In my previous campaign design column (”The Middle Path”) I discussed general campaign structure, using a loose plot format that strikes a balance between rigid railroading and the open sandbox. Today I want to talk about how I structure individual adventures, or episodes.
My preference is to use a four-act structure. It may sound strange, but the formula that I use is based on the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism. My adaptation has nothing to do with religion, though; it’s simply a good structure for telling a story simply and cleanly.
The first “noble truth” is that a problem exists. There’s unease. There’s suffering. A dragon kidnapped a princess. A merchant trader needs people to guard his caravan. The supervillain stole the Macguffin. This is the general plot, and the motivation for the character to go adventuring.
As a first act, this is the setup. You can do it with exposition, but I have a soft spot for beginning in media res and jumping right to the action. Show, don’t tell. Have the characters witness the kidnapping of the pricess. Demonstrate why the caravan needs guards by having brazen bandits try to steal something right there in the village. Have the villain steal the gadget from the characters. Make it personal, if possible. In a worst-case scenario, I’ll present an unrelated encounter, akin to the before-the-credits action sequences that open most James Bond movies.
The second noble truth is that the cause of the problem can be known. There is an answer to the question “why?”. There’s a reason for what happened in the first act. The dragon kidnapped the reason for a purpose. The bandits are after something specific in the caravan. The villain needs the Macguffin for some nefarious end. The bad guy craves something. Sometimes, one or more characters crave something as well. If the first act was a call to action, the second act creates an itch that the players will want to scratch.
In the second act, the characters learn a little bit about why. This adds some texture to the plot, and keeps things from being a one-dimensional hack-and-slash fest. This is where a callback to a larger plot can be tied in, by showing how this story fits into the bigger picture of the campaign.
The third noble truth affirms that there is a solution to the problem. The princess can be rescued. The dragon can be slain. The bandits and the villains can be defeated. This act is about the “how”. Whether the players decide on a course of action themselves, or they’re given additional information, clues, or special equipment from a supporting character, this is where the plan comes together.
The third act is a good place to vent some steam, especially if the second act ends on a down note like The Empire Strikes Back. It’s a good place to pull in an NPC from a previous adventure, who has what the players need; they don’t have to be friendly, so players get to settle some old scores from past adventures. It’s also where I like to slip in new NPCs, who seem minor now but will develop in importance over the length of the campaign.
The fourth noble truth is just following the path laid out in the third act. Go save the princess. Ambush the bandits at their camp. Have that dramatic confrontation with the villain and foil his plan (but not his master plan, if this story is helping to build a larger campaign plot).
The fourth act should wrap up all of the loose ends for this story, and move the ball forward on the overall campaign storyline. It can introduce new problems, though, that will lead directly into the first act of the next adventure. It doesn’t have to be a cliffhanger, but it should drive the players to want to keep going, and to come back next week to see what happens next.
One of the benefits of this structure is that it restrict the amount of time between set up and payoff. Like a TV show, the problem introduced in the first scene is resolved by the last scene. There has to be a sense of accomplishment, an emotional payoff. This is especially true if there is a larger goal to the campaign, and the players are delayed the gratification of defeating the big bad, fulfilling the larger quest, saving the whole wide world.
This structure also allows for the incorporation of long-term plotlines, as I hinted at above. It lets the gamemaster work in some “fluid developments”, like ramifications of players’ actions in previous games. Past plots, past relationships with NPCs, will influence this one. Bad guys’ relationships to previously encountered bad guys will influence what they do and how they deal with the player characters. It can make the difference between this feeling like a stand-alone adventure and an episode of a larger campaign.
With four players being more or less the standard for groups I’ve played in, this structure also allows each character to be the focus on one scene. This can be a personal subplot focus, working elements of their own back story, romance, or other life complications into the scene. It can also be as simple as showcasing that character’s abilities, with a combat encounter specially made for the fighter’s style, feats, or magic weapon, the thief’s ability to evade traps, or the wizard’s thirst for knowledge and power.
Of course this basic formula can be played with, with each act broken into multiple parts, acts combined, and elements rearranged to suit the needs of the individual story. But the essence of it has served me well for many years, has made preparation for a game much easier, and have made the stories I tell for richer and more detailed.