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Dramatic Structure
Dungeon Editorial
by Steve Winter

When game designers and magazine editors try to define roleplaying games, one idea that always comes up is that of cooperative storytelling. We sit around a table, a dorm room, or possibly even a computer network, and engage in a form of storytelling that is part improvisational theater, part tug of war. Seldom does anyone take issue with this definition … and I'm not going to, either.

There's a sense among many players and DMs, however, that because D&D is a different type of storytelling from the more familiar forms of books, comics, and films, that it can ignore the dramatic rules those other media adhere to. That's where I start to grind my teeth.

The structure of drama was established millennia ago in epic poems, plays, and songs, which themselves evolved from even older myths and campfire tales. The form changes slightly between cultures, eras, and media, but the basics remain the same. Every story begins with the setup (act 1), builds tension through the confrontation (act 2), and sorts it all out for better (comedy) or worse (tragedy) in the resolution (act 3).

That structure isn't universal; occasionally a groundbreaking storyteller breaks the mold and achieves brilliant results. Those of us who aren't literary geniuses do well by sticking to the rules.

If we accept that D&D is a form of storytelling, then the requirements of story structure apply to DMs and adventure writers just as much as to novelists, playwrights, and screenwriters. As a unique form, RPGs have some unique adaptations … but perhaps not as unique as we'd like to think.

For example, act 1 of an adventure—the setup—tends to be very short. Characters typically meet a patron who needs their help, get some exposition from that character, and launch directly into act 2. Alternatively, they might stumble right into the main plot on their own with hardly any act 1 at all.

Act 2 occupies the bulk of the adventure as characters fight their way through a series of conflicts before finally cornering the villain. Then act 3 kicks in for the final confrontation—and that's usually where it ends. Seldom do we get a real denouement, a 'scouring of the Shire' to bring it all home after the chief evil has been vanquished.

In Dungeon, we publish three types of adventures: encounters or encounter sites (1-3,000 words) that are like one-act plays; side treks or delves (4-6,000 words) that are like short, off-Broadway productions; and feature adventures (8-16,000 words) that are the hour-long TV dramas and feature films of the magazine. Each should have a setup, a confrontation, and a resolution, whether it's a one-session delve or a multi-level marathon.

This month, we're happy to bring a grand epic to your table: "Bark at the Moon" weighs in at around 23,000 words, making it the biggest adventure that we've run since the Scales of War campaign wrapped up in February. It's so big that we've split it in half for easier handling.

We're very excited to bring this adventure to your table and to feature it as our year-end capper, a sort of act 3 for 2010 adventures. We intend to get more variety into both the length and levels of adventures in 2011. Let us know whether and how "Bark at the Moon" meets your campaign needs at

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