5 Room Campaign Planning

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0826

Roleplaying Tips reader Sean S. has great ideas about using 5 Room Dungeons in combination with story arcs. I neglected to mention how conversations I’ve had with Sean have influenced my thinking about 5RDs over the years (thanks Sean!), including making 5RDs within 5RDs, 5RD spawn points, and more.

Today, Sean muses about how you can build an entire campaign using the simple 5RD format.

5 Room Campaign Planning

Let’s take a look at the 5 room dungeon model for a moment:

  1. Entrance with Guardian  — Introduction
  2. Puzzle or Roleplaying — Challenge
  3. Trick or Setback
  4. Big Climax
  5. Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist

I’ve developed the 5 room model to also be used for campaign planning, and I find it works well as a development map for the story.

It keeps me on track from a high level and helps guide the pacing for the game.

Each “room” or act in the story is specifically crafted to convey a particular feeling about the overall campaign.

Each act itself is a 4-9 room dungeon. And each “room” represents a single quest or objective, with usually 3-5 pieces to complete.

It’s a 5RD quest inside a 5RD act inside a 5RD story. That’s 5RD cubed!

7 Deadly Sinners

My campaign is titled 7 Deadly Sinners, evil that turns people outwardly into the monsters they are inside. Unfortunately, I can’t provide details of every room in case my players read this before game time, but I will provide as many examples as I can.

#1: Introduction

In Act 1 I wanted to introduce the concept of an Elder God seeding the world with artifacts that drive people into darkness.

I wanted to have a dark somewhat gothic horror feel to set the tone up front, but I didn’t want it to be mechanically overwhelming.

I opted to use very low CR monsters with a few augments from the Dire or Chaos Beast templates to make them seem more like aberrations (Envy).

All the monsters here were carriers for the parasite causing the mutations, so every fight was a real chance of the players getting infected.

This nicely set the tone that these artifacts can alter their surroundings on a real level and all the minor combats helped the party figure out their character personalities and tactics.

Now set it into a cozy rural town that’s home to some of the PCs’ relatives and people are going missing….

Room #1: Clear out the local warehouse of “demon” rats. Pretty simple dungeon crawl from a “crazy” town member.

Room #2: Find out the source of the infection. The PCs tracked it back to a tainted supply of meat and a Lovecraftian butcher.

Room #3: Go to the source of bad meat. The PCs found a farm full of otherworldly wildlife and demonic pigs. Fight, Loot, Good times had by all (and a squirrel trying to burrow into your chest).

Room #4: Come back to town and the sheriff’s daughter was now another missing person. The players tracked her whereabouts back to a ‘cozy’ little cabin on the edge of town.

Room #5: Surprise! The kindly blind beggar woman was actually spreading the plague. She only kidnapped the girl to draw the PCs into a trap.

Room #6: Surprise again! The kindly blind beggar woman was actually a hideous, malformed demon thing with an extremely advanced form of this plague.

Room #7: Mop up the mess, grab rewards, and travel to the big city to find out what’s really going on.

#2: Roleplaying Challenge

This act was more of an intrigue and plotting arc than the others. The party entered a town in the grips of an immobilizing drug that spread apathy to the masses.

I wanted to convey the concept of people in power who could be either directly, or through inaction (Sloth), responsible for ruining the lives around them.

This act was designed with few combat encounters, and the major climax in this act would be almost suicide to assault directly.

It has been a great player learning experience because their characters had to deal with dire situations while avoiding an outright battle.

Room #1: Actually getting into a town that’s quarantined. Turns out sneaking and bribery work well.

Room #2: Finding someone in town that actually knows what’s going on, and isn’t drugged out of their mind.

Room #3: Armed with a few allies now, the villain has taken notice and tries to send assassins after them.

Room #4: Party now knows they are playing a political game with an important council member. They set out to reveal his nature to the public.

Room #5: The public outcry over the councilman’s actions forces his hand. The party ambushes his forces while they are moving drug components.

Room #6: Now trying to shuffle his infrastructure, the party tracks his minion’s movements to locate the source of this unknown substance.

Room #7: After tracking it back to a local church, they find a cult using pieces of their god’s body to imbue the drug with his power. Queue the big boss fight with a golem made from Dreamstone.

Room #8: Some more politics to get the city back functional again. The PCs set their sights to the south and rumors of a civil war….

#3: Setback

Act 3 is designed around a failed romance between two of the “Sinners” which is causing strife to those in their wake.

One is so obsessed with himself (Pride) he has become a tyrannical ruler, while the other is so passionately obsessed with him (Lust) she will stop at nothing to get his attention.

The party will fall into the middle of this while the Sinners both try to manipulate the party to work against the other.

#4: Climax

Set during a siege, again we have two opposing Sinners in the midst of a major conflict.

On one side we have the city of Golden, the largest reserve bank in the world (Greed).

On the other we have a necromantic army trying to consume everything in its path (Gluttony).

The party will actually start on the outside of the city being sieged and will have to fight or find their way through.

Once they have entered the city, they will have to confront the evil goblin who has been embezzling the world’s currency.

The idea here is a massive army of low-level mobs on the outside so they can have that Minas Tirith siege feeling, with a mountain of treasure on the inside so they adequately feel rewarded for doing so.

#5: Revelation / Plot Twist

In the end, it all boils down to Wrath, the epic fallen paladin and his red dragon mount.

There will be a cat-and-mouse battle between their airship and Wrath in a region resembling the Hallelujah Mountains from Avatar.

The final battle of the campaign will be the party trying to fight back the god as he enters the portal to their realm.

The image of the Elder God was taken from the depiction of Apep/Apophis in the movie Gods of Egypt. (I actually originally stole the giant space worm idea from comics, but the movie made such an awesome depiction.)

The idea for most of the bosses came to me while watching 7th Son and the whole Final Fantasy style bad guys that turn into monsters (and the number 7 for deadly sins).

5RD Story Design

As you can see, the 5 room dungeon concepts translate extremely well to story arc and design.

Inside each act, you use the 5 room concept, but instead, you focus just on conveying the message from that arc in the story.

Each “room” becomes a single word, idea, or emotion that conveys a small portion of your story. You then create a “chapter” surrounding that singular concept.

Act 1 was all about having your sanctity of body stolen from you. Act 2 is more about the security of the mind and losing control. Act 3 is specifically focused on manipulation of others, while act 4 is all about avarice. And act 5 is all about violence and the consequences of it.

The best part of this design is it’s extremely modular. The party in act 2 took a different non-confrontational approach to dealing with the councilman that took me by surprise. Since all of my campaign is planned around Story Goalposts, it wasn’t hard to shuffle the chapters around to let the story follow their plans.