What is a 5 Room Dungeon? An analysis of story structure-Part I

By reading part I of this article, you will:

  • Learn about the 5 Room Dungeon Method
  • Read examples of how to scale the 5RDM to meet your GM needs
  • Learn tips on how to use the 5RDM at your table

The 5 Room Dungeon Method is an improvisational/creativity tool used by GM’s when creating a location. It was created by Johnn Four on his website Roleplayingtips.com (Original post here). If you haven’t been over to his website, it is a fantastic resource towards honing your craft as a GM. Although the name says 5 room dungeon method, the 5RDM is more of an understanding of how to build dynamic sessions and locations. Once a GM internalizes this method, his/her cognitive load of having to improv something out of thin air goes down and leaves more space to build immersion. There are many variations, but today, we will be talking about this one (if you are familiar with the 5RDM, I suggest scrolling down to the GM Tips Section):

5 room dungeon

Room 1: Threshold Guardian

This room is important because it not only establishes why this location has not been plundered in the past, but also sets the tone for the rest of the location. If you are going for horror, enforce gore and suspense. If you are going to high fantasy, enforce the glow and buzz of lingering magic. E.g a literal threshold guardian blocks the way, an intricately locked door, a shifty eyed mall cop, an aetherium barrier that requires the correct ritual.

Room 2: Puzzle/Roleplay

This room needs to be the converse of Room 1. If the previous room was a combat encounter, let this be a puzzle or a conversation with an NPC or vice versa. Also, if someone was the all-star of last scene, let someone else shine for this one by showcasing problems that could be solved with specific skills; although, it is important to pose the problem of this room, but not try not to subscribe one specific fix to the puzzle. Whatever answer the party comes up with should work. E.g. a broken bridge, an injured NPC who had surely seen the BBEG just before being knocked out, a trap noticed right before its sprung, the executive elevator that requires a pass-card.

Room 3: Trick/Setback

This room is the secret tension valve. As the GM, this midway point is yours to turn the screws on the party or take a soft touch, depending. This room needs to be the twist before the climax; how painful or helpful that twist is is up to you. This room could be a red herring, dead end, betrayal by the beloved NPC, or a quick showcase of the BBEG’s power before the last fight. E.g ‘The little girl who begged us to help her just ran off with the gold!’, ‘The (mcguffin) is a fake!’, ‘Saint Cuthbert collapsed the only exit!’, ‘I hear an anti-magic ritual chant’, ‘That evil minion turned out to be your father in disguise!’

Room 4: Climax

This. is. it. Use dynamic environment moves and let all of that suspense and drama finally pour into the last encounter; although, this does not necessarily mean a fight. Depending on what system you are using, throw all the powerful moves at the party. I won’t go too much into this one, but Johnn Four gives some great suggestions on how to get the most out of it.

Room 5: Reward/Twist

This room is the pay off. Did the party win? Were they able to stop by the BBEG before the missile launched? Let the party reap the benefits of their hard work, but there is a caveat. This is important, so make sure you remember this. The reward should only be 80% of what they expect. This doesn’t mean that the remaining 20% needs to be punitive. If the party got 100% of what they expected, the story is pretty much over. As the GM, gauge how much of a twist you can get away with, but it needs to lead to more story. Unless you are playing a one-off, this kind of rising action and resolution can lead the players to lose interest as the chapter closes. Make that 20% something that hooks them to leave their location and head over the next hill. E.g. A dossier is found that reveals the BBEG’s next plan, the Legacy Weapon will be more powerful if we reunite it with it’s pommel, ‘why is the mayor’s necklace around the beast’s neck?’

GM Tips

Now that you know the basics of the 5RDM you are free to tweak them however you, the GM, want. I honestly feel that the 5RDM is the strongest and most versatile tool for any GM. This method allows for single location creation, but can also be zoomed in or zoomed out to fit your need. With some practice and some mental tap dancing, the 5RDM can be used for any scope of game play. Here are two examples:

Othelton Provence: The party is paid to deliver a package to Lord Regent Streven in Othelton.

  • Scene 1: Guards block the portcullis to Othelton, because of a Nether rot outbreak (Threshold)
  • Scene 2: Once the town market, the thief PC recognizes a scrimshaw merchant, whom is willing to give information for a price (Puzzle, Role-play)
  • Scene 3: The merchant screams out and accuses someone in the party of spitting up Nether rot to cover up his own infection (Setback)
  • Scene 4: The personal sentries of House Streven attack the party, thinking that they mean to infect Lord Regent Streven with Nether rot (Climax)
  • Scene 5: After the party defeats the sentries and convince Streven that they are just couriers, he pays their fee and opens the pack. Inside is the corpse of a Nether rot infested crow. This has all been some terrible rues! What do you do? (Reward and Twist)

Tumwater Arcanium: The party must find a cure for the Nether rot. Their journey has brought them to a mystical tower of knowledge.

  • Scene 1: The party has found the Tome of Maladies atop the Dias of Monte Chevalier. A riddle in a dialect of an ancient and lost language protects the book (Threshold)
  • Scene 2:  A puff of aether dust shoots out and a Djinni attacks the party (Combat)
  • Scene 3: After defeat, the Djinni tells the party that he is only doing his duty and is now free of his obligation. He means no hard feelings for his attack, but now wishes to see the world outside of this tower. He can only leave if he attaches himself via blood oath to a party member (Positive Twist?)
  • Scene 4: The sentience inside of the Tome of Maladies is outraged in the Djinni’s fickle loyalty. The Tome of Maladies can be convinced to not attack for a hefty price, but if not, a battle will ensue. The book unleashes every known curse of illness upon the party. The Djinni will fight with the party, but it will be tough.
  • Scene 5: The party destroys the Tome of Maladies in the final battle, but may be able to salvage some pages if the remains are taken to to someone who knows a lot about magically mending cursed literature.

In my first example, the 5 scenes take place over the course of many hours inside of a city. In the second example, the scenes take place in a matter of about 5 minutes in one room. This is why I feel the 5 room dungeon is the best tool for on-the-fly or emergent game play. Systems like PBtA, Dungeon World, Beyond the Wall, and other games that allow PCs to go where they please can really benefit from this the 5RDM due to its ability to adapt to player intervention. More traditional games, like D&D and Pathfinder can benefit from this method during session prep.

Finally, I have tweaked this method to fit my own play style and liking. I enjoy playing more narrative focused, player agency, emergent creation games (This is my uptight way of saying ‘story games’). These are the tips I have found useful:

  • Always plant an NPC connected to the 5RDM location. This allows you, the GM, to have some control over pacing without it looking like you are rail roading. A dungeon with no connection to the world is boring. If you can plant an NPC that the players care for right away, then you have more latitude to manipulate tension and pacing. My favorite plant is to put an exhausted little boy or girl right outside of a dungeon. Everyone is a sucker for a child who is just trying to get back to mommy. Later, when you get to room 3 you can place this NPC into harm’s way and see if the PC’s will sacrifice to save the child. Room 4 needs a twist…what secret is the child hiding? Why is the child really here in the first place?
  • This is redundant, but make sure you share the spot light in a 5RD. Too often the ancillary skills of bards, clerics, wizards, and druids forgotten. It is ok to pander. Let them talk to a rock, serenade the NPC, cleanse tainted water, and make flavor cubes or whatever. As long as it moves them to the next room, say ‘yes’.
  • Even if players know that you are using this method, the action, flow, and pacing are so enjoyable that they will honestly not care. If you are feeling adventurous as a GM, give each player a room to design. Right out in front of everyone. Let everyone be a part of the dungeon creation. It sounds kind of odd for players to run their PCs through a dungeon with omnipotent knowledge, but they will be more invested than if they were to blindly run through a boring goblin warren for the Nth time. Also, excitement will come from the audibles you call on the fly in real time as the party traverses through a room they thought they knew everything about.
  • Be careful with dead ends and red herrings. If you find yourself having to use the 5RDM with the same group too many times, your friends will start to realize pretty quickly that the treasure is never just sitting on a table with no fight. Also, physical and narrative dead ends can make players feel like they wasted that time.


That is it for ‘What is a 5 Room Dungeon? An Analysis of Story Structure-Part I’. In part II, I will get into the psychology of why the 5RDM hits all of the sweet spots of story structure. If you found this article enlightening, please comment or follow.

4 thoughts on “What is a 5 Room Dungeon? An analysis of story structure-Part I

  1. Just finished designing a dungeon using this technique. What a great scaffold! Will drop you a line after i’ve run it to let you know how it went in practice 🙂


      1. This is a plan for Dungeon World so i’m trying to keep things pretty open… as a result there are more questions than answers as the rooms progress. Tried to keep it short, but yeeeeaahhh 🙂 Would be happy to receive any ideas you might have.

        The characters (a fighter, a druid, an archeologist and a paladin) are heading towards The Tomb of Saint Secretariat to recover his famous armour…

        Room 1 – Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
        The entrance of the tomb only emerges during a fierce storm (this has been foreshadowed during a previous session).
        How will this be triggered? Waiting, praying, a rain dance, something else..?
        When the storm begins the tomb rockets up from the earth, leaving the characters on the roof preparing to head down into the tower. Strange melodies can be heard in the wind (foreshadowing the singing sword guardian in room 2).

        Clocks/Grim Portents: The bottom entrance of the tower now exposed to the party’s rivals who might arrive at any time. Centaur tribes notice the tomb rising and come to investigate.

        Room Two: Puzzle, Roleplaying or Combat Challenge

        Small maze / Singing sword in the dark…
        The Singing Sword of the Trickster Saint Secretariat (based on the Singing Sword by Jeremy Strandberg https://plus.google.com/+JeremyStrandberg/posts/TiXEQcEa5jy).

        This part is particularly great:

        Instinct: to defend the hall, to ease its loneliness

        If they make noise: respond with strange music
        If they enter the hall without making music: try to scare them off
        If they flee: let them go
        If they persist: draw blood
        If they sing or make music: respond enthusiastically, guide through the maze..?
        If they then make to leave: wail, moan, and stop them

        Room Three: Trick or Setback

        The University rival is here with Eustace Weatherbee (the archeologist’s little friend).
        They are literally leaving down the stairs with the Armour of Saint Secretariat as the heroes arrive.
        Do the bad guys booby trap the stairs/collapse it/set it on fire..?
        A guardian has been activated! What is it??? Snakes pour in???

        Room Four: Climax, Big Battle or Conflict

        Catch up? Negotiation? Hostage exchange?
        Eustace Weatherbee threatened?
        A fight… mercenaries left behind?
        Douchebag escapes with armour?

        Shit is crazy. Centaurs and horses in the Storm.
        The bad douche is wearing the armour… he looks amazing!

        Room Five: Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist

        Do the heroes win: does the bad guy escape?
        How was Eustace treated: maybe he will play a part?
        Centaurs want to keep/rebury the treasure?????
        Will the archeologist and the paladin be able to reach an agreement about what to do with the relic?

        Liked by 1 person

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