Hey Shieldwall: I’d like to share what I have found using a really basic 3-act-story-structure-hack in my session prep. This works well for me for one-shots. Let me know if you have tried something like this, or what you think!
Gimme the hack!
When planning a session, divide your prep notes out into four parts:
The Question for the Session (“How will the players deal with X?”)
(Act 1) Setup: Inciting Incident, Big Moment / Decision Point No. 1
(Act 2) Midpoint: Confrontation, Rising Action, Big Moment / Decision Point No. 2
(Act 3) Resolution: The Low/Crazy Point, Big Climax, Wrap-up
How do you use it? You could start your prep using this framework, or bring it in part way through prep, or even look back over your otherwise finished session notes and say, “Okay, this seems like Act 1, and this looks like Act 2.” I’ve also used it on the fly to move the game along if the wind is going out of the sails – if you feel slack in the session, look at that 3 act structure to see what you need to inject at that moment. In the beginning, you need to steer towards that first point that moves you into confrontation / rising action. In the middle, you need to keep ratcheting up the stakes, tension, or pressure. Towards the end, you need to look for ways to bring things to a head. This has helped me stay on track when I have a fixed start and end time – “Hrm, we’re spending too much time in Act 1, let’s move it along!”
The terms in the framework are more like ‘tags’ to be interpreted vs. strictly defined, so “Rising Action,” maybe implies that for the middle part of the session, keep turning up the heat on the players.
Lastly for the Question – I recommend something open-ended to anchor the session. So if the players are going into the megadungeon for an old school dungeon crawl, the question might be something like, “How will the players overcome challenges in the dungeon and escape with treasure?”
Isn’t there a bit more to this 3-act-structure business? Oh, there is. This is just a quick hack to lend a basic shape to session prep. There’s a lot more meat on the bone here and you can definitely dive deeper.
What about starting "en media res"? Common advice around Runehammeria is to start the game in the middle of things, “Roll for Initiative!” In the framework above, this simplifies your first act considerably. Roll all the ‘Act 1 Stuff’ into a single room or encounter if you like and rock on.
Is this as a hard rule? Absolutely not. In fact, I’ll be quick to argue that the players and the dice tell the story, not the dungeon master. No prep fully survives contact with players at the table. Players always do the unexpected and will surprise you during the session. My goal when I use this to help me deliver the feeling of a clear beginning, middle, and end to a session, but leave space for players to surprise!