This is another one for the aspiring Games Masters out there. Remember a while back, when I said that scenario design will become a big part of your life? Let’s talk a little more about that, and about the three act structure, a literary device that, used properly, will save your butt.
The three act structure is sometimes defined as the Setup, Confrontation, and the Resolution. John Yorke calls each of these acts “a unit of action bound by a character’s desire,” and in this case these are your player’s characters. They drive the story forward with their own actions and desires; you provide the structure, in which their actions are played out.
Each act has its own beginning, middle and end, which means that, for instance, the Setup has its own internal three act structure going on. In each unit of action that makes up the act as a whole, the characters follow their own desires and goals, which move the plot forward. At the end of the Setup there will be a turning point which leads naturally into the Confrontation, and once the Confrontation reaches its conclusion, there will be another turning point that leads naturally to the Resolution. Beginning, middle, end.
The point to take away is this: when designing scenarios, if you bear the three act structure in mind and write accordingly, it will lend your ongoing narrative coherency and drama. It will order your thoughts, and let you plot your boss encounters accordingly; it will show you where the best place is to leave clues as to what’s going on, when it’s a good idea to introduce significant antagonists, and where it’s time to introduce dilemmas.
With that in mind, I’m going to discuss a basic fantasy scenario, in terms of the three act structure.
Starting with the Setup: the characters are in a trading town looking for adventure and loot. They’ve been chasing up rumors of a dungeon somewhere nearby, and discover that, according to legend, a robber baron who was killed many years ago left a castle behind somewhere out in the King’s Woods, near the Old Road. That discovery is the first unit of action in the Setup.
The second unit of action comes when the characters try to find out more about this castle, and the dungeon that allegedly exists below it. They discover that, according to local traders, the King’s Woods have become very dangerous within the last four months. Caravans have been attacked, people carried off, and nobody knows why; the caravans are never looted, so whoever’s doing it isn’t after money. The attackers seem interested only in captives, but they never send a ransom demand, and they don’t abduct everyone they meet, just a few people. This would be a good time to insert a few clues, which will pay off later. In this instance, the clues could be something like: your wizard or your cleric, being knowledgeable fellows, can work out that each of the abducted people were born in a very lucky year. Evil sorcerous types sometimes use people born in a lucky year for human sacrifices, and it’s said that dragons find them extra crunchy. So maybe not so lucky after all …
The third unit of action in the Setup comes when the characters go into the woods for the first time, and have their first minor boss encounter. Skeletons and other undead horrors rise up and attack them, and, if they happen to be with a caravan – maybe hired as guards? – the undead try to abduct anyone born in a lucky year. They seem to be directed by a special undead, stronger and better armed than the rest, who apparently can tell which humans are born in lucky years. Each of the undead wears the rotted livery of the robber baron. The special undead carries a magic item which allows it to pick out lucky year targets. None of them are intelligent, which means someone else is running the show.
This third unit of the Setup is sometimes called the Inciting Incident: this is the moment where, the background of events having been established, the characters are given the first real hint that all is not as simple as it seems. After all, the special undead couldn’t have made that magic item, so who gave it to him, why, and can that person’s plan be stopped? This is the question that will be answered in the third act, the Resolution.
That’s the Setup sorted out. The characters came in driven by their desire for adventure and loot, and now they have a mystery to solve. All roads lead to that robber baron’s castle. Hopefully the captives are still alive!
So now we move on to the Confrontation. That’s going to take place at the robber baron’s castle, abandoned for many decades. Perhaps, in the first unit, the characters try to find out more about the robber baron, or they try to scout out the castle before attacking it. This is another good place to start dropping some clues, which will pay off later. If they try to find out more about the baron, they learn he was a particularly vicious warrior, whose acts were so vile that the townsfolk, led by some heroes, stormed his castle and destroyed it. He tried to escape, via a secret passage, into the woods, but was caught and killed. If they scout the castle, they see that it was sacked and burned many years ago, but recent tracks indicate that creatures, most of them undead, have been coming and going here for the last few months.
In the second unit, the characters go into the castle and start clearing out the undead, of which there are quite a bunch. Led by a black knight dressed in the baron’s armor, these creatures pose a significant threat, and the dungeon beneath the castle is inhabited by other powerful creatures. Yet when all the fighting’s over, and the loot tallied up, the characters are left with a quandary. None of the captives are here, nor does it seem as if they ever were here. Moreover none of the creatures the characters have faced so far, even the knight, are intelligent. They couldn’t have come up with this scheme. So who did?
In the third unit of the Confrontation, the characters discover signs that lead to the real culprit. That secret passage mentioned in the first unit has to lead into the dungeon, and it has to exit in the forest somewhere. Perhaps they should search for it, either in the dungeon or in the woods, where the exit ought to be. Or maybe they just search the dungeon really thoroughly, looking for the captives, and find it that way. One of the heroes from that long-ago first raid may even have left a clue of some kind, but however it’s done, the third unit of the Confrontation must lead to the first unit of the Resolution, which is in that secret passage.
Now we’re coming to the meat of the matter. The first unit of the Resolution sees the characters discover that secret passage, which the real villain of the piece has been using as a hiding place. That villain is a necromancer, with a few tough hirelings and sorcerous apprentices, as well as some more undead. This necromancer – perhaps he’s a descendant of the baron out for revenge, or maybe he’s just using the baron’s castle as a convenient base - has been capturing those born in a lucky year for sacrifice, in a ritual which the necromancer hopes to use to build a particularly powerful magic item.
From this point forward it’s going to be a series of action scenes. The first unit has the characters facing off against the necromancer’s least powerful hirelings and apprentices in the secret tunnel. This allows them to rescue some of the captives, who can tell them about the necromancer’s ritual site deep in the forest. The necromancer has gone there, trying to complete his ritual with the remaining captives before the characters can catch up.
The second unit has the characters in a race against time, tracking the necromancer to that ritual site. They’ll encounter some tough resistance along the way, including the necromancer’s remaining hirelings and apprentices. All of which leads to the final unit of the Resolution, at the ritual site. The necromancer’s conducting the ritual there, with a few undead or summoned entities as bodyguards. Now the true enemy has been revealed, the stage set, the final boss encounter primed and ready to go. Whether or not the characters prevail, or end up with the other captives, sacrificed so the necromancer can gain more power, is up to them.
Setup, Confrontation, Resolution. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? But within that three act structure is the building blocks, the units of action, for any scenario you care to design, and if you’re the Game Master, scenario design is going to become a major part of your life. That’s why people show up every week or so and buy you pizza; they expect entertainment, high adventure, a few laughs, and loot. Don’t panic. Scenario design isn’t that hard. But if you need a helping hand, bear in mind these three acts, and write accordingly.