This section is derived from the article "6 Methods for Making Dungeons More Interesting", written by Johnn Four and posted at his Roleplaying Tips site.
Occasionally, a GM will either have to work with a very small player group (say only one or two people) or have one whose members become bored easily if there isn't a whole lot of variety in the adventure. One way to avoid having an adventure become too unwieldy is to use the Five Room Dungeon model. As the name suggests, five room dungeons are adventures whose plots are structured around five specific elements (or "rooms"), each of which is designed to highlight a different facet of role-playing. The idea behind the model is to give various members of the player group a chance to shine in their particular area, and "to give something for everybody". The method is simple to utilize while still allowing for variety and permutation and is thus a powerful tool. It quickens session pacing, grants a quick success (or failure) to keep players keen and excited, lets GMs "theme" dungeons with greater ease, can be squeezed into almost any ongoing story thread, and can be utilized in most settings with minimal continuity issues. In making an adventure smaller and compressing it into just one or two gaming sessions, the GM usually gets more planning time for clues, plot hooks, character involvement, twists and so forth.
Five Room Dungeons contain the following elements:
- Entrance / Guardian
- Puzzle / Roleplaying Challenge
- Red Herring
- Plot Twist
The first room is the Entrance / Guardian. Its purpose is to set up some early action to capture the interest of the players and to energize the session, to establish mood and to establish the theme of the adventure. Given its importance, the Entrance / Guardian should always be handled with care. If dealing with a specific site, it helps to establish why no one has gotten further into it prior to the arrival of the PCs. As a general rule of thumb, the longer the site has been guarded, the more difficult the first room needs to be (otherwise someone else would have dealt with the guardian long before the PCs came along). Some ideas for this room include an entry that is either trapped, well hidden or has a very specific set of requirements to access (such as a key or password), a creature that has made its home in the entrance (a well-suited feature for ruined buildings), a deliberately placed guardian (such as Kilrathi troops watching a group of prisoners), a puzzle or riddle that needs to be solved, or an initial, low-level dogfight.
Once the Guardian has been overcome, the next room involves a Puzzle or Role-Playing Challenge. This room is designed to keep any problem-solvers in the player group happy and to break up the action a little. It should allow for multiple solutions and be designed to engage more than one member of the player group. The room can be its own independent challenge but preferably should be one that grants approach to Rooms Three and Four. A good way to use the second room is to plant clues in the first room that will help the players solve the second. This will tie the adventure together more tightly, will delight the problem-solvers in a player group, and can act as a back-up plan if the players get stuck. Some ideas for this room are the need to overcome a sophisticated trap or puzzle, or an entity that cannot or must not be fought (i.e. something that must either be befriended or with whom passage must be negotiated; having to negotiate an asteroid belt or minefield is a good WC Universe example). A key point to this room is that a GM must know the limitations of their role-playing group; they should not design an overly complex puzzle when they know their players don't handle puzzles well (unless their intent is to frustrate and anger them).
The third room is the Red Herring, designed to build tension into the adventure by having the players discover that they've been tricked. The best Red Herrings allow the players a choice between heading towards Room Three or Room Four, with a penalty issued if they choose Room Three (for example, a fighter wing may receive two distress signals at the same time, one from an enemy buoy - the Red Herring - and one from a transport ship that's in genuine distress; chasing the buoy makes the transport all the more weaker when/if the wing finally arrives in its area). It can also be used to weaken any strengths that would give the PCs an advantage in the climatic challenge (such as providing an opportunity to fire off torpedoes, thus limiting the amount the players have available to them when the enemy carrier shows up for the climax). GMs should avoid forcing the players into encountering Room Three because it will dampen its tension-building effect and put them on thin ice as far as issuing a penalty is concerned. Some ideas for the Red Herring include hidden additional guardians, a proverbial "fork in the road" (one of which leads to nothing of importance), highlighting unimportant features in an area to divert the attention of the players, or including a trap which forces the players to renegotiate previous areas. The Red Herring room may also be used to hide the presence of the Climax room, which will then contain an even greater reward than what the players were originally expecting.
The fourth room contains the adventure's Climax. It's the big encounter and should be the adventure's final major challenge. GMs should try to make the environment of the room interesting, engage all the PCs and provide opportunities for tactical advantage so that thinking players will be rewarded. A dogfight in an area containing an enemy capital ship works very well here (particularly if destroying it is important to the overall story).
The fifth and final room is the Plot Twist, the purpose of which is to provide an opportunity for the GM to offer up something that will make the adventure different and memorable, where they're creativity has its best chance to shine. Room Five doesn't always represent a complication or point of failure for the PCs (though it easily can) and it doesn't always need to be a physical location; it can be a twist revealed during the Climax. Some ideas for the Twist include the presence of another guardian in the room where the players expect to receive their final reward, some sort of trap that renews the climatic challenge, a bonus that leads to a future adventure, a treasure or reward that isn't what it seems or has some manner of complication, or some kind of rival that swoops in to steal the reward while the players are still in the middle of the climatic challenge. A good Wing Commander example is an enemy fighter wing attacking the player's home carrier after a long and grueling patrol or strike mission.
The real beauty of the Five Room Dungeon model is that it can easily be expanded upon and modified to suit the needs of any playing group, and fits in well with the model for creating adventures previously discussed in this Chapter. Once a plot has been properly sliced and diced, its pieces can be readily set into one of the five rooms. A point for the climax and resolution is already in place in the model, with the three previous rooms acting as points for rising action. The model need not be taken literally and elements of it can be left out if necessary without affecting too much of what will take place in a given adventure. With a little creativity, the model can even be used as a set of anchor-points for a much larger adventure or even a full campaign.