The 5×5 Method

mm5When working on chapter 2 of my D&D 4e campaign (in the paragon tier, chapter 1 having encompassed the heroic tier), I kept running into roadblocks when trying to map out the next major arc. I had left a number of dangling plot threads that didn’t feel right to abandon (that the players were just getting into, as well) so changing gears majorly didn’t seem like the right thing to do. At the same time, I wanted to give the arc a bigger scope than the specific mission-based adventures that I had been sending them on, as well as giving them more freedom to roam about the world I had spent 9 levels introducing them to. I also wanted to let them take more direct control of where they wanted to go next, but still script things out enough to let me plan ahead (i.e. not go full-on sandbox quite yet).

I developed an answer to all of these in what I decided to call “The 5×5 Method.” I don’t think it’s anything ground-breaking, nor is it going to work for every campaign. However, I was asked to share, and here it is.

Take 5 major, distinct quests. Give them an appropriate title. For purposes of this example (and so as to not spoil my game for my players) we’ll make one of the quests be:

Defeat Sauron’s Army at Minas Tirith

And assume there’s 4 other quests there. Then, for each of those 5 quests, give 5 steps needed to complete that quest. Each one should provide enough to provide an entire adventure (or more, but probably not less). So our example might look like:

Defeat Sauron’s Army at Minas Tirith

  1. Find Minas Tirith, meet the King.
  2. Save Faramir. 
  3. Meet Elrond and retrieve Narsil. 
  4. Brave the Paths of the Dead and convince the Army of the Dead to join up.
  5. Use the Army of the Dead to defeat Sauron’s Army. 

If possible, make #5 epic, and definitely make it finish that quest. Now, here’s the part that may take some tweaking. Give each step a location, preferably spread out all over your map. When possible, make these locations near each other at different points on the other quests. That way, they may decide to work on a different quest after finishing up one part simply because they’re geographically nearby. Thus:

Defeat Sauron’s Army at Minas Tirith

  1. Find Minas Tirith, meet the King. (Minas Tirith)
  2. Save Faramir. (Osgiliath)
  3. Meet Elrond and retrieve Narsil. (Dunharrow)
  4. Brave the Paths of the Dead and convince the Army of the Dead to join up. (Paths of the Dead)
  5. Use the Army of the Dead to defeat Sauron’s Army. (Minas Tirith)

Then in your other quests, you might have something like:

  4. Discover the Witch King’s weakness (Dunharrow)

in one of the other entries in the 5×5. In my theoretical example, the goal would be to have the other quest advanced to the point where after meeting Elrond, they go off and investigate another lead in the area, and then have two different branches that could be followed from there. Or they’ll notice that one lead is on the way to another, and stop off to finish that portion. Plus the leads themselves will suggest a certain priority, or will intertwine in different ways depending on what order the PCs discover them. 

There are some potential downfalls, of course. Players might decide to simply follow one path at a time, finish one quest then move on to another in succession, thus eliminating part of the cool factor of using the 5×5. Or they might try to jump ahead when two paths criss-cross too much. In any case, the DM is still going to have to do some work and weave the different threads together in a satisfying fashion. And if they’re hell-bent on finishing one quest, let them do it… but let them know about the other opportunities lost and enemies advancements that are happening while the other pieces are ignored. Overall, give them interesting choices among the quests, by providing both strategic objectives and chances to roleplay what their character is interested in. (Easier said than done, I know).

I’m not sure the 5×5 does all this, or that it’ll work at all. But after 25 adventures (give or take) I’ll let you know how it went.

About Dave

Dave "The Game" Chalker is the Editor-in-Chief and Co-Founder of Critical Hits. Since 2005, he has been bringing readers game news and advice, as well as editing nearly everything published here. He is the designer of the Origins Award-winning Get Bit!, a freelance designer and developer, son of a science fiction author, and a Master of Arts. He lives in MD with e, their three dogs, and two cats.


  1. I like it!

    It seems like a good way to seed the world with plot ideas, without having to fully flesh out the specifics of each plot. As the characters near a region, you can then begin to flesh out the plot points in that area–a map with a plot outline, as opposed to a plot outline with a map.

    DeadGod´s last post: Terrain Inspiration: Roll it up!

  2. Cool, I like the idea of having different plot threads being linked locationally.

    I wonder whether it might work better in a less-structured way, though. I.e. rather than having your plots go 1-> 2-> 3-> 4-> 5, maybe the first three parts are all clues which can be done in any order, which then leads to four which leads to five. This way there’s no chance of “jumping ahead.”

    Asmor´s last post: Races with Flavor: The Games Dwarves Play

  3. This wulf approves!

  4. that’s a great idea! I’ll definitely give it a shot in my next game.

  5. I’m passing on a recommendation from Twitter. If you liked this idea, check out the game “Duty & Honour”
    which features a similar “mission” system.

  6. Right on,

    I like it too.

    Yax´s last post: Nerd Watching: Twittering Dungeon Mastering’s Secrets

  7. Thanks guys.

    Asmor: That’s a great addition. I tend to think of linear adventures to be easier to plan, but making the first 3 or so of each one combine to the 4th would be a great way to do it.

  8. I like this idea. As my group is preparing to being the next leg of their campaign (still heroic tier), this will be a good chance to try this out.

    kingworks´s last post: DnD Project: Building a Digital Game Table, Pt. 3

  9. @kingworks: I’m right there with you, though I’m actually applying a bit of the 5×5 idea to a single adventure. We’ll see how it goes tomorrow!

  10. The only thing I think you need to watch out for is the number of todo items. If they only know the next step for each plot line, then you’ve limited the number of todo items to five, which is fine. If you learn of multiple things to do per plot line, this number might explode. Worst case is they know the first three items of all the five plots: fifteen todo items! My experience has been that players don’t like more than seven todo items. Just a thing to keep in mind.

    Alex Schröder´s last post: Judging 1PDC 2009

  11. This is pure gold for GMs like me who need clear, simple structure to keep our prep on track. I will absolutely be using this, and I think you should turn it into a PDF. Awesome!

  12. Simple, effective, easy.

    Consider it acquired.

  13. High praise indeed coming from you guys. I need to do a followup post (possibly when I’ve played a few more sessions with it) and then I might see about turning it into a PDF or similar.

  14. My favourite method is to have the players fight random encounters in a dungeon for four hours.

    Just kiddding 😉

    This might be a good time to link to my 2006 essay, The Invisible Dungeon.
    .-= Jonathan Drain | D20 Source´s last blog ..Hit Points And You =-.

  15. Another suggestion. Make some of the columns PC-specific, and make some of the steps along the way conflict with another PC’s column.

  16. Chris: good point. I wouldn’t make a whole column PC specific, but definitely individual entries benefit a lot by tying into PC’s backstories/motivations. I think some campaigns can make the PC’s conflict between the two columns, but not all games will want that type of conflict. Usually the decisions between “I can save my family… but that might doom the village” are enough.


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