tabletop games

GM Tip: 5 Adventure Structures for GMs

Let me describe how adventure preparation usually goes for me.

Immediately after the last session, I have seemingly endless ideas of how the next adventure could go. Over the next week, I keep having great ideas while I’m eating breakfast, biking, showering, and everywhere else in life. Then, it is night before the next session, and I sit down to write my prep.

And then I’m stuck. I stare at a blank screen, and then realize I have been reading reddit for a half-hour and still haven’t figured anything out.

GMs can also have writer’s block, and every writer has a trick for how they get over it. My trick is to start with an adventure structure.

Why Structure is Helpful

Usually, my adventure writing problem is that those great ideas don’t fit together. A bunch of ideas depend on them sweet talking the troll, but I had another great idea where they completely skipped checking under the bridge. All ideas are amazing in theory, but they all seem lame when I try to write them down.

And that’s why I turn to a few different structures to get going. The list below is neither exhaustive nor mandatory: if you and your players are having fun, you’re doing the right thing. These just help me stave off procrastination and develop confidence that I can run a fun session for my players.

So let’s jump in!

The Dungeon Crawl

The Dungeon Crawl is what most people imagine D&D to be: a sprawling series of connected, hand drawn rooms with monsters and traps along the way. Usually there’s some ultimate goal at the end of the dungeon, but it’s mostly about hacking through. To prepare, you have to draw maps, populate rooms with traps, and write up keys.

I like using dungeon crawls when I don’t know my players very well (e.g. Adventurer’s League). Many different types of adventures don’t work for certain players: maybe they aren’t interested in social encounters or don’t have a backstory to dive into. However, all players know how dungeons work and what the tropes are, so they go along with it.

I don’t like using dungeon crawls otherwise. I don’t like running dungeon crawls, and I haven’t invested enough effort to learn how to make them better than that. They also take a lot of time and physical artifacts to create.

If you don’t mind his writing style, I highly recommend The Angry GM’s Megadungeon Monday series. Technically, the Megadungeon is more of a campaign structure than an adventure structure, but this is how Gary Gygax started everything, so it can’t be that wrong.

One, Two, Twist

The One, Two, Twist (12T) is my own invention inspired by listicles. Come up with three related encounters towards some end. The first two are as described to the party by the questgiver, but there’s a twist when they get to the last one.

Here are two examples.

Chopped the Adventure. The party shows up at a festival and become surprise entrants in “Sliced”, a cooking competition where four teams compete through three courses to create the best meal. Each course has a secret ingredient that you have to go kill (e.g. Giant Frog Legs, Myconid Mushroom Flesh), and after each round, one team is eliminated from the competition. The first two rounds go as expected, but in the third round, the judges get kidnapped, and the party must rescue them while cooking their dessert.

Ritual Gathering. The party finds out that Kobolds are trying to summon a Dragon spirit, but to do so, they need to find the wings, heart, and breath of the dragon in the swamps. In any order they choose, the party tries to get each of the three parts before the Kobolds do. Of course, by the third part, the Kobolds know they are being followed, so they setup a trap for the party.

I like using the 12T when I have several self-contained encounters that I just need to glue together. Just like this post, it’s quite easy to write listicles because you only need several little encounters instead of one big adventure.

I don’t like using the 12T too much. The twist is supposed to be a surprise. However, you don’t want to end up as M Night Shyamalan where the audience knows it’s coming. Also, the listicle is a lazy writing format anyways.

Of course, you can extend the 12T with as many stages or twists as you like.

The 5 Room Dungeon

Created by JohnnFour, the 5 Room Dungeon (5RD) is a popular adventure structure. In short, you have:

  1. Entrance and Guardian
  2. Puzzle or Roleplaying Challenge
  3. Trick or Setback
  4. Climax, Big Battle, or Conflict
  5. Reward, Relevation, Plot Twist

And note that despite the name, the 5RD doesn’t have to be a dungeon: it’s just a template for what can happen.

I like using the 5RD when I have a beginning and end but no idea how to structure what happens in-between. Each “room” provides a discrete encounter with clear transitions and a tidy ending. And I can crank this out pretty quickly. I’ll brainstorm three possibilities for a room, pick one, then move on to the next room.

I don’t like using the 5RD when, well, it doesn’t fit. If I have a good idea of how I want to sequence encounters or have specific beats to hit, it can be somewhat constraining.

Note that others have extended the concept with more flexibility, so look to those for more help.

The Lazy Dungeon Master’s Checklist

“Prepare what benefits your game”

Michael E. Shea, “Sly Flourish”

Shea released a book called Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master where he explains the Lazy Dungeon Master’s Checklist (LDMC). I highly recommend the preview of the book that has a two-page summary of the technique, but the basic tenant is what is above. GMs spend a lot of time preparing things that they don’t end up using, so instead, focus on the things that are hard to make up on the spot, like interesting NPCs or fantastic locations.

This approach actually has no adventure structure since the players really direct where the game goes. Instead, the GM come up with a list of secrets to reveal when it makes sense. I won’t say much more because you really should just read Shea’s work yourself.

I like using the LDMC when I know that the game will go off the rails, and I’m short on time. It does indeed let me be lazy and get enough ideas going to run a game.

I don’t like using the LDMC when I’m trying to create a real story structure. I have struggled to create really exciting moments in a session. By default, my players and I will just go from scene-to-scene in a directed but calm fashion. I personally enjoy tension building up to exciting moments followed by a calm recovery, and I need more structure than this provides.

Three-Act Structure

The Three-Act Structure (3AS) comes from drama and is how many TV shows are written. Here’s the template I use with Star Wars as an example:

  • Opening: Once upon a time, Luke was on Tatooine
  • Inciting Incident: And then one day, he found a droid with a secret message
  • First Act Break: And so the quest began, when he followed Obi-Wan off-planet
  • Midpoint: And then suddenly and without warning, Alderaan was destroyed and they were captured by the Death Star
  • Second Act Break: And then at the point of no return and moment of despair, Obi-Wan dies, the Death Star heads to the Rebel base, and Han leaves
  • Climax: And to save the day in a decisive act, Han comes back to disable Darth Vader and Luke destroys the Death Star
  • Resolution: And they lived happily ever after, in a big medal ceremony for everyone except Chewbacca

Not being a screenwriter myself, I’ll leave it to the pros to explain it in much more detail. See this blog post about writing a TV pilot and this video by Michael Arndt, the guy who wrote Star Wars: The Force Awakens. In particular, Arndt adds even more with the idea of internal, external, and philosophical stakes and resolving three climaxes quickly to deliver a crazy (good) ending.

Of course, this structure wasn’t designed for running adventures, and you have to adapt some parts of it. For example, you can probably skip the “Once upon a time” since your players should know the steady state of the world. You also probably need to be building the stakes over the course of many adventures. However, a good story is a good story.

You can use it like the main quest in an open world video game RPG (like Skyrim). Most of the time, your players will probably be running around stealing from guards and trying to find Nirnroot. Let them have fun. However, when they actually get around to the main quest, you probably want to get them into cut scenes and on a set track so they feel it all means something.

I like using the 3AS when I want the story to have a lot of Oomph. Specifically, I like it in the climactic adventure of a big story arc: there’s a lot of build-up to the adventure, and it has to deliver the meaningful stakes of the story.

I don’t like using the 3AS because it requires railroading to work correctly, so you need players who are just happy to be on the ride. Also, you have to time out the story perfectly for the length of a session, or else you might lose some momentum.

Final Thoughts

So those are five different adventure structures that I use to take a billion ideas and a blank screen and turn it into something I can run. I use some more frequently than others, and when I’m lucky, I can write without using any of them. I try not to be too strict with these: they’re just scaffolding for the adventure prep, which is the scaffolding for the real adventure at the table.

For another take on structure, check out The Angry GM’s Structure for Morons and the two followup posts. He covers much of the same ground.

Although I wrote about these ideas in the scope of planning out a single adventure, the ideas also work at higher levels. There are also structures that you can use for entire arcs or campaigns, such as Megadungeons, Freytag’s Pyramid, the Monomyth,Dan Harmon’s Story Circle, West Marches, and Dungeon World’s Fronts. There are great ideas in writing everywhere, so again, do what you and your players enjoy.

And with that, this post is over, so you should probably stop procrastinating and get back to your adventure prep.

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