I've always enjoyed running short adventures and One Shots at gaming conventions, D&D Meetups, and those nights when some of the gamers do not show up and those that do elect not to pursue an adventure in the regular campaign. I find them entertaining to create and run and, in the case of the occasional emergency pick-up game, a challenge to my ability to run an improvised game that is both engaging and complete within a span of three to four hours.
There are some that may say it's an art, and there is some truth to that. However, as a somewhat analytic GM, I find that having an understanding of basic story or adventure structure can help ease my efforts tremendously.
In essence, like any story, I know that an adventure needs to have a Plot. For me, the Plot is a simple summary of the adventure in hopefully one sentence. A plot should include a task that needs to be accomplished, and it should involve a target for this task and a challenge of some form that opposes the party as they attempt to perform this task. Optionally, a plot may identify a patron, who sponsors the actions the charactgers must undertake to achieve this task.
A simple adventure of this kind tends to follow a simple structure, almost like a formula. I tend to break One Shots down into five parts, or thereabouts. There's the Hook, the scene that gets the characters involved in the storyline; the Challenge, a non-combat challenge that empowers either a roleplaying or skills-based resolution instead of a combat resolution; the Confrontation, a combat encounter that is most easily resolved through combat and warskill; the Complication, an encounter that embodies a plot complication that must be overcome; and the Climax, the final encounter that should represent the biggest and most dangerous encounter of the adventure. While the Climax does not have to be a combat encounter, I've found that players in general tend to prefer that it involves at least some combat as an aspect of the scenario.
While the Hook needs to come first, and the Climax should come at the end of the adventure, the remaining three parts (the Challenge, the Confrontation and the Complication) can be presented in whatever order makes the most sense for the adventure at hand. This middle section should help the characters stretch themselves a little bit, and perhaps expend some resources, but the big challenge should be saved to the end. The reason behind this is simple: no one wants to play the first half hour of a One Shot and then sit out the rest while his friends have fun without him. By keeping that thought firmly in mind during your adventure creation, you are insuring that the entire group is more likely to have fun.
Okay, that sounds like a good place to wrap up the first article here. Next time, I'll start discussing each segment of the basic adventure structure individually.