The Five-Room Dungeon: A Framework for Roleplaying Games

The more I study how to tell stories, the more I discover that there are formulas to everything.  That isn’t to say that the writer adds nothing; but it is to say that there are things that work, and things that don’t.

In his book Screenplay, Syd Field introduces the Three Act Structure.  Act I is the setup, Act II is the conflict, and Act III is the resolution.  At the beginning of Act II is a point that that thrusts the heretofore resistant hero into the story.  In the middle is a point where the hero stops reacting to the antagonist and starts to take the fight directly to him.  At the end of Act II is a point of no return, where all the cards are on the table and now it is time for the final battle.  Which is, of course, the subject of Act III.

All movies work like that.

Which, as an infrequent Dungeon Master, makes wonder: is there a formula for writing an RPG adventure?

As it happens, there is.  It’s called the Five Room Dungeon Model.  “Room” in this case is meant loosely; there isn’t only five rooms to a dungeon built on this model.  Instead, there are five key events within a single dungeon.  These events might take place over several rooms.

The five rooms are as follows:

  1. Entrance/Guardian: A monster/ritual/riddle that unlocks the dungeon and grants the players access.  It should be exciting and have serious repercussions for failure.
  2. Roleplay/Puzzle Encounter:  A free-form section of the dungeon challenging the players’ intellect rather than bloodying their battleaxes or requiring them to waste something with their crossbows.
  3. Red Herring:  You think you’re done.  But you’re not.  Often this “softens” the PCs up for the final encounter, making a simpler battle much more complicated because this was mishandled.
  4. Boss Monster:  The final, climactic encounter.  Doesn’t have to be a huge Legend of Zelda-esque baddie but it should be the toughest encounter.  The PCs should get copious amounts of treasure for beating this.
  5. Twist:  You beat the boss, got the treasure, so it’s back to the surface and on to the next adventure.  NOT.  Turns out, you only thought you knew what happened, and the twist shows you how wrong you were.  This is optional and should be used sparingly.  But when done right, it will knock everyone’s socks off.

Additionally, I like to add a Room 0: the theme or backstory upon which the dungeon is built.

So over the next several days, I’m going to unpack each of these rooms and build a sample dungeon based on them.

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