How To Create Five Room Horror Dungeons
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0870
Roleplaying Tips Patron Jeffrey asks how to create five room horror adventures:
Johnn, been reading for a long time, and always figured that I would one day have a question worthy of asking… I guess that day is today. How would you use a five-room dungeon to run a horror game?
For readers new to this GMing tool, a Five Room Dungeon consists of:
Room 1: Entrance And Guardian
Room 2: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
Room 3: Red Herring
Room 4: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
Room 5: Plot Twist
You can use this model to create any kind of adventure, not just dungeons: wilderness, city, roleplay, mystery, and so on. You can also connect 5RDs into larger adventures and vary room counts to avoid predictability.
To answer Jeffrey’s question, I’m going to throw something new at you:
The GM’s Mental Dungeon
Unlike other genres, horror must curdle our minds. We must prepare a mental game in addition to the physical for horror’s best effects to play out.
To do this, you want to layer five themes on top of your plot, encounters, and game elements.
These five themes have a rough sequence. Turn this sequence into a five room dungeon in your mind to help you GM the horror adventure:
Mystery: Entrance And Guardian
Foreshadowing: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
Suspense: Red Herring
Fear: Climax, Big Battle Or Conflict
Surprise: Plot Twist
Horror must involved the unknown. Let fog of war seep over plot elements to create uncertainty and doubt in your players.
For example, monster design. Put your standard orcs into a cult. Have them worship a special orc that has grotesque characteristics. Make the orc leader a potent foe in some way. Give the cult horrific rituals.
Now drop evidence of the cult into your adventure. Mutilated animals. Strange symbols. Whispers of a massive horned creature prowling the woods at night. Guards sent to investigate discovered butchered with seeming ease.
No clue above reveals facts to give players clarity or confidence. The fog of war drives players’ imaginations into dark corners.
What creeps into play during the first half of your adventure should come back to claw the PCs in the second.
Perhaps a pig roasting over the party’s campfire comes to life and attacks. Its spitted and burning body slams into the PCs until the beast’s last hit point gets carved away. Then later in the adventure the PCs encounter orc cultists who set their pierced bodies on fire before they attack.
Maybe a PC has a fear of drowning. The party might stumble upon rotting animals the druid says died by drowning even though the lake is miles away. Then, as the characters penetrate deep into the forest they encounter water spirits fleeing fire orc cultists and the spirits try to “inhabit” the characters for safety.
Draw the drama out with white-knuckle uncertainty in a gloomy background of threat.
Here’s where your mystery and foreshadowing pay off.
Sure the PCs might have plate armour, fireballs, and elite survival skills, but the cultists lurk deep in the forest’s heart, numbers and powers unknown.
And the mysterious cult leader is some kind of demon or dragon or spirit whose cunning worries even the brilliant wizard.
Each encounter draws the party closer to their horrible enemy yet provides no assurances about who or what they face.
Alone. In the forest. Weaknesses and worries being preyed upon as you pull on player and character triggers while they crawl your mental GM dungeon of horror.
Now we come to the goal of horror. The best response we can ask for from our design and storytelling is fear. This forms the climax you’ve been building toward with mystery (what’s happening and will it hurt me?), foreshadowing (it’s gonna get ya in the worst way possible), and suspense (it could strike at any time!).
Fear needs empathy. If one player becomes scared, others will follow. If you can make one game element scary, it becomes easier to conjure future fearful NPCs, locations, and situations.
Look at the Monster Manual. Orcs aren’t scary. We might worry they could kill us. But that’s standard gaming fare.
However, if we cloak our orcs in obscene cult activities, that threaten PCs not just physically (“The cleric can heal my hit points but am I going to drown today?”), with identities and powers unknown on home turf, we may see the seeds of fear reflected in stressed faces around the table.
And then it grows.
Catch players off-guard and we crack open the gates in invitation to fear. Crumble the wall of confidence so doubt and anxiety ooze through the cracks as harbingers that players no longer have control.
Lunge from the shadows you’ve formed to surprise the players. Give false security and take it away. Make what players think they know horribly wrong. And change the ordinary without warning.
Layer Your Mental Dungeon Onto The Physical
Now that we’ve explored the five key physiological aspects of horror, we look for every opportunity to add them to our adventure design.
Use the Mental Five Room Dungeon as a rough playbook while you GM:
Mystery => Foreshadowing => Suspense => Fear => Surprise
Draw these out over the course of a single encounter or several.
Repeat several times if possible to create cycles of horror in your adventure. Set the table so your players experience uncertainty, trepidation, worry, fear, and surprise over and over.