There are three acts to most plays and movies, yet we roleplayers usually forget the importance of the first one (screenwriters also forget this, sometimes, but there's nothing I can tell them about it...). It's a lot cooler to jump right away to the main conflict, to the hero kicking the villains butt, or to the villain who kicks the hero's ass. It's a lot easier to fascinate the players with the main plot than with the world itself, yet without the presentation of the world there will be no special feeling to the story arch. In a game where there's no visual aid to help present the world and its realism, the emphasis on this thing is far more important than it may be seen.
The first act is the one which should fascinate the players, should be the one to make them want to continue; it's the one which should get the plot to start moving, without forgetting the world or the tone, the mood or the main character(s). If you'll make the first act right, the game will be a lot better and a lot more personal. If it's done wrong, don't expect the story to be a masterpiece, or even be close to being great.
The first act can be divided to 5 different parts:
- The opening hook, which serves to catch the players' eyes and attention. This hook should make the players look at you, waiting to hear a little bit more about the story, and then to act right away. It should be clear and awing, and it has to raise a question, some question, about the story that's being started. The hook can be starting in media res, or by presenting a villain action (like in the opening of Some Like It Hot, where we see the mobsters being chased by the police), it can be by opening with a spectacle scene or even with one of the characters telling a story about a particular group of adventurers. It doesn't matter how it's being done, as long as it is being done.
- After we've given the hook to the players, if it hasn't been done yet, this is the time to present the protagonist(s). This part should show the protagonists' strengths and weaknesses, and should be used to create sympathy for them. I suggest to always presenting the weaknesses after the "good" traits have been presented, as it always easier to accept bad things about persons we already like.
- After we presented the hook and the protagonists, it's time to finally start rolling with the plot. In this part, we present the event that starts the engines rolling. This is the event that starts the hero's journey to complete his/her goal. The assassination attempt of Vito Corleone is the trigger to Michael's sliding into the ranks of the Mafia. It doesn't matter what the event is, but it should disturb the (sometimes) peace of the protagonists.
- The part that follows is the raising of the central question, the question that will drive the story to its end. In The Godfather, after the attempt we wonder if and how far will Michael delve into his family's business; while in Singin' in the Rain we wonder how the actors will cope with the transition to sound.
- At the end of the first act there's the climax, which is the "Point of no Return", the point in which the protagonists choose to go, for whatever reason, and try to get their life back to their original ordinary cycle. This is the point that from which, the protagonists would never be able to go back. If we'll look back at The Godfather, it's the point where Michael decides to confront the corrupted cop. In Lord of the Rings, it's the point where Sam stops and says that he never went so far from home while in the cornfields.