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Sunday 3 December 2023

5 Rooms Good, Four-Fifths Bad

So, the first room presents a challenge, such as trapped or hidden entrance or is protected by a guardian placed to keep intruders out. The second room contains a puzzle or roleplaying challenge, like a chessboard puzzle across the whole floor or dirt floor filled with snakes. In the third room, the Player Characters will face a trick or a setback, which might be a one-way exit or a collapsed ceiling or the means to defeat the villain, but which is broken or has parts missing. The climax comes in the fourth room, when the Player Characters are forced into a battle or a conflict, for example, a villain already alerted to the progress in the previous rooms, a villain who offers to settle the dispute with a wager, a duel, or a villain who threatens to break the very item that they have come to get. Then at last, in the fifth, and last, room, the Player Characters gain their reward, are given a revelation, or come upon a plot twist, which could be another guardian in the chest of treasure, that the whole series of rooms have been set up to further another villain’s plot, or that the villain turns out to be the mother of a Player Character. This is the set-up for the ‘5 Room Dungeon’.

As explored in The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons, the idea behind the concept of ‘5 Room Dungeon’ is that they can be slotted into any location and their short length means that they quick to run, quick to create, easy to move around in an actual dungeon, and easy to integrate into an existing dungeon. All this as opposed to the classic megadungeon, which takes a great of planning and design, months if not years to run and play, and is not as flexible or as easy to integrate. The ‘5 Room Dungeon’ can played through in a single session and together, offer a complete adventure and dungeon, but one very much in miniature, both in terms of time and design. Published by Roleplaying Tips Publishing, The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons is a guide to the concept of the ‘5 Room Dungeon’ and more. It takes the format of ‘Entrance And Guardian, Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge, Red Herring, Climax, and Plot Twist’ and applies it to other genres, like the horror genre and running battles, it adds in further tools, whilst also adding new ones. The basic book does with a few examples of a ‘5 Room Dungeon’, some as worked through examples, others as ready-to-play examples. Then it goes one step further. It gives examples. Even more examples. Reader submitted examples. Eighty-seven of them. Really. Eighty-seven of them. The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons is three-hundred-and-sixteen pages long. Two-hundred-and-fifty-five pages of that consists of sample ‘5 Room Dungeons’. Four-fifths or eighty percent of the book.

In some ways, the ‘5 Room Dungeon’ format is reminiscent of the short dungeon encounters that appeared in the pages of magazines and fanzines, independent of their origins and flexible enough that that they could dropped into the pages of the Dungeon Master’s own dungeon. The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons goes beyond that to use the ‘5 Room Dungeon’ format as not just as dungeon-specific, but an encounter format. The Player Characters need to get into a nightclub to steal some evidence? That can be a ‘5 Room Dungeon’. Want to have the Player Characters engage in a mass, but not necessarily be aware of the whole picture? That can be a ‘5 Room Dungeon’. Want to run a short horror adventure? That can be a ‘5 Room Dungeon’. The author’s methods and advice builds from this, adding Game Master moves such as effects and feedback/counteraction loops, which a fan has taken used to present the Mines of Moria encounter in The Lord of the Rings as inspired by inspired by Peter Jackson’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. It is a lovely bit of interaction between the author and one of his patrons and it is one of the best examples of the ‘5 Room Dungeon’ format presented in the book.

The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons also includes advice on making encounters intense, avoiding the TPK or ‘Total Party Kill’, how to work secrets into campaign and their effects, using spikes of danger to add a sense of threat and thrill to a scenario, to add features to a dungeon and develop ideas around them, and more. All of it presented in a short punchy style befitting its origins as a series of blog posts, which makes it easy to read and digest. There are lots of ideas and lots of good advice, the ‘5 Room Dungeon’ core format fundamentally serving as a design framework as much as a constraint to help the Game Master focus upon what she needs. Of course, what The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons does not do is step back from the format to look at its use in the wider framework of a Game Master’s campaign. Nor are the limitations of the format fully explored, the primary possibility being that the format could become too limiting in the long term or too familiar. Nevertheless, the ‘5 Room Dungeon’ format is a good starting for the Game Master and useful tool to have.

Unfortunately, the book takes a nosedive in quality, if not quantity, when it comes to the examples. The eighty-seven varies widely in terms of length, from half a page to five pages. There are pirate treasures to be discovered, delves to be made on a drowned realm, a haunted house to explore, and tombs aplenty to be plundered—and a whole lot more. The problem is none of them are edited, none are given stats, and the longer ones are often so overwritten as to be unreadable. Wading through the morass of raw text to get to the good ones is a disappointingly dispiriting challenge in its own right. There is nothing wrong with reader-submitted or inspired content, but the author has done nothing to curate them or even organise them, so that in the printed version, their use is severely hampered because there is index or categorisation. Consequently, the Game Master has to read all eighty-seven to not just find the good ones, but to find out what their themes and ideas are, so that she can take ones she wants to use because they fit her campaign or she needs one to quickly prepare a scenario for the next session. This is slightly less of an issue in the PDF because that can be searched through, but nevertheless, the utility factor of the eighty-seven worked examples never arises from being a hard slog.

Arguably, what The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons should have done or would have been better, is if the author had curated the examples or even run a competition to present the best of them in this book. Or even included the eighty-seven in a book of their own rather than in The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons, which would have given space for the author to present several (ideally five), fully worked, fully explained as to why he included this or that and why it fits the ‘5 Room Dungeon’ format, that put his ideas—and his ideas alone—into practice. That would have made the book shorter, infinitely more useful, Game Master friendly, and so much easier to use.

Physically, The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons is punchily presented in its first sixty pages as befitting its origins as a series of blog posts. The remaining two-hundred-and-fifty-five pages are unreadable, unprofessional, and unbearably uncurated and undeveloped.

There is no denying that The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons is full of good advice designed to help the Game Master create an exciting encounter for her players. The book shows how that advice and its format can be used and applied to different genres and situations, from the dungeon to the battlefield, and that is all good. However, The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons is poorly supported, even burdened, by the content and examples that it has chosen to showcase its ideas. Given that four-fifths of the book is so poorly presented, it begs the question, is The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons actually worth it? Well, yes and no. As a free PDF, available to download from the publisher’s website, of course. As a PDF to purchase, possibly. As a printed book? Definitely not. Ultimately, the Game Master will get some good advice and ideas on how to write and prepare quicker dungeons and encounters with The Ultimate Guide to 5 Room Dungeons, but has to weigh that against being given a deluge of raw ideas whose utility is negligible.

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