Tabletop RPGs are run by people, not computers. That means there is truly an infinite, unlimited open world in these things. In computer or console RPGs, there is a limit to where and what we can explore. On the tabletop, there isn’t. This is all driven by player choice: they can actually choose to go somewhere not on the map.
For there to be a right choice, then there must necessarily be a wrong choice. To keep the game world realistic, we must give the players at least one wrong choice to make. It preserves the illusion that the players have free will in the game.
The Five Room Dungeon model isn’t unique to me, and others have printed e-books and created YouTube videos on this framework. What I call the “red herring” others call the “trick,” or the “setback.” The intent of this room is the same: you want to give your players a path to explore that has nothing to do with solving the dungeon or advancing the story.
Like Room 5, this room is purely optional. It doesn’t need to be here. But you really should include it because it ramps up the tension. The PCs will feel like they failed when they can’t advance the story.
Earlier, I stated that the five main rooms should have something to do with Room 0. That means our red herring should look like it’s part of the main dungeon, even though this room is not necessary to solve the dungeon or advance the story. This way the players will think they are on the right track.
For our purposes, we need a little foreshadowing. So today, I will detail two short rooms. First, beyond the door we solved yesterday should be a weapons room. It probably isn’t the only thing beyond that door, but it will be the main attraction. The second room is the actual setback.
Lay the first encounter out like this:
Read aloud or paraphrase the following text:
You enter a rectangular chamber, longer than it is deep. Displayed on the wall opposite the door are a myriad of weapons and armor — silver and gold gauntlets, heavy boots with spikes on the heels and shin guards, morning stars, glaives, and a large shield with crossed swords behind it in the center of the wall directly opposite the door. On the floor between a stone slab rises, and sitting on it is a four-foot long staff with an ornate cobra’s head, its eyes gleam red. You can feel the evil of the staff when you catch its eyes.
If anyone wants to examine the weapons or armor, have them make a DC 12 search check. Success means they notice arcane glyphs on the wall. A DC 20 Spellcraft check or a DC 20 Decipher Script check indicates that they are related to constructing the magical door trap that blocked off this section of the dungeon. If any PC has studied Gerhardt the Wizard’s spellbooks or other writings, he gains a +2 insight bonus to this roll, and success further means he will realize Gerhardt himself is the architect of the door trap.
Treasure: The weapons from the wall. Roll treasure for all the present yuan-ti, and what weapons they haven’t equipped may be found on display in this room, or you (as DM) may decide on other weapons or armor in this room.
The real treasure is the staff. It radiates conjuration and evil magic, and a DC 15 Appraise check reveals those are real rubies in the eyes of that cobra. The staff has a function important to the yuan-ti, but the PCs can’t activate it.
The setback will appear to be the boss room. As with any good boss encounter, a brief role play session begins before the battle. However, if the players handle this encounter right, there won’t be a battle at all. Lay the second encounter out like this:
Read aloud or paraphrase the following text:
You enter the temple’s main audience chamber. Around the altar is coiled a large serpent with the arms of a man and yellow eyes that glint with intelligence. It looks at you and says, in a hissing version of Common, “Intrude ye into the depths of this maze… Why? / For what have ye come?”
The temple leader, Khashirya, speaks in over-dramatic iambic pentameter. It has no care for the ingredient that the PCs want, it only wants the snake staff located in the vault detailed in the previous entry.
There are a couple of options here. If the PCs go swords a-swingin’, then the abomination fights back. See tactics, below. If the PCs try to negotiate, the creature will at least hear them out. Assume it starts with an attitude of Unfriendly. If it is made Hostile, it will attack immediately (again, see tactics, below). If the PCs present it with the staff or suggest that they’ve beaten the door puzzle in front of the treasure vault, Khashirya becomes Friendly and will give the PCs the spell component that they seek.
Creature (EL 7): The giant serpent around the altar is a yuan-ti abomination, the leader of this small cult. He has a pet viper (the large one) that slithers around him as he pets it, and five medium vipers that are hidden throughout the room, awaiting his command.
Khashirya (Yuan-ti abomination): hp 67; Monster Manual 264.
Large viper: hp 14; Monster Manual 280.
Medium vipers (5): hp 7, 8, 7, 8, 5; Monster Manual 280.
Tactics: As it’s talking, Khashirya silently uses its aversion spell-like ability on each PC. It hangs back at least 10 feet so that, hopefully, the PCs won’t notice that this is happening. It can do this once per round as it talks.
If negotiations break down, Kashirya orders his vipers into battle. PCs that failed the saving throws for aversion must at all times stay 10 feet away from any viper or from Khashirya. The vipers all lunge for nearby PCs and try to bite them to inject venom, while their master attacks in melee with its scimitar. If Khashirya can subdue an opponent, it tries its constrict attack.
If things start looking grim (for example, it is down to 1/3 of its hit points or less), then it will call for aid. When it does that, 2 yuan-ti purebloods arrive 1d4 rounds later to join the fight. Khashirya would prefer to fight another day, so it will retreat by the quickest route available if it knows it can’t win.
Treasure: Khashirya has the rare spell component that the PCs seek. It is in a secret compartment under the altar and it will happily give the component to the PCs if they present the creature with the staff from the treasure room (or at least convince it that they opened the door).
Development: If Khashirya is made Friendly, it will leave the PCs with a warning when they leave. When the PCs state they are walking away, read aloud or paraphrase the following:
“Lo!” you hear Khashira shout. “Before thy departure, mortals, Please! / Let me warn thee against thy patron, the / Wizard Gerhardt! Not who he seems at first, / He is not even a man, a hag she / Twists herself into when in solitude.”
If Khashirya retreats or is destroyed by the PCs, the PCs can still discover the hidden compartment with a DC 20 Search check. Give them a +2 bonus if they state specifically they are checking the throne.
Ad-hoc XP Adjustment: Award the PCs full experience for defeating Khashirya in battle if they win it over with the staff.
Ah, a plot twist! Seems the Wizard Gerhardt isn’t who he said he is. He is actually… a she?
I wonder what will happen next. The boss battle is next, so stick with us as we wrap this sample dungeon up over the next couple of days.