First Draft: Roll the Dice With This Guide to Action-Adventure Script Structure Based on Dungeons & Dragons

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In partnership with Creative Screenwriting and ScreenCraft, “First Draft” is a series on everything to do with screenwriting.


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.

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 John 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.

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