GM Advice: How to Design 3-Part Adventures

At its heart, an adventure is a story – a story shared between the players and the GM. As everyone knows, a good story has a distinct beginning, middle and end.

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

By William McAusland (Outland Arts)

 

Deciding on an outline and structure is a vital first step in crafting an exciting, compelling adventure. A three-part adventure (shockingly) comprises three parts:

  • Introduction
  • Main
  • Conclusion

As a rule of thumb, both the Introduction and the Conclusion should each comprise about 1/5 of the total material (be it encounters, word count or whatever). This leaves 3/5ths of the material for the main body of the adventure.

This structure works with pretty much any kind of story-based adventure. I used his style of adventure design for Retribution (Raging Swan’s first adventure) – an investigation and dungeon crawl set in a remote monastery cut off by a savage winter storm – and it served me very well. The only kind of adventure this structure is ill-suited for is the sandbox style in which exploration is the main goal.

Introduction

The introduction sets the scene, introduces the adventure and provides the PCs with a definite reason to embark on their quest. This part of the adventure should contain some or all of the following elements:

  • Present the adventure locale and setting.
  • Establish the tone of the adventure.
  • Provide a “call to adventure” that disturbs the PCs’ normal activities and entices them into the adventure. This may or may not involve a patron.
  • Introduces the opposition.
  • Compels the PCs to move to the main part of the adventure.

Main Part

This part of the adventure deals with how the PCs travel to or gather the necessary components/information to defeat the villain. It should contain some of the following elements:

  • Various encounters with the villain’s minions.
  • A mentor may appear to aid the PCs in their quest.
  • The PCs face one or more moral dilemmas or temptations that could derail their quest.
  • The PCs recover an item that could help them in their final battle.
  • The PCs move to the concluding part of the adventure. Perhaps a clue, success or disaster is the catalyst propelling them forward.

Conclusion

In the final part of the adventure, the PCs confront the main villain of the piece. This part of the adventure should include the following elements:

  • The PCs defeat the villain’s chief henchmen or personal guards
  • The PCs defeat the villain.
  • The PCs triumph (hopefully) and are rewarded.
  • The PCs tie up any loose ends.
  • Provide links or hooks to further adventures as well as a sense of what the adventure means in the larger sense/picture.

Help Fellow GMs

Do you have any other adventure writing tips? Do you include other key elements in your introduction, main body or conclusion. Why not let us know what they are in the comments below and help your fellow GMs write better adventures today!

Creighton is the publisher at Raging Swan Press and the designer of the award winning adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. He has designed many critically acclaimed modules such as Retribution and Shadowed Keep on the Borderlands and worked with Wizards of the Coast, Paizo, Expeditious Retreat Press, Rite Publishing and Kobold Press.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

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16 thoughts on “GM Advice: How to Design 3-Part Adventures

  1. I have to challenge the idea that the group needs to know the opposition. If they are being opposed, threatened, they have to react to it in some manner. They should have the option to explore who and what is opposing them for sure, the automatic right to know, not at my table.

    • I get what you are saying. In most adventures it might seem obvious who is opposing the PCs, but I’m a big fan of wheels within wheels so that the PCs can slowly peel away the layers of a villain’s organisation. Finally, they discover the prime mover behind the threat and the discovery itself is a reward!

  2. It’s interesting to see, how much all story-telling (novels, theatre, films, games) cam be “reduced” to the same structures. Main source for this is “The Hero’s Journey” by Christopher Vogler, based upon Joseph Campbell’s “Monomyth”:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monomyth

    Another note to the “opposition”, which is called “conflict” on a more general level: The PCs doesn’t need to know the source of the conflict, but there HAS to be any kind of inner or outer conflict set until the mid of the 1st act. Then the “incident” gets the conflicted protagonist out of his routine right into the second act – and the “journey” starts …

    It helps to analyse successful movies and have a look, what is hidden behinf the actual “action”. Where is the “conflict” and “journey” in “E.T.”? Or the “journey” in “Panic Room” or “Taxi Driver”? You will find them, when you think out of the box.

  3. “Provide links or hooks to further adventures as well as a sense of what the adventure means in the larger sense/picture.”

    I actually tend to provide these earlier in the adventure. I know how each adventure fits into the grand scheme of things, and I often use that as part of the reason to be there. I’ll also put some hooks toward other adventures throughout the one they’re currently taking part it, rather than at just the end.

    Even if I make it as clear and blatant as a map with “big treasure here!” on it, they’ll finish the adventure they’re on before taking off to start looking at the new one. I don’t like having things chained end to end, I’d rather see each adventure as something of a web, with links to other adventures almost anywhere in them.

    For instance, while Refining the Keys of Heraka-at I have links to at least four other adventures built in. Admittedly, ‘Keys’ is the major theme here, this particular adventure is the gateway to the entire campaign, so of course there would be explicit connections. However, they aren’t all found at the end, each is found in a different place through the complex.

    (This might not be a great example of a three-part adventure, though. This is a site to explore and there are dangers, but it is not prepared as a goal-oriented exercise.)

    • I like the ideas of having the hooks floating, so they can turn up anywhere in the adventure. You’ve just got to make certain the PCs are paying attention! I guess the map with the words “Big Treasure Here” will probably take care of that! 😉

      • Indeed, I don’t want the hooks too compelling during the adventure, or I might find the PCs haring off to do that instead.

        I hadn’t considered having new hooks ‘floating’, quite, but still in specific locations to be found. In The Keys of Heraka-at the Hall of Faded Kings has murals explaining, after a fashion, what’s going on and the pieces needed to become the Donnerkonig. “Where and how to get them” is covered in other areas of the adventure.

        However, ‘truly floating hooks’ are still a viable and interesting idea. I still like using wandering monsters, but I’ve never much liked ‘truly random’ ones. “2d4 gnolls” is boring, but “gnoll hunting party” is better, and better again is “gnoll hunting party led by Shek Varta, hunting [bounty of choice]”. The first encounter is likely to end in one predictable way, the second I can see going a couple of ways, the third I don’t know what will happen. It probably won’t result in an immediate change in course, but I can see it influencing what happens after the adventure.

  4. I recognized Campbell’s Monomyth immediately, of course. For some reason, though, I was only just now reminded of Johnn Four’s Five Room Model of dungeon design. I was initially reminded by the “one fifth, three fifths, one fifth” bit, but that this article and the Five Room article each work in fifths is a red herring. The Five Room model is quite linear, but if the middle act is to be short the Five Room model can fit well, with the last act described in this article being a denouement rather than a climax.

    I think if I were to try to overlap the two ideas I would leave your first act as you have it, split the third act into two (climax and denouement), then overlap rooms 1-4 with act two and climax, with room 5 having the denouement, loose-ends-cleanup, and plot twist or hooks to next steps.

  5. Also on the topic of three-stage things, Angry DM talks about a Three-Stage Boss Fight (four-post series, look to the nav box on the right for links to the other three posts) that I think could be made to relate.

    Introduction might be around initial contact and decision to engage, and include the first part of the actual fight, until “it gets real”.

    Main Part is after the Introduction; the boss is fully riled, the fight is really on. This is probably the hardest (and possibly longest) stage of the fight, where most of the action and mayhem happen. More creatures enter the fray, the boss brings out the big guns, and so on.

    Conclusion is after the second shift. Most of the minions and cohorts and mooks are weeded out, the boss is tired and down to lesser effects and last gasp attacks. The PCs have reason to think they’re close to beating this thing… and so they probably do, unless they get cocky.

    I think I like this. It gives shape to the combat other than “hit as hard as you can then chew the boss down”, the PCs can have a sense of progress, and the initial stage is a bid for combat, rather than cause for nova strike.

    • Related to the Three-Stage Boss Fight I linked in the previous message, I wrote a post on JRPG-Inspired Encounter Design that includes phased encounters like that, and several other elements that represent the genre.

      Among them is a strong sense of theme, and each of the three parts of your adventure described above could exhibit entirely different feel. They might still follow the general model, but by having very different characteristics highlight the change between parts.

  6. I just realized that I could challenge the statement that “The only kind of adventure this structure is ill-suited for is the sandbox style in which exploration is the main goal.”

    Put simply, if you detach yourself from the idea that an adventure needs to have a specific you buy yourself a lot of freedom. I like to phrase the question “how does this play out?”

    Then you can have a number of questions to resolve that can be addressed, or not, by the events in the sandbox. Identify what the conclusions will be if the PCs do nothing. Then the adventure in the sandbox becomes entirely about what the PCs do, or not, and the ‘conclusion’ becomes ‘what the PCs caused’.

    And if there are loose ends that still need to be addressed, that gives you seeds for the next adventure….

    • I think it depends who designs the sandbox! If the party design their own goal–slay the goblins lurking in the nearby forest (or whatever)– then you have a point. If their goal is wander about and explore a bit I’d stick with my original statement!

      • Well, yes. If they don’t set goals for themselves then the whole thing falls apart.

        The trick then, of course, is to provide attractive enough hooks to lure them to goals. Give them a nemesis, a potential big score, or something else they can’t resist and will follow through on.

  7. For this one scenario that I’ve been running off and on for sometime…what I do is put out notices that the government of the area that the scenario is located in and around That the flyers are looking for adventurers and according to the PCs backstories they find themselves going to see the government. They get there and are told the circumstances and that any and all treasures that they find are theirs, minus a 10% tax, or tithe..all medical spells are covered..they may hang around the town asking questions, gathering intel that sort of stuff.. then they go ahead and leave and the main part of the adventure occurs and of course various stuff happens and all…they may find themselves going back to the main city for various reasons or they may keep going forward….I have a mentor/observer NPC that sort of tags along..I’ve modeled him after Gandalf but he may or may not have some powers that are kinda necessary…he may or may not help them depending on the how the PCs are handling it…the adventure that is…..when it comes to encountering the big baddie(s) and minions, I’ve kinda left it ambiguous since every group is different and how they handle it is up to them….after the encounter is over I may or may leave an inkling if they have actually defeated the big baddie…sure they have taken care of the minions and all but who knows if the big baddie had a LMD:)…..so when they go back to the main city for a debrief that in itself can turn into another adventure…and during the adventure itself they may find more rumors and stories that may or may not be true and so the government may put them on a retainer to take care of anything else…kinda like a permanent party (no pun intended:)….