I was at Con On The Cob this weekend and I got the chance to play in a lot of adventures. I also got to hear friends tell stories, good and bad, about the games they played in. Those stories tended to focus on the extreme moments when they were good, and on how bad the entire game was when they were bad. One common thread I noticed about the bad games was that they weren’t structured to fit the convention format. In a home game, you can leave things hanging or stop at the good stopping point and move forward next time. With the four hours you’ve got the players at a con game, you need to make sure you keep things moving and interesting, focused on providing the players satisfaction for their time. I paid close attention to the rest of the games I played in and ran, and wrote up what I found to be the most satisfying format for creating one-shot convention adventures.
The Five Act One Shot Adventure Structure
Act 1 — Intro
The first act or group of scenes in your con adventures should be aimed at two things. Introducing the main plot and starting things off with a bang. You should have some combat or action scene up front, maybe even started in media-res, so that the players get involved in something right up front. This combat scene is either just a spiced up start to the game, or it leads directly into the crux of the adventure. Ambushed by bandits on the road into town and it could be the lead in to the dark lord’s plot, or just a bit of a chance to connect with the other players through action. Why action first? Action in a game feels meaningful, and introducing an action scene up front makes everything that follows more meaningful.
Once you’ve started things off with a bang, drop your biggest, best clues to the adventure. If you’ve got a BBEG, drop their name somewhere here. If you’ve got a mystery that needs solving, provide the biggest clues up front. This leads into the second scene.
Act 2 — Discovery
Act 3 — Payoff
Just make sure to pay off their discovery. Whatever they have found in their discovery phase should now pay off here. Whether they followed a carefully laid path of clues or you threw in answers based on what paths they forged themselves, whatever they found has some payoff here. Probably another action scene, but the full picture is revealed or the outlines are at least well defined. Whatever the players discovered in scene two leads to some action or denoument here. If they found that the alien machines had markings of the third reich, time to go back in time and confront some nazis. Rinse and repeat act 2/act 3 as needed in mini-arcs to keep the players moving forward.
Act 4 — The Penultimate Challenge
Discovery and Payoff have given your players a cycle of working towards a goal and achieving it, so it’s time to move onto the final acts. The Act 4 should be the penultimate challenge that prevents the players from immediately facing down the BBEG or ending the adventure. The chase to get to their ship, the death trap in the dungeon that they get caught in and must escape, or the monster that the BBEG calls to give him time to complete the ritual. This victory gives the players the desire to push forward one more time to that final, now more meaningful, victory.
Act 5 — Final Climactic Scene
This is it, the place everything else leads up to. This scene is where the players get to trounce the big evil, destroy the black hole, or stop the bomb countdown. Like act 2 discovery/act 3 payoff, this is the payoff to the clues you dropped in act 1 and the payoff to the entire adventure. Act 4 is meant to delay this scene so that it feels more dramatic when you get to it. Acts 2/3 are meant to fill in the blanks to get to this point. In other words, in a convention game everything leads up to making this moment mean something. The importance of the other scenes is not contained in that scene, but in how they are the foundations of these scenes.
Don’t Forget — Denouement
Don’t forget to pay off the players in a meaningful way. The Denoument phase is super short and gives the characters any rewards they were promised, but pays off character goals for the players. Whatever the players emphasized about the characters should be paid off here if it wasn’t something relevant to the final climactic scene. If the barbarian warrior got the final blow on the BBEG, that might be payoff enough, but if they did it for glory and honor this is the time the town feasts in the heroes name. Watch for things the players would feel rewarded by, and include them here.
Convention adventures are by and large simpler, tighter, and harder to pull off successfully. Approaching them with the same tools we approach regular campaigns with is often a recipe for disaster. Structure your adventures with everything leading up to a successful ending, and it often turns out fun. What format do you use for convention adventures? What is your best convention game story? Your worst?
John, this is a great article. In fact, it’s even a good blueprint for homegame arcs as well.
I agree 100% about needing a clear focus and ending. I’ve played under GM’s who are quite good at technique, but ultimately left the story hanging. Those were unsatisfying experiences. I always let ’em kill (or capture) the big bad at the end in my Con games.
Thanks! I’ve subconsciously used something like this in home games, and while I’m against railroading my players, it isn’t a bad idea to have a format to help the players stay on track, even if you are modifying the tracks based on what they do. In a con game especially, it’s hard to get the level of complexity you want, so working towards the ending is a surefire way to keep things focused. I hope to play in one of your con games someday.
Excellent guidelines for one-shots. It’s too easy to treat them like ‘just another game’ and not take into account the special needs of a convention game.
I’ve discovered I have to be careful about choosing a particular time and place for the finale. Unless you give the PCs a good reason to be there at that exact moment, they can derail your ideas and make you scramble. One scenario I’ve run has the PCs showing up to an art gallery opening for the finale, but the very first time I ran it, I realized there was no real motivation for them to actually go to the opening when they could try and stop everything before that point.
I like the format, I’ve used something like it before.
As for a favorite story:
This past Origins, I ran a Twilight:2000 game, and I planned for 3 encounters, and it worked a bit like your 5 acts. From Act 1, I figured they had 3 options to approach the target: if they went path A, they would discover the lay of the land, and meet encounters 1 and then 2, and 3 on the way out. If they went path B, they would discover something slightly different via encounter 2, then 1 and 3. If they went path C, they would run into encounter 3, before hitting 2 and then 1 at the target area.
Of course, that went a little pear-shaped as they overcame 1, avoided 2 and bypassed 3 with logic to end the game with 2 hours to spare. With the players’ approval, we ran the firefight in #3 anyway, to fill the time.
Next year, I plan to work harder at getting these 5 acts in place.
I really like this article. Especially one line in particular… the “rinse and repeat act 2/act 3 as needed.” Acts 4 and 5 can be planned out well in advance, needing only a few tweaks to compensate for whatever wrenches the players throw into mix. Act 2 and 3 are the bread and butter, but be cautious about overdoing it (or not doing enough). Act 1 is probably the toughest, because you have to snag the players’ buy-in with it… and there’s no ‘do-over’ button for it once you’ve started. I like it! I’ll definitely have to make some notes from this article to help my campaign planning.
I love good convention games. I also really hate bad convention games. A con game boils everything down to the extremes in those four hours. The good is better, and the bad is worse than it would be at a home game.
I have a couple of things that I think can really break a con game. And most of them have to do with how the characters are built into the story.
1) Inter-party tension can be great, but having a character be written as actively antagonist to the party (the hidden traitor) is something I hate. It feels like sloppy GM work, “I will just set them up to fight the eachother, and then I do not have to write an adventure).
2) Likewise, writing characters in such a way that they cannot or will not take part in the story pisses me off. I played in a Firefly game where my mechanic character’s back story stipulated that he would not leave the ship. Not a great character when three quarters of the game takes place planet-side.
3) Lastly, while it might be called railroading in a home game, I feel that in con game the characters need very specific direction. Giving the characters free time (“so what do you want to do in the three weeks before doomsday?”) leads to most people scratching their heads or trying to make their own fun. Letting characters prepare is one thing, but putting them in situations where there is no obvious way to follow the story grinds the game to a halt.