The Five Room Dungeon has been around almost as long as RPGs themselves, and has been enjoying a surge of popularity in the past few years as a quick and easy way to build a dungeon crawl.Â Interestingly enough, it turns out there are only 9 base designs for the five room dungeon. With so few, it’s very easy to simply grab one of the nine, populate it and run a crawl, but it’s also easy to run the same basic layout multiple times until one of your players says: “Wait a minute! Isn’t this the exact same dungeon layout we ran last week?”
In fact, the 5 room dungeon contest held by Roleplayingtips and Strolen back in 2007 resulted in almost 100 5 room dungeons, all of which (to the best of my knowledge) make use of a layout I like to call “The Railroad” ie: 5 rooms in a straight line.
This is the assumed layout (at least they don’t otherwise specify) used by most setups like those proposed by Johnn Four and The stew’s own Troy Taylor. That makes a lot of sense because it’s meant to be simple, straightforward, quick, and the players are meant to hit every room.Â As soon as you introduce a fork in the path, there’s a chance that the PCs skip one or more of the five encounters.Â Frankly though, these dungeons aren’t your magnum opus, so if a side passage is missed, the biggest issue is that you may be short a little game time. And let’s be honest: Who’s players don’t sweep the entire dungeon just in case they’ve missed something sparkly, especially if they have a half-hour in the session left to kill?Â Worst case scenario, if you’re worried about it, just quantum ogre the whole run or put the key to one path at the end of another and call it a day. This effectively reduces one of the more complex layouts back to The Railroad, but no one is likely to notice if you don’t abuse the tactic. Alternately, consider designing your encounters so that all of them must be dealt with to succeed: destroying all traces of an evil group or collecting a series of McGuffins can require the exploration of every room.
The major issue then is repetitiveness, since 5 room dungeons are a quick and easy fallback plan, and there are only 9 possible layouts. Fortunately, there are several ways to keep the same nine dungeons fresh use after use.
They don’t have to be dungeons:
It’s been said elsewhere, but these can be layouts for warehouses, starships, haunted houses, or any other location, not just dungeons. But this concept can be taken further. These can be used as investigation trees, social networks, or any number of other setups.
Rooms can be shifted:
The reason the rooms are arranged in the the way they’re displayed is because I thought they made cute, funny,Â or evocative pictures that way. Moving around the rooms makes no difference to the actual layout though.Â If you want to move around rooms, change the order or length of passages, or other merely cosmetic changes, that doesn’t actually change the layout, but it does make it look distinct.Â Â For example, “Foglio’s Snail” can have it’s “eyes” rotated around to make it look similar to “The Arrow”, with the entrance at the other end.Â This plays the same as the snail normally would, but looks different.
Levels can be added:
Any or all of the passages can be staircases, lava tubes, elevators or other vertical transitions, creating a two-level dungeon. Again, this is merely a cosmetic change to the layout, but it helps make this week’s dungeon look distinct from last week’s.Â Alternately, you can prepare two five room dungeons and use one as level one, and the other as level two if you’re feeling particularly ambitious. This doubles the amount of work you need to do, but creates roughly 405 different possible layouts.
Use different building blocks:
All of the nine basic setups are constructed with only two types of building blocks: The entryway and 4 hall + room pieces.Â There’s no reason this formula can’t be changed up. Additional passages can be added. Rooms can be connected directly with no hallways between. Secret passages can act as shortcuts or create secret rooms.Â Alternate passageways that make use of different modes of travel can be created.
The sixth room:
Nothing says that a sneaky GM can’t create a five room dungeon with six rooms. If you want to be super-sneaky, the sixth room can be a secret room!Â An extra room adds
many more possibilities with only minimally more effort.
An example — The Cliffside Temple:
Using “The Moose” as the base, here’s a sample five-room dungeon layout. An ancient temple carved into the side of a cliff, our heroes come in search of a holy relic.Â From the entry foyer they can either head to the vaulted central chamber, or climb the stairs that lead to a rising set of observation rooms that look down on the central chamber through small windows.Â A relic is located in the main chamber, as are several others in the observation rooms, but these are all fakes.Â The true relics are kept safe in a secret chamber that can be accessed via a secret door in the uppermost observation room. Alert PCs may be tipped off to the existence of this secret room since it too overlooks the main chamber.
Wow. This article is getting bookedmarked. Showing the comfinations for the 5-room layouts is so useful. I especially like that you’ve made a suggestion on how to incorporate rooms at different levels of depth within a the same dungeon. And if it matters, the one you’ve called the Fauchard Fork is my favorite!
Another interesting way to put it, is in abstracting the entrance: you are down to 3 basic model: the railroad (every room is connected to a maximum of two rooms), the arrow (one room is connected to 3 other rooms) and the cross (one room is connected to all four rooms). Because, technically, the paw and the cross are the same.
I enjoyed this article very much, popped lot of dungeon ideas 🙂
Wow, you have made and ruined my day 🙂
The basic truth that dungeon layout follows some basic forms is great and it really helps to get me past the micromanaging niggling details of fretting about where furniture is and lets me focus instead on the more important story telling.
It also reduces simple dungeons to one of 9 predictable layouts. When your PCs enter a small space they will have a general idea of what’s going on from the get-go.
BUT! It would be easy to expand on this by having a single entrance and 2 or more 5 room dungeons branching from it. Each new area could follow a theme, economy, ecology or whatever system you like.
What about connecting the top right and top left rooms of the Fauchard Fork to create a 10th style. Call it The Lasso or The Loop or something?
This is really cool and I too will be bookmarking it.
Er… Isn’t the “V for Vendetta” just a railroad with the entrance in the middle? Same with “The Moose”. I’m not sure if this changes things, but I thought I’d mention it.
I’m glad you guys like it. I initially started fiddling with it for fun but when it came down to only the 9 types, I figured I had an article.
@Troy E. Taylor – I actually named the Fauchard Fork last because it didn’t look like anything to me for a long time.
@Liack – abstracting the entrance is a really cool idea that I didn’t think of, and it does indeed reduce the 9 forms to 3. I’m not sure I’d take it that far personally, because while the difference between the arrow, fork, or snail is purely cosmetic from the overhead view, the order of choices it presents is very different depending on the entrance. That’s clearly an arbitrary distinction though, so draw your line where you like. 🙂
@Marc Pavone – Think of these more as templates. There are a million ways to customize them, from extra room, to passages, to mashing up groups of them. I hit a few in the article, but I’m certain there are more. As far as adding an extra passage to create a new form, adding a passage does all kinds of crazy stuff to the setup and you’d have to rethink the whole thing from the ground up to prevent duplicate forms. Note for example, that tying together the two branches of the fork, and that adding a passageway between the second and last rooms of the railroad create the same layout? So I’m all for extra passages, but for this exercise I had to stick to very clean simple rules/building blocks.
@Inumo – Yep! Totally is! As Liack mentioned, if you abstract the entrance (ie: just have forms sans entrance and drop the entrance in later, there are only 3 forms (the railroad, the cross, and the fork) In my mind though, even though the moose, railroad, and v are the same layout (a straight line of rooms) they’ll play very differently. I’d like to say that that was a premeditated decision, but it wasn’t really. :p
I love this a lot, but I really enjoy the idea of taking the 5 room dungeon to the abstract dungeon or task list
For example, a modern day railroad style dungeon in a zombie game… your survivors start in the foyer of the building they stay in and ‘break out’ – room 1- then they travel through the alley and up the fire escape to the rooftop -room 2- they travel a short ways and break in through a skylight -room3- etc etc etc
I also like the idea for using it as a social encounter dungeon or investigation. I have a lot to think about.
Great article! Very useful, even though I don’t do a whole lot of dungeons as such – but in the abstract sense, a lot of adventures follow the basic five-room structure, and having nine simple structures in mind is a great way to start working. Pick a model, decide what each node means, fill them with detail.
This is very cool. Thanks!
I was going to post along the lines of “surely this is missing the point of the Five Room Dungeon” but I’ve thought some more and get it a little better. Less about building a distinct physical structure or layout, more about building a conceptual diagram to show the GM the way things link together. I think that’s the real value here.
However, I think it’s worthwhile to bear in mind the original structure of the 5RD was built to provide your players with their five-a-day of combat, puzzles, traps, talking and treasure. Fiddling with the structure may alter that balance.
Still, a very interesting look at how a seemingly simple arrangement can hold multiple permutations.
Mulled over your response to me and I get it now. Making a loop where I suggested would set the plot up for a never ending, um, ending. The point of the 5 room dungeon (as I interpret it) is the paths the plot takes. When do choices arise and where do they take the PCs?
I do see your point about duplicate shapes. I should show this to my topologist wife, she’d enjoy creating multidimensional dungeons with me. 🙂
This is one hell of a resource, Matt. I would never have considered small dungeons from this POV, and your take and breakdown just rocks. Bookmarked!
This is really cool as a basic concept, and shows how to turn 9 layouts into infinite. Kind of like Daggerfall, (oo, way-back machine time…) where all of the random crypts etc. only had I think a total of 15 different layouts? But it felt like you were exploring a whole new dungeon each time. At least… for the first fifty or so XD
I am totally convinced that “the Five Room Dungeon” is a school of kung fu. My campaign world just found itself a new order of monks… 😉
Another way of looking at it is through the lens of “story arcs.” How many different playable story arcs are there?
Another way to look at it is “game play loops.”
One can chain puzzle into combat and back again any as many times as players have interest/time/resources to burn. Half life 2 is almost nothing but puzzle/combat repeat till boss fight, then reward with plot progression.
Finally, why start with Entrance always? How about starting with the set back, for example? Once the “rooms” go metaphysical things get really crazy. The party was doing quest alpha until someone accidentally opens a cursed bottle that captures the party in a funhouse that traps them there permanently if they don’t clear it in time.
Sorry to resurrect an old thread, but this is an extension of the conversation with @Marc Pavone above, left for future travelers down this design trail…
As long as you don’t use loops in your dungeon, this analysis holds.
3 topologies, the 5-star with 2 topologically distinct entries, the 5-path with 3, and the 5-arrow with 4.
But as soon as you start permitting loops, you start getting more options. (You could think of this as Jaquaying the 5-room dungeon: see https://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/13085/roleplaying-games/jaquaying-the-dungeon)
Once you do that, you end up with 21 topologies, each with between 1 and 4 topologically distinct entry points to each for a total of 61 forms of the 5-room dungeon. (The 21 topologies are on page 2 of this paper: https://hal-enac.archives-ouvertes.fr/hal-03097484/document).
If you ignore one of the topologies (the 5-complete is IMHO the least topologically interesting, but your preferences may differ), you can now assign the other 20 to the sides of a d20 and roll for your dungeon layout. Then pick an entrance by your favorite method (rolling a d2, d3(?), or d4 would work for all but the 5-circle or 5-complete), and you’ve got your form.
Of course, there are more options beyond this, but I figured I’d just address the loops question at this point.
That is an amazing take and resource, thanks for commenting and linking! Don’t worry about being a little late to the party. It was worth the wait. 🙂
I started gaming in 77 and have produced hundreds of wacky adventures for people. Hundreds. Thousands of rooms, traps, treasures. Entire cities, nations, continents, planets.
I don’t understand why all of this seems so difficult to a lot of people. My first “dungeon” was 12 levels of absolute mayhem:
— The entrance room, a large torchlit natural cavern with a sand floor was home to giant sand beavers. Go figure..
— A 2nd level mall (maul) which includes a Chinese restaurant run by an elderly! pair of skeletons. They seem to enjoy eating, but all the food ends up on the floor..
— Another tunnel (stair) contained a WM: a blue whale that had been teleported into it. The delvers spent hours hacking their way through it only to discover a band of.. exploding apes.
Maybe being an unhireable humanities major has it’s perks. ha