In the 21st century, Dungeons and Dragons has made an enormous shift from-well, dungeons and dragons. With the introduction of Fifth Edition and the rise of shows like Critical Role and The Adventure Zone, the focus of D&D has started to shift away from the pillage-and-loot style of play and more towards a narrative-based gameplay. Stories that could not ever be told before are now being brought to life through RPGs. That’s not to say however that the age of the murder hobo is entirely past, nor are the dungeons and dragons of D&D extinct. It is rather how DMs incorporate these elements in their stories that makes them great.
One of my personal favorite ways to incorporate dungeons into my campaign is by using the Five Room Dungeon format. This format allows a DM to drop a dungeon into their campaign with relatively little effort, and gives the players a chance to experience the adventurous nature of a dungeon without anyone having to commit to seven sessions worth of a deadly, resource-taxing dungeon. If your players tend to get frustrated if certain plot points take too long or if things regularly slog, the Five Room Dungeon is great for a quick pinch of adventure to pep things up. The format is flexible, allowing for DMs to rearrange as needed and perhaps drop in special plot points related to other quests the PCs might have going on. Similarly, because of its effective but relatively short nature, this type of dungeon works extremely well for creating one-shots.
I first heard about the Five Room Dungeon back in August when I was trying to create the three separate options for Session 3. I knew that I wanted one of the options to lead to an ice dungeon, but I had never created a dungeon crawl and was absolutely clueless on how to start. Frantically, I Googled around, trying to find some semblance of advice to help my creative process. Luckily, I stumbled across this fantastic post by Johnn Four rather quickly into my search. Using the format, I was able to whip up an outline for the ice dungeon, and although there was a lot more work to be done to make the dungeon functional, knowing what I needed to do made the whole process so much easier.
Since discovering the Five Room Dungeon, I have used it twice in my campaign. Both of the dungeons were unique creations and had very different atmospheres to them. The format is designed to be flexible and balanced, meaning that you can run a similar format multiple times many different ways without them feeling like a repetitious slog. The Five Room Dungeon format has, naturally, five distinct sections: Entrance/Guardian, Puzzle/Roleplaying Challenge, Red Herring/Trick or Setback, Climax/Battle, and the Reward/Revelation/Plot Twist. While there is a relatively basic order that the rooms should appear in, you can often switch pieces around among the first three rooms to provide unique moments for your players.
- Entrance and Guardian
The first room in the FRD format is relatively simple and self-explanatory. Every good dungeon needs a worthy entrance to scare off potential adventurers. A good guardian will do wonders to strike fear in the hearts of your players if utilized correctly. For the ice dungeon, I ended up using a very young white dragon as the guardian, which at the time was a fantastic way to terrify my players in the moment, but (as you might know if you have read my Session 3 post) in the long run has made my players a bit fearless. Having to face a dragon, or any fearsome creature, before you even get into the dungeon is certainly a wake-up call for players. However, the FRD doesn’t necessarily require a guardian in the form of a creature. In our 7th session, the first thing my players encountered was a riddle embedded in the metal door in the ground. Scattered around the hatch were tiles, each one holding a letter that could be put into the notches to answer the riddle. Once the tiles were correctly placed, the hatch would click open and grant the PCs access to the dungeon. The puzzle was as effective as the dragon in forcing the players to strategize and work together, but it set a much different tone for the rest of the dungeon. Putting yourself into the mindset of the creator of the dungeon can be very helpful on determining 1) what theme the dungeon should carry throughout it, 2) why the creator would want to keep people out/what the creator wants to keep secret so bad that they would build this entire dungeon, and 3) what steps the creator would take to keep people out of this place. Having a worthy guardian or puzzle at the entrance of your dungeon is key to making sure your players are having fun and being challenged.
- Puzzle or Role-Playing Challenge
The second portion of your dungeon when using the FRD format should generally be some sort of puzzle or role-playing challenge. This section will depend somewhat on what you chose to do for the first room. If you used a guardian or some sort of monster that the PCs were forced to confront before making it further in, then it would be wise to stick to a puzzle challenge so as to ensure that the PCs get a break from combat and do not drain too many of their resources. That’s not to say however that the puzzle room should not come without risks; perhaps if the PCs get the answer to the puzzle wrong multiple times, a minor trap is set off, causing the characters to take small amounts of damage. However, it is wise to be cautious with this. In the ice dungeon, the second room consisted of a music puzzle that forced the PCs to step on certain tiles in the room in a certain order to reveal the door; if the tiles were pressed in the wrong order, they would get pelleted by darts and the puzzle would be reset. The puzzle ended up being more difficult than intended, resulting in the players being repeatedly pelted with the minor trap. In the future I would say after the first few times of this happening the players would be anticipating the darts and simply mention that they managed to avoid it in order to make the puzzle feel less like a slog. However, if you used a puzzle for the first room, you can flip the rooms somewhat and make the second room a combat or damage-heavy encounter. The second time I used the FRD format, I used one of the complex trap examples from Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. This trap involved a mix of a path of blades, pillars of crushing, and a sphere of annihilation. Although I ended up running the trap much differently than had been intended, it still ended up knocking a lot of hit points out of all of the characters. If I had done this on top of a heavy encounter it could have been extremely deadly to the PCs, but by having one of the rooms be a puzzle and the other a combat/trap encounter, both dungeons were dangerous without being overtly lethal.
- Red herring, trick, or setback
This room is the one that can have the most variety to it. Often this room is used to provide a sense of false security, or conversely to build the tension for what is to come. Sometimes there is an illusion that might make it seem as if the dungeon is a dead end, or that there is only a small amount of treasure and that’s it, no more hiding behind this spell at all, no sir. Other times it can be a puzzle that forces the players to pause and think things through, or even another combat or roleplay encounter. Two good guidelines for this room to consider are 1) consider what types of encounters your parties the most and put another dose of that here, and 2) if your players took some pretty hard hits in the first two rooms and you still have a tough combat encounter planned ahead, make this area a potential safe spot for a short rest. When I first used this format, the third room was actually that of a long hallway, wherein the players met a group of thieves which would later betray them. The second time I used this format I put in place a puzzle. In front of the players were six doors, and the inscription on the ground stated “Go through the seventh door”. The trick was to go through two doors consecutively that equaled seven in order to move on; otherwise they would reappear through the first door into the room. Both of these rooms allowed the players to keep their minds going and stay in character without causing any further damage to their hit points.
- Climax, big battle, or conflict
This room is one that I also take quite a bit of liberty with at times. In theory, this is the last big stretch of the dungeon; the room where the players meet the final guardian or are betrayed by the ally that they brought into the dungeon with them or met inside the dungeon. When employing this method, it is often useful to start off with some sort of roleplay so that the PCs know what the “baddies” intentions are. During the second time using the format, the fourth room was a strange hallway in which lived a clay golem that was assigned to guard the last room. It was essentially the boss of the dungeon, and because he could not talk, it was important that he be a major conflict for the party. However, when I ran the ice dungeon, I wanted the players to have more time with the thieves, to get to know them a bit before the thieves turned on them. I ended up making the fourth room another puzzle, so as to help flesh out the characters I had introduced and allow the players some time to feel comfortable with them. Although it is often recommended to be the room with the big conflict, the FRD format is perfect for adjusting little things like this to best suit a DM’s needs.
- Reward, revelation, or plot twist
Finally, the party has arrived at the final room. Here is where everything goes down, or at least comes to fruition. If the party is after loot, they should find it here. Similarly, if you as a DM and worldbuilder have been leading up to important information, this would be an excellent place to put it. Alternatively, you can pull a plot twist in the form of the information/loot being gone entirely, taken by another person or moved years ago by the dungeon’s creator. In the ice dungeon, this is the moment where the thieves turned on the PCs, insisting that all they wanted was the map inside the room and that they would let the others leave without harming anyone. For the second run through, the fifth room held the long-abandoned study of an old researcher and inventor. They had been sent to retrieve a set of plans, and soon enough they found them-except the plans appeared to be for that of a gun. In a world where guns do not exist yet, it was hard for the characters to understand, but they all had a horrible feeling about what was to occur. Sometimes, the revelation or the reward that comes at the end of the long journey can be bittersweet, or even unsatisfactory, but it needs to feel earned. If there isn’t any good loot, there should be a reason why, perhaps another quest or a hook into the campaign’s overall narrative. As a DM, the fifth room is your opportunity not to end your dungeon, but rather to further the entire game for your players.
The Five Room Dungeon format is one of the most useful tools I have encountered so far as a DM. Its useful and versatile nature allow me to use the same basic idea multiple times, and it takes some of the workload off knowing at least a basic structure of what to do. It’s important to remember however that these are just guidelines; if you don’t like the format, there are plenty of other ways to build not only dungeons but campaigns. There is no right or wrong way to play D&D and create your world, as long as you are having fun.
Questions, comments, or concerns? Leave me a comment below or find me on Twitter @DandDDM