Creating an RPG adventure is a weird form of writing. You’re not sure who the protagonists are or where they’re coming from. You can’t control what they do. You don’t know what the ending will be…you’re not even sure what ending the protagonists would want. It’s easy to get lost in a formless swath of encounters or a tangled flow chart with no satisfying dramatic progression. Your salvation is the time-tested three-act structure.
The three-act structure is a standard way to construct a story, most famously in Hollywood films, where it’s practically law. Aristotle (above, throwing fireball) didn’t invent the three-act structure, but he wrote the first treatise on story structure, so he’s considered the great-grandfather of this stuff. He also was not able to fling fireballs, to the best of our current knowledge about ancient times.
Let’s start with a very rough overview of the three-act structure. I have a book called Screenplay: Writing the Picture by Robin Russin and William Downs that breaks this stuff down in great detail, with awesome examples taken from popular films (they actually compare and contrast First Blood and How to Make an American Quilt in terms of their use of the three-act structure). If you really want to explore the topic, I suggest you get this book or one like it.
- Act Two — Put the characters through the wringer.
- Act Three — The characters realize what their goal is and how to achieve it. They then go about achieving it or failing to achieve it.
Act one is the weirdest in a gaming context, because most of the time you don’t know the characters who will be involved. If it’s an ongoing campaign you might have some idea, but a player might join the group, someone might make a new character or some other complication could arise. It’s easiest to make the conflict somewhat open, something that could apply to many different characters and be dealt with by them. “Hidden within this dungeon is the ancient Sword of Magdrazar, which is both powerful and valuable.” The conflict isn’t explicit, but you’ve established that an item of value is hidden, which is to say many people (including the characters) will want to acquire it, but doing so will be difficult.
You can personalize the conflict in a variety of ways to make things less generic. The sword in a family heirloom from one of the characters’ families. A bitter rival also seeks it, and you just received word that she’s in the area buying delving supplies. You can add urgency: a demon will awaken in two days, according to prophecy, and only the sword can defeat it.
The major dramatic question is usually pretty straightforward. “Will the characters achieve the thing they need to achieve, and will they do it in time?” There’s not a lot of internal conflict or learning about the true nature of love in most RPGs — although once you get the hang of the three-act structure, it actually becomes a lot easier to layer in those sorts of deep thematic elements. In any case, stating the major dramatic question is enormously helpful, because you can look back to it for every scene and encounter you write for the rest of the adventure. If you make sure everything else connects directly to the MDQ and involves forces either pushing toward or directly away from it, your adventure plots will be much tighter.
Act two is the meat of the adventure, and it’s probably the easiest to write. Conversely, it can be the hardest part to write well. You find yourself going, “Ok, I’ll put a room in the dungeon here, and, oooh neat monster, I’ll put two of those here! Hm, time for a non-combat encounter, maybe a puzzle or a skill challenge.” You can create a fun dungeon crawl that way, but it will be more effective if you design encounters with that MDQ in mind. That might be as simple as putting a room full of deathtraps between the characters and the magic thingy. It might be an encounter full of role-playing where they meet some captives who need help escaping an enclave of mind-flayers — it seems unrelated, but one of the captives holds the key to the final chamber.
A really effective second act isn’t just a series of roadblocks. You’re aiming for a roller coaster effect. The villain seems to have the upper hand, then the characters win a battle and learn some of her secrets. But then they run into a seemingly impossible puzzle, fail it and release a horde of monsters who cause them damage and waste resources. They come through battered but alive, pressing on to another fight. Just when the balance swings their way, a friendly NPC changes sides and betrays them, stealing valuable items and causing some serious injuries. The characters should have a dark hour like this, when all hope seems lost. Then someone discovers the way to the final goal — though difficult, everyone is galvanized to meet this ultimate challenge.
Act three really is easy to write. Everyone can see the big challenge now. All the secrets have been revealed. All you have to do is set up the big fight. The usual denouement typically involves the doling out of treasure and healing spells.
There are drawbacks to using this method of adventure writing. It can lead to linear adventures, with the players feeling railroaded. To alleviate this, you can build decision points in that lead to the same place in the story, but get there by different roads. That’s easy enough, literally (two corridors in the dungeon), but you can also create a situation where they need to collect a piece of evidence before they learn where to go next. They can get it using stealth, political intrigue, spells or just strongarming some dudes. The choice is theirs, the outcome is the same.
I would actually suggest that the linearity of the three-act structure is an advantage. As a player, some of my most frustrating moments are when I’ve been presented with a bunch of choices, or an open-ended situation, and I have no way of knowing how to weigh the choices against each other. I love having to make hard choices as long as I know what I’m choosing between. The focused structure being imposed here helps ensure that the choices you present to your players are measurable.
If you take one thing out of this, it’s the major dramatic question. Everything the characters do should push towards it, everything the villains do should push away from it. Keep your adventures focused like a laser on that and they’ll be better.