Think About Encounters Like Game Tiles for Better 5 Room Dungeon design

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0739

Pizza last night was awesome. I ordered my favourite. My wife ordered the house special sans shrimp (I’m not a shrimp fan). Mmmmmhmmm. I’m a lightweight these days, though. Five pieces and I’m full.

The pizza metaphor doesn’t handle well what I want to talk about today. But a board game like Carcassonne or a CCG like Magic: The Gathering does.

We’re talking about encounter choice for 5 Room Dungeons. Pizza showed us what was important for making great encounters. But what order do we plan and play encounters for the best possible gameplay experience?

RPGs are interactive. So players make the choices. And those choices filter down into what encounters trigger when — and how.

However, 5 Room Dungeons let us order encounters without players calling us out for railroading. The “dungeons” — literal dungeons or otherwise — are so short we can easily see the big picture with them. That’s how they’re like a board or card game.

And their brevity also means 5 Room Dungeons feel like important choices are available to players whether they are or not. Thus, they appeal to more GM styles than bigger adventures do, where long encounter sequences can soon feel like choiceless tracks and burdens.

When planning 5 Room Dungeons, each encounter is like a game tile or playing card in your hand. I don’t worry about the small details of each encounter. Instead, when thinking the game, each room is a tactical decision:

  • Tile #1: Entrance/Guardian
  • Tile #2: Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
  • Tile #3: Trick or Setback
  • Tile #4: Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
  • Tile #5: Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist

I usually start with #4 and #5. The fourth tile represents the Big Obstacle to the PCs getting what they want. The fifth tile is the goal, the mission, the quest being blocked by tile #4.

Thus, in gameplay #4 precedes #5. But during planning, I design #5 before #4.

Exceptions arise. What if we gave the PCs their goal before the big battle? What if we make tile #5 the second encounter? We’d need a way to keep the PCs in the dungeon, else they’d just leave. Could be the entrance seals shut behind them. Could be the tile #3: Trick is leverage forcing the PCs deeper, like what recently happened when the Murder Hobos were forced to dungeon harder to rescue a kidnapped party member. Maybe it’s simply the story that keeps PCs who’ve found the exit early inside.

To us, thinking this way, we see patterns and combinations emerge that become cool story structures. Reward before Conflict? Trick > Entrance > Battle > Reward > Puzzle? Many possibilities exist.

That’s why I like to think of each encounter as a tile type and to play 5 Room Dungeon like a tile game, seeing the options, possibilities, and opportunities at a more strategic, abstract design level.

For the players, this thinking you do is pure gold. They don’t see the matrix, the abstraction here that you do. The variety you introduce into gameplay skinned with campaign details and pizza toppings is all they see, and they love it.