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May 27, 2015

The Magic Circle

What, you've never heard of the magic circle?  It's such a studied concept there are academic papers and even a pretty detailed wikipedia page.  It's a useful idea that relates directly to the concept of immersion and shared imagined space.  (I wrote about Immersion in a later post.  Read it here!)  LARP theory has spent a lot of time talking about magic circles and bleed and other concepts of immersion and virtual worlds.  So why isn't it a common concept in tabletop RPGs?  Probably because only indie designers ever really talk about these ideas.  But I digress!  Let me tell you about magic circle.  Let me turn it into a simple tool for you to use.

First, a clear definition:

The "Magic Circle" is the boundary between the real world and the shared imagined space of the game.  It's a permeable membrane-

Wait, what?  Things can pass through the magic circle?  Well of course!  Did you have a great day at work where everything went right and you kicked ass?  When you settle in to your Vampire character, you're going to be excited, self-confident, and satisfied.  Did your 8 year old Shadowrun character just get killed by a dragon?  You're going to go home with a bittersweet sadness and maybe you'll be a little on edge in your facebook comments that night.  Did you just learn about the Cathar heresy?  You might be more likely to burn some heretics in tonight's D&D game.

Knowledge, patterns of thought, and emotions bleed through the membrane.  This concept is called "bleed."

So what can you DO with these ideas?  You can adjust the level of bleed by building a harder magic circle.  You can't eliminate or guarantee bleed, but you can make it more or less likely.

The magic circle's barrier can be made more or less permeable.  You, the GM, can do that.  Some GMs might want more bleed than others.  Some games are casual after work affairs for relaxing.  Others are serious immersion-focused emotionally intense affairs.  If you have an established group, they probably have a group consensus of how permeable the magic circle membrane should be in each direction.  The casual after work D&D game might be permeable to bleed-in and relatively impermeable to bleed-out.  The intense short-run Vampire LARP might be designed to be very permeable to bleed-out, but relatively impermeable to bleed-in.

Bleed-in is when the real world intrudes into the magic circle.  You can reduce bleed-in by tightening the membrane between the real world and the fiction.  Here are some tips:

  • Have a ritual that begins the game session.  Rituals are easy to do.  The more formal and structured, the better.  Try getting everyone to go around the table and announce where their character was at the end of last session; having the GM recap the last session; playing opening credits for the game; formally announcing the game is starting and asking people to put away phones and such; or setting up the minis and battlemat.
  • Keep the real life away from the game.  Play in a less frequently used room of the house, if possible (the basement is a cliche, but totally works!).  Ask people not to look at their phones.  Have people talk like their characters, avoiding anachronisms.  
  • When you have food and drink, make an effort to bring items that the characters eat and drink.  Break out the renn fest tankards and fill them with frothy ale for a D&D game, for instance.
  • Do voices.  Stand up and act out the NPCs.  Encourage your players to take on an accent or do a voice themselves.  Adjust the lighting in the room.  Use game music and sound effects.
  • Use props that encourage the players to think of themselves as their characters -- things they can hold like an orb, wand, scroll, note, puzzle, or crystal.  
  • Don't use miniatures.  They tend to literally create distance between the player and their character.  If you play a game that requires them, keep them in a box until combat starts.
  • In tabletop RPG theory we call this "simulationism"; "sim character"; "getting in character" or "immersion."  You can google those terms to find more tips on immersion.  This isn't specifically a post about that, so this list is incomplete.

Here are some techniques to encourage bleed-in.  Why would you want to do that?  Let's say you want to run a lighthearted comedy game, or use your RPG as more of a social activity than an immersive experience.  This is totally OK.  Don't be down on your game because it's too casual.  That's not a problem if it's what the table wants!
  • Use miniatures and keep them out on the table.
  • Use anachronisms in speech, and let your own personality affect how NPCs act.
  • Intentionally refer to people and places familiar to the players:  "This NPC looks like Steve Carell, except with a handlebar mustache," or "The room is about as big as the main area of the dining hall."
  • Digress - talk about real life during the game.  "Hey, did you see Game of Thrones last night?"

Bleed-out is when the game world affects the players.  I've seen players run out of the room in tears, shudder in terror, flip a table in anger, and dance around the room with triumphant joy.  I'm not very comfortable, personally, with very strong bleed-out.  Some players (especially in Nordic LARP) really like strong bleed-out.  I try to achieve a little bleed-out, myself.

Here are some techniques to encourage it.

  • Discourage bleed-in very, very strongly.  Once people start immersing in their character, they'll start having more genuine emotions as their character.
  • Focus the drama of your game on the things that can bleed out of the membrane.  Hit points can't bleed out, but emotions and thoughts can.
  • End your session with unresolved mental challenges:  Use hard moral choices.  Give them mysteries where the players have most of the clues - they just have to think them through.  Provide a puzzle.  Give them new knowledge in a big reveal right at the end, so they go home thinking through all the implications.  Teach them something interesting about the real world that they didn't know before.  They'll go home weighing your ethical decision; turning over the mystery in their heads; puzzling over the puzzle; intrigued about their new knowledge; or reeling through the implications of the big reveal.  That's all bleed-out!
  • End your session with strong emotions (and let the players debrief if they need to).  Dread, anxiety, anger, betrayal, triumph, gratitude, grief, regret, and relief are not too hard to achieve.  Use NPCs to great effect to generate these emotions.  Also put them in hard spots where they have to make choices they don't like.  Collectively, they might choose the most prudent course, but one or two of them might have strong feelings about the group's actions.

You might want to discourage bleed-out.  Again, you might want the game to stay at the table.  If you have immature players, or run an intensely competitive elysium style LARP, it's probably a good idea to tone down the bleed-out before the session is over.  Typically, you want to maintain immersion during your game session, then let it go away after.  Here are some tips for reducing bleed-out without reducing immersion:

  • Have a closing ritual, like ending credits, awarding XP, "what did you learn" recaps, etc.  Most competitive LARPs have a very formal closing ritual for a very good reason:  You don't want the players taking in-character drama out-of-character.  Sometimes they have literally hours of closing ritual (a closing ceremony followed by dining out as a group, for instance).
  • Handle all the bookkeeping at the end of your game session - experience points, identifying magic items, storing character sheets, updating the game wiki, scheduling the next session, paying what you owe for the pizza, talking about the new supplement coming out, etc.  This puts a time buffer between the immersion and the real world.
If you want to reduce bleed-out and don't mind reducing immersion to do it, here are some other tips.  I'm sure you can think of all kinds of ways to reduce immersion without my help.  Usually you don't want to do this.  But here are some responsible ways:
  • During game, break the immersion by taking breaks, talking about the real world, or ordering food.  Even just handing a player a coke can reduce their level of character immersion and make bleed-out less likely.  Long session games (over 4 hours) probably need breaks anyway.
  • Ask the players to change stance to something like author or director stance.  This reduces their immersion a little as well.  A good way to do this without breaking the game flow is to ask players to answer their own questions, like this:  Player: "I scan the titles of the books in the necromancer's library. Is there anything useful there?"  GM: "I'm open to suggestions.  What are you hoping to find?"

So the magic circle describes the barrier between the real world and the game world.  Bleed is how the two affect each other.  The ideal experience is well bounded, with no bleed-in and no bleed-out, but some groups like more permeable membranes on one or the other end.  Serious drama players might want no bleed-in and lots of bleed-out for a cathartic experience.  "Beer and pretzel" games might be comfortable with any amount of bleed-in, but no bleed-out, for a fun diversion.  Neither style is wrong, and you can have all kinds of "in between" styles too.

As a parting note, here's the concept of the magic circle as applied to video games, which I suspect you also like:

May 18, 2015

The Bond Opener

There are a lot of good ways to start your adventure.  If you want to use the Hero Cycle, you have to show the players what normal life is like, before their characters are torn from it by the call to adventure.  In the Three Act Structure, you need to open with exposition and slowly build toward the faster paced first act twist.

Bond movies don't do that.  They open with an intense, high-stakes action scene.  We get filled in later.  Consider Goldeneye, which spends seven and a half minutes on the opener, with extreme sports, explosions, assassinations, machine guns, motorcycles, and hijacking an airplane by jumping off a cliff into it.  Or consider Casino Royale that gives us a flashback framing device with a foot chase, brutal brawl, fast draw shootout, mole hunt, and villain banter in just four and a half minutes.

How do you use the Bond Opener?  What can the Bond Opener do for you?  And what are its drawbacks?

Rules for Bond Openers in RPGs

The biggest challenge of the Bond Opener is that we're thrust directly into the action and we have no idea why it's happening.  As the audience, we're on the edge of our seats, not just because of the high octane action, but because we want to figure out what's going on.  In a tabletop RPG, the audience and the protagonist are one and the same.  You can't keep the players in the dark, but starting with exposition defeats the purpose.  So you have to use an action scene at the end of a chain of events, where there aren't a lot of choices.

Your players have to be  comfortable with aggressive scene framing. You have to end one adventure with "and you return the amulet to the wizard, he rewards you, you buy some healing potions, the end" and start the next session with "there you are on a crashing airship chasing the tiefling that stole the box containing the Duke's will (which you were trying to steal first) when a red dragon rears up over the quarterdeck, breathing fire to scatter the soldiers up there.  It looks like the tiefling is going to run up on the quarterdeck and leap onto its back!  What do you do?"

That's pretty jarring.  But then, a Bond Opener is supposed to be jarring.  That's the point.  It's like those newfangled roller coasters that launch you from the start with motors instead of slowly raising you up a hill.  So just warn your players.  "Hey, I'm going to start the next adventure with a Bond Opener.  That means you're going to start in the middle of the action and have to play along.  Your characters will know more about the plot than you, but for the scene, you just have to beat a bad guy, so you won't need all the details."  The key things to communicate are:

  • We're starting in the middle of the action
  • Your characters will know more about the plot than you do - you just have to roll with it
  • Don't worry about the details that your character knows and you don't.  It'll be an action scene, so just focus on defeating the opposition and achieving the procedural goal.  It's like a Bond movie. 

A Bond Opener is almost always the climax scene for its own adventure.  In Skyfall, MI-6 is concluding an operation to retrieve a stolen chip containing sensitive information.  They've located the chip and the thief, and are moving to apprehend the thief and secure the chip.  In Goldeneye, Bond has located his target and planned a route inside.  In Casino Royale, we're watching the conclusion of Bond's origin story - how he became a double oh agent.

In 007 films, the opener usually foreshadows the plot of the film and sets the tone.  Casino Royale opens with a paranoid mole hunt, then progresses to a deep cover operation where it's not clear who the bad guys are and whether there is another mole (Spoiler alert!  There is!).  Goldeneye opens with egregiously over-the-top action and then doesn't fail to deliver with a freakin' tank chase and a brawl on a catwalk a hundred feet in the air.  (Spoiler alert! Somebody gets killed with liquid nitrogen.)  The opener is almost staid by comparison.  Skyfall opens with Bond getting shot, and ends with another important character getting shot.  The magic of cinema!  Try to work this kind of tone setting and foreshadowing into your opener if you can.  It's not absolutely necessary, though.

Advantages and Disadvantages of the Bond Opener

The main advantage of the bond opener are totally obvious:  It's exciting!  It sets a clear beginning to the game session, and gets the players invested quickly.  It can also help players new to a system get a feel for it before the main adventure starts.  It also lets you develop good hooks:  When the opener ends, the players know what they want their characters to do next.  The terrorist escaped with the chip - what do we do next?  The mole is dead - but are there more?  The Russian is dead, but what is this mysterious GoldenEye program?

Another advantage is that a Bond Opener can set the tone for the adventure and foreshadow plot events, like it does in the 007 films.  Feel free to use this narrative device.  When your players catch the parallel, you'll feel like a literary god.  Oh wow, there's a whole conspiracy of Quori we didn't know about.  Just like in the opening scene with the tiefling out of nowhere!

Neither an advantage, nor a disadvantage, is the fact that the Bond Opener implies a whole adventure happened off-screen.  The players get to make up the details.  Some will enjoy this part; others will ignore it.  You, as the GM, shouldn't sweat the small stuff.  Don't worry about XP or treasure (or conversely, using up resources or other costs, such as Sanity points, Network pool, etc.).

A drawback of the Bond Opener is that you have to basically write the adventure that it's concluding, and then only run the end.  That's hardly that big a deal, since you don't have to do more than make a rough sketch of the first 90% and then run the last 10% in a tense thriller scene.  In the running example, we can assume that the PCs got aboard an airship to steal the box containing the will as it was being transported somewhere by couriers.  It hardly matters how they found which ship it would be on, or how they infiltrated the ship.  This is mostly a drawback because you might think, "Hey, that would be super fun to run!  Why am I skipping that?"  You're skipping that to get to something equally awesome and to set up a great opening scene.  It's totally worth it, but it might feel like a bit of a waste.

Another drawback is that the Bond Opener has all the drawbacks of aggressive scene framing.  Check my post on scene framing for some advice there.  As an Opener, though, there won't be as much of a problem with "but we wanted to..." since the players haven't technically started their adventure.  Hopefully they'll be swept up in the awesome action, and won't be too worried about what came before.

Framing the Follow-On Scene
If you have opening credits for your game, wait until the dramatic conclusion of the Bond Opener, then click "Play."  Otherwise, that's where you call the scene over, and jump-cut to your exposition.

GM:  Wizard, your spell works!  The elemental ring sputters and coughs, then flares back into life.  Everyone, you feel the ship lurch out of its dive.  You're pressed to the deck with the g-force as it pulls up.  Rogue, your turn!
Rogue:  I stab the dragon in its weak spot!  30 damage! 
GM:  It falls, spiraling down toward the sea five hundred feet below.  It looks like the tiefling has nowhere to go, Fighter.  Your turn! 
Fighter:  Power attack!  I smash the Tiefling!  25 damage! 
GM:  Your blow knocks him back, and he falls off the quarterdeck.  Fighter, as the tiefling and the box both fall off the ship, you have to choose:  Grab the box or grab the enemy agent.  
Fighter:  Screw that guy.  I grab the box! 
GM:  The tiefling falls away, diminishing to a speck before he hits the water.  Nobody could possibly have survived that.  [Roll opening credits.]

The follow-on scene should be an exposition scene that bridges the action scene with the current adventure.

You can step directly from the opener to the exposition scene, or make another framing cut.  By using another big cut, you remove a lot of the "cruft" implied by your Bond Opener.  What happens with the airship?  Was anyone hurt?  Do we get any treasure?  Did we have a stateroom on the ship or did we sneak on?  That doesn't matter - we're cutting to the next morning:

[Opening credits end]  GM:  Alright, next scene.  There you are, back in the Duke's manor the next day, with Gregor the castellan.  You got the box open.  Here's a handout with the will on it.  You'll find it has surprising implications, and it might give you some ideas who that tiefling could have been working for...

(You don't have opening credits?  That's OK, I only have them for one of my games.  It's totally worth it to make them though!  Want to know why?  It relates to the "magic circle" - a storytelling device.  I'll write a post on the magic circle for you next week.)

May 12, 2015

Calling the Fight

You're looking to speed up your combat scenes?  You've come to the right place.  People have all kinds of advice to shave off a few seconds or a few minutes.  This technique speeds up combat significantly, and does so by only cutting the boring bits out.

First, let me assume you're running a tactical fantasy RPG such as D&D or Pathfinder.  This particular advice solves a problem that D&D (especially 3rd-5th edition) and Pathfinder both have; but it sometimes crops up in other RPGs.

Calling the Fight

People fight for a reason, and they stop fighting when they achieve their purpose.  

Most of the time, combat in your RPG should not be a "kill or be killed" fight to the death against desperate monsters who only want to kill the PCs, and are willing to die to do so.  Start by figuring out what the enemy wants.  Then give the PCs something they want badly enough to risk their lives for it.

The first encounter in the module Reavers of Harkenwold happens when the PCs, venturing into the valley to investigate troubling rumors, come across some soldiers assaulting the farmhouse of a holdout against their tyrannical overthrow of the local Baron.  The dramatic question here is "Can the PCs stop thugs from murdering an innocent farmer?"  Since they're heroes or at least mercenaries on a mission to stop these soldiers, it's worth getting in harm's way to fight them.  They'll fight them, but they don't necessarily have to kill them all.  And the thugs' goal is to put a stop to this rebellious farmer and make an example for others.  Not "kill everyone who shows up."

Mike Schley: Map Downloads &emdash; Reavers of Harkenwold; Poster Side 1 (Digital Gridded & Ungridded Versions)
From Reavers of Harkenwold.
 Buy this map from Mike Schley here.
It's not meant to be a hard encounter for the PCs.  For the GM, you have to keep in mind that these goons' goal is to set that farmhouse ablaze, then maybe teach these adventurers a lesson if it doesn't seem like it's too much trouble.

You've seen this scene in every high school movie.  The bully slams the nerd up against the locker and threatens him.  A fist is raised.  The nerd is about to get it.  The principal comes by, and the bully playfully scuffs the nerd's hair.  "Oh hey Mr. Smith!  uh...  We was just playin'!"  And the bully walks off before Mr. Smith can give him detention.

That's how you want this to play out.  These Iron Circle goons don't even know who the PCs are at this point.  They may be loyal, but they weren't ordered to fight strangers to the death.  Once they put the torch to the farmhouse, they're done.  If they can put some crossbow bolts through pesky interlopers, all the better!  If those interlopers turn out to be dangerous adventurers, they'll run off shouting villain stuff like, "You haven't seen the last of us!" and "You'll rue the day you crossed the Iron Circle!"

When you write a combat encounter, the most important parts are not the terrain or the monster stats.  The most important parts are why the encounter starts and what can end it.  You also need to telegraph this to the players.  Consider a low level Pathfinder encounter with five dire rats.  Typically, you'd draw a dungeon, then decide one area was connected to a sewer, then put dire rats there, then choose how many based on the Challenge Rating math.  You're not done!  You need three more things:

  1. Why does this encounter start?  The dark magic in this dungeon has mutated its rats.  When the mutant rats see prey -- even something as large as human adventurers -- they attack. 
  2. What can end this encounter?  Individually, each rat will flee if it takes any damage at all.  All of the other rats will flee once two of them have been defeated. 
  3. How can the players know this?  With a successful monster knowledge check with Knowledge (nature), a character knows dire rats are cowardly and will flee if they get hurt or if a few of them get killed.

The end condition (#2) actually makes the fight a little easier for the PCs.  So you might adjust the Challenge Rating down to 1.

Common Objections and Hurdles

But in D&D or Pathfinder, some encounters exist to wear away the PCs' resources!  While this is true, the players will stop using up their characters' best resources once the players have realized that they're going to win.  If you've got two Cone of Cold spells left today, you're not going to use one of them to clean up the last wounded hill giant.  You're going to save it for when you're facing down three more hill giants at full strength.

Yeah, but hit points are a resource too.  That is true.  But the PCs have so many healing magic options - even at level 1 - that this isn't an issue.  And what if it was enough to be an issue?  Is playing the fight out round by unnecessary round really worth it just to force them to camp for the night?  No!  You don't want either of those things to happen, if you can help it!

Anything can happen.  Why not play to find out?  In practice, this is not true.  It is possible for the players to roll natural 1s for the next half hour, technically, but it is extremely unlikely.  What are you fighting on for?  Are you hoping some other GM will send reinforcements?  Are you just playing out an extra quarter hour of combat to see if one of your monsters crits a PC?

It's clear the PCs are going to win from round 1!  Where do you draw the line?  This is a good question.  There are different answers for the different layers of what's going on.  First, from a game standpoint, your monsters are here to do something cool and scary.  Those dire rats can give you filth fever!  Once they've done it or failed to do it, you're closer to calling the fight.  Second, from a story perspective, you need to answer the dramatic question.  Did the PCs stop the Iron Circle goons from burning down the farmhouse and prove they're no pushovers?  Time for them to flee.  Third, there's an information disparity.  The players don't know the stats of dire rats.  Even the most experienced still can't remember everything, and you might have changed something.  If you play and GM, you may have a better feel for this phenomenon:  Because of that information disparity, the GM always knows the fight is over before the players do.  You need to use your intuition to determine when the players realize they've won.  You may call a few fights too soon (or too late), but you'll get the hang of it quickly.  Watch for cues like players telling each other not to use their best resources or not to take reckless risks.

Why should my players let them flee?  They might assume that if the Iron Circle goons run off, they'll have a harder fight later, with the extra goons.  But in theory and in practice that's not likely to happen.  First, in theory, if you're a tyrannical dictator sort, and your minions fail to intimidate a simple farmer, they'll be mucking stables for a month -- and that's if you happen to be in a good mood today.  Second, in practical GM terms, it's a pain to rebuild tactical encounters on the fly to include the cowards from that last fight.  Third, in practical "GM skill" terms, if you punish your players every time they do something that helps you maintain the excitement at the game table, you're shooting yourself in the foot.  Stop it.

What do I do if my players still chase the fleeing enemy?  You narrate the end.  If the PCs are intent on slaughtering their fleeing foes -- shooting them in the back and such -- that's fine.  Don't play it out round by round.  Narrate it like this:  "When they realize that they're outmatched, the Iron Circle soldiers break and begin to flee.  Their commander shouts, 'They've got a wizard!  Every man for himself!'"  Player response:  "We can't let them get away!  I shoot the commander!"  GM:  "Do you plan to slaughter them all?"  [Players all nod]  "OK, you shoot the commander through the throat and he falls dead.  The others try to flee, but you run them down, shoot them in the back, and make widows of their wives."

...Or you can give them a reason not to.  Narrate it like this:  "When they realize that they're outmatched, the Iron Circle soldiers break and begin to flee.  Their commander shouts, 'They've got a wizard!  Every man for himself!'  Meanwhile, you notice that a small fire is smoldering in the farmhouse."  This changes the focus of the scene from tactics to ethics.  Do you shoot fleeing foes in the back?  If not, what do you shout at them as they flee?  If so, what sort of consequences might there be?  Do you leave the farmer to put out the fire herself for a few crucial rounds or do you help her immediately?

What about hit and run enemies?  The PCs are almost always a guerrilla force attacking a larger enemy organization.  If the antagonists are also a guerrilla force, they might intentionally try hit-and-run tactics - but in that case, they will break off the fight before it's clear that the PCs have won.  That's the point.  You hit once and run.

What if the enemy is mindless, fanatical, or unable to flee?  If it's clear that the enemy is defeated, but for some reason it can't or won't stop fighting, you have two good choices.  One good option is to reduce it to 1 hit point as soon as you realize this, and don't even roll its saving throws -- have it automatically fail them all.  Let the next attack kill it.  This isn't cheating or fudging any rolls.  Hit points are an abstraction.  Your other good option is to narrate the rest of the fight:  "There are only three zombies left.  They keep coming, but you cut them down like cord wood."

May 4, 2015

The Five Room Dungeon

Johnn Four's Five Room Dungeon design is pretty smart.  I'll let you navigate on over there and take a look at his original idea.  You can get his ebook for free, if you like.

The benefits of a five room dungeon:

  • It's a formula that's easy to follow, but generates a lot of unique adventures without seeming cookie-cutter. 
  • The dungeon can be explored in a single short session of play, making it a discrete story unit.  Use two or more for longer format games.  
  • You can build a larger dungeon out of multiple five-room dungeons; or use several isolated ones in a hex crawl.  
  • The curtailed design eliminates a lot of the filler encounters that you're tempted to include for larger dungeons or themed dungeons.
  • The formula requires you to include scenes that play to diverse strengths and fantasy character archetypes.  There's a scene for the brain, a scene for the face, a scene for the big guy, etc.
  • The diversity of scenes also gives you ample opportunity to insert any kind of character plot hooks you want.  Really, there is no excuse for not doing so.
  • It packs a whole three-act structure into a short time, so it has great pacing and a thrilling conclusion.
  • If you're running D&D or Pathfinder, the dungeon is a good amount of content for one adventuring day, containing 2-4 combat encounters and a 1-3 exploration and roleplay scenes.  There should be no reason for the PCs to camp to recover resources in the middle of the dungeon, and no need for time pressure.

And the drawbacks are limited.  Except for Johnn Four's contest, there's no reason you can't modify the five-room dungeon formula to suit your needs.  Do you want a lot of combat?  Add two combat scenes.  More roleplay?  Add some more NPCs.  Want to make it longer?  Stick two or three five room dungeons together, or add some scenes in the middle.  More exploration?  Add a maze with some puzzles, traps and wandering monsters in the middle.

Here's a summary of the technique:

1. The PCs are blocked from getting in by a guardian.  The dramatic question is "How can the heroes get into the dungeon?" The guardian could be in an antechamber or outside the dungeon; or the guardian could be a trap, puzzle, complex lock, etc.  Combat might help overcome the guardian, or it might be useless.

2. The PCs encounter a puzzle or social challenge.  This can be a locked door with a password and a riddle, or a complex trap, or a guardian.  It seems to me that rooms 1 and 2 are almost the same, except that room 2 should not be a combat scene; and room 1 might be a combat scene.  The reason Four uses these two scenes at the beginning is that he intends to ratchet up the pace later, and puzzles and roleplay don't have the thrilling, tense nature of a direct conflict.  Try to raise the stakes in room 2, though - the challenge in room 1 might be a sealed door with guards the PCs sneak past.  The challenge in room 2 might be a locked room filling with poison gas; or an angry NPC who escalates matters to a shouting argument that the PCs can't win by killing him.

3. A red herring.  This is the most confusing room.  The dramatic question of room 3 is "Does room 3 cost the PCs something?"  It's an opportunity for the players to choose between completeness and resource conservation.  Do we clear out the zombies in the crypt or move past it to deal with the main crypt?  Do we explore the dusty, half-collapsed passage or stay focused?  Do we have to fight the trained wolves guarding the supplies or can we sneak past them?  This room adds tension by forcing the players to give something up:  If you sneak past the wolves, you keep more spells and hit points, but lose out on searching the supply sacks.

The challenge of the red herring for the GM is that the players will ask, "can we just come back here after we get to the end?"  If the answer is "we're sure we can," there is no tension.  They'll ignore the crypt, skip the dusty passage, and sneak past the wolves.  The problem is that running a red herring challenge after the PCs have resolved the main reason they came here in the first place is anti-climactic (literally opposite of the climax, in this case).  Make sure you have an answer to the question "why can't we just come back here after we finish our main goal?" but don't make it so pressing that there is no real choice.  Often the reason is hidden in room 5, and applies time pressure:  The Sapphire has already been stolen?  There's no time to search that side passage!  We have to chase down the tiefling thief!  Sometimes the reason is part of room 3:  After the necromancer is slain, the zombies will be free to wander out into the countryside.  Finally, if you made room 3 a challenge already, you can hand-wave this part:  The wolves ran off after their master was slain.

4. The climax.  This room is the "boss fight," to use a video game term; and that's probably a better name for it.  The PCs have come to the dungeon to accomplish something.  This is the opponent standing in their way.  Did they come to the old crypt to kill the necromancer?  This is the necromancer's toughest undead monstrosity.  Did they explore the Lost Caves to get the Sapphire of Destiny?  This is the Archon that protects it.  Did they chase the killer of the Baron of Radua to this abandoned hunting lodge?  This is the cloaked assassin they discover in the basement.

5. The twist.  This room might not be an actual room at all, according to Four.  It's a plot twist that changes the nature of the story and lets you end the session on a cliffhanger; or causes the PCs a setback; or just serves as an unwelcome surprise.  The necromancer re-animates the undead monster, and now you have to fight the monster again, and it has the necromancer's aid!  The Sapphire of Destiny has already been stolen?  No!  But there's a clue here as to who stole it -- a tiefling hoofprint!  The assassin turns out to be just a lackey for a greater secret organization, but he takes poison before giving up his handler!  Sometimes the twist is just new plot information.  Say the PCs were breaking an infamous pirate out of prison because only the pirate knows how to navigate the reefs to get to the Isle of Dread.  When they get to the pirate, she explains that she was able to navigate the reefs because she had a deal with the sahuagin, but when the Commodore captured her and seized her ship, he took the ivory she owes them, so they won't help until they get the ivory that they want for some reason.

Three-Act Structure and Five Room Dungeons

Like I said above, five room dungeons are great because they come packaged with the elements of the three-act story structure.

Act 1:  You need to place your plot hooks outside the dungeon, to get the PCs interested in coming here and motivated to bypass the guardian.  The guardian could be the first act twist - where the protagonists commit to the adventure.

Act 2:  Room 2 and 3 are definitely rising action.  Room 2 is a non-combat challenge which can be deadly, but doesn't have the high tension of an active, lethal opponent.  Room 3 likely has a serious threat; and in addition, it forces the protagonists to make a hard choice.

Act 3:  How you use room 5 depends on the milieu that the five room dungeon is being designed for.  You might use it as the second act twist, darkest hour (which may last all of one combat round!), and climax all in one.  Or you may use it as a second act twist for your larger adventure.  That in turn helps you decide how to use room 4:

  • If your story structure spans only the five-room dungeon, the peak of the rising action is Room 4; the second act twist is Room 5; and the third act - the climax - is overcoming the new challenge.  In a one-shot, you have to wrap up the story at the end, so you have to let the PCs resolve the new problem in room 5.  The example of the necromancer reviving the undead monster so the PCs have to fight it again works well here, because they have a twist that's immediately resolved.
  • If you are using the five room dungeon as part of a greater story, you can end on a cliffhanger, with the second act twist coming in room 5.  The PCs then enter the "darkest hour" where they have another adventure (maybe another five room dungeon) where they scramble to resolve the twist before the climactic showdown against the antagonist (which might be yet another five room dungeon).
  • If you are using the five room dungeon as part of a greater story, but don't need to use this moment for a twist or cliffhanger, end it on a bang.  A "bang" is something exciting that happens in the story to raise the stakes.  Let's say you're using a series of five room dungeons in the rising action of an adventure where the PCs are taking down a villain's resources to make him vulnerable.  One such sub-adventure is freeing all the villain's slaves.  The twist doesn't have to be a big surprise or even a defeat:  It can be a horrific revelation that establishes the main villain's evil.  Imagine a "room 5" scene where the PCs open the slave pit where the villain kept the children to force the adults to work with threats to their families.  Describe how the PCs see the scarred, stone-faced slaves break into tears as they are reunited with their abused, malnourished children.  To make it personal, let each player take an action to heal a sick child who can't stand, or to help a panicked parent find their baby amid the confusion, et cetera.

A and B Plots and Five Room Dungeons

Previously, I showed how to build richness into a dungeon by layering an A plot and a B plot.  The A plot is the reason the PCs have come to the dungeon.  The B plot is the tale of the history of the people, place, and geography around the dungeon that has mysterious effects on the A plot.

Room 1, A Plot:  The antagonists placed a guardian here to keep meddling adventurers out.
Room 1, B Plot:  The antagonists used this place because of its pre-existing defenses.  They know the trick to getting in and out - can the PCs figure it out?

Room 2, A Plot:  There is an NPC or trap here that the antagonists left.  This NPC is not immediately hostile to the PCs - and they may want to offer the PCs an alternative way to resolve the A Plot.  If it is a trap, it stands out as different from the older architecture.
Room 2, B Plot:  If you use an NPC, it's likely to be a creature native to the dungeon or the area around it, connected to the B Plot's story, such as a ghost or an intelligent monster.  This NPC will give exposition as well as present a roleplaying challenge.  B Plot in Room 2 could be an ancient puzzle that the A plot antagonists know how to bypass.  Or maybe they don't - and the puzzle merely opens up Room 3 (there are lots of different ways to structure a five room dungeon).

Room 3, A Plot:  The obvious A Plot for room 3 is a guard that the PCs need to sneak past.  Other opportunities include A Plot treasure guarded by a trap.
Room 3, B Plot:  If you've developed a B Plot that can be resolved, Room 3 could be a red herring for the A Plot, but also the climax for the B Plot.  Let's say that 2B was a ghost who, after being persuaded that the PCs were reverential, offered to aid the PCs if they would bury her body.  Room 3 may have the ghost's bones, but the carrion crawler in there isn't likely to give them up.

Room 4, A Plot:  Typically room 4 is going to be the centerpiece of your A Plot.
Room 4, B Plot:  Because room 4 is usually an A Plot climax scene, you may not use B Plot.  If you do, it's often to show the effect of the B Plot on the A Plot.  Here's where your ghost either comes in and attacks everyone for disturbing its rest, or comes in to help the PCs defeat their A Plot antagonist as part of their bargain.

Room 5, A Plot:  If you're doing a one-shot, the twist likely relates to whatever you did in room 4.  If you're using the dungeon as your second act twist in a larger adventure, it definitely involves the A Plot.
Room 5, B Plot:  If you're using the five room dungeon in the middle of a larger adventure, you can make the twist part of the B Plot.  The room 5 twist is a great place to resolve the B Plot.  This is where you can introduce a twist or bang related to the history of the people and place around the dungeon.  This is where the volcano starts to erupt or ancient crypt opens, the ghost gets her revenge, etc.  These developments can often be surprising and exciting.  Ask yourself "What would Michael Bay do?"  (Or read this guest post to see how to run a game like a Bay film!)

Hex Crawling for Five Room Dungeons

Five room dungeons are amazing points of interest (POIs) for a hex crawl adventure.  POIs usually don't need to be long mega-dungeons.  They should be short one-session nuggets of story that the PCs encounter and investigate as they explore the map.

That's about all I have to say on five room dungeons.  May the Fourth be With You!