The Five Room Dungeon Model does for RPG Adventures what the Three Act Structure does for screenplays. It gives your players five areas or phases of a single dungeon to explore and interact with.
Let’s briefly review the five rooms:
- Entrance/Guardian: a gatekeeper to stop undesirables from gaining entrance.
- Roleplay/Puzzle Challenge: a chance to use brain instead of brawn.
- Red Herring: a path that goes nowhere.
- Boss: the big baddie at the end of the dungeon.
- The Twist: suddenly, everything you know is wrong…
So where do we begin when designing this dungeon?
It’s extremely tempting to begin with Room One and work your way down the list. However, that doesn’t work for me. Room One should be like the opening scene of a movie — it should impress on us what the movie is about and make us want to see more of the movie. It should hook us.
How can I design a hook before I know anything about this dungeon?
So I’ve humbly added a room to the Five Room Dungeon Model. In true dungeoneering style, it’s a hidden room. It’s not a room that the players will interact with. In fact, the less they see if this room the better you did your job. I call it Room Zero, and this invisible room is where you should start designing your dungeon.
Room Zero is the theme or backstory of the dungeon. You can have elements of your dungeon that have nothing to do with this theme, but the five main rooms all should somehow tie to Room Zero.
Room Zero can come from anywhere. Dungeon Master Extraordinare Chris Perkins told a story about his campaign that featured two elf noble children that commandeered a floating castle and tried to crash it into a major ground-based city. His inspiration was the 9/11 terror attacks on the World Trade Center.
The news is only one source of inspiration. Movies or TV shows can be inspiration, too. If you see a movie that you think would be improved with a few changes, then make those changes and run with it.
I’ve gotten inspiration from random thoughts. Once, I wanted to plot a terrorist attack for a short story I was working on. I wanted to grab a cafe mocha at Starbucks and hash out my ideas for this terrorist attack while sitting at a table. And then it occurred to me that that might not be the best idea; what if someone read over my shoulder? They might actually call the police and I could be arrested for inducing panic. (That’s a real crime.)
So there’s my story. An aspiring writer gets arrested for plotting a terrorist attack because some chump at Starbucks looked over his shoulder and panicked. I thought it might be even better if the terrorist attack actually, exactly as planned, came to pass while the writer was in police custody.
Still stuck for ideas? The Dungeon Master’s Guide for 3 & 3.5 edition Dungeons & Dragons contains a table titled “100 Adventure Ideas.” The best way is to roll a couple of times on it, so to build our sample dungeon I will roll three times and use my imagination to build a plot from the building blocks I get. My results were:
- A wizard needs a particularly rare spell component found only in the deep jungle.
- An evil noble puts a price on a good noble’s head.
- Two orc tribes rage a bloody war.
Just looking at this, (2) and (3) fit together like a glove. So let’s have an imaginary orc chieftain, Ku’nath, who has put a price on the head of his rival Bludthar. Both are powerful orcs and their war is spilling both orc and human blood. Something has to be done before there is more loss of life.
On the eve of a large war between the tribes, our wizard — let’s call him Gerhardt — has an epic-scale spell that banish the combatants to the plane of Acheron. There is so much war and strife there, one more battle will hardly be noticed. And best of all, the village in the orc crossfire will be spared. We can assume that the PCs start in this village; either it’s their hometown or it is a rest stop between adventures for them to resupply. If the PCs occupy (or are passing through) this village it will give them incentive to stop the orc war. Since, I’m sure, they don’t want to die.
To complete the banishment spell, Gerhardt needs a rare spell component located in the jungle. The identity of this component isn’t important right now. We are still in the planning stages of this adventure so we don’t need every detail at once. We should make a note to research what sorts of rare fauna have been found in real jungles so that we will have an idea of what, reasonably, this spell component might be.
When I think “jungle,” I think yuan-ti. So let’s have a yuan-ti cult that has built a small temple around that spell component we need.
The top of the yuan-ti food chain is the abomination, and abominations are listed as CR 7. Halfbloods are CR 5 and purebloods are CR 3. This suggests tailoring the adventure to a group of around 3rd-5th level.
From three random rolls on a table and little imagination, I have the start of a fine adventure. Tomorrow, we will find a way to draw the PCs into the adventure and then map out Room One.