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Should ALL Dungeons Be Five Room Dungeons?

After having read several great articles on Mike Shea’s blog [1], I picked up his book The Lazy Dungeon Master [2]. It’s a fast read, and worth the $5.99 asking price, (It’s around 60 pages and mostly about common things DMs spend a lot of time prepping that they don’t need to and how to streamline them, supported by a pretty cool survey he collected about DMing.) In his book, Mike talks about the minimal level of prep required for locations and gives (among others) this example location:

The Saltmines: Former center for the town’s industry, now closed down when they found a dark power buried deep within. Leads from Yellowtop to Ashland Fortress.

What the book doesn’t discuss, and what I was curious about, is how exactly, using Mike’s “lazy” method, one goes about mapping and populating a location like this that has the potential to be the proverbial “twisty little passages, all alike [3]“. So, I emailed Mike and asked how he handled that type of location.  He very quickly got back to me and I asked for his permission to share here. Here’s an excerpt: (Link to his product is mine, not his):

On the Lazy Dungeon Master and maps.

If the characters are going to explore a dungeon-type setting, I’ll usually try to steal and reskin a map to fit the situation. Either that or I’ll sketch a very rough stick-figure map that shows how locations are connected.

Since writing the Lazy Game Master I focused a fair bit of time on the idea of building “fantastic locations”. These are the interesting places that characters discover in their journeys and can be connected by various caves, tunnels, or passages. To me, the overall dungeon isn’t as interesting as the individual interesting locations in that dungeon so I tend not to let them get too complicated.

… There might be five fantastic locations in the cove interconnected by natural water-carved caves. Each location will have a name and three interesting traits (or “aspects”) that the characters can investigate or use if there’s a battle. Here are some examples:

  • The Tentacle Pillars: Huge stone tentacles that appear to pierce out of the ground; sinkhole that leads into the tunnels below; old octopus statue sitting on a pedestal that appears very old.
  • The Weeping Caverns: Stone caverns eaten away by streams of saltwater; carvings of strange symbols on the walls; illuminated shells of phosphorescent mollusks.
  • The Nursery: Submerged oily pool filled with psychic baby octopuses; large channeling crystal piercing down from the ceiling; chained screaming madman on the wall.

Those three come to mind but its early and I can’t think of three more at the moment. Hopefully you get the idea =)

If you poke around on Sly Flourish for more discussions of Fantastic Locations you’ll find more about it including the book of 20 locations [4] I wrote around these ideas.

Hope that answers your questions. …


The two approaches that Mike offers are good ones: swipe a map from elsewhere, or reduce a big complicated complex to a five room dungeon with “you travel east for a while, through a maze of tunnels until you come across . . . “. I don’t have much to say about the first one, except to point everyone to my favorite site for random dungeon generators [5]. But the second suggestion about reducing a big complex to a five room dungeon with handwavey bits between rooms has made me think quite a bit.

You see, I’m not sure I’m quite ready to give up my twisty mazes full of empty rooms, red herrings, and minor treasures just yet.

Maybe it’s nostalgia for the afternoons of lonely fun [6] (which I have just amusingly learned is now called a game’s “solitaire component [7]“) and gold box CRPGS [8], maybe it’s just me perpetuating the same skinner boxes of my youth where poking into nooks and crannies of maze like passages eventually resulted in a handful of GP until they could be traded in for a new breastplate, but to me half the fun of RPGs is skulking down damp passageways, ransacking moldering garbage heaps and searching areas where the map is weird in hopes of finding secret doors.

Maybe the answer lies somewhere in between the two. In one of his “MegaDungeon Monday” articles [9], The Angry GM discusses the “encounter space” which by his definition is a piece of the dungeon in which all inhabitants work as a unit. So if you have the stacks of a great library with study cubbies and there’s a wight in the stacks and skeletons in the cubbies, but engaging with the wight will alert the skeletons and they will open the cubby doors and surround the PCs, that’s an encounter area.

This middle ground definition allows for a bit of both worlds. You can create just a handful of encounter areas, each with something interesting in it, but you still get the nooks and crannies to explore, because each encounter area (most anyway) is comprised of a handful of rooms, some of which are interesting, some of which are not, some of which hold secrets and treasure, some of which don’t etc . . .

But, how much exploring and poking about in otherwise uninteresting space to do is really a secondary concern. Because the trivial answer is that you should do only as much of it as is interesting. Uninteresting exploration of uninteresting space is a waste of time and should be avoided. I have indeed played in games where no one did much exploring and if there was space that wasn’t an active encounter, paused only long enough to say: “I loot the room.”, toss off a search check, and move on. It may just be selective memory, but the reason for this was that exploration in these games was boring. Rooms were just a collection of squares, sometimes from a battle map, tiles, or a software program, description was minimal and there was the feeling that if a room contained a statue or a desk it was because it was filler, not because it may have been something interesting to interact with.

So the bigger question is, how do you make exploration interesting, even of areas that aren’t inherently interesting themselves? While I don’t claim to be an expert, there are a few tips I can give:

So I put it to all of you, because I’m not sure what the end conclusion is. Is poking into nooks and crannies, riffling through the pockets of ancient moldering coats, and sifting through dungeon trash heaps a valid and fun play style or am I biased and it’s more fun to hop between big set pieces? If it is a compelling play style, what are your best tricks to keep it fun and interesting? Like I said above, I’m not the expert on this, so I’d love to hear everyone’s thoughts and techniques.

8 Comments (Open | Close)

8 Comments To "Should ALL Dungeons Be Five Room Dungeons?"

#1 Comment By Solomon Foster On November 1, 2017 @ 5:33 am

I’m certainly not going to tell you the play style you like isn’t valid. But I got tired of carefully exploring dungeons thirty years ago.

If you told me I had to run a dungeon, the Lazy Dungeon Master’s approach sounds exactly right to me. Create a handful of interesting, vivid locations. Handwave them together. This works well for non-dungeon design as well.

#2 Comment By Joseph Collins On November 1, 2017 @ 6:56 am

It’s a funny one because it comes down to taste, so much. I too like the hand-wavey approach, but reading this article did give me a nostalgic twinge.

Would it work to have a pile of ‘treasure’ cards at the ready? Some are links to other quests (if using 5×5 campaigns) or just other adventures/dungeons, others are your ‘handful of coins’, while others are ‘giant centipedes!’ or ‘rot grubs galore’? They could even hold clues or provide useful items to help players overcome one of the perils in the five-room set-up.

When travelling through the ‘hand-wavery’, if a PC likes your description enough to explore, pick a card at random. Could that offer the best of both worlds?

#3 Comment By longshotist On November 1, 2017 @ 10:30 am

Great post! Big fan of donjon here myself.
This is a very interesting circumstance for me too and I find myself pondering it quite a bit. Today’s playstyles are often much more fast paced than earlier times in RPG history. Not everyone of course, but the influence of streaming games and modern sensibilities about moving things along quickly has had an impact for sure.
I often wonder what it would be like to go back to my gaming roots with classic dungeon crawls, but I worry the players in my group who are mostly new would find it jarring.
On the other hand perhaps it would be refreshing to explore D&D from a more traditional place like the sprawling dungeon or even megadungeon.
This article definitely adds to the conversation going on in my head 🙂

#4 Comment By Blackjack On November 1, 2017 @ 12:58 pm

I find “five room dungeon” to be a great organizing concept. As a concept, though, it’s not always literally true. For example, a successful adventure design could have more or less than 5 rooms. I’ve ranged from 3 to over 20. And it’s not just “rooms”, it could be encounter areas. Finally, of course, it’s not just dungeons but also caves, manor houses, towns, fields, swamps, etc.

To me the point of the concept “five room dungeon” is to simplify. Rather than build out a map-filling maze full of too little detail that the players slavishly explore anyway, focus on the scenes that define the scenario and move the story forward.

For example, in a recent wilderness adventure I created and ran, “Room 1” was the trip upriver from a major town to a small village where weird problems were happening. “Room 2” was the town itself, where the PCs got a sense of life in the stricken area and met a few sickened locals. “Room 3” was a farming field outside the village where specific monsters would attack. “Room 4” was a monastery up in the hills where the villain hid out with some of her minions. So, only four “rooms’ on that one. The first three I drew with loose sketches. For the fourth one I drew the garden around the monastery on a 5-foot grid map because spacing would be tactically important for the combat I planned there.

#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On November 2, 2017 @ 4:46 am

Thanks for all the feedback! I think the consensus here and on twitter was on the 5-room handwavy style being “best”. It’s certainly easier to prep. Still thinking about it. Thanks again. 🙂

#6 Comment By Solomon Foster On November 2, 2017 @ 6:59 am

I’d still hesitate to say “best”. If you enjoy searching for secret doors every 10′, go for it! But…

These days I run Amber, Lords of Gossamer and Shadow, and TimeWatch. Certainly you could build a exhaustingly detailed “dungeon” in any of them. (Think a series of settings/encounters with a small number of links to the next setting/encounter, with each link lovingly detailed.) But what you cannot do — without it feeling incredibly railroad-y — is force your players to stay in that dungeon. When freedom is the PCs’ norm — they can travel to any world and/or time at a moment’s notice! — then spending much time pre-planning the connective tissue between scenes starts to look like an enormous waste of time.

But coming up with around five vivid settings / encounters? That’s normally time well-spent. The players still might go off at a right angle and miss them. But usually they’ll hit at least half of them, and the game will be better all-around if the scenes are vivid and memorable.

#7 Comment By Blackjack On November 2, 2017 @ 5:50 pm

@Solomon– a crucial element of any adventure design is answering the players’ question, “What’s my character’s motivation?” A Five Room Dungeon that’s literally a dungeon doesn’t fit well with all game settings or character types. That’s why I gave the example above of how a Five Room Dungeon could actually be a Four Encounter Area Isolated Agricultural Countryside. Same idea, translated into a different language.

#8 Comment By Beoric On November 4, 2017 @ 8:07 am

I note that a 5 room dungeon is, by design, linear. Even if the layout is not strictly a line, there are effectively no meaningful choices; every room must be entered from the same entrance, and there is little room (or point) for foreshadowing or hidden areas, or real exploration.

I also note that Search checks, adjudicated without creativity, are the bane of interesting exploration. If “hitting the search button” finds a trigger and either a secret door or a trap, that isn’t very interesting and provides no interesting choices for the players. On the other hand, if it finds a button and a door that might be a secret door or might be the cover of a trap, and the players must deduce which from the available clues to decide to take a chance, that is an interesting choice.