Prep Techniques: The 5-Room Non-Dungeon

In this series, I’m going to be looking at ways to get started when prepping a one-shot – although, as I talk about here, I use pretty much the same techniques for prepping sessions of ongoing games. Some of these will be my own ideas, some of these are references to other people’s stuff, and some are reviews of products.

Since you’re here, I should point out that you could have read this a week earlier if you were one of my Patreons – you can subscribe here, and for a trifling fee of £2 a month you get access to blog posts a week before they appear on the blog, the option to request topics for posts, the chance to play in one-shots online with me, and the warm glow of satisfaction of helping keep this blog alive.

To start with, we’re going to look at the 5-Room Dungeon. Created by Johnn Four at roleplayingtips, you can find an overview and some great examples of it here. To summarise, your ‘dungeon’ has 5 rooms – in sequence, as below

  • Room One: Entrance and Guardian
  • Room Two: Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
  • Room Three: Trick or Setback
  • Room Four: Climax, Big Battle or Conflict
  • Room Five: Reward, Revelation or Plot Twist

I don’t intend to spend any time talking about each of these stages here – the link above goes into detail far better than I could. Instead I’m going to discuss the pros and cons of the structure, and my own hack of it that I often use prepping sessions.

Pros and Cons

The 5 Room Dungeon is about the exact right length for a single session; it keeps your prep focussed and compact and helps you to avoid throwing in additional time-wasting encounters or scenes. It’s also easy to translate into lots of other settings apart from the dungeon – more on that later. It gives a good balance of combat and role-playing. And it’s a great starting point – using this as a basic structure, it’s easy to add bits to it (even optional bits to give you flexibility with pacing) or move things around; between Room 1 and Room 4 you can kind of do what you want.It does have some limitations for me. I’m not a huge fan of the “Trick or Setback” room without giving PCs a chance to avoid or overcome it, and I don’t think Room Five really needs its own room – certainly, in a one-shot, an end-of-game Plot Twist is a bit weak. And, I don’t think it works very well for dungeons. Anything else, it’s a solid structure, but I think dungeon design is its own thing (I’ve blogged in the past about it briefly) and deserves more than this linear-ish structure. So, I’ve hacked it a bit to the structure below

The Five-Room Non-Dungeon

Scene One: Inciting Incident or Action (skill checks, challenges, or combat)

Scenes Two – Four

– A Combat scene

– A Roleplaying scene

– A Skills-based scene

Scene Five: The Finale

Scenes two-four can happen in a pre-determined order, have options for the players to pursue in whatever order they want, or can be left for you to decide the order during play based on what it looks like the players need.

The 5-Room Non-Dungeon In “Flowchart” Form

In more detail

In scene one, you start the session off with action. Even if later on they’ll be asked to save the  village / explore the caves / hunt the werewolf, you want to begin the game with the dice rolling and players getting to grips with the rules. A bandit attack is the go-to old fantasy trope, but it’s a good way to start – give the bandits some clues as to the looming threat, or at least some link to the rest of the adventure, and it’s a great way to hook the players into the plot.Scenes Two-Four should show a range of challenges as your setting or system supports. The roleplaying scene is the only one that might be system-free – and is contrasted with the “Roleplaying Challenge” from above – it might be a friendly character you discover, or a monster that can be charmed or talked into helping them.

To really make these scenes sing, think about an alternative approach for each of them – and be flexible for the players taking this approach. Maybe the thieves’ guild ambush, that you’d imagined as a combat scene, could be tricked into leaving them alone (maybe some good roleplaying ideas with or without a skill roll), or maybe they can bypass the corridor of traps (planned as a skills scene) by getting the goblins to help disarm them.

Scene Five is probably a fight. Have stuff going on in the environment and a good mix of big bads, lieutenants, and mook opponents to make it a satisfying scene, and make it as challenging as your group’s tastes are. For my D&D5e preferences, this is a touch above what it says in the DMG for “Hard” – although if you’re running a one-shot and the players clearly know what they’re doing in terms of system mastery you could go higher.

Examples

If you want an example of the 5-Room Dungeon, apart from those on the roleplayingtips website, there’s Tower of the Stirge on this blog. This is a bit between the two approaches – and ‘cleverly’ disguises its linear plot by setting it in a tower. I’ve got another post lined up with a couple of examples of this structure – but as I haven’t run them yet, I’ll have to keep them behind the wall in case my player’s see them!Have you used the 5-Room Dungeon format successfully? Anything you’ve found that works well or poorly about it? Feel free to comment below – or suggest any prep problems or techniques you’d like to see explored in future.

“You Don’t Notice Anything.” – Why Perception is Rubbish, and How To Make It Better

Over on his blog, @vinegarymink has posted about Failing Forward – ensuring that failed challenges are just as fun as successful ones. Half way through playing a game of Pendragon (played ‘straight’ and devoid of indie pretentions – and a fantastic game, don’t get me wrong) this week, a realisation came to me somewhere around our fifth Awareness check. Perception is a bit rubbish. It’s a ubiquitous skill in all trad systems, and one of the hardest to “fail forward” with. It’s usually quite hard to fail at all with it, which is why I think it often leaves me frustrated as a GM. I’m going to go through some of the issues with it, and then suggest some hacks that can overcome them.

Awareness 15: the essential Knightly skill
  • If it’s something the group could notice, only one player needs to notice, and they tell the others. Having everyone roll makes a group perception check trivially easy – the probabilities of just one person having to pass make them super generous. If you’ve got a 50% chance to pass the check, with the 4 players you’ve got a whopping 94% chance of at least somebody noticing – and with something harder, with a 25% chance to notice, its still at 68%.
  • Failure is usually crap. “You don’t notice anything” creates a disconnect, because by asking for the roll, the player most certainly knows there’s something to notice. D&D5e tries to solve that with Passive Perception scores, but that’s crap too – bounded accuracy means that they have a really tight range, and they concentrate the first problem – the cleric’s going to notice and tell everyone.
  • Clue restriction is rubbish. If there’s something to notice, we should want our players to notice it. When you’re negotiating with the Romulan Captain, I want my players to notice that she’s stalling for time – and even if they fail, because of the point above they know there’s something off about her.

So, how can we fix that? Here’s a few techniques.

Have Failure Consequences, or Don’t Roll

For every Perception check you call, have a clear idea of a non-restrictive consequence of failure. This is good advice for every skill check – see Alex’s blog post for more ideas – but especially important for Perception, because its failure consequences are so often not-fun. If you can’t think of a consequence for failure – don’t call for the check, and just tell them.

Have Success Benefits, or Don’t Roll

Equally, instead of just telling the players if you have a Perception check you can’t think of a cool failure condition, give them a benefit for passing instead. Maybe you accept that everyone is going to notice the bandits planning to ambush you – but if you make the check, you know which of them has decent armour under his grimy cloak, or also see the hidden archers in the trees covering the road, or you see a weak spot in the wyvern’s hide from a previous skirmish (maybe enough to make a called shot bypass some of it’s armour).

You Can’t Roll if You’re Talking/Acting

One way around the group check problem is to suggest that if you are taking action, you’re not as able to notice stuff. The players who aren’t active in the scene are the only ones that get to roll. This makes the check have closer to normal probabilities, and has the additional benefit of sharing the spotlight in a cool in-game way. Just ask any players who aren’t directly interacting with the events in play to make, as they hang back and observe.

Use it For Initiative

One of the issues with Perception checks to notice enemies trying to ambush you is that the consequences of a surprise round in most games can be enormous (notably, 13th Age avoids this, making them just inconvenient –but not entirely unbalancing). Instead, make Initiative the result of a Perception check in these circumstances. Maybe the ambushers get to roll Stealth instead, as well, for their score? There’s another blog post in my head about how initiative is also often rubbish, though, so I might come back to this.

Use it To Bank Resources

I’m running Star Trek Adventures, the 2d20 game from Modiphius at the moment, and it is (like Conan, which I posted about here) heavy on resource management. Players want to get as much Group Momentum banked early in the session, so they can spend it on extra dice for checks. The best way to get this in STA at the start of the session? Scan the planet from the ship. It’s probably low difficulty, so you can get some Momentum banked for future skill checks. In some ways, this is like designating a Success Benefit, but it fits nicely into the balance of the system. It’s accepted that there will be some easy skill checks, often for things like noticing stuff, but they have some game impact through the meta-currency of the system.

Likewise, in Fate, you can offer a Fate Point Compel to miss something – to not even make a check, and have a failure consequence ready for them. In my experience, most players will do anything for a Fate point, and it’s very likely they’ll have an Aspect you can use to get this. Other systems will have their own solutions, I’m sure.

Just Ditch It

One way to force yourself out of the habit of asking for Perception checks – just remove the skill. If it’s important enough that the players need to notice something, tell them. If it’s one of the few circumstances where failure or success can be interesting, just pick another skill relevant to the context. Ambush in the Forest? Roll Nature to notice the absence of usual sounds. Trap in an ancient tomb? Sounds like a History check, or maybe a Thieves’ Tools check to notice and disarm in one roll before it triggers.

So, a selection of ways to hack perception to make it less rubbish. Are there any more techniques that you’ve used to improve it? Any games that do it particularly well? Let me know in the comments, or get me on twitter @milnermaths.