Plot: A Simple Session
When most people are preparing to run a roleplaying game, the main emphasis is placed on plot. Characters usually come second in priority to the sequence of events that sums up the story as a whole. This concept of plot-driven fiction is extremely common in the world of sci-fi and fantasy, and translates very well to a tightly prepared game of D&D. Most, if not all, prepublished adventures focus on plot over any other element of storytelling. This sequence of events is typically linear, with a clear progression from point A to point Q.
Assuming you're making a plot-driven adventure, and so many of them are, there's some easy advice summed up by our friend Freytag and his pyramid. He explained the five-act structure that Shakespeare used falls into these five categories: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and denouement. When designing a simple, exciting game session I usually break this up a little differently, as I like my exciting moment to finish off the session rather than fall in the middle.
Here's a good DMing exercise for all of you who plan a lot. Make a one-session adventure composed of five linked encounters. The first is the exposition, usually where the PC's get their quest in an exciting fashion. Second through fourth forms their rising action, with the PC's first finding their opposition and then dealing with it. The fifth and final encounter forms your climax where the mettle of the heroes is truly tested, followed by a quick falling action and resolution where they receive their reward or get completely screwed over by their benefactor.
When introducing the quest, try making it an exciting reason of why the benefactor needs to get the job done. Maybe the PC's rescue a captured merchant on the road, slaughtering the orcs holding him hostage. He offers to pay them to recover his stolen cargo as he is unable and unwilling to do battle with the orcs.
When we hit rising action, remember that not every encounter needs to be about combat. Maybe the second encounter involves something along the lines of an exploration challenge, with the scouts following tracks to the orc encampment and reconnoitering the settlement. The wizards do some divination or analyze information do discover the presence of a shaman, the fighter watches from afar to appraise the orcs military strength. This simple legwork makes the entire adventure feel much more satisfying and less like a video game where the players enter the dungeon and murder orcs three at a time.
Encounters three and four can involve implementing whatever plan the PC's have, like making a huge distraction to lure orcs away from the camp or poisoning the food source like real shifty bastards. There's likely to be some sort of mop-up afterward, and here's where the next combat encounter comes into play.
Finally as a climax, the leader of the orc tribe himself comes out and does battle with the PC's. Not every climax needs to be combat, a good chase works out well, as does some cunning ruse brought forth by the rogue. Whatever you do as a DM, make this exciting and dangerous. The climax isn't the time to pull punches.
It's simple storytelling, but it's very effective and has been used in fiction for thousands of years. When you get the chance, sit and analyze any sort of movie, book, play, or adventure module you find. A simple story almost always breaks into this structure, and for good reason. It works. Try prepping a game that way, see how it works out.
Keep gaming, Mojo out.