect! Let's give them disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks in the presence of strong light (at least two torches) to reward the players who interacted with Katalina and make use of that information.
Dramatic Question: Can the players prevent the cultists from uniting against them?
4. Big Climax: Time for the heroes to really flex in the final confrontation! Usually a big combat works well here, but it could also be an epic skill challenge, negotiation, or chase.
The cultists' main worship site is a disgusting refuse pit that has been buried under the city streets over the centuries. Players entering must pass a DC 13 Constitution saving throw or be poisoned by the fumes for 1d6 rounds.
Three cultists (cult fanatics) finish scrawling nefarious runes on the floor just as the players enter. In three rounds, two hostile grey oozes bubble out of the grime. If the cultists detected the players early, the oozes arrive in one round instead. This encounter is a hard one.
Remember, the cultists have disadvantage on attack rolls and ability checks in strong light.
Break up line of sight with garbage piles and old, shattered stone structures.
Players who dig in the trash find something helpful. The first time this happens, the player finds an old +1 weapon of a fitting type. On subsequent rounds, there's a 50% chance of finding either a 50 gp gemstone (limit two) or a rusty nail (DC 13 Con save vs. cackle fever).
Dramatic Question: Can the players kick the cultists' teeth in?
5. Reward/Revelation:Finally, the reward for hard work. Here we could have treasure, boons, information, or something that the players will appreciate. Make it into a shocking revelation as a bonus.
In a sealed lockbox tucked at the back of the refuse room, the players find some cool loot (about 300 gp worth of art objects, coin, and interesting stuff of your choosing).
They also find suspicious letters of correspondence with someone whose name they recognize. Use this as a potential betrayal or adventure hook!
And that's it! A Five Room Dungeon with a set of encounters that match a specific goal, provide variety, and help you quick-step your way through adventure creation.
Now, is this adventure a bit of a proverbial railroad? Sure. But I expect this adventure would still be plenty entertaining for a night of gaming. Here's what I think about the ancient battle of railroaders vs. sandboxers and which is the "best" option.
I hope you'll give this adventure design hack a whirl if you get the chance. Let me know what you think!