So, it has been almost five months since I last visited the Five Room Dungeon Model. It is time to finish my discussion of it.
The obvious way to finish any adventure is the treasure room, and that is certainly acceptable for a one-shot adventure. Even a small, self-contained adventure within an ongoing campaign is allowed a “Monster of the Week” adventure where nothing else happens. In which case, use the first four rooms of the Five Room Dungeon Model and end on a treasure hoard or grabbing the item for which we quested, as appropriate. Close with some narrative summary and everyone goes home.
But there is another way to end an adventure.
The fifth (and optional) room of the Five Room Dungeon Model is the twist — now, everything you know is wrong and you have to go on further adventures to work out this new turn of affairs.
A word of caution: do not use this with every single adventure. Otherwise, it becomes tiresome for the same reason M. Night Shamaylan movies become tiresome. “I see dead people” was great. Now make a normal movie, chief. We wait for the major plot twist. We know it’s coming. And we don’t care anymore.
I was first inspired to write by Rod Serling, likely the same as Shamaylan. But I know that good twists are hard to do, and I have no reasonable explanation for why The Twilight Zone never seemed to get old. Trick endings shouldn’t be the norm, otherwise the audience gets bored with them. As will your players.
The Twilight Zone was an exception. You are not Rod Serling. So do twist endings sparingly.
When writing a campaign, I use the three act structure discussed by Syd Field and Robert McKee. Despite its name, there are actually eight scenes that generally occur within the story. A quick overview:
- Inciting Incident: Spurs the heroes into action.
- Plot Point I: Start of the real action.
- First Pinch Point: Villains get an upper hand, and leads to…
- Midpoint: Hero gains major ground (or loses major ground).
- Second Pinch Point: Hero loses ground (or at least gains traction) and leads to…
- Plot Point II: The point of no return. All cards are on the table. Let’s do battle…
- Climax: The actual battle.
- Resolution: The end of the story. No one is the same anymore.
Your campaign will include each of these story points. The best place for dungeons to end with optional twists are Plot Point I, Midpoint, and Plot Point II. The Pinch Points also make a good place for a dungeon twist ending, as Pinch Points usually involve the villain asserting him or herself as superior to the hero. Pinch Points usually start lining up forces for the major plot turnarounds, though, and aren’t tailor-made for twist endings.
In our example dungeon, we could be on the threshold of a major reversal. The hags are dead or have fled, the yuan-ti pose no immediate threat, but a couple of unanswered questions remain.
What About the Orc War?
The inciting incident for this adventure was the orc war. Two tribes on the verge of a massive war right near a human settlement. This was the perfect excuse to for the hags to get the rare spell component that they needed, and it is still very much on. Can the heroes broker a truce between the tribes? Can the heroes convince the orc chieftains to move the war away from the human settlement? All of those possibilities loom ahead for further storytelling.
What Were the Hags Trying to Do with the Spell Component?
The hags made up the banishment spell as a way to manipulate the heroes into obtaining the rare spell component for them. Which raises the question of what they would actually do with it had they gotten their claws on it. Perhaps they were trying to create a gate to another world. Perhaps they were trying to create an evil magic item in service of their patron demon. The possibilities are endless, and would make excellent fodder for further storytelling.
We’ve gone through all five rooms of the Five-Room Dungeon Model. Though I didn’t put together a complete adventure, it’s pretty close to playable just this way. That’s the power of using a formula: a nearly-complete adventure by only filling in 5 quick rooms.
Larry Brooks, in Story Engineering, cited the same points I gave above as necessary to tell a good story. He said that a good novel requires 40 to 60 scenes. Starting with those eight, and assuming that 2-3 scenes foreshadow each, you have a grand total of 34 scenes to just create the skeleton of the story. Only 6-26 more are needed to add connective tissue. Structure is powerful if used correctly.
Use the tools available. It makes your life as a DM easier, and your players will be able to follow along because they receive exactly what they expect.