Sunday, August 29, 2021

Classic Vs. Five Rooms


This blog is largely devoted to repeating a single message about game design, hammering away at the same subjects for what I hope is a growing audience. At times it feels repetitive and foolish, but then when one looks out into the larger Roleplaying Game community there’s still a lot of confusion about these same subjects -- the “Dungeon Crawl” style of play.

So once again what is a Dungeon Crawl? Why might some adventures or play styles that call themselves Dungeon Crawls fail to deliver on the promise of the genre? To explore this topic I’ll discuss a design exercise/theory and adventure format popular in the Contemporary Traditional community, the “Five Room Dungeon”. To some extent this distinction is one of definition, but I think it’s a useful distinction as it will hopefully introduce some players to the Classic style of play or at least provide tools to think about the differences between play styles and examine what sort of experience one’s table provides.

The Contemporary Traditional community has its own ethos of play, values, design principles, preferred mechanics and of course play style, and my goal isn’t to pass judgment on them, denigrate, or otherwise offend. Rather I want to present some reasons why designing and playing following the Five Room Dungeon format may not feel much like dungeon exploration and why it doesn’t fit within the (or my) definition of a Dungeon Crawl derived from or following the Classic play style found in such adventures as Caverns of Thracia.

This is all certainly not to say that Five Room Dungeons are bad or don’t work for the play style that they are designed for, only that they aren’t a panacea for adventure design or a great place to start when learning about Classic play or the Dungeon Crawl. To help understand why, it’s necessary to describe what goes into a Dungeon Crawl, or perhaps a “Crawl” more generally, as the Dungeon Crawl shares key elements with wilderness adventure designed as Point, Hex, or Wave Crawls. The basic structure of the Crawl style adventure contains three elements: Space, Exploration and Procedure.

Crawling Into the Past 

What does the Dungeon Crawl promise? To some it’s a label for any adventure set in an underground maze or even any fantasy adventure regardless of design and mechanics. To me and as used here, the Dungeon Crawl label implies something more: an adventure in a complex environment filled with danger: traps, monsters, secrets and mysteries -- something beyond just combat or NPC interactions where the location and environment is an important character in the game. Focusing more narrowly, the simplest definition I have for a Crawl as a set of design principles is to say that it’s a play style or adventure where the locus of play is:


I’ll be looking at each of these elements a bit individually, and they may already be familiar to regular readers of All Dead Generations, but I’ll only be discussing the definitions and how the elements work holistically rather than the details of their history or supporting mechanics.

Obviously Space in the context of a tabletop game can’t mean real, literal space. You don’t need to go running around the steam tunnels to play a proper dungeon crawl. Space in this context refers to mechanics and procedures that model space, concerning themselves with distance or time and the spatial relationships between obstacles and treasures. Traditionally this is accomplished by tracking supplies (light, spells, rations, hit points and other player currencies) that the characters expend to “move” through the dungeon and whose exhaustion threatens the characters. Encumbrance, timekeeping, and most importantly random encounters are the primary mechanisms for modelling space so that it’s meaningful in play, and in the context of adventure design, including the Five Room Dungeon, that means two things. First the designer needs to create a space where time and distance matter, and second where the obstacles or encounters are interrelated.

Making time and space matter is tricky, it’s nothing less than turning the entire location into a spatial puzzle itself, a sort of “maze game” with secrets, shortcuts, best routes and information that the players can learn and apply to overcome the spatial puzzle. Landmarks, theming, inhabitants with information, rumors, and partial maps are all tools to do this, but the most important one is size and complexity.

Interrelation works to support the creation of meaningful space by defining relationships between its inhabitants and obstacles - another form of theming that makes it advantageous for players to investigate and understand the layout of the dungeon and enables them to consider or ideally predict routes through the dungeon. Traps that mirror traps later in the dungeon, levers or puzzles that shift its layout, faction territories of its inhabitants, all operate as ways to make the visualization of the dungeon as space more important and more enjoyable. Again greater complexity and size allow for more interconnection.

However, when defining the Dungeon Crawl, the important aspect of both interrelation and meaningful space is not simply size. Yes, smaller adventures with fewer paths, obstacles, and inhabitants make for simpler, shorter, Crawls and so are more difficult to create within the style, but the important aspect is the overall structure and presentation of the adventure as an interrelated space, rather than a narrative that can be explored and investigated, progressing through scenes to a climax. Spatial complexity encourages this because it is antithetical to linear adventure design, it breaks down continuity between obstacles, forcing choice about which to engage with onto the players, and so ideally making exploration the locus of play.

Exploration can be a confusing concept, especially for players coming to RPGs from games with such a strong focus on tactical combat that they don’t have much time for it, like 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. It can mean quite a number of things, but is often now conflated with wilderness travel. While some types of wilderness travel are exploration play, in the Classic play style, as this blog uses the term, Exploration is focused on dungeon crawls: the room by room investigation of locations, a scale where information density and player choice are high enough to themselves become the center, the locus, of play.

Exploration as the locus of play is perhaps this blog’s primary concern and repeated argument about the value of older fantasy RPGs and the Classic play style. The core of such Exploration focus is that decisions about where to move matter to the characters to the same or a greater degree as decisions about combat and NPC interaction. That is to say a game where navigation and supply use -- interaction with the Space described above -- matter to the same or a greater degree as choices about combat tactics such as spell and ability use is a game focused on Exploration.

Exploration isn’t really a complex concept, and I don’t mean to mystify it. At its core Exploration is a way of maximizing player choice about where the characters and adventure is headed and how they will get there. Which corridor to take, but also what schemes (faction intrigue, brute force, trickery, stealth, etc.) the party will use to take what they want from a location, or conversely the manner that they will fail to do so. Exploration rejects predefined narrative and hands it largely to the player - the nature of the adventure's conclusion is something that the players will determine through their actions and decisions.

To free movement and the ability to choose when and how to overcome obstacles, the Exploration style adds interaction and investigation - obstacles offer open- ended problems rather than a fixed skill challenge. The players are expected to unpuzzle them using the fictional environment as well as their character’s abilities and supplies, while the resources of the entire location are available . The red door may still open to the red key but the players are not restricted to searching it out and may: pick the lock using skills, negotiate for entrance from a dungeon faction, tunnel through the wall besides the door, grab a statue from another area of the dungeon to use as a battering ram, melt the lock with grey ooze, or use any number of schemes to overcome it. However, because the map of the adventure isn’t linear, they may also backtrack and go elsewhere: either to find another route or to challenge themselves with another obstacle.

Procedure can also be a lot of things - all games have procedure - the order of turns in monopoly and how you use “Free Parking” are procedures. In the context of the Classic Dungeon Crawl the important procedures can also vary, but all impose a cost on movement through the fictional Space.

The “Exploration Procedure” is a collection of varied design principles reduced to specific mechanics that works like this: timekeeping depletes supplies, which are important as limited resources because of encumbrance, and triggers random encounter checks which create risk for navigating the map. The mechanics here: the Exploration Turn, Encumbrance, the Random Encounter and Movement Speed can vary - it’s not especially important if one uses coin, pound or slot based Encumbrance for example as long as they function to produce the same tensions and impose a risk and cost to navigating the fictional space.

This understanding about when to use specific mechanics (which can be reduced to an order of operations and provided by a system, but rarely is), why to use them (which is almost never provided by rules documents) and how they work together is the procedure, and if that sounds a little vague, it’s because it is. Procedure is the holistic set of mechanics, ethics of play and design principles that govern a specific sort of actions: combat procedure, exploration procedure, character generation procedure.

Newer games tend to lack Exploration Procedure, even if they retain some of the specific mechanics that provide it. For example 5th Edition Dungeons & Dragons has Timekeeping and Encumbrance, but they are rarely used, vestigial, because they aren’t incorporated into a procedure that meaningfully impacts play. Without the threat of random encounters due to the complexity and tight balance of 5th edition combat, time matters little, and with characters who have little need for supplies (most can see in the dark and even if they can’t a single torch will last through a whole session) timekeeping becomes a pointless chore and with it there’s no meaningful decision to be had in deciding how to explore a fictional space. The Dungeon Crawl doesn’t become impossible, but instead becomes something worse  -- a boring chore without risk or tension.

I’m not sure who popularized the “Five Room Dungeon”, but it seems to currently be the most popular form of Contemporary Traditional starting adventure design. It consists of a single adventure “location”, built for a relatively short number of sessions and defined by a structure of encounters: “Entrance/Guardian”, “Puzzle”, “Setback”, “Boss Fight”, “Reward”. Usually these encounters are placed in a linear manner, though some Contemporary Traditional designers recommend several different arrangements of the encounters. Whatever the exact fiction around a specific Five Room Dungeon, none are Dungeon Crawls in the sense that they aren’t designed for the play style and aren’t intended to produce an exploration experience. Instead, the Five Room Dungeon is a way to quickly build a narrative adventure within the context of Contemporary Traditional encounter based design.

Once again this isn’t bad design. There is nothing wrong with playing scene based/narrative adventures, or designing encounter by encounter. It’s a play style that allows for complex tactical combat within a filmic or novelistic story structure, both things that the Classic play style struggles with. However, I would suggest that in turn it struggles to deliver an exploration experience -- the sense that the adventurers are navigating a dangerous, unknown space, revealing its secrets and intriguing with its inhabitants. It should quickly be clear that the design structure of the Five Room Dungeon, and its locus of play are focused on entirely different concerns than the procedural exploration of a fantastic space described above.

First, the Five Room dungeon is not defined by its spatial relations, but by the discrete encounters within, which while they may share a theme, aren't interrelated in the way a Classic dungeon is. The Guardian at the Entrance won't join in on the Boss encounter unless defeated or even warn it. Each 'room' is a discrete obstacle/scene/challenge, often designed to allow a specific character archetype a chance to shine. Looking over theory for Five Room dungeons, the only concern that even approaches spatial design is the arrangement and ordering of the encounters, but since the individual challenges remain fixed and discrete these are more a question of narrative structure. Additionally, without the risks associated with Classic procedures (supply and random encounters) the five room dungeon doesn’t incorporate navigation as a meaningful player decision. There will never be a significant cost, even in a non-linear Five Room Dungeon, for engaging with one of its obstacles before another or travel between the scenes, and Five Room Dungeons aren’t designed to allow clever players to avoid some of their obstacles.

Second, a Five Room Dungeon is not intended as a location to explore, so much as a story to progress through, a set of encounters focused on and built around the actions of the characters rather than any internal logic and ecology. The entrance is guarded, trapped or locked, to offer a combat or skill challenge of a specific sort and any inhabitants likewise exist to interact with in a specific predetermined way. Each room is named for the type of scene which the players will approach using specific tools before proceeding to the next one and the adventure will always end with a “boss” encounter, a climax before providing a reward (though this reward may simply be the entrance to another segment of Five Room Dungeon). It’s a tightly wound narrative package, but it’s not one open to player ingenuity outside of each scene and this is a primary place where the Design Principles of Classic and Contemporary Traditional Play differ. Obstacles or challenges in a Classic Dungeon Crawl are part of the level or location as a whole, set within an overall spatial puzzle that demands the players navigate it before their supplies are exhausted and characters become too weak to escape. One might derogatorily refer to it as a maze between obstacles, but it’s one where the obstacles themselves, especially its inhabitants, are also potential tools to solve other obstacles.

The Five Room Dungeon does not offer this style of play, it's not designed with the same concerns as a Classic dungeon and it's not meant to. While it might be possible to bend a Five Room Dungeon into a very small Classic adventure, it doesn't highlight the advantages of the Classic play style, even if one were to run it in a Classic system. I think it's worth pointing these distinctions out simply because of the Five Room Dungeon's popularity, and the number of times I've seen it (especially Matt Coleville's Delian Tomb) recommended as an introductory Dungeon Crawl for Classic systems.  Running the Delian Tomb or another Five Room Dungeon, a location designed for Contemporary Traditional scene, skill roll and tactical combat based play in a system designed for location based, puzzle solving exploration if likely to be rather unsatisfying, much like trying to play chess with a set of checkers - the basic forms and ideas behind the game may be deceptively similar, but it will take a rare group of players and a lot of extra work to make the game work well at the table. If you want the Dungeon Crawl experience, then use the systems and adventures specifically designed for it, and if you haven't you might find they offer a different sort of enjoyment then more contemporary systems and adventure design. Likewise if you want to run a narrative campaign of high fantasy heroism and tactical combat the Five Room Dungeon might be the design building block you need.

The art used to illustrate these pieces consist of modified images of the painting of Carlos Barahona Possollo, a contemporary Portuguese painter who works with themes of antiquity and romantic art's relationship to it.  These fantastical paintings of Egyptian tomb scenes seem believable because of popular conceptions of ancient Egypt but are utterly fantastical and to me they are more of a comment on the place of Egypt in the European imagination then on Egypt itself.


  1. Hi, I just wanted to let you know, that I find your whole "Classic Vs." series very interesting.

    I am a noob referee and often find running old school (or classic) games somewhat incompatible with the way my group plays (2-3 h online sessions with very irregular schedule). E.g. we dropped Tomb of the Serpent Kings in the middle, because after 3 months and few longer breaks we sort of lost the vibe. I guess Five Room Dungeons would work better in these circumstances, but I prefer the classic style.

    I wonder what is your opinion on Into the Odd/Electric Bastionland approach. It forgoes all exploration procedures, except for random encounters, but navigation decisions still matter, and you can explore more in a single session (from my experience, up to 15 rooms with EB versus 5-10 in Black Hack or Knave). While I enjoy resource management, I might be willing to drop it in exchange for the possibility of running bigger dungeons as one-shots.

  2. It's obviously hard to get a good session of exploration style play (or any really - 2 to 3 hours is one combat encounter for a lot of contemporary games) into those short online sessions. I think there's a few things that help:

    * Smaller denser dungeons. Larger dungeons with many hidden entrances, exits and shortcuts. Faction intrigue and even safe rooms to allow spots to end the session in dungeon.
    * More impactful supply mechanics. Fewer encumbrance slots and faster depletion (usually through an overloaded encounter/exploration die).
    * Gamification of down time. Haven turns via email. A "menu" of in town options: research, rumor mongering, training, carousing etc. Spend as little game time as possible outside the dungeon.
    * Faster procedures/lower power curve. Lower HP totals, faster, swingier (more dangerous to PCs) combat that helps discourage it as a default solution (combat takes a lot of time)and allows tricks and ambushes to work better/faster.

    As for ultra-lights like Black Hack, Knave etc. I think many are good games, great for improv sessions but they don't usually allow for the navigation aspect of exploration, even where they are puzzle focused. ITO and EBL are good games from what I can tell, I like the theory in them, but I haven't played them.

    One shots are especially tricky, I think it's hard to get a decent sized dungeon into a one shot no matter what you do, though one of the key elements of exploration focused adventure design (something borrowed from mega-dungeon design)is that the PCs are never supposed to be able to 'clear' the dungeon -- there's paths they won't take, and space left unexplored. To some extent this is another point where why 5 Room Dungeons aren't dungeons - they are designed so that each of the 5 scenes is and often must be resolved in order.

    1. 'Gamification of down time'

      I've tried this one, but it didn't work with my group. I guess they're not as obsessed as me, and while they enjoy the game, they don't want to think about it between sessions. The obvious answer would be to find a more committed group, but I would still like to figure out how to have a sandboxy exploratory game, which doesn't require a lot of engagement from the players.

      'they don't usually allow for the navigation aspect of exploration'

      Would you care to elaborate? Both Knave and Black Hack use slot encumbrance and resource depletion, so I thought they're good in this aspect. They simplify movement rates, but frankly I'm not too keen on calculating it neither.

    2. As to downtime - I'm talking more about reducing in town actions/RP etc. to a simple menu of options that can be resolved quickly. This might not be what's going on for you, but in my experience many groups spend 10 - 30 minutes noodling about the haven before each session.

      With ultra-lights, I guess I was thinking mostly of Mork Borg, having read it most recently - which has appears to have encumbrance, but no real light, movement or turnkeeping rules. In general I find that ultralights (and AD&D/ other early D&Ds) even when they have rules that push exploration do a poor job of proceduralizing it -- reminding the referee how they work and how important they are.

      I don't have those other rulesets in front of me, but it sounds like you can certainly manage with both Knave and Black Hack. The issue, and likely where my impression comes from, seems to be a lack of emphasis and incorporation into the cycle of play -- does the system do anything to help the referee remember to deplete resources and roll random encounters? This is a core problem inherited from early D&D and Gygax's weird assumption that everyone playing would be wargamers with a preexisting appreciation and desire for logistics, but it seems to endure as learning how to run a dungeon crawl seems like something D&D's never taught.

      Second, and more related to your question, I suspect that the considerations and balances for encumbrance, supply, encounter frequency and movement that one finds in old systems are largely tuned to longer sessions. I use slot encumbrance, an overloaded die, and abstracted movement (e.g. 1 room/hallway per Turn)both because they are easier to remember and because they ramp up risk and depletion far faster so it can be impactful in short games. I can't remember if Black Hack does some of these things?

    3. Yeah, Black Hack (at least 2e) actually has slot encumbrance, abstracted movement and a step-by-step procedure for exploration turns with the first point being a roll on usage die of light sources. It uses overloaded encounter die as well, but orders to roll it every 15 minutes of real time, which I find a little clunky and hard to remember during play. I roll it every other turn instead.

      Knave uses slot encumbrance and assumes you are tracking time for light sources. It doesn't explain it in much details, though, kind of assuming you know the procedure from other sources.

      You might be right about Mork Borg, I haven't read this one.

  3. Super interesting series so far. I've been pondering how I run games a lot lately (on the somewhat opposite spectrum from this series I've been trying to understand the koans of S. John Ross on what he calls "High Trust Trad"). I think I'm probably not entirely far off from your version of classic in some ways though my time keeping and tracking of supplies is a bit looser for sure. My players tend to end up on a lot of journeys and quests of various sorts but I do like grounding everything in a good series of less goal specific dungeon expeditions every so often. As a DM the larger dungeon you describe here allows me to be surprised by outcomes - to play the game in a way. For the players it gives them a chance to make decisions and utilize tactics in a bit more of a controlled environment where something interesting but unknow could be around every corner. A good dungeon allows a lot of choice but these choices aren't limitless and I think that is the beauty of it.

    1. Honestly, I'm fairly loose with supplies, I just use relatively small slot encumbrance, exploration/overloaded dice, exhaustion and action based turnkeeping to make them matter and remind me to deplete them.

    2. Is your full exploration procedure posted anywhere? Curious to see, for example, what your exploration roll-table looks like, and when it gets rolled.

    3. I haven't bundled it together in a single place, and many of the mechanics are borrowed from various other bloggers and games: Necropraxis, Paper & Pencils, the Black Hack even (though some of those mechanics were pulled from the slurry of G+ I think).

      Some day I should write it down in a simple format.

      You can find description and my theoretical underpinnings in these posts, including a simple exploration/overloaded encounter die table:

  4. A thing I like to do is to use the conceptual idea of a five room dungeon and apply it to a location based adventure to kind of get a combo of a “narrative” structure of tiered challenges, but the stuff is all layed out within a real dungeon map, either unkeyed premade, or generated with dice tables or Geomorphs. For more complex areas, you can have multiple “five room” setups in one space, and even tier those. Like having mini bosses under a main boss in a single area.

    1. That is certainly a popular way to design contemporary traditional adventures and I'm not trying to suggest it's a bad one. What I am suggesting is that it's not a "Dungeon" in the specific sense that it's not a location based adventure with a meaningful spatial/navigation challenge.

      Even you suggestion of multiple 5 room sections, each ruled by a "mini-boss" shows this - the 5 room adventures are inherently and individually goal oriented and designed to create a specific story. The point I'm trying to make is that five room "Dungeons" are a method of story based design, and will not produce a the Classic style of play because they aren't meant to, even if one ignores the usual linearity of the design.

      If you want to experience the fun of procedural dungeon crawls and the high degree of player choice they produce, a five room "Dungeon" or a stack of them won't do it very well.

  5. Very good article. I really like the 5 room dungeon idea and have used it for a lot of encounters and mini-dungeons.

    I think the problem with a dungeon crawl is that most players almost have to be taught on how to do it. I play with younger players and they just want to kick in the door for every room in a dungeon. They've got to get killed a few times before they learn the lesson.

    Also, I think dungeon crawling implies a certain seriousness about play that a lot of groups just do not have. I love the idea of dungeon crawling but modern day life with its time limits and small attention spans is not really conducive to thoughtful, super-careful, procedural play. I also utilized a simply system based on Od&d that uses slot encumbrance, built in procedures (only dwarves get a gimped version of darkvision), and such to naturally and sort of subconsciously lead my players to take a more old school approach to gaming. That said, I have seen my players grow in the old school sensibilities and become pretty good dungeon crawlers.

    Anymore, I mix the different approaches to dungeons so that nothing feels the same. It sort of gets boring doing one dungeon crawl after another or doing one 5 room dungeon after another. Your article helps to clearly differentiate the different types - dungeon crawl, 5 room dungeon, wilderness adventure, etc. Different versions of early D&D did good at teaching the differences between dungeon and wilderness adventures. This article helps to differentiate dungeon adventures into further subcategories. It would be cool to think about some other subcategories for dungeon and wilderness adventures.


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