This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT Act One. The heroes search for their elusive enemy, Sea King Senestrago, on the island of Whitestag, where the evil merchant has gone to ground after losing most of his fleet in a daring bid to wipe out several of his rivals. The heroes believe that Senestrago might be holed up in a warehouse belonging to the widow of a deceased trader who secretly worked for Senestrago. A search of the warehouse turns up no signs of their quarry but yields two clues: a barrel of sea salt concealing the mummified corpse of the widow's dead husband, and a wooden holy symbol of Melora lying nearby. The heroes try to question the widow at her estate, but she's gone horseback riding, and her household servants have no clue when she'll be back. It occurs to the heroes that she might be meeting with a secret lover, namely Senestrago. Searching the desk in the widow's parlor, they find scrolls indicating that large donations were made in her husband's name to three local churches (dedicated to Erathis, Melora, and Pelor, respectively).
Act Two. Divin, the party's half-elf cleric of Melora (played by Curt Gould), doesn't know what to make of the wooden holy symbol found at the warehouse. An eladrin seer offers a cryptic clue: A lightning strike points the way, but beware the unfaithful. The heroes check out the church of Melora first and notice that the church's steeple is scarred by fire and partially collapsed, as though it was recently struck by lightning. The heroes approach with caution. The resident priest, Davian Smyte, claims the steeple was damaged in a storm, but it doesn't take Divin long to realize the priest is a charlatan. It's also clear that the party has found Senestrago's secret lair. "Father" Smyte leads a small gang of halfling assassins disguised as altar boys and a trio of human thugs posing as gravediggers. A fight ensues, and the good guys prevail. Not only thatthe heroes discover a secret staircase in the church that connects to a hidden sea cave. But still no sign of Senestrago!
Act Three. The heroes interrogate captives, hoping to learn some clue to Senestrago's whereabouts. The gods smile on them as they see two figures approaching on horseback, galloping toward the church. One of them appears to be Senestrago, the other a dragonborn bodyguard. The heroes set an ambush, but Senestrago realizes something is amiss and tries to flee. With the aid of various epic-level powers, the party manages to thwart Senestrago's escape and quickly slay him. Much to their surprise, the dead Sea King transforms into a dragonborn before their eyes. Could it be that Senestrago was a dragonborn all along? Not likely. Based on other events happening in the campaign, the characters conclude that the Dragovar Empire's imperial spy agency replaced Senestrago with one of their own to sow discord among the Sea Kings and shatter their tenuous alliance. But is the real Senestrago alive or dead? The plot thickens . . .
A lot of scriptwriters, playwrights, and novelists use a three-act narrative structure to tell their stories. They use the first act to introduce the important characters and set up the conflict. The second act ratchets up the tension as things spiral from bad to worse and the story heads toward its climax. The third act typically resolves the conflict and provides a worthy denouement, giving the story a sense of closure or, in some cases, a hook upon which to hang a sequel.
I am a diehard adventure designer. I've been writing adventures for almost thirty years, and I've got more adventure ideas in my head than I can ever commit to paper. Lately, however, I've turned to screenwriting as a second hobby, and I've concluded that scriptwriting and adventure writing have a lot in common, insofar as they're both heavily structured forms of writing. The structure is far less malleable and forgiving than, say, the structure of a novel or short story.
The first thing a fledgling screenwriter learns is that 99% of all movies cleave to a three-act format. The reason is simple: it's a tried-and-true narrative structure that most humans on the planet find intuitive and pleasing. We're all wired to think of a story as having a beginning, a middle, and an end. Conflict, climax, conclusion. It's that simple. You can't have the conclusion before the climax, or the climax before the conflict. Screenwriters can tamper with the traditional three-act structure, but deviation often leads to a narrative that feels uneven or unnatural.
My favorite game sessions are the ones that have a readily identifiable beginning, middle, and end. I like to think of them as stand-alone episodes of a serialized television show. My players like them because they get what feels like a complete adventure in a single session, as opposed to a slice of a much larger, seemingly never-ending adventure (which is what a campaign often feels like).
Our most recent Wednesday session started with a clear quest (catch Sea King Senestrago) and ended with the completion of that quest (with a surprise twist at the very end). By the end of the session, I wanted the characters to come face-to-face with their quarry, although the actual outcome was far from predetermined. (For one thing, had my players made poor decisions or bad die rolls, the villain could've easily escaped.) If you've ever tried writing an adventure, a movie script, or a novel, you know as well as I do that the hard part isn't the beginning or ending; it's the stuff in the middle that takes the most brainpower. As a point of fact, more writers get hopelessly lost in the middle of a script or novel than at the beginning or the end. Similarly, a lot of DMs have really clear ideas of how and where to start their campaigns, and they can imagine how their campaigns should end, but there's a vast and empty expanse in between that needs to be filled with something, and it's easy to become lost or overwhelmed.
Fortunately, I have some tricks that I use to help me get the characters from Point A to Point Z. It begins by imagining the game session as a three-act play.
If you've been following this column, you know that I "sketch out" every game session on a single one-sided sheet of paper that contains very basic information, including the names of important NPCs and a recap of important events that occurred prior to the session that might be relevant. This single sheet of paper contains everything I need to "wing" the adventure.
My recent foray into screenwriting has reminded me to think of game sessions as three-act narratives, and I've begun adding a brief three-act summary at the bottom of my page of notes. Here's the one-sheet I created for the Wednesday night adventure described above:
When writing the text for "Act I," I try to imagine how the session might begin and what needs to happen to drive the heroes toward their ultimate goal. "Act II" is where I add complications that stand between the player characters and their goal. "Act III" describes the likely climax and aftermath of the adventure. These are all guidelines, of course; sometimes player decisions and actions will take the game session in an unexpected direction, but at least I've thought about how the session might play out.
Ignoring the three-act structure for a moment, I could've created a much more straightforward adventure by having the characters encounter Senestrago in the warehouse, dispensing with the rich widow, the clues, and the temple of Melora. That's the equivalent of going from Point A to Point D, without bothering with Points B or C. I can imagine situations in which a more straightforward, mystery-free plot is preferable. However, I wanted Senestrago to be a "moving target," and the three-act structure forced me to think of complications that made logical sense in terms of the story.
In the Wednesday night game, everything the heroes are told leads them to the obvious hideout the warehouse. But the villain isn't there, and so the players are faced with their first complication. Fortunately, a thorough search of the warehouse yields a clue: a discarded holy symbol of Melora. This clue (in theory) leads the party to the villain's true hideout below the temple of Melora. Time for another unexpected complication: the villain isn't there, either. Fortunately for the heroes, they don't have to wait long for the villain to show up, and if they're clever, they can catch the villain by surprise. At last, we come to the climax! Let the dice fall where they may.
Creating a complication is easy: I think about how the adventure would play out if everything fell neatly into the players' laps, and then I add a little bad luck or bad timing, a red herring or distraction, or something else to give the players pause. It can be as simple as having the villain not be where they expect him to be. Some players find too many complications annoying, so I try to keep the number small. For example, I planned to have a squad of dragonborn assassins hidden in the sea cave under the church of Melora, but I realized the encounter would make the session run long, so I cut it. It would've added a nice bit of foreshadowing (what are Dragovar assassins doing in Senestrago's secret lair?), but it would've added another hour to a game session already packed with intrigue.
Here are a couple things to keep in mind when thinking of a game session as a three-act play:
- The three-act structure should be mostly invisible to your players
- You don't need very many complications (two or three, at most)
- It's okay to add or change things as the session unfolds
When it's working perfectly, the three-act format provides a framework that makes the game session feel to players like an adventure unto itself, with a satisfying beginning, middle, and ending. Even if the adventure is far from over, there's still a sense that the characters have reached the end of one chapter, and most people would rather fight their way to the end of a chapter than stop somewhere in the middle.
For the most part, the three-act format is meant to help you as a storyteller. The players might never know that you're using it as a tool to help you plot out your weekly adventures, and that's probably a good thing. It's also good that you keep an open mind and not let the three-act structure rule the game session. If the adventure takes an unexpected turn, you'll need to improvise. Case in point, I thought the wooden holy symbol of Melora found in the warehouse was a strong enough clue to point heroes straight to the church, but they went after Lady Tattersail instead, and it took them a little time (and a gentle nudge) to realize that the holy symbol not the corpse in the barrel was the real clue to finding Senestrago's secret lair.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,