The Dungeon Delve and the Three Act Play

I am, at heart, a Lazy GM. Other Games Masters can spend countless hours hand-crafting maps, building unique monsters and developing obscure and wonderful histories for their campaign setting, but not me. I’ve done that in decades past (and have countless folders to show for it), but no longer.

Now, I just want to sit down, and game. Anything that gets in the way is just frippery.

Unless you’re running an avant-garde collaborative storytelling game with a group of like-minded players though, you’re going to need some kind of scenario outline to work with. That’s where the Dungeon Delve and Three Act Play structure comes in. To my mind, they’re one and the same.

Over in the Dungeon 185 Editorial, Steve Winter talks about Dramatic Structure and how it applies to scenario design, but he misses the opportunity to tie the Three Act Play to good Delve design. At the risk of blowing my own horn too much, this is something I’ve already written about and demonstrated with Once Upon a Delve.

It’s perhaps worth looking at what a Dungeon Delve and Three Act Play are, and how they relate to each other.

First, the Delve. Dungeon Delve (a brilliant yet under-rated 4e supplement), says:

… a Dungeon Delve is a compact series of encounters appropriate for a specific level of play… Each Delve features three encounters, forming a mini-adventure of sorts.

So, a Delve is simply three Encounters strung together. That’s caused some critics to deride them as “not role-playing” and “boardgamey”. They can be, if you want them to be – indeed, one of the options presented in Dungeon Delve is to play them through as a competitive DM-versus-the-Adventurers boardgame – but the format is also designed to give the role-playing plenty of room to breath if that’s what you choose. The mini-adventures presented in Dungeon Delve can be used as a training ground for new GMs, as frameworks for larger adventures, as single-session adventures to break up a larger campaign, as learning tools to get the hang of combat, as deeply immersive adventures with only the combat encounters pencilled in, or however else you care to use them. The loose format of the Delve lends itself to all that, and more.

The main advantage to the Delve format is that they can be played through in just a single session (or at most two with a role-playing heavy group). An adventuring group can pack in ten times more, different, adventures between levels if you use the Delve format than if you use longer adventures. I’d much rather my players be able say “between second and third level we cleared out The Broken Tower, an Orc Stronghold, revisited Coppernight Hold, walked the Lizard Swamps and the Foetid Pits then started our assault on Tomb of the Tiefling Empress” than say “second and third level? First half of Thunderspire Labyrinth”.

Of course, the wise GM will know to link multiple Delves together to form an over-arching plot thread. Perhaps the heroes need to visit each location to recover gems from the Wraith Queen’s crown, or they’re searching for Some Damn Prophecy. Stringing a bunch of Delves together could be as simple as working out how to link to the next one in the chain, or as complex as finding a way to link them all together at the same time. Guess which method I prefer.

When using a Delve it helps to include a Skill Challenge of sorts. This helps to break up the sense of the heroes moving from one combat encounter to another, and gives them a use for all the other numbers on their character sheet. Remember that Skill Challenges don’t ever replace role-playing, but give the players a chance to roll the bones to assess the results of their PC’s in-character actions. If the heroes are confronted with a rune-covered but unopenable door, the Wizard in the party might say “I’m examining the Runes to try and decipher their meaning” (Arcana), the Rogue “I’m searching for hidden keyholes and traps in the carvings” (Perception), Cleric “Trying to recall some ancient text about such doors” (History) and Fighter “Maybe I remember those old dwarf miners talking about this in the tavern” (Streetwise). Apply any modifiers (perhaps what the Fighter recalls gives the Rogue a bonus on his Perception roll) and count the successes. If they pass, the door swings open. If not, it’s time to crack open the DMG to the Traps page!

There’s an art to knowing when to run a Skill Challenge, and when to hold back. This is where the Three Act Play format comes in. Just like a Delve, a Three Act Play is composed of three elements (well, duh). Unlike the standard Delve, each Act serves a special purpose designed to further the storyline in some way.

The First Act presents the Exposition. It sets the scene and (generally) introduces the main protagonist in some way. This first encounter could put the PCs in an Ambush while the Big Bad Villain looks on before departing, or perhaps all of the Goblins in the first room are wearing rings embossed with the same Flaming Fist design. This first Encounter should make it clear to the players what their goal is, and give hints (at least) as to the nature of their opponent in the Third Act.

The Exposition scene covers everything from initial setup to the end of the first Encounter, and by the end of it our heroes should be pretty clued up as to what the adventure is all about. Then comes Act Two…….

This is where it all changes and you throw our heroes a curve ball (or not, if you want to play things straight – itself a curve ball of sorts). Act Two is the Obstacle. It is a tough challenge for the players to overcome and make them feel like this is going to be an uphill struggle. This is the ideal time to locate that Skill Challenge. Either place it at the end of the combat encounter or (better yet) during the Encounter. If they have to use their collective teamwork to stop the water from rising in the room while at the same time fighting Dire Sharks then you have set a challenge worthy of the name.

The goal of the Obstacle scene is to gird the loins of the heroes so they’re ready for the final scene. This is the Climax, and the confrontation with Mr Big Bad himself. He might well be subordinate to an even bigger, badder villain down the line but right now he is the most powerful being in the room (in his own mind, at least), and it’s the job of the PCs to take him (or her) down. An important but oft-neglected part of the Third Scene is the Dénouement where the whole adventure is wrapped up and drawn to a close. Don’t end the adventure when the Wraith Queen lies dead and you’re tallying up XP! If you have time at the end of the session have the heroes running for their life as the dungeon collapses around them, or (if time is short) set a small scene some days later while they’re camping on a hillside and they hear the keening shriek of the Wraith Queen’s call on the wind…..

Remember that each Encounter in a Delve doesn’t have to be linked by dungeon corridors.  The Three Act Delve format works equally well when each Encounter is spread out. It works particularly well for investigative Urban Adventures. Perhaps the Exposition Encounter involves finding a dead body being torn apart by Ghouls. Clues on the corpse lead to the Obstacle Encounter in an “abandoned” warehouse full of Wererats, and thence to the mansion house of a Lycanthropic Slave Trader for the Climax.

In short: Delve + Three Act Play = win.

Any questions?

11 Comments on “The Dungeon Delve and the Three Act Play”

  1. Great post. Add an action-packed teaser before Act I and you have a nice cinematic structure that reflects certain movies and TV shows (Indy, Bond, and Buffy come to mind).

  2. I’ve found, when using the Delve format, that each section has to amp up from the last encounter. For example:
    Encounter 1: Kobolds
    Encounter 2: Lizard Men
    Encounter 3: Dragon!

    Also, increasing the complexity of each can be pretty cool.

    1. Another alternative is to make the second scene the toughest. Give that scene the highest XP allocation or set it in a particularly challenging environment with loads of difficult terrain (and an in-situ skill challenge) to keep the players on their toes.

      For example, the second scene could be set in a high-impenetrable jungle with the PCs fighting against Dinosaur Behemoth Brutes while struggling against wandering vines (Skill Challenge!).

      This opens up the Third Challenge to feature a load of Minions and a powerful Elite Controller (a Dinomancer and a horde of Lizardmen, say) – always a satisfying end to a game session, without necessarily having to ramp up the XP.

  3. Actually, Greywulf, a real story has four acts. The introduction of the story (Act I), Escalation (Act II), Climax (Act III), and Denoument (Act IV). I’ve been running my adventures with this sort of structure for a while.

    I’m writing my adventure — the Blood Challenge — with this sort of structure. That’s why the Bard’s plays have four acts. According to Story Mind theory, a story is what the human mind plays out to solve a problem. When you run an adventure for the PCs, you present a problem (the Dragon has kidnapped the Princess), which the PCs must solve (Once upon a time there was a hero, who saved the beautiful princess). They solve the problem, you explain its effects.

    That’s what DMing is. :) Sorry about lecturing you.

    1. Not so. A play can have a variety of number of Acts, and each style has different merits. these range from the One Act play all the way to the Five Act play, and beyond. A “real story” can have any number of them, depending on the needs and literary style of the script writer.

      In this context though, I was looking at the Three Act Play as it applies to the Delve format, and in that style the Dénouement is included as a part of the Third Act after the Climax rather than being treated as a distinct act all of its own.

  4. When following the 3 act formula, I like to also include Chekhov’s gun – introducing something that seems unimportant fluff in the first act that becomes critical in the third act.

    1. I made a cheese sculpture of Chekhov’s gun once, but it went off.

      Good point, well made – I must remember to put more unimportant fluff in my games :)

  5. Excellent post! I run a lot of delves – they’re called Living Forgotten Realms adventures – and I like the three act play mindset to give the narrative some structure.

  6. I think the best part of this post was this – “I’d much rather my players be able say “between second and third level we cleared out The Broken Tower, an Orc Stronghold, revisited Coppernight Hold, walked the Lizard Swamps and the Foetid Pits then started our assault on Tomb of the Tiefling Empress” than say “second and third level? First half of Thunderspire Labyrinth”.

    That seems way more interesting, and not only do I want my players to be able to say that I want to be able to say “I ran my players through the…” not, “Oh, we’re still doing Keep on the Shadowfell”

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