Welcome to Session 3 of the Mini RPG Campaign Template, our own Empire Strikes Back of the universal hero cycle. You’ve introduced the PCs to a supernatural/powerful mentor or ally in the previous session, and after the PCs traveled to the first new location they tackled the first of three subplots (or side quests). Having been introduced the world, the conflict, the actors, and the stakes, we’re headed into Act 2 territory.
A word of caution as we proceed: the second act is notoriously difficult to plan and prep. You might have experience with the slog that is the middle from other creative projects. It’s tough on the characters, too: the obstacles become more challenging, the villains push back harder, and the stakes rise higher. Hopefully, by providing you a plug-and-play template for your RPG sessions, you can jumpstart your ideas for sessions while keeping your second act focused so that it builds toward the climax and forces the PCs to change and grow.
“Act 2 is all about trying to find a comfortable way to solve the problem until those options are exhausted and you have to walk straight into discomfort—‘ the lowest of the low.’”
– Brown, Brené, Rising Strong
After the first subplot or side quest, the characters have beheld their first glimpse of victory. If they succeeded, their success makes it so the villain’s plans become just a little bit more difficult to realize. And as a result, the villain starts to take notice of the PCs in a new way and begins to make plans to get rid of them.
But it isn’t the time for him to take care of things personally. The PCs may be a thorn in his side, but they aren’t a major concern just yet. The antagonist decides to send one of his lackeys or lieutenants to deal with the situation instead.
Now is your chance to develop that minion a little bit more. The minion probably has general directives from the antagonist to “deal with the PCs,” although it will reveal more about your main villain if he sends the minion with more detailed instructions. Specifics or no, how does the minion interpret that order? What strengths does that minion bring to bear in order to carry it out? Do they take a direct, physical approach? Or are they cunning and insidious? What does the minion want, why do they serve the antagonist, and what might cause them to hesitate or waver in their mission? If you can reveal any of the antagonist’s background organically through play, they will become a more interesting opponent for the PCs, especially if the minion is somehow sympathetic or likable.
You can treat this encounter the same as a regular supblot, except that the goals are from the minion’s perspective. When, where, and how do they strike? You can fill out the fields as normal, except you don’t have to elaborate on the obstacle section as much: the players themselves will help fill those in for you during play.
If the PCs failed during the first subplot in the previous session, then the agency of this encounter gets flipped, and the scene instead becomes a way for the PCs to attempt to follow up with the antagonists and try again. But things should be harder for the PCs this time around, or some other consequence of their previous failure becomes apparent and shapes the rest of the campaign.
Either due to the efforts of the villain’s minions or the fallout from the subplot itself, the PCs cannot stay where they are. They have to keep moving—continuing on with their quest, staying one step ahead of the antagonist’s forces. Most importantly, the PCs are not allowed to get cozy or begin to establish a new base. They’re in the throes of the hero’s journey or a character development arc now, and that quest should be uncomfortable in order to push them past their comfort zone.
In Star Wars: Episode V, this is when the Imperials locate the hidden rebel base on Hoth and stage an all-out assault. In Dragon Age: Inquisition, this is when Corypheus’s forces strike Haven with the combined forces of demons and Red Templars. You could merge this story moment with the previous, when one of the villain’s minions or plots makes things worse, to craft a climactic set-piece showdown to kick off the second act with a bang.
Perhaps the PCs need help fleeing from the first location and the antagonist’s minions. Perhaps they need help getting to the second location, or maybe they need additional clues to know where their quest leads next. No matter the reason they need help, the supernatural/powerful mentor or ally cannot help them this time. They’ll need to look elsewhere for help, and their searches will bring them to a trickster or temptress.
The trickster can give the PCs what they want or need, but at a price that the PCs might not be willing to pay. Or maybe he proves all too willing to help them, but in truth he is taking advantage of the PCs or plans on betraying them later. Alternatively, the deal might seem too good to be true, and accepting has unintended or undesired consequences that only become revealed too late. In especially potent stories, the temptation is designed to erode the inner growth of one or more PCs and provides them a chance to relapse into bad behavior.
Once you know what the desired effect of treating with this shady individual is, you can flesh out the context for their treachery. Who are they, where do they come from, why do they act this way, and what do they want that the PCs can or can’t give them? What makes them especially vile and reprehensible, and what makes them sympathetic or even admirable? Giving them a little bit of both positive and negative traits will make for a complex, realistic, and hopefully cool character, but don’t forget to consider the conventions of your genre when deciding how much moral gray to paint onto your mini-campaign’s canvas.
In Star Wars, Lando Calrissian is a perfect example of this type of character. He’s drawn from Han Solo’s backstory, so it means more when he deals with the PCs (Leia, Han, Chewbacca, and C-3PO). It also makes his betrayal later on much more painful to bear. You should scan the characters’ backstories to see whether they’ve already provided you with an untrustworthy figure to bargain with or a dangerous character whose activities and methods represent a setback in growth for one or more of the PCs.
Finally, you’ll want to construct another subplot, but this time it will be designed to focus on one character in particular, not the main quest per se. If you can tie the character goal and the party goal together, great! The PC spotlight moment could even provide a chance for the PCs to advance the main quest slightly or give themselves an advantage in tackling the main quest later. But if you can’t tie both goals together, you’ll still want to give one player character the limelight and a chance to grow or fail as a person—to face their flaws and overcome them or succumb to them.
While some roleplaying game systems have a mechanic for spotlighting a character at random, (this is how Obligation, Duty, and Morality function in Fantasy Flight Games’ Star Wars roleplaying game lines), because you’re planning this out in advance, you should choose a character whose background hook (or character desire) fits the best with the PCs’ current progress through the main quest. “Fitting” in this case could mean tying in thematically (choosing the most trickster-like PC when they’re dealing with the trickster/temptress) or locationally (the PC has a history with the area they’re currently in, or the object of their desire would make sense to be located here).
Once you know who you’re going to spotlight, review what that character’s goal is and give them a chance to realize it.
Next, take a look at the PC’s character flaw. Create a situation where there are compelling reasons to either indulge in the character flaw, or overcome it; make sure that each choice come with its own desirable outcomes related to the character’s goal (such as growing as a person versus getting the thing they want) as well as undesirable consequences (which may or may not be known to the PC beforehand).
During play, invite the PC to really roleplay the situation by asking questions about their inner state. “How does your character feel about this?” “What sort of emotions is your character reflecting physical?” “What does your character want?” “Why shouldn’t she do this?” “Why should she do this?”
Transforming a character flaw into an engaging scenario can be tough, but if you can break it down into a series of questions, you can brainstorm a compelling pair of choices. For example, if the PC’s flaw was their love for another character, now’s the chance to bring that character into the session. Perhaps the NPC needs the PCs’ help. But in typical narrative fashion, helping the love interest is going to cost the PCs somehow—there needs to be obstacles or reasons why the spotlighted PC don’t just opt to help the NPC from the beginning. Is the NPC’s request against the law? Against the best interests or beliefs of the PCs or the organizations they’re working for? Is the request particularly dangerous or even lethal? Not helping the love interest comes with its own costs, however. The PC may lose the NPC’s respect or admiration, or the PC may lose their chance to be with the NPC entirely.
Last but not least, devise outcomes for whether the PC succeeds or fails in realizing their goal, as well as whether they embrace or reject their character flaw. Figure out what each choice means for the rest of the campaign, and make sure that the character’s choices come back to help them or haunt them personally.
If the PC refused to help their love interest, then maybe later on in the campaign that character refuses to help the group, making it harder for the party to achieve the main quest. Or maybe if the PC did help their love interest, but it meant breaking the law, the characters have to deal with a bounty hanging over their heads from the local police force. Making sure that the player characters’ choices reverberate in the world will make them feel like they have real agency, which will make your players more invested and interested in the campaign overall.
With a guest appearance by one of the antagonist’s lieutenants, an encounter with a disreputable individual, a desperate escape, and a spotlight on one of the PCs, your third session promises to be action-packed and emotionally fraught for the PCs. They’ve begun to see how hard things will be for them and caught a glimpse of how they might need to grow or change if they hope to have a chance of completing the second part of their quest.