Using The Five Room Model
One thing that kills dungeons for me as a player and GM is length. If a crawl goes on and on I get bored and crave a change in play style. Not everybody feels this way, which is fine, but if you're like me then you might consider trying the five room dungeon formula:
Room 1: Entrance And Guardian
Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
Room 3: Red Herring
Room 4: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
Room 5: Plot Twist
A two to four hour dungeon romp quickens flagging campaign and session pacing and can be squeezed into almost any on- going story thread. It also grants a quick success (or failure) to keep the players keen and excited, is quick to plan for, lets GMs "theme" dungeons with greater ease, and can be plopped into most settings with minimal continuity issues.
Room 1: Entrance And GuardianThere needs to be a reason why your dungeon hasn't been plundered before. A rule of thumb is, the older the dungeon the more difficult room 1 needs to be--else the place would have been discovered and sacked well before the PCs come along. Also, a guardian sets up some early action to capture player interest and energize a session.
Room 1 challenge ideas:
- The entrance is trapped.
- The entrance is cleverly hidden.
- The entrance requires a special key, such as a ceremony, command word, or physical object.
- The guardian was deliberately placed to keep intruders out.
- The guardian is not indigenous to the dungeon and is a tough creature or force who's made its lair in room 1.
- Turn room 1 into a puzzle by creating a special requirement that lets the PCs pass (i.e. a riddle to solve).
Room 1 is also your opportunity to establish mood and/or theme to your dungeon, so dress it up with care.
Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying ChallengeThe PCs are victorious over the challenge of room 1 and are now presented with a trial that cannot be solved with steel. This will keep the problem solvers in your group happy and break the action up a bit for good pacing.
Room 2 can be an independent puzzle, or preferably, one that grants approach to rooms 3 and 4. It should allow for multiple solutions and engage more than just the rogue or wizard in the party.
Room 2 ideas:
- Ye old classic death trap.
- Magic puzzle, such as a chessboard tile floor with special squares.
- An intelligent entity grants access to the rest of the dungeon but must be befriended, not fought.
- A being far more powerful than the PCs must be roleplayed/ negotiated with.
Once you've figured out what room 2 is, try to plant one or more clues in room 1 about potential solutions. This will tie the adventure together a little tighter, will delight the problem solvers, and can be a back-up for you if the players get stuck.
Room 3: Red HerringThe purpose of this room is to build tension. The players think they've finally found the treasure, confronted the stage boss, and achieved their goal only to learn they've been tricked.
The best red herrings allow the PCs a choice between choosing room 3 or room 4 and then issue a penalty to those who choose room 3. In other words, avoid railroading PCs into taking room 3 because it will dampen the red herring's tension-building effect and puts a GM on thin ice as far as issuing a penalty is concerned.
Room 3 ideas:
- "The passage ends in a 'T'. The right looks well-travelled and the corridor is unremarkable. The left looks untouched, smells faintly of cinnamon, and there's a mysterious orange glow that can barely be seen at the end. Which way to do you go?" The left passage leads to the red herring.
- A fake sarcophagus that contains another guardian.
- A collapsed structure blocks part of the area. The debris is dangerous and blocks or hides nothing of importance.
- Contains a one-way exit (so the PCs must return and deal with rooms 1 and 2 again). i.e. teleport trap, one-way door, 2000 foot water slide trap.
- Room 3 does contain the PCs' goal but hides the presence of room 4, which contains an even greater reward.
Another potential payoff for room 3 is to weaken the PCs to make them more vulnerable for room 4. Perhaps room 3 simply contains a tough combat encounter. If this is the case, try to weaken any strengths that would give the PCs an advantage in room 4.
For example, if room 4 contains a mummy monster that is quite susceptible to fire, then make room 3 a troll lair (another creature often susceptible to fire) so the PCs might be tempted to burn off a lot of their fire magic, oil, and other flammable resources. This would turn a plain old troll battle into a gotcha, and thus a red herring, once the PCs hit room 4 and realize their mistake.
Don't forget to dress room 3 up with your theme elements to lend it credibility!
Room 4: Climax, Big Battle Or ConflictThis room is The Big Show. It's the big combat or conflict encounter and is the final challenge before the Big Reward. Try to make the environment interesting, engage all the PCs, and provide opportunities for PC tactical advantage so thinking players will be rewarded.
Room 5: Plot TwistHere's your opportunity to change the players' bragging to "we came, we saw, we slipped on a banana peel." Room 5 doesn't always represent a complication or point of failure for the PCs, but it can. Room 5 doesn't always need to be a physical location either--it can be a twist revealed in room 4.
Room 5 is where your creativity can shine and is often what will make the dungeon different and memorable from all the other crawls in your campaigns.
Room 5 ideas:
- Another guardian awaits in the treasure container.
- A trap that resurrects or renews the challenge from room 4.
- Bonus treasure is discovered that leads to another adventure, such as a piece of a magic item or a map fragment.
- A rival enters and tries to steal the reward while the PCs are dealing with the big challenge in room 4.
- The object of the quest/final reward isn't what it seems or has a complication. i.e. the kidnapped King doesn't want to return.
The five room format is simple yet allows for variety and permutation, thus it's a powerful little GM tool. I feel a GM is always better off improving their dungeons by making them smaller because it gives them more planning time for clues, plot hooks, character involvement, twists, etc.