I realize this post is pretty long. I'll revise it in time, or maybe break it up into multiple posts. For now, here's a brainstorm--just so you get the gist.
I keep referring to my adventure design mantra, "Three Things Happen," whenever I talk about adventure design here or elsewhere, and yet it seems that while I keep referring to it, I haven't written a post about it yet. Let this be that post.
3 Things Happen
"3 Things Happen" is a tool you can use to plan out your adventures. It's a holy mantra you can repeat to remind yourself, in the midst of all your complex campaign threads, in a regular session, about three things happen. It's a sanity-saving device, a writing tool, a rule to live by.
In an average night of gaming, a session feels complete when about three things happen. I realized this pretty late in my DMing career, though looking back on the most successful sessions of the past, it's always been this way. The revelation came upon me when I was browsing a book on fiction writing at Borders. It was essentially a compilation of quotes from writers discussing the craft. One of the ones that struck me was (and unfortunately I can't recall who said it), "In a short story, about three things happen."
I mulled over this a while and considered this from an adventure design perspective. The pace of my story games was difficult to control. I viewed the campaign like big swaths of story that we'd eventually travel through. Whenever I wrote the session for the coming week, I'd spend a lot of time trying to develop the setting, NPCs, monsters, whatever it was I expected the PCs to face. At the same time, I wanted to give them freedom of choice. My adventures were like situations I put before the PCs, and then I'd let them react to it in whatever way they chose. I would insulate these situations with lots of NPCs and world building so that if and when they wandered away from the course of the adventure, I could accommodate any direction they chose. This approach often worked, but it was time consuming, could be unfocused at times, and it could be a little nerve wracking too when the campaign went to uninteresting places; sometimes PCs will make the safe choice if you let them, and too many safe choices can take the campaign to a place where it's not as much fun for anybody.
How It Works
Think of a session like a short story, or an episode of a dramatic television show like Battlestar Galactica, Game of Thrones, or Rome. A good short story works to achieve a particular effect. The action of a short story is the thing that happens to create that effect. What do I mean by action or effect? You'll get a better idea by googling those topics, but for the purposes of this blog, I mean that in the course of the narrative something happens--the action of the story--and it has an effect on the character(s) in the story and it has an effect on you, the reader.
A brief tangent about television episodes with multiple characters: In television shows like the ones I've mentioned, there are often multiple plotlines (the A story and the B story) that cover different characters, and each of these plotlines is like their own story--however, the episode usually has some kind of unity that in some way ties the events together in order to give that episode a distinct mood and feel that is unique to it; even if the characters are doing different things, the episode itself feels whole, unified. I tried to achieve this effect last fall in the Star Frontiers game I ran, where I intercut between 2 groups of unrelated characters (the players made 2 characters each) and it was pretty cool.
Moving along, I started focusing on "the session" instead of "the adventure," "the story," "the plot," "the encounter," or anything else. Ultimately, I thought a given session of an adventure should strive to satisfy, and there were things I could do to make it so. "How much can I get accomplished in a given night of gaming?" I asked myself. I decided it was about three things. About three events. Maybe a couple role-playing encounters and a combat. Maybe a couple explorations and a puzzle. Most likely a combination of all of these. I figured that after a session has been padded out with everything else the players want to do, there's about enough time to get three things done.
What I didn't immediately realize was that I was starting to think in terms of beginning, middle, and end. I would caution you, as I caution myself, still NOT to think in those terms at the beginning Simply think of about 3 things you'd like to "accomplish" in the night's session.
Got them? Good. Now, which one of those will most likely, and most logically, happen last? Which one is the strongest, the most dramatic, or the most interesting? Most important, when that thing happens, how will it, in all likelihood, make the PCs feel? Afraid? Victorious? Disgusted? Enchanted? That's your end point. Probably. You don't want to control the session too much. This is a loose structure for your session. You're creating a mental outline here for how you think it might go. Once you've done that, you'll be able to gently lead the PCs in that direction--but first you must have a direction for them to go.
Next, look at the other 2 things you'd like to accomplish in the session. Which one is the most unlike the one you've just decided to put at the end? That's your starting point. That's the first major encounter. That's the introduction to the adventure. It sets the tone and the pace. It may hint at what's to come, or it may feel completely different from what you have prepared for the session's end.
The hardest part is now to take that middle event and figure out how to use it as a turning point where the session moves from point A to point C. All I can say about this one is that I put the most thought into it. This is the meat of your session, the logical middle, the procedural part.
The reason I caution you not to start out by thinking "beginning, middle, end" is because--at least for me--it puts a lot of pressure on me to come up with the ultimate end, the ultimate beginning, the ultimate middle. I get frozen, stuck, and nothing happens. If I just think, "What are 3 things we can get done tonight?" I write those down and they make sense because they're organic and they're logical. Then I play around with the order I'd like them to occur in. Only after I've done all that do I define them as beginning, middle, and end. It's just a trick of removing the pressure to makethebestthingevarzzz and then, predictably, failing to achieve perfection.
All of that said, I've found this structure works best for dramatic story-oriented games. Lately I've been running modules. The modules are fun, but they don't have the "Oh God what happens next?!" factor that my typical campaigns have. What I'm saying is, while I consider the "3 Things Happen" mantra to be the very best way to prepare a session, in a lighter, more casual game--or a game that uses an old AD&D module as its structure (i.e. lots of exploration and dungeon crawling) it might not come into play as much. Nevertheless, you can certainly apply it to modules, and very easily as well. You just need to ask yourself what 3 things you want to get accomplished in the session, figure out what order they'll probably happen in, and then just focus on those three things for the evening. You can absolutely work to achieve a unified tone for that session in the module, just by making connections between the 3 events, observing their similarities or dissimilarities and letting your creative mind work on how to transition from one to another in a way that feels like it's part of the same story or event.
When I say "3 Thing Happen," I mean the major bullet points. Other things can happen in the session as well, and actually should--smaller things that occur between your three major "scenes." Let's call them scenes. These might be small role-playing interactions, explorations, or puzzles. In another book on fiction, I was reading about "scene and sequel." The scene is where the action plays out and the sequel is where the characters adjust to what's happened and prepare to make their next move. Several smaller things can happen in the RPG session--you just have the major building blocks laid out in your mind so you know where you're heading.
And just so it's clear: this isn't advice to create a plot train for the PCs to ride. This is you making a to-do list and organizing it. If the players show up and say "this is what we would rather do," then my advice is to follow their lead. Most of the time, however, if you've laid out your 3 things and you start with the first one, the players are instantly involved. They react to it and you improvise with their reactions.
Ultimately, I find that the major building blocks of a scene usually happen, but they often unfold in ways that are wildly different from what I might expect. I feel free to improvise because I already have my loose structure, and that loose structure gives me confidence. I feel free to let the players do whatever they want because I already have a basic plan I can gently encourage them towards--and if they don't want to do that--or think it's an illogical choice--I just follow whatever it is they want to do. D&D is a game about group storytelling, the DM and the players agreeing to play a game together where their choices are listened to and honored. More on that another day.
Finally, to further clarify what I mean by "lots of things can happen between three things happening," I like to think of an entire season (in my games that's 1 year of gaming--actually from September to May, roughly), or campaign arc, in terms of "3 Things Happen." I think about what 3 things I'd like to do this year in terms of my campaign. What's on the top of my wish list for stuff I'd like to see? After that, in what order would they probably happen? Now I have a structure for my year and I'm further deconstructing each of those main ideas down into smaller arcs.
I could provide intricate, involved examples of how this whole thing works, but I don't think it will make complete sense until you try your hand at it. Remember: just think of three things you want to accomplish, or that you think the PCs will strive to accomplish, in a session and then organize them. Try to make the first and the last feel different in tone. Find how the middle works as a transition point. You may stumble a bit at first, and then again you may not. I find that just organizing my thoughts and expectations this way leads to greater clarity in my games and it helps to give a dramatic structure (beginning, middle, end) to my sessions. When applied to the campaign as a whole, my sessions run like exciting television episodes and my campaign concludes each season with a bang. All we're really doing here is applying dramatic structure to adventure design in an easy to digest format, and thinking about an adventure session towards a goal of achieving a story effect rather than a game-oriented one.