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Roleplaying Tips Weekly E-Zine Issue #372

5 Room Dungeons + Contest


This Week's Tips Summarized 

5 Room Dungeons + Contest

  1. Why Do I Like 5 Room Dungeons?
  2. Room One: Entrance and Guardian
  3. Room Two: Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
  4. Room Three: Trick or Setback
  5. Room Four: Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
  6. Room Five: Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist
  7. Example 5 Room Dungeon - Library of the Ancients

Readers' Tips Summarized 

  1. Cyberpunk Resources
  2. Easy Method For Creating Objectives

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A Brief Word From Johnn 

5 Room Dungeon Contest

This week's tips are about a quick format template for making easy designs and entertaining game sessions. The 5 Room Dungeon is perfect for busy GMs with little prep time or those who dislike long crawls.

In conjunction with the fine folks at Strolen's Citadel, the 5 Room Dungeon contest gives you a chance to win some loot, have fun wielding your creativity, and help other GMs with your designs.


To enter the contest, send in one or more 5 Room Dungeons of your own creation. Use the tips in this issue to help build your designs. Use the example at the end of the tips as a model.

  • Make each room 1-3ish paragraphs long. Your 5 Room Dungeon can be as short as five paragraphs, or longer if you like.
    • Room One: Entrance And Guardian
    • Room Two: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
    • Room Three: Trick or Setback
    • Room Four: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
    • Room Five: Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist
  • Keep your designs as rules-free as possible. The best designs should serve as skeletons that other GMs can pick up and flesh out for their game system and campaign. No need for stat blocks or complex rules annotations.
  • Maps are definitely optional. Most 5 Room Dungeon designs won't need a map as the layout will be intuitive.
  • Multiple entries are welcome.
  • As with past contests, entries will be edited and given back to the community for free so all GMs can benefit from your designs.
  • Winners will be drawn at random, so don't worry if you aren't confident about your designs - every entry has an equal chance of winning, and it's just your participation that counts. Have some fun with it.
  • E-mail, text files, Word docs, and Open Office files are welcome.
  • E-mail your entries to or submit them at the Strolen's Citadel website .


Please submit your entries by September 26.


The following prizes have been generously supplied to support this contest. Please visit sponsor sites and check out their products.

  • 1 x D&D Icons Gargantuan Black Dragon From: Legend Games
  • 3 x MyInfo Personal Reference Software licenses From: Milenix Software
  • 3 x D&D modules:
    • DCC #46 Book of Treasure Maps
    • DCC #47 Tears of the Genie
    • DCC #50 Vault of the Iron Overlord by Monte Cook From: Goodman Games
  • 5 x Adventure PDFs:
    • 1 on 1 Adventures #5 Vale of the Sepulcher
    • #6 Shroud of Olindor
    • #7 Eyes of the Dragon
    • #8 Blood Brothers
    • Advanced Adventures #3 The Curse of the Witch Head From: Expeditious Retreat Press

To summarize, craft your own 5 Room Dungeons and submit them for a chance to win some great loot. Entries will be edited and formatted and given back to the community so others can have more fun at every game.

Good luck!


Johnn Four,

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5 Room Dungeons + Contest  

By Johnn Four

The following tips originally appeared in Issue #156, and they are among my favourite. I thought it was time to feature them again with some edits, a new tip or two, and a contest.

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1. Why Do I Like 5 Room Dungeons? 

This format, or creation method, has a number of advantages:

  • Any location. Though I call them 5 Room Dungeons, they actually apply to any location with five or so areas. They don't have to be fantasy or dungeons. They could take the form of a small space craft, a floor in a business tower, a wing of a mansion, a camp site, a neighbourhood.
  • Short. Many players dislike long dungeon crawls, and ADD GMs like to switch environments up often. In addition, some players dislike dungeons all together, but will go along with the play if they know it's just a short romp. This helps ease conflicts between play styles and desires.
  • Quick to plan. With just five rooms to configure, design is manageable and fast. Next time you are killing time, whip out your notepad and write down ideas for themes, locations, and rooms. Knock off as many designs as you can and choose the best to flesh out when you have more time and to GM next session.
  • Easier to polish. Large designs often take so long to complete that game night arrives before you can return to the beginning and do one or more rounds of tweaking and polishing. The design speed of 5 Room Dungeons leaves room most of the time to iterate.
  • Easy to move. 5 Room Dungeons can squeeze into many places larger locations and designs can't. If your dungeon goes unused or if you want to pick it up and drop it on a new path the PCs take, it's often easier to do than when wielding a larger crawl.
  • Flexible size. They are called 5 Room Dungeons, but this is just a guideline. Feel free to make 3-area locations or 10-cave complexes. The idea works for any small, self- contained area.
  • Easy to integrate. A two to four hour dungeon romp quickens flagging campaign and session pacing, and can be squeezed into almost any story thread. It also grants a quick success (or failure) to keep the players engaged. The format is also easy to drop into most settings with minimal consistency issues.

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2. Room One: Entrance And Guardian 

There needs to be a reason why your dungeon hasn't been plundered before or why the PCs are the heroes for the job. A guardian or challenge at the entrance is a good justification why the location remains intact. Also, a guardian sets up early action to capture player interest and energize a session.

Room One 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. Examples: a golem, robot, or electric fence.
  • The guardian is not indigenous to the dungeon and is a tough creature or force who's made its lair in room one.
  • The entrance is hazardous and requires special skills and equipment to bypass. For example: radiation leaks, security clearance, wall of fire.

Room One is also your opportunity to establish mood and theme to your dungeon, so dress it up with care.

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3. Room Two: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge 

The PCs are victorious over the challenge of the first room and are now presented with a trial that cannot be solved with steel. This keeps problem solvers in your group happy and breaks the action up for good pacing.

Make Room Two a puzzle, skill-based, or roleplaying encounter, if possible. Room Two should shine the limelight on different PCs than Room One, change gameplay up, and offer variety between the challenge at the entrance and the challenge at the end.

Note, if Room One was this type of encounter, then feel free to make Room Two combat-oriented.

Room Two should allow for multiple solutions to prevent the game from stalling.

Room Two ideas:

  • Magic puzzle, such as a chessboard tile floor with special squares.
  • An AI blocks access to the rest of the complex and must be befriended, not fought.
  • A buzzer panel for all the apartments, but the person the PCs are looking for has listed themselves under a different name, which can be figured out through previous clues you've dropped.
  • A concierge at the front desk must be bluffed or coerced without him raising the alarm.
  • A dirt floor crawls with poisonous snakes that will slither out of the way to avoid open flame. (A few might follow at a distance and strike later on.)
  • The PCs must convince a bouncer to let them in without confiscating their weapons.

Once you've figured out what Room Two is, try to plant one or more clues in Room One about potential solutions. This ties the adventure together a little tighter, will delight the problem solvers, and can be a back-up for you if the players get stuck.

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4. Room Three: Trick or Setback 

The purpose of this room is to build tension. Do this using a trick, trap, or setback. For example, after defeating a tough monster, and players think they've finally found the treasure and achieved their goal, they learn they've been tricked and the room is a false crypt.

Depending on your game system, use this room to cater to any player or character types not yet served by the first two areas. Alternatively, give your group a double-dose of gameplay that they enjoy the most, such as more combat or roleplaying.

Room Three ideas:

  • The PCs rescue a number of prisoners or hostages. However, the victims might be enemies in disguise, are booby-trapped, or create a dilemma as they plead to be escorted back to safety immediately.
  • A collapsed structure blocks part of the area. The debris is dangerous and blocks nothing of importance, another trap, or a new threat.
  • Contains a one-way exit (the PCs must return and deal with Rooms One and Two again). i.e. Teleport trap, one-way door, 2000 foot water slide trap.
  • The PCs finally find the artifact required to defeat the villain, but the artifact is broken, cursed, or has parts missing, and clues reveal a solution lies ahead.
  • Believing the object of the quest now lays within easy reach, an NPC companion turns traitor and betrays the PCs.

Another potential payoff for Room Three is to weaken the PCs as build-up to a dramatic struggle in Room Four. It might contain a tough combat encounter, take down a key defense, exhaust an important resource, or make the party susceptible to a certain type of attack.

For example, if Room Four contains a mummy whose secret weakness is fire, then make Room Three a troll lair (or another creature 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 once the PCs hit Room Four and realize the are out of fire resources.

Don't forget to dress Room Three up with your theme elements.

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5. Room Four: Climax, Big Battle or Conflict 

This room is The Big Show. It's the final combat or conflict encounter of the dungeon. Use all the tactics you can summon to make this encounter memorable and entertaining.

  • As always, generate interesting terrain that will impact the battle.
  • Start or end with roleplay. Maybe the bad guy needs to stall for time to let PC buffs wear out, to wait for help to arrive, or to stir himself into a rage. Perhaps the combat ends with the bad guy bleeding to death and a few short words can be exchanged, or there are helpless minions or prisoners to roleplay with once the threat is dealt with.
  • Give the bad guy unexpected powers, abilities, or equipment.
  • Previous rooms might contain warning signals or an alarm, so the bad guy has had time to prepare.
  • The bay guys tries to settle things in an unusual way, such as through a wager or a duel.
  • The lair is trapped. The bad guy knows what or where to avoid, or has the ability to set off the traps at opportune moments.
  • The bad guy reveals The Big Reward and threatens to break it or put it out of the PCs' so reach so they'll never collect it.
  • The bad guy has a secret weakness that the PCs figure out how to exploit.
  • A variety of PC skills and talents are required to successfully complete the encounter.

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6. Room Five: Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist 

Here's your opportunity to change the players' bragging to "we came, we saw, we slipped on a banana peel." Room Five doesn't always represent a complication or point of failure for the PCs, but it can. Room Five doesn't always need to be a physical location either - it can be a twist revealed in Room Four.

Room Five is where your creativity can shine and is often what will make the dungeon different and memorable from the other crawls in your campaigns.

In addition, if you haven't supplied the reward yet for conquering the dungeon, here is a good place to put the object of the quest, chests of loot, or the valuable information the PCs need to save the kingdom.

As accounting tasks take over from recent, thrilling, combat tasks, this would also be a good time to make a campaign or world revelation, or a plot twist. Perhaps the location of the next 5 Room Dungeon is uncovered, along with sufficient motivation to accept the quest. Maybe the true identity of the bad guy is revealed. New clues and information pertaining to a major plot arc might be embedded in the treasure, perhaps sewn into a valuable carpet, drawn in painting, or written on a slip of paper stuffed into a scroll tube or encoded on a data chip.

Room Five ideas:

  • Another guardian awaits in the treasure container.
  • A trap that resurrects or renews the challenge from Room Four.
  • 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 weakened after the big challenge of Room Four.
  • 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 quest was a trick. By killing the dungeon's bad guy the PCs have actually helped the campaign villain or a rival. Perhaps the bad guy was actually a good guy under a curse, transformed, or placed into difficult circumstances.
  • The bad guy turns out to be a PC's father.
  • The true, gruesome meaning behind a national holiday is discovered.
  • The source of an alien race's hostility towards others is uncovered, transforming them from villains to sympathetic characters in the story.
  • The true meaning of the prophecy or poem that lead the PCs to the dungeon is finally understood, and it's not what the PCs thought.

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7. Example 5 Room Dungeon - Library of the Ancients 

Here is an example 5 Room Dungeon to inspire your contest entries. In your campaign, you'll need to flesh out some of the details, but this skeleton format is perfect for GMs to pick up and customize for their own memorable sessions.

Room One: Entrance

The guardian is a permanent hurricane situated over a small, rocky island that is far from civilization. Approach by air and sea is too difficult by normal means. The storm energies have attracted numerous elementals to the region as well, and though most can be bypassed with caution, it's likely at least one or two will be encountered and fought.

Room Two: Puzzle or Roleplay

The island has been swept clean so now it is bare, slippery rock. Winds threaten to carry away anything not secured to the ground. High up on one of the cliffs is a cave with flickering light streaming out. The first challenge is puzzling out how to reach the cave.

At the back of the cave is a large portal sealed by magic. A command word is required to open the valve, and the PCs should have enough clues found previously to figure it out. Perhaps it is the name of an item or NPC.

A castaway lives in the cave, though he is either out or cleverly hidden when the PCs arrive. He survives by climbing down a hidden, sheltered path that leads to a protected bay where he fishes and salvages what the currents wash up. He knows the command word but is insane from solitude and the continual violence of the storm. He craves to see the sun again - if the PCs can show him the sun he'll reveal the password.

Room Three: Trick or Setback

Using the command word, a special ability, or quite a bit of destruction, the PCs bypass the portal and travel down a long set of stairs. Angry booming from wind and wave echoes through the tunnel.

If the PCs don't spot and flip a switch, the tunnel continues on until it opens up into a huge cavern full of bookshelves and dry, ancient tomes. Invaluable knowledge is stored here, as are a pair of immortal fire guardians.

The guardians are sentient and can be parleyed with. If they deem the PCs worthy, they provide knowledge of the switch back up in the stairwell, which opens an entrance to a second tunnel.

Their primary task is to protect the library from evil, and they will start torching the books if the PCs attack or if the guardians deem the action necessary.

Room Four: Big Battle

The secret passage leads down to a cave where a powerful elemental has been imprisoned. The elemental was tricked by the builders of the library and was told his realm was under attack. Over the course of weeks, the builders brought evidence that the elemental's home had been destroyed. Already angry at being imprisoned, the elemental's rage grew and grew as he came to believe that his home and kin were destroyed. As intended, the creature's rage was funneled and amplified until it fueled a small hurricane that surrounded the island.

The builders told the elemental his prison sentence was 1,000 years, which is true, and with that deadline and plans for revenge, his rage has not diminished over time.

The elemental is free to move about in his cave, and can communicate in broken common with the PCs if they try. It's not true that his realm was destroyed all those years ago, which can be confirmed by any of the elementals outside. If the PCs can convince the creature his realm is safe, or calm him down another way, the hurricane will disperse after a day.

Killing the elemental will be very tough. The hurricane also disperses a day after the creature's death.

Room Five: Reward or Twist

The object of the quest lies within a chest protected by the elemental at the centre of the cave. The builders lied and told the creature the last of his realm's essence was trapped inside the chest, and opening the chest would release the essence, forever ensuring a new realm could not be built. This further fueled the creature's rage, the chest serving as a goading reminder, but the creature is unwilling to destroy the container as it plans to wait the 1,000 years and rebuild.

The chest can contain the object of the PCs' quest, or it can contain a map and clues to the real location of the treasure, which happens to be deep inside an active volcano thousands of miles distant. It also contains a note to the elemental, in case it did break open the container, revealing the builders' lies and rubbing the creature's nose in its own stupidity. This should reveal the twist of the backstory to the PCs if they opted to attack the creature and killed it. If the creature still lives it will demand to read the note, which will likely send it into a blind rage all over again, giving the PCs a bit of a dilemma.

* * *

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, and so on.

Don't forget to enter contest. If you have any questions, feel free to e-mail me.

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Dragon Magazine #359 - Final Issue!

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Readers' Tips Of The Week: 

Have some GM advice you'd like to share? E-mail it to - thanks!

1. Cyberpunk Resources 

From: Kate Manchester

In cyberpunk campaigns, I find visual aids are quite helpful. Location layouts can be generated using Google Earth, and there's always lots of other pictures to be found on the web.

Event-wise, there should be some sort of disaster(s) that happened. Shadowrun mentions the Crash of '29, which took out all the computer systems, the eruptions of 5 volcanoes in the Pacific Rim, and the Goblinization that turned ordinary humans into meta-humans, just to name a few.

A Cyberpunk campaign should have a gritty sort of feel to it, in my opinion. The future has arrived, but it's a dystopia instead of the promised paradise. Blade Runner is a good example of a cyberpunk world.

Here's a couple links that might be helpful:

Now, some equal time for you Shadowrunners:

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2. Easy Method For Creating Objectives 

From: Brody Guest

In pretty much every game I've played you have objectives of some sort, be it mission objectives in a military game or quests in a role-playing game. However, it all boils down to a similar thing: something you want/need to get done for something good to happen. So, I thought, why not see how it goes giving my players objectives that were more than just quests. I came up with 3 categories:

  1. Primary
  2. Personal
  3. Secret

Primary objectives are the big quests and obvious ones. They are usually a good reason for all the PCs to stick together, defeat the evil tyrant, escape from prison and clear their names, and all the "forced to work together" ones.

Personal objectives are individual motivations for each character, that might not be party goals, and are something the individual hopes to achieve during the course of adventure. These objectives help the party know what kind of person their new friend is.

Secret objectives are those the PC would not or cannot tell the others about. It might be a dark secret they hope to fulfill or an old grudge they aim to settle. The reward is often substantial (family heirloom weapon, gaining a title, self satisfaction, and most of all: EXP).

Let's see how they apply to William, the bold Fighter:

Primary Objective: William, before now, was just the usual hired muscle, guarding caravans, stopping raids - the usual stuff. On his last mission, however, he wasn't quite working for who he thought he was. He ended up attacking the wrong people and was put in prison. So, his primary objective is to escape with the help of others, clear his name, and bring the real bad guys to justice.

Personal Objective: William has been working the trade routes in a hope to find better work. He wants to be spotted by a veteran group that needs an extra sword. He wants fame, fortune, and glory through using his physical talents.

Secret Objective: Little does his party know, William only wants all this fame and fortune because he wants to be better than his childhood rival who always put him in second place as a youth.

Even with only these three objectives in mind, you can quickly start to get a feel for what kind of person this warrior is, and for a GM, there are plenty of plot hooks you can throw at the PC while they try to complete these objectives.

Rewarding Objectives

Primary: Primary objectives are your standard main quests, so a reward that suits the quest is expected: saving the village and being rewarded with a plot of land, helping the king and being granted a title of some sort, looting the ruins and finding a horde of gold.

The reward would be something that could be divided evenly between the part members, or would benefit everyone in some way.

Personal: These are often a character development quest, and most objectives I've thought of would be rewarded with just experience points. However, saying that, feel free to reward your players generously for completing these. Keep in mind that most rewards for these objectives will focus on the player that completed it.

Secret: This is my favourite objective, because with my players I've added the condition that they aren't allowed to let the other players (or PCs) know they are trying to complete this objective. At the same time, the reward for the individual is much greater than any other quest or objective.

If they do tell the others I lower the reward accordingly, but if I know they managed to get the group to help them pull it off without them knowing, then full marks Ð lots of EXP and a big sack of loot (within reason).

Once your player completes an objective, replace it with another. So, during the course of your games, your players constantly have up to three things they want to do all at the same time. I'm currently playing with only a group of two players, and looking at expanding, but with more players the amount of objectives and plot hooks just goes through the roof!

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