The 5×5 Dungeon: The Temple of Elemental Evil

To finish off the paragon tier, the PCs in my game headed into one of the most classic dungeons out there: The Temple of Elemental Evil. I started with the original module (while not being slavish to it), then hacked away to adapt pieces to my game and involve major NPCs from earlier. The original module itself wasn’t hard to convert on the fly to 4e, especially with Monster Vault at my disposal.

However, I had a very specific style in mind that would feel like a big dungeon crawl. That posed a few problems:

  1. My group is pretty capable, and I wanted to challenge them in ways that reflect the dungeon crawl style- choosing when to rest, what resources to expend. where to explore, etc.
  2. I wanted to push the group forward in ways they weren’t used to in my episodic campaign.
  3. To really get the Temple of Elemental Evil feel, I wanted to give the PCs good reasons not to hack and slash through everything, even though they were more powerful than most of the enemies there.
  4. I wanted the Temple to really come alive and react, in ways discussed by Rob Schwalb and Chatty DM, whose articles would ultimately serve as the inspiration for what I wanted.

To try and achieve these ends, I came up with a 5×5 plan (based on my own 5×5 Method) for the Temple: one for each element, and one for the Temple itself (which also represented the imprisoned demoness at the bottom breaking free.) These I dubbed the Machination Meters: a list of goals that each temple element was pursuing for some ultimate agenda. Advancing a step on a track represented the passage of time and the goals advancing while the PCs adventure.

The tracks advanced as follows:

  • +1 Every fight
  • +1 Every extra short rest (i.e. a second short rest taken after a fight)
  • +1 Alarm raised or other conflict
  • +1d6 Every extended rest (After playing, I would revise this to +1d4)
  • +1 End of session (in my game, through some teleportation magic, they were able to swap party members in and out to accomodate the player base, but if you have a stable group, this might not be necessary)

When one of these events would occur, I would advance a track of my choice, except for the Temple’s track which was special. The Temple’s track could only be advanced if each of the other elements were advanced to that point: so Temple 1 could only occur after all the other elements were at 1 or beyond.

For an example of one of the tracks, here’s Earth:

Earth’s goal is to build the largest army for the Elemental Eye. Since Earth focuses on the recruitment aspect, it gets the largest amount of space taking up the entire first dungeon floor, but since the followers are the weakest, Earth gets the least respect. Earth wants to build the ultimate army, train the best soldiers, and then unleash its forces on Tarturia.

  1. Train and process recruits, provide food (Banquet Hall #119, Staging Area #103)
  2. Interrogate Lord Hans for information on Tarturia (Prison #114)
  3. Put down an insurgent Earth Priest (Room #135)
  4. Get equipped by the artificers of the Fire Temple (Forges #202)
  5. Use the Air Temple’s teleportation circles to invade Tarturia (Air Temple #210)

Each one lists a room where the event occurs, which could be averted (or helped!) by the PCs taking direct action, with #5 being the cumulation of that group’s schemes, and was generally Very Bad. So while the track could advance to #4, if the PCs already had gotten involved, they could have sabotaged the artificers and thus the advancement wouldn’t mean anything.

The special Temple track was for Zuggtmoy, trapped at the bottom, who got more powerful for the final showdown for each advancement on the track.

How did it work? It solved a number of problems, though wasn’t perfect.

Some of the big plusses from this system that helped smooth over some issues I was running into with 4e:

  • Extended rests had to be undertaken carefully, which meant that using dailies and healing surges was a more nuanced decision. Unlike previous games, I was able to drain the healing surges from defenders, which really put them in some tough spots.
  • Extra short rests to use healing powers really cost (and in fact extras never happened, which I’m OK with.)
  • It encouraged talking, sneaking, and exploring the dungeon rather than fighting everything, which would be an easy impulse with powerful 19-20th level characters.
  • Even when combat happened, there were some more decisions to make to try and keep combatants from getting away and raising an extra alarm.
  • It forced the characters to really consider some moral grays, getting involved in the struggle between the Elemental temples and doing bad things for a greater good instead of, again, just killing everything in the path.

On the flipside, what didn’t quite work so well:

  • As a DM, choosing between which track to advance wasn’t really a decision. Next time, I’d probably make a track of what order they advance in, rather than choosing.
  • I ultimately didn’t come up with 20 schemes, just enough to flesh out general strokes for each section.
  • Sometimes there were players who didn’t play a particular section because their characters were more drained from previous sections, but didn’t want to take an extended rest yet.
  • During the second extended rest, the die roll came up a 6, which was way too big a swing for what was an essential and smart rest. As noted above, a d4 is probably the right amount of variance.

I liked the ultimate result, since it fixed a lot of the issues I was having running an episodic game. It wasn’t nearly as annoying as I thought to tell players to track daily powers and healing surge use between sessions, and the end result was something that felt a lot more dynamic.

This approach as stated here won’t work for everyone, so consider the situation with you group before implementing something like this. I, on the other hand, will be adapting something similar for the epic tier of my game. The players will be in an Astral race to find the Rod of Seven Parts. 5×5 isn’t the only shape for such a grid to take, so likely, I will be trying a 7×3.

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 must say that I enjoyed the write up, but more importantly, I enjoyed the information of the 5 x 5 model. I think this is something that could very easily see home now just within the tabletop RPG community, but within the larger gaming community as a whole, especially the video games industry where more free-form sandbox games are being demanded.

  2. Glad you enjoyed it Da’Vane. I daresay that the 5×5 will show up in something that may help with what you suggest.

    I realized that I totally spaced and forgot the other huge influence on this system: Gamefiend’s Horizon mechanics:

    Definitely worth checking out.

  3. I’m interested in hearing more about how much awareness the PCs had about these tracks or the active scheming by the elemental factions. It seems to me the best way to stop the 5-minute adventuring day is the time clock, and you had that, but how did they know you had that?

  4. Ah, yes! Changing pace is always a good way to throw a curve ball to the PCs and get them out of their comfort zones and their default tactics.

    This is often why genres like horror survival can be such fun to play if done properly – it’s not that the threat are powerful, it’s that the threat is constant, and the party needs to make their own space to rest, and never knows just how long they will have – can they fortify a place long enough for an extended rest, or do they have to make do with another short rest before pressing on to somewhere more secure.

  5. I let them be aware of where each Machination meter stood for numbers- between that many high level magical characters, it seems like they’d get enough of a sense of what was going on to approximate it that much, and the Temple itself advancing was clearly felt by all the inhabitants.

    5 minute adventuring day isn’t quiiiite what I was trying to combat: I wanted to run a game where the PCs really felt their resources taxed over a larger stretch of time, but this does combat it as well, rather than “fight – nova – sleep” if that’s a problem in your games.

  6. You have no idea how happy it makes me to see that the idea of factions and “doodmsday clocks” can work in a game like D&D. Great work you did there and I look forward talking about addressing what didn’t go like you wanted.

    Great post!

  7. Great idea. After the dungeon my players finish in the next few weeks, we’re in end game fashion. The ultimate end is the BBEG opening up a vault of limitless power – there’s several groups from earlier in the adventure I’d like to revisit, a war going on, and a lot of loose ends I wanted to tie up. I didn’t want to force getting to all of them, I wanted the players to make some choices that could have good or bad effects on those they’ve come to call friends through their adventures, but did want to build up to the final showdown in a way better than just fighting through waves of guys until they fight the BBEG.

    This seems to be perfect – I think I can quickly align up 5 major things going on… this advancement schedule should give them some choices and create some game world results (good or bad!) based on decisions toward the end. I’m way stoked now about the final planning – before I was kind of nervous with the expectation of finishing up our longest (and best) campaign on an equally high note. Thank you!

  8. TheMainEvent says:

    As an aside from a player perspective: the machination chart had some serious roleplaying ramifications. Some ‘away teams’ made deals with various factions that helped certain machinations advance. The party was forced to deal with essentially allowing some factions to complete the machinations (much to the detriment of the game world) because of the time critical element. In one particular instance, rather than ‘wasting time’ trying to stop a cataclysmic even that would wipe out a chunk of the world, the party dispatched inactive PCs to give the endangered folks warning. With the tracker, rather than coming across as DM fiat and ‘cutscene syndrome’ (where your forced to watch the big evil plan come to fruition and do nothing) it felt organic.

    Kudos to Dave.

  9. I like the idea of using 5×5 to track affiliation advancement in a confined area. It seems like there would be much less to try and fill in between the steps.

  10. Dave’s ToEE adventures were quite alot of fun. You did fail to mention, however, how we advanced all of the water temples machinations, causing a Tsunami to wipe out a bunch of halfling villages in the name of Dagon. That was the best part :P.

  11. What would happen if they party sabotaged a stage? In your example if the party sabotaged the 4th step for earth, could it still advance to 5?

  12. Good question- sabotaging that step meant that it was a “safe” step. They actually did sabotage some of the Earth steps, so when the meter hit that point, nothing happened.

  13. Is your conversion of ToEE able to be shared? Pretty please? 🙂


  1. […] 2.  Eliminate the no-brainer Extended Rest.  Generally my players take an Extended Rest whenever they want, which is usually when they’re almost out of Daily Powers.  I don’t recall them ever being near the point where they were out of healing surges.  One way to do this is to have a cost to making an Extended Rest.  This option was one that @DaveTheGame discussed via Twitter and also applied in his Temple of Elemental Evil campaign. […]

  2. […] The 5×5 Dungeon: The Temple of Elemental Evil […]

  3. […] This is an informal chat between two DMs, talking about our games. Hopefully you can take some of our lessons and apply them to your own campaign. For a similar look at heroic tier, be sure to take a look at my wrap-up of those levels. For the paragon finale itself, I discuss it in The 5×5 Dungeon: The Temple of Elemental Evil. […]