Simple ways to structure a D&D campaign (part one)




In the heart of most GMs is the desire to tell a big story, one with heroes, villains, intrigues, dilemmas, hard choices, fortresses to capture and treasures to find. Above all for many there is the deep sense that the players, having come through fire and blood have grown together as comrades and friends.


There are of course countless campaigns that you as a GM can buy that will provide your players with excellent adventuring experiences, and that you can adapt to your own campaign world if necessary.


This post is for those intrepid GMs who want to create their own campaigns, either situated in their own universes or in the fantasy realities created by D&D or other RPG designers.


We'll look at a quite simple structure in this post, and then in later posts explore more complex campaign designs; fortunately popular culture has provided us with a perfect ready made framework for creating this kind of long form story telling around.


The movie.


The structure of a movie


A fairly straight forward movie stucture can be thought of as 'three acts, nine scenes'. A movie with three acts works in the following way:


  • First Act: Setting, characters and then basic premise are introduced - In Lord of the Rings we learn about Middle Earth, the Shire, Frodo, Sam and Gandalf and the fact that the ring exists and the Nazgul are coming for it. The first act ends when Frodo is rescued by Arwen and taken to Rivendell.

  • Second Act: The heroes encounter the necessary challenges required to complete the quest, but the monster pushes them to the edges of their abilities - Frodo and Co travel across Middle Earth, are attacked by Saruman in the Mountains and forced to go through Moria, where they encounter the Balrog.

  • Third Act: Endgame, where heroes take the knowledge the have acquired on their quest and apply it to defeating the monster and saving the day - In the Fellowship of the Ring, because it is the first part of the trilogy, the characters are in part defeated by the Ring itself, which seduces Boromir to his death. But Frodo's decision to take the Ring on to Mordor is a victory over its evil, as it does not fall into Boromir's grasp, which is what it really wants.

In the first act there are three main scenes, The Shire, The Wilderness, Rivendell. These scenes are the way in which the story is moved forward, as we have a sense that the characters are moving through the world from place to place to resolve the challenge they are facing with.


Creating a nine scene structure in your campaign might seem like a lot of work and initially quite daunting, but it is ok to write the campaign in stages, not necessarily in one go.


Premise/Crisis


In film making terms, there has to be an equilibrium that is disrupted by a disequilibrium, a normal happy world has to be interupted in some way by something bad.


In the case of the Fellowship of the Ring, Frodo's nice life in the Shire is disrupted by the realisation that the one ring is in his uncle's belongings, left to Frodo when Bilbo leaves.


The truth is that the disequilibrium for Frodo has always existed, he just didn't know it.


Your task as a GM is to introduce a disequilibrium into the world that your PCs inhabit. It might be a low level one (a raiding party of Orcs has kidnapped the mayor of a small town the PCs visit) or a major one (a portal to another dimension has opened up and vast eldritch horrors are streaming out into the Mortal Realm).


To make this a convincing and compelling crisis there must be stakes involved, the PCs should know that if they fail in this mission there will be consequences for them and for the world they inhabit.


There can be the lure of gold for those playing mercenary characters, or it might be that you make it personal (the wizard suspected of opening the portal is known to the PCs and has wronged them in the past, now there is the chance of some payback).


The First of the Three Scenes


1. Thangard


Let's go with the dimension idea. Ok, so we're in Thangard, the town on the borderlands, and in the wilderness a glowing blue doorway keeps opening with shuffling horrors pouring out. The next three scenes need to be based on the obvious questions a player would ask.


  • Why is this happening?

  • Who is making this happen?

  • What is motivating this person to do this thing?

  • What do we need to stop it?

  • How do we kill the monsters?

Ok, so the person doing all this is a wizard called Zarik, he's a guy that the PCs had a major run in with several years ago when they were looking through a dungeon for some rare gems. They didn't know at the time that Zarik needed them to open the portal. Zarik isn't all bad though (I am a sucker for complex antagonists), his daughter got caught in one of his experiments and sent to another dimension, now he is opening every dimensional doorway he can to see if he can find her. He doesn't care whether people are eaten by what comes out (so he is actually pretty bad).


You could do one massive Wayne's World style info dump to start with or you can leave a breadcrumb trail of clues for the players to start with. The locals might know that a wizard inhabits a tower close to the marshes (and he matches Zarik's appearance).


2. Zarik's Tower


Whilst you should try to facilitate as much player autonomy as possible, you need to arrange things so that the reveals, surprises and action of the adventure come to the players in phases. If they go to Zarik's tower, find him there and beat him until he agrees to undo the opening of the portals it'll be dull so you might consider the following:


  • They go to the tower and find a broken Zarik, who reveals that he tried to close the portals, but now a demon on the other side is calling the shots and controlling him (he's having a few hours where its control isn't so powerful over him). - this is a classic 'baddie switch move' favoured by MCU screen writers the world over.

  • Zarik has left a magical hologram of himself talking to his daughter, explaining what has been done, but isn't there because he has crossed into the other dimension.

  • Zarik is there and collapses the tower on the PCs in a 'you are keeping me from my date with destiny, mwah ha ha ha' style.

Or you can use all of these ploys, this second scene is meant to be a springboard to scene three when the first phase of the adventure is resolved. In phase three, we need to acquire a sense, as Frodo does at the Council of Elrond, that 'this is what we're really up against, and this is the sort of person I need to be to deal with it.'


3. The Dark Gateway

Having discovered that Zarik is the pawn of an evil demon, the PCs need to go to the dark dimension through the dark gateway. They might have learned about Zarik's daughter, and if so, it's just possible that rescuing her is the key to breaking the demon's spell over Zarik so he can close the portal.


If the PCs have done a lot of sleuthing so far, this might be the opportunity to have a fight. Perhaps the dark portal gateway is now garrisoned by the demon's stooges and the PCs have worked out (based on their rummaging around in Zarik's tower), when the portal opens. They will need to kill the bad guys and cross through before anything comes out. Once they're in the dark dimension, act one ends.


I am going to add the second of the three scenes into this blog in the next couple of days, but I hope that this has been useful. For many GMs out there, this structure is old hat, but it's useful old hat, and nothing actually gets worse with structure.


If you're new to campaign writing, remember that every scene has a purpose of its own and is part of the overall narrative. If you wind up putting something in for its own sake, the chances are it won't work or make sense where it is.


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