I've been looking through several video games for story gimmicks that I like. Some of these story ideas can only really be done in video games, at least without railroading. There's just an element of absolute control that the storyteller needs to have for them to work properly. However, that doesn't mean that we can't take some aspects from them. Today, I want to talk about one such story method that can be used to great effect in a table top RPG.
A Story Of Personal Growth
The three fight story is a personal story - or a personal side story if you're doing it in your campaign - of a character's personal growth. The story works by matching the protagonist (the PC) up against a specific antagonist (NPC.) This works best if the antagonist has a strong relation to the protagonist, but almost anyone can do. Provided that they leave a mark, of course.
While I'm sure you can all see where this is going, for the purpose of keeping us all on the same page the story works like this. The Protagonist and Antagonist meet and have their first fight. This fight should be rather easily won by the antagonist. Later, they meet again and fight more evenly. Finally, they have their climactic battle in which the protagonist should win. This gives the story of the protagonists growth as a combatant (in whatever field the fights are done in.) It is simple, sure, but done right it can still be really fun to do. So, how do you pull it off?
The First Fight
The first fight is all about the presentation. You want the meeting to be dramatic and memorable. It works best if the protagonist (again, the PC) is feeling good about themselves and their capability in a fight. Work up to the fight, but don't play up the antagonist aside from their relationship with the PC themselves. When they meet isolate the two characters and let them go at it. It can be worth it to start with the antagonist holding back. Your player may feel this is a cheat, but that can also get the feeling across that you want as well. Either way, at the end of the fight you want the PC beaten and the antagonist yet to break a sweat. Play that up as well, and then separate the two before the PC gets himself killed.
The Second Fight
The second fight is generally a fight of opportunity. It isn't at a climactic part of the antagonist's plan, nor is it at a time when the protagonist is necessarily fully ready for it. It is just a chance meeting and a fight at that time. If you've done things right, this fight will be a lot closer to even. The antagonist should still be stronger, but you want to play up the protagonist's growth during this fight. You also want to end the fight before it can be properly resolved, preferably with something that keeps the two fighters apart so that they can't finish the fight then and there.
The Third Fight
The third fight is the end of the story. This is the time when they're going to be able to fight it out to the finish. After this, one of them is going to be defeated and that is going to be the case for a while. If the protagonist loses (dice can be cruel) they may well end up dead. If the antagonist loses, then the story has come to an end with the protagonist catching and then surpassing the person who has been antagonizing them. It is important to note that the third fight could in fact be the fifth, sixth, or even twentieth meeting for these characters. Either of the previous two fights can happen multiple times without ruining the dynamic. This is just the final show down.
Isolation is a huge thing to factor in when doing this story. This is a personal story, and while you could do it for a group of players it just doesn't work out as well. However, leave the group together and the other party members are going to interfere with the fight and the more die rolls you have coming at the antagonist, the more likely that someone is going to score a lucky crit. So, if you want to do this story, take some time to isolate the person the story is for. At least for the big fights.
Some Railroading Required
The other part of this you need to know is that there is some railroading required. You need the antagonist to handily win the first fight. That can be done with a large power gap (something that should be there for the story anyhow) but you may also need to fudge things. Generally, I don't recommend to fudge rolls to hep the antagonist, but you may want to to prevent the PC from dying early. The place where railroading will most likely be needed is where the antagonist and protagonist get split at the end of each fight. Do this with measures that make pursuit hard and it is a lot easier to handle. Otherwise, don't be surprised when a PC chases the antagonist for a long time. Possibly even to their demise, which you probably don't want at that point in time.