Using the 3 Act Structure in your D&D game

Posted on July 30, 2010 by

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I figured that before Gencon, I would  do some writing about two subjects that I love:  movies and D&D.  So sit back, relax, and let me tell you about crafting stories for your game following a tried and true formula, the Hollywood Screenplay.  Before I go on though, I’d like to say that while I am not a professional screenwriter, I have studied it and written one or two on a personal level as a hobby, but no I am not a pro at this at all.

If you’ve never really paid attention to screenplays and the way they are written, this post is going to open your eyes and make you see films in a different light.  You see, most every time we go to the movies, we are fed the same formula, only packaged in slightly different wrappings.  Here now are the parts that make up a screenplay, and then I’ll attempt to show you how to translate them into a cohesive D&D story:

  • Act 1 (Beginning): The Setup, and Plot Point 1
  • Act 2 (Middle): The Confrontation, and Plot Point 2
  • Act 3 (End): The Resolution

Let’s assume the typical movie runs roughly 120 minutes, and each page of script represents about a minute of screen time.

Act 1 sets up the movie, introduces us to the main characters, the situation he faces, and inter-character relationships.  Act 1 of a script will usually run 30 pages, meaning the first half hour of the film.  Within the first 10 minutes of a movie, you should already be hooked into the story and its main characters.  This is just a fact of the art of screenwriting.

Act 2 of the script carries the dramatic bulk of the script.  Here, the protagonist will endure obstacle after obstacle in order to achieve his goal.  Here, the character faces his greatest challenges, before his story comes to a close.  Act 2 runs for about 60 pages, making it the bulk of the film.  Think Marty McFly, from the moment he first lands in 1955, to the moment he finally gets his parents to kiss in the big school dance. That’s Act 2.

Act 3 of a screenplay runs from the end of Act 2, until the end of the script.  It provides a resolution.  Marty’s parents kiss; he leaves the school dance, meets Doc Brown on the street, and gets himself back to 1985.  That’s the resolution.  That’s Act 3.

So, looking back at the list of the three acts, you’ll see something called “Plot Points”. These are the points in the story where you segue from Act to Act.  Plot Point 1 will carry us from Act 1, straight into Act 2.  Continuing our “Back to the Future” example, Plot Point 1 happens when Doc gets shot by the Libyans in the mall parking lot.  This situation suddenly thrusts the story in another direction, as it forces Marty into the Delorean, and back in time.

Plot Point 2 takes us from the Confrontation of Act 2, to the Resolution of Act 3.  As Marty fades away while playing the guitar in the school dance, his parents finally kiss, causing him to rise up and keep playing the song.  His brother and sister appear in the picture again, and it seems his future is secure.  Time to go home, as his work in 1955 is done.  Now, it’s just a matter of getting into the Delorean and finishing the film.

So now you’ve got a very quick introduction to the structure of films, let’s think about how we can apply it to D&D.  In D&D, you’ve got 3 basic situations where a “story” takes place:  An encounter, an adventure, and a campaign.  As a DM, you can make all these elements of the game dramatically stronger, if you structure and outline them out before play.

The Encounter

Approach every encounter as a mini-story.  If you approach the encounter as just time wasting filler, you’ve failed.  Ever encounter has to mean something in the overall scheme of things.  In movies, scenes that aren’t relevant to the plot end up edited out of the film.  Making a movie is expensive.  There is no money to be spent on wasted scenes that don’t add anything to the story, so by the same token, your playing time is expensive as well, and there is no time to waste on unnecessary encounters.

So let’s add the 3 Act structure to an encounter:

Act 1, The Setup: The characters enter the encounter area, and are given all the basic information they need.  The room description, the monsters that they can see, knowledge checks to identify the monsters, and the ultimate goal of the encounter is introduced.  All these things together add up to your first act.  But we are missing a plot point.  Here, things may not work exactly to the formula, but let’s assume a certain important monster goes down, and you had planned that if he did, then X would happen.  That’s most certainly a plot point.  Or you had accounted for when the rogue triggered a certain switch and open a secret door hiding a portal where demons jump out of to attack the party.  That could certainly be a plot point 1 for the encounter, because it turns the story completely in a different direction for the heroes.  They weren’t expecting the added drama and conflict.

Act 2, The Conflict: This is easy, this is the bulk of the fight, and the challenges the characters face as they race their way towards the encounter’s end.  Plot point 2 hits here, let’s say that they figure out a skill challenge that grants them a way to kill off big boss. Some arcana checks on a series of runes tell them X and X to defeat X.  Whatever, this is plot point 2, which leads directly to…

Act 3, The Resolution: Once it looks like the players are racing towards their goal, you are in Act 3.  Using what they learned from plot point 2, Big Boss goes down, much loot is gained, and they’ve conquered the encounter.  That’s it, celebration time!

The Adventure

Using the 3 act structure in an adventure is very simple and straight forward.  This is simply taking your adventure and outlining the plot in this manner:

Act 1, The Setup: We meet the party.  Luke, Han and the half-orc Chewie come from the village of Tattoon.  There, we learn about them, their families, and hear stories about the hermit white wizard Obwoon.  Soon, a stranger approaches the party about finding Obwoon, because the evil “Red Wizards of the Death Tower” are planning to open a portal to the far realm and consume Tattoon with aberrations, and Obwoon knows how to defeat these wizards, for reasons only he knows.  The party has to find Obwoon and keep the Red Wizards from fulfilling their goal.  After finding Obwoon, the party learns that the stranger was being searched for by the Red Wizards, and they were led to Luke… which would lead them, “Home!!!”  You guessed it, plot point 1 happens here in your story.  “There’s nothing for me here, I want to go with you to defeat the Red Wizards.”

Act 2, The Conflict: The bulk of your story takes place here, dramatic situations escalating as Luke and his companions search out the Death Tower of the Red Wizards.  Encounters, skill challenges, and role-playing scenes that build the drama will make the bulk of your Act 2.  Here you have to ask yourself in what possible situations can I place the party in that all hope will seem lost.  That’s drama.  Your plot point 2 has to happen here, right before your resolution.  Perhaps Obwoon gives his life at the dramatically appropriate time, in order to buy the party time to get to the upper level of the tower where the Far Realm ritual is being cast?  Yep, sounds good to me.  The death of your NPC Obwoon is your plot point 2, as it turns the story towards its resolution.

Act 3, The Resolution: Here, they take their final steps towards their heroic end.  The guardians protecting the chamber are defeated, they enter the chamber and are involved in an epic fight preventing the far realm portal from being opened by Darthegus, leader of the Red Wizards.  They defeat him, destroy the tower, earn their gold, and celebrate all night.

That’s your adventure in a 3 act nutshell.

The campaign

You can use the 3 Act format to plan out your entire campaign.  Let’s say you’ve got an Epic story about an impending ice age striking your campaign world, and the party will eventually have to stop it.  Let’s just break it down into the 3 acts, and see what we’ve got.

Act 1, The Setup: We meet the party; they are from the village of Fairwind.  Normally, winters are short in Fairwind, but this one has overstayed its welcome by a few weeks.  The party hears rumors that it isn’t just Fairwind dealing with this, but other villages and hamlets all along the northern lands are suffering as well.  We are introduced to important NPC’s, and quickly reach Plot Point 1, the event that will send the characters off to their adventure and their conflict.  Let’s say that a well known sage has a vision of the party fighting a mad Eladrin winter witch, then he utters the words “Liam’s Landing” before the visions become too strong and he suddenly collapses and dies.  There’s your Plot Point 1, the party has an idea that they are somehow involved in this, and will most likely want to find out what “Liam’s Landing” is.

Act 2, The Conflict: Here, the party learns about a town in the far north called “Liam’s Landing” where the winter has stayed far longer than a few weeks.  In fact, it’s been quickly spreading out in all directions.  In Liam’s Landing, they learn the threat that the world is facing, a permanent winter seems to be happening.  The party faces the bulk of its drama here, while likely taking other adventures along the way.  It’s a whole campaign after all.  The overall theme is the encroaching winter, but you can involve them in side quests that will give them experience and clues about what’s happening in the world.  Plot Point 2 will happen here, whenever you need to take your campaign towards its conclusion.  Let’s say that they fight some winter fey in a dungeon, and some ancient runes that they were able to decipher tell the tales of a Winter Prince atop the mountains of The Wastes, the tallest peaks in the world.  There’s your plot point 2, sending them off towards The Wastes and towards the Winter Prince.

Act 3, The Resolution: This is easy, and by now you know where this is going.  They eventually find the Winter Price and stop his mad scheme of an eternal winter.  Much rejoicing and celebrations follow. Hip-Hip-Hooray!

So in closing, using the 3 Act Structure can be a great tool towards building drama.  Certainly film isn’t the only medium that uses it, but it may be the easiest one to steal from.  Look at movies; look at the way they are structured.  Pay attention to the acts and plot points.  I guarantee you that you’ll be able to see this and apply it to your game’s story.  If you really want to try this exercise, rent “Back to the Future” and look for the acts and plot points in it.  This may be one of the tightest scripts ever written, and I know for a fact that it is studied in film school and cited in screenwriting books.  Soon, you’ll take your knowledge of the structure of drama, and will be applying it to your D&D games in no time.  Good luck!

Other reading:

Screenplay: the Foundations of Screenwriting, by Sid Field

Lew Hunter’s Screenwriting 434, by Lew Hunter

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