Geeks and nerds.
Let’s be honest, those are the words that come to most people’s minds when Dungeons & Dragons — or any roleplaying game (RPG for you fellow geeks and nerds) — is mentioned. It’s an inescapable stereotype. However, thanks to pop culture and the Silicon Valley tech industry where most of those “geeks and nerds” are forging some of the most innovative ideas as we know it, such games — and those that play them — have become less fringe and more mainstream.
Back in my youth, I — like many others — didn’t fall into the stereotype. We loved sports, dating, and social functions — but we also loved to spin a great adventure armed with character sheets and dice.
My forte wasn’t Dungeons & Dragons. Rather, I invested much time and passion into running campaigns for the Star Wars RPG. You could say that much of my storytelling skills that I utilize today came from my experience of designing campaigns for myself and my two best friends growing up, set within a galaxy far, far away.
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A dungeon or game master is the game organizer and participant in charge of creating the details and challenges of a given adventure (campaign), while maintaining a realistic continuity of events. DMs and GMs are the author, director, and referee. They must create a world from scratch and spin it into a narrative. But they must also possess an ordered, logical mind, capable of recalling and understanding hundreds of pages’ worth of rules. Basically, they control all aspects of the game — except for the actions of the player characters (PCs) — and describe to the players what they see and hear.
That last part may sound familiar to you screenwriters.
In short, the dungeon and game masters are storytellers. And having played RPGs as a player and master, I’m confident in saying that some of the best and most engaging stories have been told through this platform. So it’s only natural that screenwriters can learn a thing a two from them.
In this case, we focus on an RPG method of storytelling called The Five Room Dungeon Model.
An idea by Johnn Four, The Five Room Dungeon Model is a pattern for making a quick dungeon delve using five simple steps to offer an engaging and action-packed adventure. The word dungeon is used loosely in this method because the location can adhere to the context of any genre, setting, and story. Here we will apply it to those of you specifically writing action and adventure screenplays — or other genres that have those elements within — and use one of the greatest action and adventure movies of all times as a litmus test subject to see if such a model fits.
In the context of telling a story with action and adventure elements, it’s necessary to use this model within the three-act structure of storytelling. For the dungeon or game master, this is for the PCs playing the game and rolling the dice. For screenwriters, this is for the audience that they are writing for.
Act I is always the introduction and setup, establishing the important characters, places, and objects of an adventure and why the audience should care.
Act II is the beginning of the adventure proper. Using the below five room model, the second act may be the first half of the dungeon itself, or may be the journey to the dungeon. If you are crossing genres like mystery and adventure, this is where the lead characters are investigating the crime and gathering clues as you build tension so that it all can be released in Act III.
Act III is the climax and resolution of the adventure. Many roleplaying campaigns are designed to be explored over the course of multiple sessions, which you television writers can compare to developing a season arc of your series. For feature screenwriters, the five room dungeon model can be completed in the course of a single game, or in this case, a single feature script.
Room One: Entrance And Guardian
According to Johnn Four’s 5 Room Dungeon post, “there needs to be a reason why your dungeon hasn’t been plundered before or why the PCs are the heroes for the job.”
Screenwriters need to do the same with the location or context where the main action and adventure of their story is taking place. The mission or journey can’t be easy. There has to be a reason why your characters are the first to take on this task — or at least why they’ve gotten as far as they have while others have failed.
In Raiders of the Lost Ark, the search for the Ark of the Covenant — at least in the “contemporary” times of the 1930s where the story takes place — no one has undertaken this “dungeon” because no one has had the skills and knowledge of archaeologist Indiana Jones.
Even the Nazis, lead by Jones’s nemesis Belloq, haven’t been able to find the proper clues to the location of the Ark.
“A guardian or challenge at the entrance is a good rejustification of why the location remains intact.”
This is the element to this room that is often the first challenge for the hero or heroes. Using Raiders of the Lost Ark as a continued example, “the guardian” could be any number of characters or things. Indy has to first recover an artifact that is needed to pinpoint the location of the Ark, so he travels to Nepal to visit an “old friend” who turns out to be a former lover. She is, in essence, the guardian of that artifact.
And the first challenge imposed upon him is to survive the attack of a group of thugs that arrive with their Nazi commander, Arnold Toht.
This is essentially the beginning of the journey for Indiana Jones and Marion. In this case, Room One is the transition from Act I to Act II of the film.
Room Two: Puzzle Or Roleplaying Challenge
“The PCs are victorious over the challenge of the first room and are now presented with a trial that cannot be solved with steel. This keeps problem solvers in your group happy and breaks the action up for good pacing.”
Indiana punches and shoots his way through the Nepal bar sequence — the steel. Any lesser film could have continued on this route, but instead, the story offers us a chance to see our hero use his knowledge and wits to solve his latest challenge. This offers more character depth and intrigue for the cinematic audience.
Sure, Rambo and John Matrix from Commando can certainly shoot their way through everything, but it’s characters like Indiana Jones that offer just a bit more to appreciate.
Indiana and Marion travel to Cairo, where they meet up with Sallah, a skilled excavator. Sallah informs them that Belloq and the Nazis are digging for the Well of Souls using a replica of the artifact that was burned into Toht’s hand at the end of Room One.
Indiana realizes that the artifact has two sides, thus the Nazi’s are using an incomplete piece to the puzzle of finding the location of the Ark. After Marion is abducted, Indy and Sallah infiltrate the Nazi dig site and use their staff to correctly locate the Ark.
Indy discovers Marion is alive, bound and gagged in a tent, but does not release her for fear of alerting the Nazis. Indy, Sallah, and a small group of diggers unearth the Well of Souls and acquire the Ark after also using their wits to evade an endless pile of vipers.
All of this is done without the use of “steel”, requiring the hero to use his knowledge and wits to solve the conflict at hand.
“Once you’ve figured out what Room Two is, try to plant one or more clues in Room One about potential solutions. This ties the adventure together a little tighter, will delight the problem solvers, and can be a back-up for you if the players get stuck.”
When you’ve figured out what aspects you’ll be tackling in this second challenge (Room Two), you can go back and add some story plants in Act I (Room One) to tie everything together so that audiences can remember back to those details, thus strengthening your story while offering validation and continuity.
Remember back to the opening sequence of Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy escapes the natives and flies off in his pilot’s plane. He’s horrified to see that the pilot’s pet snake has dropped onto his lap. Indy is visibly horrified as he screams back to his pilot, “I hate snakes… I hate ’em!” He is later forced to face his greatest fear, multiplied by thousands.
Room Three: Trick or Setback
“The purpose of this room is to build tension. Do this using a trick, trap, or setback. For example, after defeating a tough monster, and players think they’ve finally found the treasure and achieved their goal, they learn they’ve been tricked and the room is a false crypt.”
You’re into the second act. Just as your characters have tackled their first big setback or challenge, thinking that they’ve succeeded, it’s time to throw more conflict at them. And as most second acts in spec scripts are lacking in stakes, you need to be sure to truly throw as much as you can at the hero in this stage of the story. Otherwise, who cares? This is the meat of the action and adventure. This is where you re-engage the audience.
Back to Indiana Jones and company, they’ve found the Ark at the end of Room Two. They’ve succeeded. But, this is where the trick, trap, and setback happens. Belloq has found them. He takes the Ark and throws Marion into the Well of Souls, sealing them in their now inevitable tomb. This is a major setback to say the least.
Now they are forced to defeat all odds against their survival, and they do so using their wits and a little leg work as Indiana finds a way to break through the walls.
Room Four: Climax, Big Battle or Conflict
“This room is The Big Show. It’s the final combat or conflict encounter of the dungeon. Use all the tactics you can summon to make this encounter memorable and entertaining.”
By this point, you’ve introduced your characters, their world, and the journey they must undertake. They’ve accomplished their first goal by scaling that first hurdle (Room One). They’ve used their knowledge and wits to overcome their next challenge, as opposed to punching or shooting their way through it (Room Two). They thought they found what they were searching for, until it was taken from them in a twist. Now they have escaped the trap and gotten past their latest setback (Room Three).
Now it’s time to really amp things up. This is where the action and adventure is taken to the next level. This is when your biggest contributions as a creative thinker in terms of action sequences and set pieces need to shine bright.
Raiders of the Lost Ark is perhaps the pinnacle example of this in the history of cinema.
Indiana and Marion struggle to get aboard the single wing carrier plane to steal the Ark back. However, things go awry, leading to an action and suspense spectacle with Indiana facing off against a Nazi muscle-bound foe twice his weight as Marion struggles to gain control of the airplane.
More Nazis attack them as Indiana vanquishes the Nazi thug — or at least the propeller does in due time — and Marion takes them out with the airplane’s machine gun.
But it’s not over yet. This leads to a massive explosion that they must escape. When they do, the Ark is taken by truck in a convoy of other Nazi vehicles. Indiana finds a horse and rides his way to the convoy, leaping onto the truck, and fighting his way through to the driver’s seat and beyond.
If that isn’t The Big Show, I don’t know what is.
The film adds even more to this amidst a slight lull in the action to showcase more characterization as Indiana and Marion escape on a ship to transport the Ark back to the United States. However, the Nazis find them. Marion is taken and while Indiana has escaped capture, he must now sneak himself aboard a Nazi submarine to follow Marion and the Ark. He later maneuvers his way to a position of power as he aims a rocket launcher to Belloq, the Nazi Army, and his Marion, but is quickly convinced that he can’t fire upon them.
He surrenders. He and Marion must now make their way into the fifth and final room.
Room Five: Reward, Revelation, Plot Twist
“Here’s your opportunity to change the players bragging to we came, we saw, we slipped on a banana peel. Room Five doesn’t always represent a complication or point of failure for the PCs, but it can. Room Five doesn’t always need to be a physical location either — it can be a twist revealed in Room Four.”
You’re deep in Act III right now. This is it. This is where you once again throw even more conflict at the characters, teasing the audience in the beginning of Room Four but transitioning back to high stakes — the highest of stakes.
Indiana and Marion are captured. The Nazis are in control of the Ark with no hope of our heroes reattaining it. And worse yet, the Nazis are going to unleash the power of the Ark of the Covenant — something that hasn’t been done for thousands of years. The greatest evil of our time is now in position of the power of God. There are no higher stakes than that.
“Maybe the true identity of the bad guy is revealed. New clues and information pertaining to a major plot arc might be embedded in the treasure, perhaps sewn into a valuable carpet, drawn in painting, or written on a slip of paper stuffed into a scroll tube or encoded on a data chip.”
All of the reveals are laid out in this fifth and final room, which represents the true final moments of Act III. Consider this the one final moment to shock and awe the audience. To make them say, “How can the heroes possibly survive this?”
Belloq, Toht, and Nazi Commander Dietrich perform an ancient ritual and open the Ark as the Nazi Army awaits. Indiana and Marion are tied to a poll as hostages and eventual witnesses to the power of the Ark.
The whole setup of the film’s story has been anchored by the power of the Ark of the Covenant — the question of “Is it folklore or real?”
And now we’re about to find out. As the Ark is opened, the power is unleashed. But it is not as the Nazis expected.
Angels of death escape from the Ark. A vortex of flame forms above the Ark and shoots bolts of fiery energy into the gathered Nazi soldiers, killing them all. As Belloq, Toht and Dietrich all scream in terror, the Ark turns its fury on them: Dietrich’s head shrivels up, Toht’s face is melted off his skull and Belloq’s head explodes. Flames then engulf the remains of the doomed assembly, save for Indy and Marion, and the pillar of fire rises into the sky. The Ark’s lid is blasted high into the air before dropping back down onto the Ark and sealing it.
Indiana and Marion are the only ones left standing. The Ark is later kept hidden within the confines of a giant government warehouse among countless similar crates.
You, the screenwriter, can utilize this unique and quite simple model that geeks, nerds, dungeon masters, and game masters alike have taken advantage of to create ultimate action and adventure in their own storytelling campaigns.
And with the example of placing this model over the layout of one of the greatest action adventure stories to ever grace the big screen — Raiders of the Lost Ark — you’ll quickly see that it does in fact mesh well with the three act structure and the overall art and craft of screenwriting.
Ken Miyamoto has worked in the film industry for nearly two decades, most notably as a studio liaison for Sony Studios and then as a script reader and story analyst for Sony Pictures.
He has many studio meetings under his belt as a produced screenwriter, meeting with the likes of Sony, Dreamworks, Universal, Disney, Warner Brothers, as well as many production and management companies. He has had a previous development deal with Lionsgate, as well as multiple writing assignments, including the produced miniseries Blackout, starring Anne Heche, Sean Patrick Flanery, Billy Zane, James Brolin, Haylie Duff, Brian Bloom, Eric La Salle, and Bruce Boxleitner. Follow Ken on Twitter @KenMovies