A new narrative template for cinematic one-shots

Unless you have been sleeping under a rock for the last 20 years or so, you have probably heard of the five-room dungeon.

The orignal concept is credited to John Fourr and dates back to around 2006. As the name implies, it is a simple structure for an adventure site you can run in a single session (give or take). You should definitely go and check Fourr’s guide if you are not already familiar with it, but in essence, the structure is as follows:

  • Entrance with guardian
  • Puzzle
  • Setback or trick
  • Boss battle
  • Reward (usually treasure) or Resolution

Every Player Should Be Ready’ is a neat mnenomic for remembering the five parts.

It’s a great structure. So great, in fact, that the 4th edition Dungeon Master’s Guide used it for their sample dungeon, Kobold Hall.

A few days ago, I stumbled across an interesting video from Baron de Ropp over at Dungeon Masterpiece. It came out about a year ago. In essence, he takes the five-room dungeon and applies the three-act structure to it. But you should go and watch the original (see below).

So why this article? I’m a big fan of the five-room dungeon, and I’m a big fan of the three-act structure. But I thought might go one step further.

A few times on this blog now, I have probably mentioned Blake Syder’s ‘Save the Cat!’ beat sheet. (If you’re not familiar with the concept of ‘story beats,’ they are essentially the building blocks of a narrative: key scenes, turning points, plot twists, and so on. They are often described as ‘upward’ or ‘downward’ depending on the emotional trajectory of the story.) ‘Beats’ underpin pretty much every story you enjoy today, be it a Marvel film, a video game, or a novel. It’s why you often get the darkest moment in a film three-quarters of the way through its runtime: it’s the natural point for the absolute lowpoint in the characters’ journey.

Let’s take the beat sheet and apply it to a single session – and, from there, create a new formula for a mini dungeon. After all, if it can work for a two-hour film, it can work for a four-hour D&D game. (By the way, if you’re thinking this would also be fun to apply to a whole campaign, I’m one step ahead of you.)

The steps

All of the steps below are approximate, and obviously there is wiggle room within them. I also haven’t included time for breaks and so on.

Start with an opening image. Think of this like the cold open for the James Bond films: an exciting situation. You don’t need a plot, just a scenario. We’re trying to get to action as soon as possible.

You could open right outside the dungeon, but the start could really happen anywhere: on an airship, down by the docks, at a masked ball, or, of course, a tavern. Time: a minute or two. I try to open my sessions in no more than 80 words – about the same wordcount as the Star Wars opening crawl.

Give the players a chance to interact with the situation – it’s their story after all, not yours! But at some point, if they don’t kick things off themselves, inject some kind of inciting incident, ideally combat. You can be a fairly challenging fight if you want – the party might get a chance to rest before the next one! Time: this probably needs to happen within the first 20 minutes or so.

After this, the players should have another opportunity to react to what has happened. Snyder calls this the ‘debate,’ but it’s a bit of a misleading term. Instead, think of it as setting the stakes: give the players a reason to care and a chance to prepare. But when they’re ready, they should get to the adventure site. Time: try to get them into the dungeon by the 50 minute mark.

We’re now into Act 2. This is the ‘no going back’ moment, which overlaps nicely with Fourr’s ‘entrance plus guardian’. From here, you have a bit of freedom: Snyder calls it ‘the promise of the premise’ or ‘fun and games,’ and for the next hour or so, you can give the players a chance to get to know the dungeon. This is where you get to enjoy the exploration and social pillars of D&D, so try to include the following:

  • An NPC the players can talk to;
  • Some kind of puzzle, secret, or backstory;
  • Skill challenges, like hazards and obstacles.

You can certainly include combat in this section if you want to, but consider keeping it at the easy end of the difficulty spectrum. Time: by the two-hour point of the session, the players should be feeling pretty positive about how things are going.

We’ve got two hours left on the clock. This is where we want some downward beats: ‘get ready for a bumpy ride,’ as Snyder puts it. This is where the threat level escalates and the party starts to struggle. Ideas:

  • Tougher enemies and nastier traps;
  • The true enemy is revealed;
  • Fear sets in, or some other negative emotion;
  • Information turns out to be wrong;
  • A sacrifice or moral dilemma is required;
  • The dungeon environment becomes an adversary (collapsing ceilings, flooding chambers etc);
  • Something gives the PCs a time pressure.

Try to end this section with a moment where all seems lost. This could be:

  • Overwhelming odds;
  • Imprisonment;
  • Betrayal;
  • Devastating loss;
  • Their greatest fear;
  • Exhaustion or defeat.

This is rock bottom for the party. Gandalf falling to the Balrog – that kind of thing. Time: aim to have hit this section by the end of the third hour.

This is a good moment to allow a short rest: a chance for the party to lick their wounds, wallow a bit, and work out what they need to do. This last part of the adventure is Act Three. Ideally you want some kind of turning-point here: an ‘aha!’ as Snyder calls it. Some ideas:

  • A clue, secret, or discovery;
  • A solution to a puzzle;
  • A new strategy, perhaps advice from an NPC;
  • Help from allies;
  • Unlocked abilities.

Time: maybe allow 10–15 minutes or so for this moment.

Now the finale. Being D&D, this should, of course, be a boss fight. This should be a challenge but still very much an upward beat. In terms of encounter-building, make sure you haven’t gone over the XP allowance for the adventuring day (see p 84 of the Dungeon Master’s Guide). Time: allow maybe 45 minutes for this fight.

From here, it’s time to wrap up! You’re probably getting close to the end of the session, so think about the final image you want to leave the players with. A treasure hoard? A village feast? A round of drinks at the pub? A nice trick here is to end with a hint for another adventure. Think how Batman Begins ends with the Joker’s card, and Batman saying he will ‘look into it’.

That was a lot of text. Can we simplify this down to a schematic like the five-room dungeon?

A template and example

Here’s a much reduced version of the outline above:

  1. Cold open and combat
  2. Prepare and gather info
  3. Entrance, exploration, interaction
  4. Turning point and escalation
  5. Loss and defeat
  6. Short rest and new hope
  7. Finale: boss fight
  8. Final image and hint for new adventures

I tried a mnemonic, and this was the best I could do: Conquer Powerful Enemies Through Legendary Spells, Fierce Heroes. (That’s Cold open, Prepare, Explore, Turning point, Loss, Short rest, Finale, Hint.) Or, if you prefer emojis: 💥🔍🚪🔥💔⏸️👊🎉

Let’s take those steps and build a mini adventure. I’m going to use some of my ideas from last week’s article on 20th-level adventures.

  1. Cold open: an unusual red sunset, an earthquake, and a fire giant attack! Perhaps a preliminary raid of fire giants and hell hounds.
  2. Gather info: reports of attacks on mines and other nearby towns; volanic eruptions; rumours of some awful warlord building siege engines.
  3. Entrance and exploration: an opportunity to find another way in. Perhaps the party have magic or allies that can help. Since it’s a single session, we can say the fortress is still under construction, or a rebuild of an older structure. Exploration: navigating treacherous terrain, runestone riddles to bypass security, elemental conduits that need to be activated in the correct order. Interaction: prisoners, servants, spies from another faction.
  4. Escalation: the true enemy is an ancient red dragon who is planning to use the next volcanic eruption as part of a deadly ritual! Perhaps the lava levels are rising and the party now has to deal with elite guards.
  5. Loss and defeat: overwhelming minions? Iron golems, hell hounds, fire giants . . . the party have to blink out or get taken prisoner.
  6. Short rest and new hope: perhaps the party finds help from a secret order of giant-hunters or dragon-slayers, or ancient spirits, or a prophecy.
  7. Boss fight! Since the party are 20th level, this can be pretty full on. Definitely the ancient red dragon, but perhaps demons from the Abyss like hezrous and barlguras, and other fire giants and hell hounds, too?
  8. Victory: the volcano erupts, and the stronghold starts to fall apart as lava surges around them. Final image: the party stare down in triumph as the fortress is consumed by the volcano. Hint at next adventure? Perhaps the dragon had part of a powerful artifact, or was marked with symbols from another plane of existence . . .

That might seem like a lot, but in four hours, I think it’s doable. The trick is to keep it loose and be prepared to discard what you don’t need. The middle section – everything from the cold open to the final fight – is flexible and could take anywhere from two to three hours.

What do you think? A useful template? Or too complicated and over ambitious? Share your thoughts in the comments below.

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