Roleplaying game adventures have been shown to benefit greatly from structuring them like stories. This has not always been the case. The earliest released tabletop RPG scenarios have been straightforward "dungeon delves," where the characters have focused their attention on purely tactical concerns such as the effectiveness of their combat skills, the optimisation of the damage they inflict, and so on.
Structuring an adventure like a story allows you to run individual dungeon delves - or, in the case of modern games, tactical missions to take some physical objective such as a warehouse, an office under siege, or the location of a heist - as part of something greater. They give such combat scenarios context.
The structure we are addressing here is the Three Act Story.
In the case of modern Mythras games, adventures which come in the form of a three act story allow the Games Master the luxury of being able to design tactical missions to occupy entire sessions within the story. The story structure of the adventure adds context to such tactical combat-related pursuits, because their place within the story has meaning.
Three Acts, Nine Beats
The three-act structure is divided into smaller stages. At each stage, progress is made within the adventure. Decisions are made, characters learn things, and there is rising action and tension right up to the final confrontation.
Between the acts, there are major turning points. These feel like reversals, and in fact they are. Sometimes, the reversals feel like almost complete defeat for the characters. And yet, despite being crushed by the bad guys, the characters manage to rally around and bring the fight back to the antagonist - and either win, or in the case of escape or rescue scenarios - survive.
Act One: The Setup
Act One sets up the characters, their background, and the story.
At the start of a story or campaign, this is Session Zero, chargen and character building. This part of the adventure establishes who the characters are, what they value, what motivates them, and what they want. You’ll also use this beat to paint a clear picture of your characters' world. What’s your normal? What challenges do they face? Who’s important to them?
This is the event that sets the adventure in motion. The inciting incident presents your party with a decision.
The adventure type is established at this point. It could be espionage, a romance, a chase, a rescue, a heist - this is where you lay out for the players what they will be doing in the next few sessions.
This beat forces your characters to make a decision that will alter the course of their life.
Plot Point One
This is the moment when your characters actually commit to the adventure presented by the inciting incident.
Plot Point One can happen immediately after the inciting incident. Or you can give your characters time to cling to their comfort zone, ignore the decision, or receive guidance from a mentor. This requires adding in a scene containing an encounter. If they choose to ignore the encounter, up the stakes. Involve a loved one. Entangle them in the very core of the adventure. Or you could have the antagonist make their presence known, as if to warn the characters of the consequence of ignoring them.
In the end, they must make a clear, decisive choice. And make it obvious that the decision will set your characters’ path in a whole new direction.
Act Two: Confrontation
This act is the reason for the adventure. This is where you pay off the promise of the first act. Here is where the adventure, mishaps, hard-learned lessons, and budding relationships come to the characters.
Here, you introduce the characters to a world or experience that is completely different from everything they know.
Introduce new allies and enemies. Nail your characters with obstacles that expose their weaknesses and challenge their assumptions. Expand on the central conflict and help your reader get to know the antagonist better.
The greatest source of tension is the unknown. It’s not really about beating the final boss, because your characters just started the level. Right now, they’re dodging the bullets and learning the rules of the world.
In a fantasy adventure, here is the perfect place to install a dungeon delve. This part of the adventure is where a chunk of the tactical action takes place - your characters are raiding a suspected drug den, maybe you're hunting down a nest of vampires (if you're borrowing from After The Vampire Wars) or fighting off Disruptors (if you're running a Luther Arkwright scenario).
This part is smack in the middle of the adventure. Here is where you add a major event, discovery, or twist that points your characters in a more dangerous direction. In fact, this should be the most dangerous obstacle your characters has faced yet.
Of course, the definition of “danger” depends on the nature of your story. Your rom-com heroine doesn’t need to spearhead a drug bust or avenge her mentor’s death. It’s enough for her fake dating scheme to turn into an all-too-real engagement scheme.
In the case of, say, an Escape adventure, here is the scene where the characters' attempts to pick the lock on the door seems to succeed, only for them to discover that behind the door lies a brick wall.
The antagonist may seem to have won, and the characters' plans look to be utterly defeated. In an espionage game, the characters are surrounded by gun-toting thugs or knocked out by the villain who released gas into the room to incapacitate them. In the case of a rescue mission, this is the bit where the xenomorph snatches away little Newt just before Ripley can reach her. In the case of a mystery, the characters discover their prime suspect dead, and they are back to square one with all of the clues they have gathered turning out to be red herrings.
Plot Point Two
Your characters prepare for the danger ahead. This could mean training, gathering advice, personal reflection, a solid pep talk, or even a period of denial and avoidance.
Whatever preparation looks like for your characters, this beat should reflect their growth. This is the moment when they go from reactive to proactive.
But this is the part of the adventure where the characters confront their Dark Night of The Soul. This could be the part of the story where the antagonist flexes their muscles and shows their full force, or the full extent of their menace.
This part of the adventure is intended to make the characters, and by that I mean the players, feel despair at the scale of the task ahead of them. Time, then, to wrap up the session and, the next time, open with ...
Act Three: Resolution
The final three beats of this story, this is where the beleaguered characters rally around, gather their resources, even level up. If this is the end of a campaign, you are allowed to give them as many Experience Rolls as they need to complete their character progression.
Regrouping and Gathering Resources
Build their skills as far as they can go. Resolve all conflicts existing between characters and their Connections (Allies, Contacts, family, lovers, loved ones, even Rivals). Gather your strength. The final stages of the conflict are upon you.
By this stage, the characters will have confronted all their fears and weaknesses. The antagonist will not be able to attack them through those flaws again.
They can’t win this battle without facing their fears, acknowledging their weaknesses, and confronting the false belief that has been holding them back. And let’s be real: that’s a lot of things to have to do in a pinch. So it’s not looking good.
The hero gets to their feet as dramatic music plays. Their Starship emerges from Spacedock as triumphant music swells, but it's bittersweet because everybody knows she is not coming back from this one last mission.
In the climax, your character uses the lessons they’ve learned and their natural strengths, old and new, to make a mighty comeback and claim victory.
The climax is usually a one-scene situation, especially in thrillers, adventures, and mysteries. But it doesn’t have to be. If it fits your story and genre, the climax can unfold over a few scenes.
This is the time to release the remaining tension. The denouement is the final beat where you tie up loose ends, restate the theme, and demonstrate your characters’ transformation. Whether it is a continuing adventure or the end of a campaign, the characters return to their pre-adventure existence, laughing and joking on the Bridge of the ship as it sails off towards some nebula, or riding along in the back of the van with the people they'd rescued, or emerging from the courthouse to see the villain being hauled off in chains.
Wrap up the adventure, take your notes, assign Experience Rolls - or if this is the finale, thank your players.
Just remember the one most important lesson about storytelling -
Give your adventures a three-act structure. The individual details of what goes on during the adventures may deviate from your script as written, but the structure of your story, the challenges and obstacles you place between the characters and their victory, will make the players feel that every part of the ride - highs and lows - was worth it.
And if you do your job well, they may come back to play many more adventures, and/or recount the thrilling tales of their characters' exploits to others. Give them what they want, and they'll all live happily ever after.
Edited by Alex Greene
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