The Five Area Dungeon

This post is about dungeon crafting, and it’s based on the Five Room Dungeon model. What I’m going to offer here are a few tips on expanding that model for those who want longer, more in-depth dungeons, why I like the “Five Room” model, and a refutation of some of the main criticisms of that model by, what is often the older generation of gamers (my generation).  So, let’s get started, shall we?

First off, let’s talk about what the Five Room model is.  It’s a simplified way of constructing dungeons for a location.  It includes five things that every dungeon (or adventuring area) needs:  a guarded entrance, a puzzle/role-playing challenge, a red herring, a climactic battle, and a plot revelation that seeds to the next session.  It’s simple and straightforward, providing the bare-bones elements of any dungeon crawl/adventure that will engage all player types and be manageable for a single session.

If it’s so simple, why offer tips?  Because using this model can lead to repetition in dungeon design.  As someone who teaches courses in public speaking and argumentation, it’s very easy for students to see the model as “the perfect formula”, which it often isn’t.  In persuasion, there is no “perfect speech”. There is only the most persuasive speech given by a particular orator to a particular audience at a particular point in history. And that can’t be known until after the fact.  So, these tips are designed to help alleviate any fears of repetition as well as to showcase how the Five Room model can be a stepping stone for more massive dungeon design.

One – Consider the “Five Rooms” as “Five Elements”:  That’s the most important fact that often gets overlooked by those who critique this model.  One of its strengths is that it allows for all player types to have the opportunity to shine.  Reading the article shows how these “rooms” are designed broadly.  For example, the first room (Entrance with a Guardian) suggests that the guardian can be anything from a native species of beast to an enemy imported by the dungeon creator/inhabitant for the purpose of guarding the entrance to an entrance hidden by either natural or magical landscapes.  So, just finding the dungeon can be something that engages those interested in combat, in exploration, in learning the lore and ecology of a world.  Broaden your understanding of what the creators discuss instead of focusing on the narrow definitions of the model, and you’ll see how you can then use this model as a checklist for what a dungeon needs.

Two – Consider the “Five Rooms” as “Five Areas”:  Just because the model was designed using the terminology of traditional, subterranean dungeons does not mean you need to limit yourself to thinking about things in those terms.  Each room can be an area of varying size.  I’ve got one designed for a future session that’s set in the Feywild, and the “dungeon” is based upon a theme of the four seasons – all areas are outdoors in the elements, and some areas are larger than a single room would, realistically, be.  But on a similar note, one could design a “Five Area” dungeon where one area, say Area 3 (Red Herring) was an entire floor, or Area 2 (Puzzle/Riddle/Role-Play Challenge) was a central room with many doors – solve the riddle to find the right door – each incorrect door led to a different room with either a trap or an encounter.  Somehow that “Room” is now bigger than a single room.  Seeing each “Room” as an area allows you to create larger dungeons that still have a “Five Room” skeleton.

Three – Consider the Order of the Rooms as Movable:  Okay, you have five rooms in your dungeon.  think of it like a one-story house.  Are all one story houses arranged exactly the same?  Does a ranch style home look exactly like a shotgun home?  No.  The order, or arrangement, of elements in each home is somewhat movable.  Think of dungeons in a similar fashion.  Consider having the “Entrance with Guardian” be an “Entrance with Role-playing challenge or Riddle”.   This could be as simple as having a locked door that can only be opened by answering a riddle posed by its guardian.  The second area then could have the Red Herring or a Combat Encounter.  Heck, the Plot Revelation could be hinted at in Area 5, forcing the players to either backtrack to an area they’ve already visited or head to an area that they might have ignored previously.  Treating the elements as movable allows for flexibility in design that keeps the GM/DM from getting too bored and helps keep players from noticing patterns.

Four – Consider the Model to be an Outline:  What does an outline offer?  A working skeleton of what will be encountered. It’s not a fully-fledged paper, argument, story, novel, etc.  It’s a summary of all the main elements (Guarded Entrance, Role-Play/Puzzle, Red Herring, Climactic Battle, Revelation) – things your dungeon should have to engage your players.  It’s up to you as the creator to breathe life into this skeleton and make it a living (or unliving) entity.  Where is this “dungeon”?  Who inhabits it now? Who created it? Why was it created?  Are there traps?  Are there locked doors?  Are there dead ends?  Would there be “random” patrols or beings moving through the corridors? These are the things that help make dungeons unique and memorable, and none of them are in the model. Why? Because a model is an outline – a stripped-down skeleton that lists all the essential elements. Flesh it out. Make it your own.  Make it memorable.

Five – Consider How to Insert this Dungeon into your Campaign:  The Five Room model is a fast and easy way to create a dungeon that is complete in and of itself.  That’s fine.  But for a longer story, for a larger campaign, consideration must be given to how this complete edifice will be inserted.  There are infinite ways to do this.  For example, each of the first three sessions could feature the party venturing into distinct Five-Area-Dungeons for unrelated purposes, but in each dungeon, they see a symbol on enemies, on books, on furniture, painted onto a wall in blood.  Maybe an enemy escapes in the first dungeon who returns in a later adventure.  The point is that as GM/DM, you are responsible for creating a campaign narrative that feels structured and whole.  No single dungeon can do that.  This goes back to seeing the model as an outline – what do you place in this dungeon that connects it to the broader strokes and the grand narrative of the campaign?

So, why do I love and use this model?  Because it helps streamline dungeon design.  When I was in high school and college, I would design megadungeons with twenty or thirty rooms in them.  I had that kind of time on my hands.  I don’t anymore.  I have a big people job (I teach at an R1 research university and, thus, conduct original research), a family, pets, and something resembling a social life.  Crafting huge dungeons takes a lot of time – a resource that is not infinite for me.  The Five Room model functions the way a good editor does – it helps you see what is needed in your dungeon/adventuring area and what is extra.  Sometimes, having too much extra detracts from what is important, bogs things down, and makes game night tedious.

It’s also inclusive of multiple play styles.  As I’ve said, this dungeon model features something for everyone – the explorer, the role-player, the hack & slasher, etc. You can customize your elements to fit your party, sure, but this model helps to remind both GM/DMs and players that multiple types of people play this game, and each needs to be engaged intellectually.  I’ll be honest, were it up to me, there would be minimal combat in my campaigns. I find designing combat encounters boring and tedious. I’d rather not do it, but combat is a basic, central element of heroic narrative.  Thus, it has to be included.  I would rather all story and role-play with “combat” replaced by intrigue and social interaction.  Some players would find that boring.  It’s about balance. And this model provides a way to balance the needs and desires of different player types.

And again, it’s quick(er).  I’m a meticulous over-planner in everything I do. So when designing an adventure for a session, I tend to overthink about what the party might try to do in a given situation.  As a result, my DM  notes for a particular session can be upwards of 40 typed pages, because I tried to have notes for every possible option the players could think of (and then they always find something new – even if I have notes for Plans A – R).  So this allows me to simply from a skeleton of what’s necessary for the area that I can add to as I need.  It’s a good model, but it’s not appropriate for every situation.

Now, let’s talk about its detractors. I’ve done this a bit already throughout the piece, but I want to start by saying to those of us who have played these games for more than two decades:  Shut up and get over yourselves Megadungeons are great, and sometimes, having a dungeon crawl that takes two or three sessions to complete is an awesome experience.  I’ve had an entire third act be a “megadungeon” that was a fully-realized city.  But that’s not the only way to play.  That’s not the only type of dungeon or ruin or temple or exploration area that exists in a world.  Sometimes, players have time for huge dungeons. Sometimes they don’t.  My group has busy adults with lives, jobs, families, and other responsibilities.  We don’t have time for six or seven-hour sessions. We don’t always have time for weekly sessions. So having something that can be digested and completed in a single session is a good thing.  It gives them a sense of accomplishment. It moves the story along. Why? Because I use literary techniques like foreshadowing.  A series of seemingly unrelated adventures uncovers corpses or books or enemies all bearing a particular symbol that few people have ever seen – and even fewer are willing to discuss.  Themes begin to emerge that the players piece together. Enemies escape and reappear.  Disparate locations do not mean “completely separate” in terms of campaign structure.

I do not exclusively use the Five Room model.  And even if someone did, what’s it matter to you?  There is no “One True Way” to play the game.  It’s easy to point out the flaws of the Five Room model. It’s equally easy to point out the flaws of the Megadungeon model.  But ask yourself this – “Who benefits from that?”  I could have ranted about either model in this piece, but instead, I chose to do something constructive.  I chose to offer tips to help spice up this model.  Why? Because all models are useful for certain things – but not for every situation.  Find a model that works best for what you need.  Heck, sometimes I look at floor plans of Roman, medieval, or renaissance cathedrals or palaces to get ideas for “dungeon” mapping.  These things add variety, and, honestly, some of these floor plans will, by default, have between 5-7 rooms.  What? You mean actual structures might not be 30-room megadungeons? The Horror! The Horror!  The moral of the story is:  Craft the dungeon to fit the needs of its creator and not to suit your own ego as “Master of the Dungeon”.

What it all boils down to is different dungeons for different dungeon creators.  The Five Room model is a good model. It’s an outline of things that a dungeon needs to be a complete dungeon.  To insert it into a campaign means figuring out what elements of that dungeon can connect to other elements of the story.  It’s also not appropriate for every dungeon the players will face.  But if one takes it as a model and does not read the model literally, then it becomes something that can be far more useful than its detractors often give it credit for being.  It has its flaws, but so do every other model of dungeon creation.  But here’s the thing:  for us busy gamers, this model works. It helps us quickly create dungeons that offer a variety of encounters.  The model does not cover everything, but it gives the basics. It gives a skeleton that it is up to each individual dungeon creator to transform into a living, breathing entity.  It really does allow for creativity, but it is easy to use a model like this as a crutch.  Using a model as a crutch and “The One True Way” is equally problematic as saying the model is simplistic and uncreative. Use the Five Room Dungeon as a model, as a guide, as a checklist of things to include, as a starting point for designing dungeons.  It’s not perfect. It’s not the “Only Way”, but it is a pretty good way for a lot of people.