Dungeons & Dragons Online

Streamline Your Campaign in Six Simple Acts

Hey all! First time posting. This was an article submission that didn't turn out, but I figured some in the Reddit community might find it useful:

There's a lot of confusion in the world today. Economies are crumbling, pandemics are wreaking havoc across the globe, weird cultist are popping up in every major city. That's right, the players made questionable choices again. You see, existence operates on one simple truth: no matter how much work you put into a campaign, players will find a way to blow it up. While this may be a bit of an exaggeration, it can sometimes feel that way.

Over the decades I have tried almost every planning method possible for dnd. For years I would scheme every intricate hook, NPC, or twist that might occur; pumping hundreds of hours into material that my players never came close to touching. I tried to follow the various improv suggestions out there, but it did not seem to be my strong suite. It wasn't until I began teaching creative writing that the dots finally connected.

Story structure is the same as campaign structure. No-brainer, right? The key, I have found, is to keep the details vague and shore up the specifics as the story approaches them.

I use two story structures to flesh out my games: the well known 3-act structure, and the lesser known 6-act, formalized by Marshall Dotson. Today we'll be focusing on using the 6-act story structure to quickly plot out an entire campaign.

It's important to note that what follows is how I use the 6-act structure for my campaigns, rather than information about the structure itself. If you want more information on the 6-Act Structure, check out https://sixactstructure.com/

Now, on to the fun stuff. At its heart, the 6-Act Structure boils each section of a story down to the following:

Act 1: Dealing with an Imperfect Situation

Act 2: Learning the Rules of an Unfamiliar Situation

Act 3: Stumbling into the Central Conflict

Act 4: Implementing a Doomed Plan

Act 5: Trying a Long Shot

Act 6: Living in an Improved Situation

Depending on the length of your campaign, each of these acts may take one session, or multiple. So long as everyone is having fun, try not to worry about sticking to a timeline too much.

Act 1: Dealing with an Imperfect Situation.

From the Epic of Gilgamesh to the works of N.K. Jemisin, every story starts out with an imperfect situation. Sometimes we begin with it in place, sometimes it happens a few pages in, but it's always there.

Harry Potter was just a boy in the beginning. His home life was abusive, he had no friends, and his prospects for the future looked grim. All that changed when he was invited to Hogwarts.

What is the imperfect situation in your story? Perhaps your characters have just awoken covered in their own blood, at 1 hp, and with no recollection of how they got there. Perhaps they arrive at their favorite tavern only to find it burned down. Regardless, the purpose is to place your characters in a situation where they desire change (i.e. give them a call to adventure). Just about anything will work.

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My middle school class once gave me an Imperfect situation of a man who had bats living up his butt. A few handstands and a training montage later, and we had ourself a genuine, albeit unique, superhero story about a man who could fly upside down (you connect the dots). Be as silly or serious as you want. We can always tweak things in the next act.


Act 2: Learning the Rules of an Unfamiliar Situation

The players have chomped the hook and the adventure has begun! But it wouldn't be an adventure if they just breezed through everything. A hero is someone pushed beyond their abilities over and over again, only succeeding when they have gained whatever lesson, skill, or item has prevented them from succeeding in the first place.

Our heroes need to Learn the Rules of the Unfamiliar Situation. Who can forget the first time a young Mr. Potter stepped into Diagon Alley? With a single shopping trip J.K. Rowling managed to give us a breathtaking introduction to the world of Wizardry. Yet this was only a glimpse, for the true debut came with Harry's Arrival to Hogwarts. In the same way, you want to place your players outside of their depth.

Now, this is where all you world builders finally get to go nuts. As the unfamiliar situation, this is where you can get the players to really commit to the campaign. Show them what is unique about your world by immersing them in it; or as the adage goes, "show, don't tell."

Building on my 1 hp and bloody example from Act 1, perhaps the players were deep underground and are now trying to work their way back to the surface. Scores of slashed and pierced corpses lay about as they work their way upward, eventually arriving to the surface… so they hoped. It turns out that they are actually on a massive earthen ship hurtling through the astral plane. The controls are out, but a beacon indicates the increasingly distant portal back to their home world.

This is the reality check, the moment they learn just how screwed they are. The players will have to commit to their goal if they ever want to see home again.


Act 3: Stumbling into the Central Conflict

The players have a goal, now they just need to execute it. Unfortunately, the BBEG (Big Bad Evil Guy) doesn't want that to happen, as it will botch his plan. This is the first time the players experience truly intentional opposition, as they are now actively screwing with the BBEG'S scheme.

In Harry Potter, this is the point where Professor Quirrel attempts to dislodge Harry from his broomstick. This is a great example, as Rowling baits us to think that Snape is the one cursing Harry, yet for those watching the movies you can clearly see Quirrel in the background. Harry may have met Quirrel before this, but this is the first point he is actively attempting to thwart him.

After a quest or two the players manage to reroute the ship. All is well, but we need to insert them into the central conflict. Let's say that our earthen astral ship is actually a massive hive filled with giant elemental insects. When the ship veers off course, they begin to wake up.

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Do the players put the ship back on course, hoping to be left alone? Do they continue home, risking an infestation of their homeland by the creatures on board? Not only have they fallen squarely into the Hive Queen antagonist's sights, but they are presented with both moral and tactical complications. Hard choices like these lead us into the next act.


Act 4: Implementing a Doomed Plan

Nothing says D&D more than a catastrophically unsuccessful plan. Using the Harry Potter series again, this is the point in which Harry begins snooping around trying to find out what Snape is trying to steal. Why is it doomed? Because Snape isn't the BBEG.

This is an important distinction to make. We don't want to railroad the players here, artificially causing whatever plan they have to fail. We want to plant the seeds of failure in their understanding itself.

Harry wasn't trying to find the BBEG (Quirrel/Voldemort), he was trying to find dirt on Snape. In the same way, Act 4 is a fantastic opportunity to subvert player expectations.

Let's use our Astral Earth ship again. If your players are like mine, the moment they found out there was other life on board they started figuring out how to kill it and take the ship for themselves.

Let's say the players begin scouting out the ship, looking for weaknesses in the hive's defenses. They learn that earth elementals are vulnerable to thunder, and set about figuring out how to turn the entire ship into one massive drum. They invert the engines and blast them against the exterior hull (or, realistically something weirder. These are players we're talking about) killing many of the insect creatures, and greatly weakening the queen. Yay!

But wait… what is this pointy thing turning over here? It's a turning point: the "gotcha, turds!" moment you've been creepily leering over since the players finished the last act.

You see, our insect creatures weren't just flying away from your home world. They were flying away from rolls dice Mind Flayers! Rargh! Mind Flayers who were shipping the colony to a research facility and are now trying to correct it's course. Or maybe they're space pirates, it doesn't really matter. What does matter is the squiggly-faced BBEG who just stepped on board. But good news! Act 4 is over, now it's time for Act 5, aka the Butt Whoopening.


Act 5: Trying a Longshot

The players are squaring off against unthinkable odds. The only gimmick they have left? Whatever hopelessly insane thing they come up with.

In Harry Potter it is when the squad makes their way through the gauntlet of traps to find the philosopher's stone. My group is a little more destructive than most (I know, that's saying a lot), so let's say they opt for mutually assured destruction. The players break whatever mechanism would allow the two ships to un-link, slap that self-destruct button, and… Confront the BBEG.

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See, BBEG wasn't just going to let them jettison away to the nearest inhabited plane of existence. He's going to make them fight his minions, his mini-bosses, and then finally himself. Afterwards, they zip past the bridge just in time to see the BBEG shaking his squiggle-fists in fury, and then kaboom. A beautiful, cataclysmic explosion that conveniently delivers them to their next adventure. But not before…


Act 6: Living in a New Situation

Remember when Harry and friends went home for the summer? Or when Frodo returned to the shire? Or when Deadpool cleaned up the timeline? Those all take place in the final act.

Act 6 is where the author shows the characters in the new status quo. In D&D, it's where you give your group a chance to celebrate. If they saved the kingdom, throw them a parade or erect a statue. Have random npc patrons buy them an ale, ask for an autograph, or even freak out and faint like that dude from the Avatar series. The point is, take this time to really recognize all that they accomplished (or failed to accomplish). And don't forget, though this act may be over, it's the perfect time to start baiting hooks for your next Imperfect Situation.

What I love about Dotson's 6-Act Structure is how "chunkable" it makes things. Each section of the campaign is it's own individual unit, so no matter what choices the players made in Act X, I can just adjust the story to accommodate those choices in Act (X+1). By following a tried and true story formula the dramatic tension is kept high throughout the entire campaign, the world evolves and seems more alive, and the game follows a narrative arc that most players have been culturally conditioned to prefer. When done well, the campaign pretty much writes itself, leaving the DM with a lot more time to scheme.

Source: reddit.com

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