March 02, 2021 5 min read
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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