Welcome to our guide to the Five Room Dungeon technique. Keep reading for a useful approach to adventure design and how to use it to get the best results at your table.
Whether you’re a seasoned DM looking for some inspiration or you’re pretty new to this and want some of this whole dungeon-mastering thing demystified, you’re in luck.
Dungeon Design: Bigger Isn’t Always Better
Making dungeons and adventures is easier than you think; you never stop learning cool new ticks and tricks and, all things considered. it’s probably some of the most fun you can have with your brain.
In D&D, both dungeons and adventures can vary in scope, length, and complexity to a massive degree.
Some adventures and dungeons are megalithic, massive, and world-spanning in their scope and ambition.
Just look at this map depicting one of 23 massive levels that make up the megadungeon of Undermountain features in the 5e adventure Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage.
An adventuring party could spend months (years even) lost in there. They’re supposed to. This adventure is intended to take player characters from 10th to 20th level.
Some dungeon masters take literal decades to build their own megadungeons. Gary Gygax (D&D’s co-creator) developed Castle Greyhawk over years and years of play with hundreds of different adventuring parties.
Daunting? A little bit.
If you’re just starting out as a DM (or even if you’ve been doing this for a long time with pre-written modules), I’m here to tell you that — much like the fact you don’t need a whole world fleshed out to begin a new campaign, just a starter town — you don’t need a whole abandoned dwarven city or sprawling fire giant castle or the whole freaking underdark (I have made this mistake on, I think, three separate occasions now) to start an adventure.
For all the majesty of the sprawling megadungeon or the multi-session quest, there’s a lot to be said for brevity.
Some simple one-shots are designed with simplicity in mind so that a whole story can be started and finished in a single evening at the table with minimal prep by the GM beforehand.
If you want an example of a short, compact adventure that puts minimal stress on the DM, check out The Accursed Crypt Beneath Cold Moon Isle, Black Citadel’s own adventure that’s available for free right here.
The Accursed Crypt Beneath Cold Moon Isle is designed to suit a party of low-level adventurers and be completed in a few hours of play.
Inside, you can find materials designed to help you, the GM, run an adventure in which the player characters venture to a mysterious haunted island and descend into an accursed pirate tomb to tangle with ancient ghosts and strange pagan magic.
If they’re smart, they might find the cursed pirate gold buried deep beneath Cold Moon Island. If they’re very lucky, they may even escape with their lives.
If you’re just coming to dungeon design or just need something quick and digestible that you can run at your game tonight with little to no preparation, the Five Room Dungeon method is a pretty good place to start.
What Is a Five Room Dungeon?
Originally published back in 2006, the Five Room Dungeon is a GM prep-and-writing technique developed by Johnn Four at Roleplaying Tips, who expounds the Five Room Dungeon as being able to slot into any environment, short, quick to plan, easy to polish, easy to move around, and flexible.
Taken at face value, a Five Room Dungeon is a dungeon with, uh, five rooms in it, each of which serves a particular purpose in a narrative framework.
That’s actually the big secret here: the Five Room Dungeon is actually just a plot structure or writing tip pretending to be a game-design technique.
Each room in the Five Room Dungeon — the Entrance, the Puzzle, the Setback, the Battle, and the Reward — serves its own function in the adventure and helps create a rhythm for the session that feels polished and rewarding like a movie or book.
Let’s take a look at what each “room” means in a Five Room Dungeon.
Room One: The Entrance and Guardian
The first room of a dungeon, usually by necessity, is the Entrance or the way in.
It provides a clear and present marker that your players are transitioning from the normality of the overworld into the mythic underworld (to borrow an OSR term — basically they’re not in Kansas anymore) where the stakes are higher and the rules that apply out there aren’t even really guidelines down here.
The purpose of this room, other than a “crossing the threshold” moment, is to serve as an initial test that sets up the dungeon.
This test comes in the form of a Guardian, whose purpose is to explain why the dungeon hasn’t already been explored or cleared out.
Sometimes this means a literal guardian creature (I’m as big a fan of a great big stone statue with a sword as the next guy) that’s part of the dungeon itself.
It can also imply that something else has made a nest in this first room, like an owlbear or a hive of carrion crawlers, that makes it difficult to get in or out of the dungeon.
The guardian doesn’t even have to be a creature at all: a natural hazard, magical puzzle, environmental hazard, or a trap (perhaps one that only lets penitent men pass?) are all perfectly good candidates for a dungeon guardian.
TIP: When choosing a guardian (or any element of a dungeon for that matter), it’s important to remember to keep the dungeon’s ecology in mind.
Without getting bogged down in weird monster feeding habits and the anatomy of a roper, dungeon ecology basically means making your dungeon make sense (I like to think of it as the process of aligning everything in your dungeon with a theme, but it’s also a matter of creating logical consistency).
If there are monsters further inside that regularly go outside, you need to ask how they circumvent the guardian.
Maybe the guardian is friendly to them (creating a potential opportunity for your players to enter the tomb in disguise, bypassing the guardian), or perhaps they have their own secret entrance nearby.
I’m an especially big fan of this second option, as dungeons with one way in or out and a straight series of rooms between the entrance and the boss can feel decidedly railroad-ey.
In a process called Jaquaying the Dungeon (named after the celebrated adventure writer and video game designer Janelle Jaquays), try adding multiple routes through your dungeon and add multiple entrances and both hidden and obvious paths from one area to another that create loops and unexpected discoveries.
Some examples of Entrance and Guardian rooms include…
- The Entrance to the dungeon is located halfway up a mountain with a single, narrow path leading up a precipitous cliff. Oh, and there are harpies.
- A magically locked door that requires you to answer a riddle blocks the entrance to a wizard’s tower.
- The cave mouth is blocked by a nest of murderous bug bears. They demand tribute in gold and flesh from those who would enter the sacred caverns.
- The dungeon is completely flooded.
Room Two: The Puzzle
The second room in a Five Room Dungeon is explicitly a problem that can’t be solved by combat or brute force. This could mean a social encounter, a puzzle, a trap, or another kind of environmental hazard.
Ideally, the Puzzle room gets your players thinking about the dungeon and its place within your world.
Bypassing it may require them to learn about goblin culture, or negotiate with the ghosts in a holy mountain, or recall an obscure piece of lore needed to open an ancient cypher lock (preferably under some sort of time pressure).
My favorite version of this room contains several different elements that put pressure on the PCs in different ways.
Making the PCs have to flatter and gently prompt vital information about the lore they need to break the cypher from a forgetful (and deeply touchy) ghost who stops and starts again every time they yell at him as the room fills with poisonous ants. Can’t kill the ghost, can’t kill the locked door, can’t kill the ants.
Room Three: The Setback
The third room is the equivalent of the second-act twist in cinema.
It’s the moment when your assumptions about the world are flipped upside down — when what you thought you knew about the dungeon and the way it worked are shifted, recontextualized or even turned on their head.
It’s a way to force the players not to get too comfortable and to get them on the back foot once again.
Now, I think the natural impulse here is to make a twist into a “Gotcha!” moment, where you throw in stuff like “uhh, the kobolds were just defending their young,” or “the goblins are being forced to do this, don’t you feel bad for killing them” and generally try to make your players look like dicks for, well, playing D&D. This is stupid and bad. Do not do this.
I’m not saying you can’t have a big shocking twist at the midpoint of your adventure, but it needs to be earned and foreshadowed. Ideally, the players should have figured out the twist in the previous room.
It’s honestly way more fun to watch your players lament just how right they were than to watch a bunch of stunned, confused faces who were just blindsided out of nowhere.
Now, the setback can be a twist, but it doesn’t have to. It’s a way to ramp up tension, show a new side to the dungeon, and put the PCs on a collision course with the climactic battle in Room Four (spoilers, I guess?).
A twist can be a trap that severely weakens a PC right before the final fight, an NPC who suddenly but inevitably betrays the party, or the revelation that “There are older and fouler things than orcs in the deep places of the world.”
Room Four: The Battle
This is the big one: the main event, and hopefully the climactic, memorable finale of your dungeon.
Here, your PCs fight the cultists to stop the ritual, do battle with the big boss, arrive in time to break the siege of the castle, you know… hero stuff.
The Battle should by no means be a surefire win, and the players should be keenly reminded of how the previous three rooms have depleted their resources but should also have accumulated useful information, equipment, or allies that are helping them (Room Two is a good place to pick up friends, assuming you don’t lose them in Room Three).
Whatever happens, a Battle is never just a fight. It begins with roleplaying as the villain twirls their mustache (metaphorically or literally) and espouses an evil plan or as players try to talk down a misguided former ally from doing something they’ll regret.
At the very least, let someone say something cool before you roll initiative.
Then, a good battle shouldn’t just be two sides wailing on each other until someone dies.
Make the environment dynamic (lair actions for legendary monsters that shoot fire out of the ground or cave in bits of the room are great for this), threaten things the PCs care about that aren’t PCs (the classic hostage, favorite retainer, or, if you’re feeling especially bastardy, someone’s pet), and generally change up the state of play (revealing a powerful secret weapon or enemy reinforcements).
Lastly, a good battle also ends with roleplay: give a villain a dying dig at a hero for being less heroic than they think they are, or give the heroes a moment to talk to a dying ally. Pathos is the sour that makes all that sweet kicking and punching work.
Room Five: The Reward (and the Revelation)
Lastly (but not leastly?) we have the Reward: the reason the heroes came down here in the first place.
Ideally, the fingerprints of this room have been all over the dungeon up until now, and the PCs want its contents so bad they can taste it.
The Reward room isn’t all carrot, however; it can also be a great moment to preview just how nasty the next stick is. It’s a technique that pulls audiences through entire seasons of TV shows.
This week’s issue is finally overcome, only to create or have the heroes be blindsided by something else that was bubbling away in the background.
It’s the moment when Indie escapes the Temple of the Golden Idol only to be face to face with a couple dozen poisoned arrows and a smugly grinning Beloch.
I’m not saying you have to take away the thing the players went through the whole dungeon to earn.
(In fact, that’s probably bad adventure design and a place where I think that Johnn Four actually kinda misses a beat with his advice to use this room to “change the players’ bragging to ‘we came, we saw, we slipped on a banana peel.’”)
Tripping up your players at the last minute isn’t good DM-ing. It’s cheap.
However, revealing a new implication of acquiring their reward or a new threat looming on the horizon is great.
Maybe the PCs were sent to rescue some captives from a goblin camp.
They make their way through the dungeon entrance past the goblins’ pet owlbear, negotiate with a second tribe of goblins in servitude to the main group and enlist them, discover that the main group of goblins are actually being led by a powerful bugbear and fight some of his bugbear lieutenants, fight and kill the goblin boss while interrupting a ritual sacrifice, and rescue the townsfolk.
Now, the final room twist comes in the form of an extra captive who’s been there longer that the others: a young boy, battered and bloody and thin.
When asked his name, he stands, trembling but broad and says “I am Astric, Prince of the Northern Kingdoms, and I demand you take me to my father.”
Suddenly, the stakes are way higher (the PCs will certainly be executed for letting a prince die in their care), there are new threats to face and mysteries to solve (how did the prince get here, and what will his enemies do to prevent him regaining the throne?), and the next adventure is already writing itself.
That’s our breakdown of the Five Room dungeon, folks. If I had to criticize the method at all, I’d point out that it doesn’t really account for setup and the foreshadowing necessary to set up satisfying twists and setbacks.
It also can be a little repetitive (and simply putting the rooms in different order only gets you so far), so it’s probably not something you want to rely on exclusively.
However, it’s still a robust method that can be used to form the basis of your adventure prep from week to week — especially if you’re short on time before a session.
And, if you want to expand on the format to perhaps start approaching your very first level of your very first megadungeon, you can string together multiple Five Room Dungeon structures to create something larger made of bite-sized chunks.
Until next time, folks, happy adventuring.