This is part 24 of 28 of the series: Up Your GMing Level

Narrative Structure for REAL Morons

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Sigh.

I try not to get my hopes up. I’ve learned that if you never expect anything good, you’re never disappointed when it doesn’t happen. And yet, I hoped that if I explained some of the narrative structure misconceptions as part of a long discussion about the good parts of narrative structure – the things you want to use to write your own campaigns and adventures – that maybe people might actually learn. And then I read the comments. Holy mother of f$&%. I’m sad.

I’m sad because I made a huge point – or I thought I did – about how the three-act structure wasn’t merely breaking your story into three parts. And about how the adventure of most adventures and campaigns was Act II of the three-act story. Because that part is the most interesting. I even discussed what it was that establishes the boundary between Acts I and II. And I was HOPING to use that revelation to catapult into an important discussion about what bits of narrative structure really DO belong in RPGs.

But the comments are just full of people saying stupid bulls$&% like “well, you can use Act I usefully by establishing the world gradually over the course of the first few adventures of a campaign” or “I feel like Act I is the low levels of the game.” THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT I SAID IT WASN’T. I mean, that is literally what I said that stupid GMs who don’t understand the three-act structure think. Go back and read it.

Why am I even bothering?

I’m tempted to just stop right here. There’s no point. No one listens.

What’s the point?

I could just go back to running games for myself in the privacy of my own dining room and go back to accounting. At least my spreadsheets understood me. At least my clients listened to me. Mostly. Except that one time. But he’s in jail now, so I don’t feel like an “I told you so” is necessary.

Just kidding, Internal Revenue Service. Please don’t send armed Treasury Department agents to my house to ask me questions again. It’s a joke.

But, fine, I’ll try again. Because the point that got missed is actually the point around which this entire article turns. And it ties into something I actually tried to explain long ago. So, maybe I can clear up the confusion as part of this whole, long discussion. And maybe people will actually learn. And maybe this comment section won’t make me mad. But I’m getting my resume together just in case.

It Ain’t About the Acts, It’s About the Transitions

Let’s go back and look at the three-act structure again. Very briefly, you’ll recall that the three-act structure refers to a story that happens in three parts. The first part, Act I, the exposition, generally introduces the world and shows the characters in their normal life. And then, a conflict is established and the main characters commit themselves to confronting that conflict. Then, Act II begins. That’s the confrontation. The heroes do whatever the heroes do to prepare themselves to confront the major conflict. They grow, they change, they empower themselves, they have some successes and some failures, and gradually, as the stakes rise, their ability to confront the major conflict also grows. That’s the vast majority of the story. Basically, in a D&D adventure, that’s everything that happens after the heroes leave town. And then, a major turning point happens wherein the heroes have to face the major conflict. Usually, it’s right after they face their biggest trial and often after they end up at their lowest point. In stories, it is usually at the moment when success seems LEAST likely that the heroes have to resolve themselves to confront the major conflict. And at that moment, it’s time for Act III, the resolution. During Act III, the heroes confront the major conflict. Often, things start off going bad. And then, something happens to push the heroes to victory. They win. They celebrate their victory. And normalcy is restored, or the conflict is over or whatever. But the heroes themselves have grown and changed somehow. Then the credits roll.

The thing that most people get hung up on is the Acts themselves and what’s supposed to happen in each one. That’s why people say stupid things like “well, Act I is the low-level local-heroes thing and then Act II is the mid-level heroes-of-the-kingdom and then Act III is god-killing.” Can it be? Yes. Sure. If it’s done right. But no one ever does. Because they are missing the most important point.

There are no such things as Acts. Acts aren’t a thing. Why aren’t Acts a thing? For the same reason that rooms aren’t a thing. And I’m not preparing to offer some major revelation about dungeon design. I mean that literally. And in the very real sense. See the room you’re in right now when you read this? It doesn’t exist. It isn’t real. It isn’t anything. If you can understand that, you can structure a D&D narrative.

Here’s the deal: a room is just a space defined by four walls, a floor, and a ceiling. If you take away the walls and floors and ceiling, the room ceases to exist. “Room” is descriptive, not prescriptive. A room is a word you can use to talk about a space that is already defined by something else. And when a contractor builds a room, he doesn’t actually build the room. He builds walls. And a floor. And then puts a ceiling on. He outlines the room. You can’t learn how to build a room. You can only learn how to build a floor, walls, and a ceiling.

It’s like that old riddle about what grows larger the more you remove from it? The answer is a hole.

Acts aren’t things. Acts are the spaces between plot-points. Sure, they can have stuff in them. Like furniture. Scenes. Other plot points. But the acts aren’t anything. Act I is called “the setup” or “the exposition” because it describes everything that comes BEFORE the first major turning point, wherein the hero responds to the conflict. Act II ends when the heroes approach the climax. And so on.

Oh, and, by the way, people also assumed that when I called Act I “the exposition” and said that it “introduced the characters and the world,” I meant that the audience STOPS learning about the characters and the world once Act I is over. Or rather that ALL of the exposition has to fit into Act I. No. Act I merely INTRODUCES that s$&%. It gives a basic grounding in the world. But you learn about the characters and the world throughout the entire story. Which is also why you can’t just say “there, that part is Act I.”

The only way to see where the acts begin and end is when you see the plot-points.

For example, in Star Wars: The First One: The New Hope: The Beginning of the Only Good Star Wars Trilogy Ever, Luke has some adventures during Act I. He meets the droids, chases R2 across the Dune Sea, encounters the Sand People, meets Obi-Wan Kenobi, learns about his father, and then investigates the murder of the Jawas. The story doesn’t really LEAVE Act I until Luke sees that Aunt Beru and Uncle Owen are dead and agrees to join Obi-Wan Kenobi. So, yes, you can have adventures DURING Act I.

The problem is that, during Act I, the character is mostly reactionary. They are mostly ping-ponging around as the situation around them is changing. They are gradually having their routine broken and they are trying to keep to it. It’s one of the two reasons why Act I is usually short in any dramatic work that follows the three-act structure. Act I is boring and it’s generally about heroes before they have any agency. In fact, the big turning point in Act I is usually the first important, significant decision the character makes in the story.

I’ll let you work out why that causes a major problem in RPGs.

The Heroes Journey Redux

The three-act structure turns on its plot points. They define where the acts begin and end. And there are basically two important plot points: the one where the heroes resolve to confront the major conflict and the one where the heroes confront the major conflict. But you already know that. Because I already told you that, when you write an adventure, you write three parts: the resolution – which is the confrontation of the major climax – the motivation – which is what induces the heroes to accept the quest – and the adventure itself – which is all the crap that makes up the actual adventure portion. In other words, I already taught you how to do a proper three-act structure WITHOUT worrying about the acts. Because I was teaching you how to build walls, a floor, and a ceiling.

Now, the interesting thing is that Campbell’s monomyth did the same thing. And, as dismissive as I was about it, it’s actually a really valuable tool because it talks in terms of story points and not in segments of the story. It just happens to align with the three-act segments.

Well, it doesn’t JUST HAPPEN to. After all, they are both talking about the same thing. And, as I suggested, Campbell just added more detail. The big mistake that people make with Campbell’s monomyth is sticking to it too exactly. That is, they take it as a blueprint. His monomyth actually includes seventeen different turning points or phases or important moments. And GMs who start worshipping at the altar of Campbell tend to write their adventure around SEVENTEEN F$&%ING TURNING POINTS.

But, when Campbell wrote about his monomyth, he actually used a lot of words like “sometimes” and “in some stories.” Because HE knew that not every story conformed to all seventeen plot points. For example, there are three phases that involve the hero, having overcome the major conflict and obtained enlightenment or transformation, not being able to return to the world. The hero may not WANT to go home, given the way his adventures turned out. The hero may be PREVENTED from returning home and he may have to escape. Or the hero may be PREVENTED from returning home and he may have to be rescued. Those are called the “Refusal to Return,” the “Magical Flight,” and the “Rescue from Without” phases. And, guess what, they don’t ALL happen in every story. For obvious reasons. Hell, that’d be a really long, stretched out, terrible ending to a story.

“No, I don’t want to go home. I’m awesome now and I belong here in the greater world.”
“Well, you can’t go anyway, you’re trapped in this place.”
“No, I’m running away. Hahahaha.”
“Good try. You’re still trapped.”
“Darn.”
“I win. Oh, wait, who is that?”
“That’s my friend from home, here to rescue me!”
“No!”

You thought the ending to Return of the King was too long and drawn out? Yeah. Try that.

The point that Campbell made was that a story turns on turning points. On plot points. That’s why they are called that. And that’s the same point that lies at the heart of the three-act structure. But the three-act structure takes a minimal approach: you need a minimum of two turning points. Campbell goes to the other extreme: here’s seventeen turning points I’ve culled from every good story ever and most of the stories have most of the turning points.

All of this tells us that any good model of a narrative structure in an RPG should be based NOT around acts and segments, but around turning points. And considering the GM’s primary tools are scenes and encounters, that makes a heck of a lot of sense. But there’s got to be a middle ground.

Guess what? There is.

The Screenplay

In 1979, American screenwriter and author Syd Field wrote Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting. It’s been republished a few times and its lessons have been expanded on by others, but it’s a great read. And it changes the way you watch movies. For better or for worse. Now, just like Campbell, Field was attempting to describe why all of the best screenplays worked so well. He wasn’t trying to define, he was trying to describe. And while, he too breaks scripts down into acts or stages, he focused very heavily on certain plot points, certain beats, certain turning points.

The story begins with a setup. We see the character in their normal life. It often shows the hero as sympathetic, maybe a little down on their luck, or just ordinary. Then, within the first ten minutes of the story, the hero is presented with an opportunity to change their situation. That’s not, by the way, the conflict itself. The one that will drive the story. Instead, it puts the hero on a trajectory to collide with the conflict. That’s the next turning point: the change of plans, the incitement. In the new situation, the hero finds themselves confronted with a problem. And they resolve to solve it. Then, we see the hero making progress. Great. But something happens that changes everything. Usually, it makes the story personal to the hero. It’s called “the point of no return” or “the tentpole moment.” Up until that point, the hero could dismiss everything and go back to normal. But, from that point forward, the hero is personally committed. It’s succeed or die time.

The funny thing about these moments is that they occur pretty regularly in movies. In fact, they occur like clockwork. Especially the point of no return. The opportunity almost always comes just about ten minutes into a movie. The change of plans usually happens at the thirty-minute mark. The point of no return is the most regular. It occurs almost exactly at the sixty minute mark, no matter how long the film is. And if it shows up late, people will say “the film dragged” or “the first part was slow.” That’s what people said about the first Avengers. “It was good, but it was a little slow at first.” That’s because the turning point – when Loki is held prisoner on the helicarrier and gives that speech that turns the heroes against each other and reveals that he knows he has to fight the Avengers if he wants to take over the world and therefore that the battle is personal – the turning point comes at about the sixty-fifth minute. Check it out.

In Die Hard, at sixty minutes, John McClane is on the phone with Gruber for the first time. It’s the moment when the fight between them becomes personal. It’s the moment he says “yippe-kai-yay mother$&%er.” In Raiders of the Lost Arc, sixty minutes and zero seconds is when we see Indy standing on the hilltop in Egypt and someone yells “we found it,” meaning “we found the Ark of the Covenant.” Until then, Indy could have abandoned his adventure. But once he had the Ark, he couldn’t go back. It was then that the story became a true battle between good and evil.

Anyway, after the point-of-no-return, we go into a whole series of complications and raising stakes as we move toward the next turning point. Usually, three-quarters of the way through a movie’s run time – and this one is usually dependent on the length, we have the major setback. It’s when Morpheus gets captured in The Matrix, for example. It’s when Jessica and Roger Rabbit are kidnapped by Judge Doom in Who Framed Roger Rabbit.

After the setback, the hero resolves to make a last push toward victory. Luke decided to take his run at the Death Star. And that sets up the final turning point, the climax, in which the hero faces the biggest obstacle of the story and resolves their outer motivation.

So, you see, it’s all about plot points. Turning points. First, there’s the new opportunity. That defines everything before it as setup and moves us into the new situation. Then, there’s a change of plans. That moves us into the progress-making stage. Then, there’s a point-of-no-return. That moves us into a fast period of complications and rising stakes. And then there’s a major setback. That forces the hero to make a final push. Then there’s the climax. And then the story resolves and cleans itself up.

Now, those plot-points make for a great dramatic story. They clearly build off of both the three-act structure and the monomyth, but they are also more flexible. Particularly in the beginning and the ending. Field admits that the first turning point – the new opportunity – can come anywhere in the first ten minutes of a screenplay, but the entire leadup to the second turning point – the change of plans – can’t take more than a quarter of the story, and it can take less. That’s because that stuff is BARELY story. The major setback and the climax can come anywhere they need to, but they lead into each other pretty quickly and, once they are done, the film shouldn’t have much runtime left. Because the resolution, while it needs to be there, doesn’t need to be more than a few minutes.

Field expands on the three-act structure, but he also adds a great deal of flexibility and he’s more restrained than Campbell. He provides an excellent model for narrative structure for GMs if only by offering a middle ground. But there is one major issue that keeps us from just adopting Field’s model outright. One that forces us to pick and choose the best bits of all three models. It’s the problem of agency.

Dealing with Agents

Here’s the problem with narrative structure in RPGs. As great as a solid narrative structure is and as awesome as it is to be a part of a story that has a good narrative structure, you – the GM – do not have the same level of control over the heroes that an author or screenwriter does. In fact, you have very little. All you can do is present obstacles, challenges, and goals. It’s the players who decide what to do with those. Now, most players accept the goals as they are presented and deal with the obstacles and challenges in front of them. That’s not the problem. Even though there are a handful of panicky GMs who will always point out that some players WILL break stories.

The problem is that the story that you’re trying to craft is also a game. And that means the heroes are free to choose how to engage with things. Often, they can choose the order in which to engage with things. And when they actually do engage with things, the outcomes are dependent on their choices. And forcing an outcome is very dangerous.

For example, imagine you want to take the Field approach and have a big setback that forces your heroes to resolve themselves to confront and defeat the villain. Fine. Good idea. I’m all for it. But you can’t just force them to LOSE a big encounter with the villain and end up battered and broken. And, if you threaten something they care about, and they try to protect it, they might succeed. So, plot-points dependent on the outcome of an event – like a set-back or even a climax – just don’t work in RPGs. You can’t guarantee a setback any more than you can guarantee victory in the climax. You have to be ready for your turning points to go either way.

That’s okay. Because they are called turning points. They are places on which the action of the story moves in a new direction. With that in mind, we can start to look at a plot-point model for planning adventures – and campaigns – based on turning points. And, as the GM, we can be ready for those turning points to go “either way” as it were. Which means, our narrative structure model becomes less of a framework or foundation and more of a toolbox.

The Plot-Point Toolbox

So, what does a good narrative model of adventure building actually look like? Well, let’s look again at the three major narrative models we’ve talked about. The three-act structure defines the minimum turning points that must exist to make a story work. We can all agree about that much, even if we’re stupid and can’t comprehend how the actual acts aren’t important. And Campbell provides a pretty hefty list of turning points that could happen in a story. But lots of them are optional. He also tells us where they should come in the story. Field splits the difference. He gives us a list of turning points that can fit into any story and make that story better. But he leaves a lot of flexibility and a lot of space to do more.

That means, we can build a list of turning points that looks something like this:

Turning Points that MUST Exist (Three-Act Structure)
Turning Points that SHOULD Exist (Screenplay Structure)
Turning Points that COULD Exist (Monomyth Structure)

And then, as a GM, when we’re planning a story, we can figure out which turning points we want in the story, build scenes around them, and then figure out how the story will proceed based on the possible outcomes of that scene. We can add other scenes as needed, based on what needs to happen in the story. And, with a bunch of turning points defined and sitting at our fingertips, when we want to add a new scene on the fly, we can add one that will actually impact the story. “Well, maybe, at this point, I should offer the heroes some Supernatural Aid.” We just have to be very careful to rewrite the turning points from those sources to fit into an RPG with an uncertain outcome.

Now, understand that this is a long list. But it does work as a master list for “scenes that advance or change the plot.” And that means it’s worth spending a lot of time on. But the Campbell part involves such a huge number of elements that it is going to have to be its own list. And that’s going to have to wait two weeks. Next week, I’m going to change gears and talk about something else. And then I’ll come back and finish the list. Sorry to break this into three parts. But a master class in story-structure takes time. It is super useful for planning and improvising adventures though.

The Minimum: Turning Points That Must Exist in Every Story (And the Bits Between)

The three-act structure teaches us that there are two major turning points that have to happen in every story. You really can’t skip these and still have a story.

The Call to Adventure

The first turning point that every story is the one that gets the heroes off their a$&es and sends them off to confront something. It establishes the conflict they are working to resolve – a villain they have to defeat, a disaster they have to avert, or some other goal – and it also gives them a reason to care. Basically, this is your motivation and incitement wrapped into one. This is the thing that kicks off the adventure. And it can take any form. It can be in the form of a treasure map the heroes find, a stranger who hires them, or even a sudden attack by the minions of the villain. It doesn’t even have to move the heroes toward the REAL conflict of the adventure. That can be revealed later. It just has to get the heroes moving on the road to adventure.

Now, this is usually the first scene of an adventure. That’s because most of the necessary exposition that introduces the world and the characters has already been done. It’s either done through character generation or by previous adventures. So, unless this is the first adventure of a new campaign, any scenes that precede the Call to Adventure should be setting up the motivation for the Call to Adventure. For example, if the heroes need to rescue a town from marauders, a scene wherein they get to know the town and come to like the townsfolk – and see how they are suffering – can serve to give emotional weight to the Call to Adventure. But, if you don’t have a specific reason to set up such emotional blackmail, DON’T. Just Call the heroes to Adventure and be done with it. Because this crap ISN’T adventure.

The Climax

Every adventure has a climax. And if you do not – or cannot – design a climax, one will be appointed for you. Seriously, whichever scene actually resolved the start of the adventure? That’s the climax. And your players are going to decide whether they liked your adventure based heavily on the climax. So, you want a good one. Ideally, the climax pays off whatever was initially set up by the Call to Adventure. But if the stakes changed during the adventure or there was a big reversal that established a new conflict, the climax needs to pay that off. The climax doesn’t have to be a boss fight. But it does have to be exciting. A chase scene, a tense negotiation, a rousing speech, those are all climaxes. Even a battle which the heroes helped plan but only take a minimal part in can be a climax. But the climax has to be exciting. So, give the heroes something important to do in the battle they’ve been training all those peasants for.

Now, the Climax ends the adventure. Anything that happens after the Climax – like anything that happens before the Call to Adventure – ISN’T adventure. So, insert scenes after the Climax sparingly. The heroes do need a moment to hug and high-five and celebrate their victory. But that may be all they need if the adventure was just about going down into a dungeon and killing all the everything in there. But if something else was at stake – and that something was established in the Call to Adventure or during another turning point – that needs to be paid off as well. If the heroes were rescuing a village from marauders, they need to return to the village and be thanked by happy villagers. See how this works?

And that’s it. That’s the minimum for an adventure. Everything else is gravy. Or side dishes.

The Gravy: Turning Points That Make Any Story Better

Once you’ve hit the minimum requirements for a story to exist – the Call to Adventure and the Climax – you can write a good adventure and run a good game. Huzzah! Seriously. That’s all you need. But, if we pay attention to Syd Field, we discover that there are a few turning points that can actually improve just about every story. That doesn’t mean you should force them into every adventure though. They fit into some adventures better than others. And they often have a cost. And, in table-top RPGs, if you use them every time, players will eventually notice that you’re forcing the structure. They won’t consciously know exactly what you’re doing, necessarily. But they will still feel railroaded. Or they might feel like your stories are contrived. Especially if you force outcomes.

So, let’s look at three turning points that add some gravy to your barebones meat-and-potatoes adventure.

A New Life (Before: A Call to Adventure)

Before the Call to Adventure, the heroes might find themselves in a new situation or facing a new opportunity. They might arrive in a new city, they might be hired by a new patron, they might have gotten a ship and now they can adventure on the sea. Or they might come together and agree to adventure. Which makes this a great turning point for the start of a new campaign. Or when a major development changes the whole campaign. This turning point plays out in a scene where the heroes are basically being introduced to the new situation. For example, if the heroes found a ship in the last adventure and got it fixed up, the next adventure could start with a scene where they are touring the ship and meeting the crew. Or it could involve several scenes in which they are hiring members of the crew.

Scenes that come before A New Life are just like scenes that come before The Call to Adventure. They are boring. They show the heroes in their old, pre-opportunity situation. Living their normal life. Whatever. They can be totally skipped. And usually should be unless there’s a really good reason. For example, if you want to emphasize what a big change the new opportunity represents, you can add a scene before A New Life.

Any scenes that come after the New Life turning point involve the heroes adjusting to their new situation, getting to know it, fitting in – or not fitting in – and establishing minor conflicts and side stories. Those also AREN’T adventure. So, use them sparingly. The real adventure begins when the Call to Adventure happens.

It’s Personal (Somewhere in the Middle)

Many D&D adventures aren’t terribly personal. That is to say, the heroes are generally doing things for somebody else. They are rescuing a village of strangers or just delving for treasure or whatever. The obstacles are just obstacles, the victims are just victims, the money is just cash, and the treasures are just useful trinkets. There’s no strong emotional connection.

But sometimes, something happens to make an adventure really personal. Either to the group as a whole or to a single member of that group. And that something represents a major turning point. Because, before that point, whatever the consequences of failing the adventure, the heroes could live with the failure. Or try again. Or walk away. Or die trying. But after that point, the heroes can’t live with failure. They can’t walk away. If they die trying, they’ve thrown their life away.

One of the most common It’s Personal turning points is the one where the villain becomes aware of who the heroes are and decides to strike at them personally, but often indirectly. If the heroes fail to deal with the attack, something extremely important was lost. A loved one might be dead. A hero might suffer a semi-permanent injury. An important NPC might have been kidnapped or an important object might have been stolen. And even if the heroes successfully deal with the attack, they know now that the villain will strike at them again. Neither can live while the other survives. They have a personal enemy. Until they win.

This turning point can also reveal a greater threat or a true villain or a greater conflict. For example, if the heroes were fighting some weird goblins, it might become personal when the heroes discover that the goblins were actually goblin cultists whose plans to revive a world-destroying elder thing are already in motion. But to make this turning point effective, the heroes have to see the threat on a personal level. It has to affect them.

So, it’s not enough for them to read about the goblins’ plans. They have to witness the elder thing briefly waking up and people screaming in terror as their eyeballs bleed and their brains hemorrhage and women and children have to die. They have to see a planet get blown up. And it has to affect them personally.

It isn’t just about raising or changing the stakes, it’s about making the heroes go from “we’ll do our best” to “we have to win, there is NO other option for us, personally.”

This turning point spins the whole story around. It literally reframes everything the heroes are doing. And so, it generally works close to the middle of an adventure. But it also makes a great session-ending scene. So, if your adventure is going to span two sessions or four sessions, you’ve got a great session-ender for the session in the middle.

The Big Screw/The Final Test (Before: The Climax)

The Big Screw is a turning point in which the story itself turns against the heroes. The heroes will be confronted with a situation in which something tries to go really wrong. Usually, it’s something they trusted or something they were counting on. A major NPC betrays them or leads them into a trap. The villagers give up hope and refuse to fight the big bad’s army. Now, the heroes might succeed against the Big Screw. The trap might fail. The heroes might kill the traitor. Or catch him just before the betrayal. Or the heroes might give a rousing speech and turn the villagers around. Unlike the Major Setback in Fields’ structure, the Big Screw is a little more open-ended. If the outcome is bad, the heroes are at their lowest point and have to resolve to fight anyway. If the outcome is good, the heroes have been tested and found worthy of facing the climax. So, it’s fine either way.

Of course, the Big Screw can be a forced setback. The villain can kidnap someone important or whatever. And it can happen off screen. But if you pull that s$&% too often, your players tend to get pissed off. Because they feel powerless. Once in a while, it’s okay. But too often, it grates. That’s why it’s better to treat the Big Screw as a major test of the hero’s resolve in the face of pretty much the worst possible thing turning against them.

For the Big Screw to have any power, though, it has to be an emotional thing. A traitor doesn’t hurt unless that traitor was someone who you genuinely cared about and who you believed would never betray you. A random stranger being kidnapped is just another NPC victim. Even a family member being kidnapped isn’t terribly moving unless you had a fight with that family member earlier and might never have a chance to make amends. A turning point is only as strong as the emotions it evokes. And this one has to evoke feelings of desperation, hopelessness, and/or extreme resolve.

And this turning point feels a LOT more substantial if there was an It’s Personal moment earlier. If the story isn’t personal to begin with, the Big Screw can backfire. The players might not have the resolve necessary to recommit themselves in the face of a nasty Big Screw. Instead, they might just get frustrated with a GM who is screwing with them to screw with them. It won’t feel genuine.

After the Big Screw, there shouldn’t be any other further challenges or obstacles before the Climax, but there might be a scene or two that gives the players the opportunity to interact with each other, to react to the screw, to recommit themselves, pledge their support, resolve any lingering personal plot issues, and to plan their assault. Ideally, the Big Screw should come just as the heroes feel ready for the Climax, so there shouldn’t be anything left to do – story-wise – except clean up the emotional mess the Big Screw leaves behind.

The Fully Dressed Story

And so, we have a model that represents the minimum narrative structure for any RPG adventure. And, we even have a more advanced model for a really good narrative structure for more complex RPG adventures. Before I close, I’m going to sum up. Because people piss and moan when I don’t. And after that, I’m going to leave this topic until the week after next, when we’ll add a bunch of extra side dishes and courses to this meal of a story by bringing in a bunch of Campbell’s Turning Points.

Meanwhile, I hope everything was paying attention this time. Because, seriously, I’m watching the comments. I can’t take another heartbreak. I’m starting to miss crediting and debiting and seeing everything just come out to zero.

(Optional) A New Life: The heroes’ lives start a new course, one that will bring them into contact with adventure.
The Call to Adventure: Something happens to make the heroes aware of a major conflict that they have to resolve and a good reason to want to resolve it.
(Optional) It’s Personal: An event occurs to make the upcoming conflict personal and to make it impossible for the heroes to accept failure. Whether they succeed or fail against this challenge, they can’t go back. They have to go forward.
(Optional) The Big Screw/The Final Test: Something major – really, the story itself – turns against the heroes and they have to deal with it. They either get through the test and move on to face the final conflict or else they end up at their lowest point and resolve to end the conflict once and for all.
The Climax: The heroes face whatever conflict has been building from the beginning, or face something that will allow them to resolve that conflict once or fail. If they succeed, they’ve won and the adventure is over. If they fail, they’ve lost and the adventure is still over. And maybe they are dead. Sometimes, that’s how it goes.

31 thoughts on “Narrative Structure for REAL Morons

  1. So, if I’m understanding correctly, I can diagnose the miserable lack of satisfaction in a fart-around-and-kill-random-stuff ‘campaign.’

    There are NO turning points. At all.

    No Call to Adventure, just another bunch of goblins who just ate someone’s baby.
    No Climax, because there’s always another bunch of baby-eating goblins standing behind the ones we just killed.
    No It’s Personal, since it’s always someone else’s baby being eaten.
    Etc…

    Which means it’s really not a story, it’s just a bunch of random events.

    —————————

    Having read both parts of this article, I do find it more helpful to think in terms of plot points. When creating a long-ish campaign, it feels strange to describe an Act II that itself contains multiple instances of the Act I – Act II – Act III structure. I can more easily think of having a macro Call to Adventure at the beginning, then micro Calls to Adventure and Climaxes while working toward the final macro Climax. And of course, a healthy sprinkling of all the other turning points in between. Looking forward to the third article.

    • I think this is an important thing to learn: a long-term campaign of D&D is more than one single story; it is a series of stories that work together to form a cohesive whole.

      It’s like a television show. There is a full-season story going on, but each episode needs to have its own full story in order to keep people interested.

      • There are some articles on this site about character arcs and plots (A, B and C plots) that are interwoven to carry campaigns forward. If you haven’t read those, I recommend them.

    • Ideally, your Adventure of the Week campaign should be about a series of stories that each contain their own turning points. The main difference between this and any other type of campaign is that each story is self – contained. Save the village from the baby-eating goblins, then next week retrieve the Paladin’s sacred relic before the Nazis do, then the week after that deal with the infestation of dust mephits in the basement of the guild hall.

      Obviously a story that’s just “there are baby-eating goblins” has no turning points, but part of the GM’s job is to find the “but” in the storyline. “Save the village from baby-eating goblins, but without upsetting the tribe of goblins the party has already made peace with,” etc. “Retrieve the Paladin’s relic, but the Nazis will shoot his dad if he doesn’t hand it over.”

      Basically, you gotta tack in those plot points so the story doesn’t just fall off the wall when you try to hang it up. And you can totally do this on a story-by-story basis.

    • An essay I’ve struggled with a bit is about how the story in an Old Skoole game is retrospective: basically that each individual player is expected to pick their own It’s Personal moment, re-contextualize some earlier moment as that moment’s Call to Adventure (we didn’t realize it, but we’ve been in Act 2 all along!), and decide for themselves that some later moment represents that moment’s Climax.
      This is why gamertales are a thing, and why No One Wants to Hear About Your Paladin: Telling the story that you have harvested out of the unintentional string of events in your home game is the narrative part of the activity. You, the player, don’t ever get to be the audience to the story.

  2. Haven’t finished reading the whole thing yet, but I laughed at the “Refusal to Return” and the other two.

    I have read a book that did this well (in my opinion), but I think it was because the book was technically two stories that overlapped a little. Thought you might might find it funny that the book was “The Neverending Story”. You don’t see this in the movie as the movie focuses on the first half of the book (Atreyu’s journey) and not on the second half (Bastion’s journey).

  3. As has become about par for the course, this article made me take a long hard look at some of my past attempts to GM and go “Huh. That’s one of the reasons why that campaign sucked so bad.”
    This, and *several* other articles have made a serious difference in how I think about things when I’m building adventures. I wish I could better enumerate the differences that you’ve made in my GMing mindset, but the least I can say is that I usually come out of these articles with a better understanding of why my previous games fell apart and a better handle on how to do better in the future.
    After reading this article and its predecessor, I’m really not sure that I can point to any previous adventure and say that it’s plot amounted to anything more than “That thing over there looks quest-worthy” followed by a chain of encounters until the group got tired of playing.

    So… thanks for this. Seriously.

  4. Great summation into workable turning points that can accommodate either outcome. I was greatly looking forward to this follow-up. Thanks for resolving to make the final push to conclude this topic for rpgs once and for all.

    Your final summary toolbox list reminds me (in a very good way) of Dan Harmon’s minimal Story Circle structure (which he similarly distilled from 3-Act, Campbell, and Field), where all stories are essentially a Descent and Return, venturing from the familiar to the unfamiliar to become a change agent. Your Call to Adventure is what he calls Go, and your Climax is what he calls Return/Change. Your optional side dishes are Dan Harmon’s Need (A new life), Find (It’s Personal), and Take/Pay (The Big Screw).

    Interestingly, like when you say most rpg adventures are mostly occupying Act 2, Harmon also says almost the entirety of episodic TV shows other than the Pilot (and I’d say likewise most scenes and sessions of an episodic or ongoing-with-no-end-in-sight rpg campaign) tend to occupy the stage between Go and Find that he calls Search/Road of Trials.

    One thing I’ve found that dissatisfies my players in a classic ongoing, years-long D&D campaign is when I forsake too much structure in an effort to offer more agency in a player-driven campaign. With too much agency, they likely won’t experience anything but mini-tension cycles within that Rocky training montage Search stage, like it’s a purgatory between the campaign Call to Adventure and the campaign Climax, where plenty of diverse things happen and the heroes might stumble upon something like “It’s Personal” or “the Big Screw” turning points but they also might not. I need to learn to think smaller and still use short, discrete adventure/story arcs each with a Call and Climax, even within a larger maybe-never-ends campaign framework (while avoiding Plot Plague like you warn in your Peeling the Onion article).

  5. Just wanna say Thank You and that your first post on this topic was fantastic and really got me thinking about how to set up my next campaign.

    Also thank you again for this post, it clearly took a lot of your time but there is pure gold in your words.

  6. Something which surprises me is that Angry is using a model that seems to assume one conflict over one instalment. The three act model, and its variants, is designed for theatre and other single instalment medium. Applying it to medium with multiple conflicts and multiple instalments (in this case, adventures) seems to involve modifications that are at least worth thinking about.
    For example my favourite published adventure path is The Savage Tide. In this we have two overarching (and related) storylines: a family feud and a demonic scheme. In addition we have a tangential plot for many individual adventures. So, at the end of the first adventure we have a climactic battle with the villain of the adventure specific plot, while the characters are in an early confrontation stage with the family plot. Meanwhile the demonic plot is not going to hit its call to adventure until the midway point of the second adventure.
    This triple plot seems, if not typical, at least not unusual in RPGs so I would be interested in narrative structures designed to accommodate that.

      • While we’re talking about narrative structure, I would love to read an article on fractal narrative. E.g., implementing a 3 act adventure in a 3 act campaign. Balancing the satisfaction with a smaller story within the larger payout of a more massive story is something I’ve always struggled with.

        • One way to look at that in action is, if you’re a fan of the Lord of the Rings books, those. You can easily break them down into different parts of the narrative structure. And also break them down into different parts. And other parts.

          It has peaks and valleys in narrative tension, where each peak has its own peaks and valleys.

          If you look at the whole story you have 3 actish sections. Getting to rivendell, choosing to carry the ring, the return. Or you could draw the lines differently.

          Getting to Rivendell, you have the Birthday party, choosing to leave the Shire into the woods, and the battle at weathertop providing the climax.

          Pick any point in the books and it’s not just flact. There’s rising and lowering tension which might follow its own structure, or just be there to lessen the monotony of the flow.

      • what a plot point. is this a reversal or the final test? probably a reversal as there is another episode coming up. (called an article).

        • Every final test is only the final test until something happens after to prove it wasn’t so final.

    • Savage Tide is a pretty good example of a campaign where the plot and stakes escalate over the course of the campaign – “family feud” is left behind quite early, and the heroes progress from local issues, to intercontinental issues, then on to “out of this world” problems as they enter the Abyss and try to “Save the World”. It’s a one-way trip, where the heroes don’t return back to the start, they continue on through the layers of the onion. It is missing any real “Return” points, but each Adventure has its own Climax, then the next has a new Call to Action. The structure of the campaign as a whole (12 adventures) is a good match for the Tiers of D&D play, which is why we all loved it; I ran it using 4e, and it mapped well to Heroic, Paragon then Epic tiers, but the same ideas are in 5e.

  7. I didn’t see the discussion in the comments of the previous article, but I hope i’m not one of the group that failed to understand the point there.

    That said, I feel this particular article was a lot more easy to digest and keep in mind as I am continuing to work on my own campaigns. As Joseph S above me pointed out, this article made me go ‘ ah, so THAT is why that sucked….’ a few times, making it a lot easier to NOT do that exact thing moving forward.

    The list (along with the explanation) seems extremely useful by the way, and I look forward to the rest of it. I hope something similar makes it into the book 🙂

  8. Something which surprises me is that Angry is using a model that seems to assume one conflict over one instalment. The three act model, and its variants, is designed for theatre and other single instalment medium. Applying it to medium with multiple conflicts and multiple instalments (in this case, adventures) seems to involve modifications that are at least worth thinking about.
    For example my favourite published adventure path is The Savage Tide. In this we have two overarching (and related) storylines: a family feud and a demonic scheme. In addition we have a tangential plot for many individual adventures. So, at the end of the first adventure we have a climactic battle with the villain of the adventure specific plot, while the characters are in an early confrontation stage with the family plot. Meanwhile the demonic plot is not going to hit its call to adventure until the midway point of the second adventure.
    This triple plot seems, if not typical, at least not unusual in RPGs so I would be interested in frameworks designed to support this.

    • From what you’re describing, that just sounds like it would fit multiple applications of the model that Angry is using here. Some of which with a different scope, but in essence still the same thing.

      The tricky part that would probably need some additional attention, is how not to F that up with so many moving parts. MORE story is not neccesarily BETTER story, and I can easily see that devolving into a convoluted mess that takes months to get anywhere.

  9. I’m reminded of one analysis which conveyed the idea that not all stories need 3 acts, that the “3 act structure” was as meaningless as “stories have a beginning, middle, and end”, and stories should use as many acts as they need. That was an interesting idea, but it lacked the rigor that this article provides; the acts aren’t as important as the points between which define them, and the “3 act structure” is still useful by defining what the beginning and end have to look like to make a good story.

  10. Angry, I eagerly await the next installment of this discussion. Fine work showing the breadth of your experience, as always. Please, just balance your checkbook to get your fix and keep doing this, because the gaming world desperately needs you!

  11. One thing that I think is interesting, or possibly confusing, or even infuriating is the nature of stories that start with action heroes having normal action hero lives. Often en media res… I’m thinking of Indiana Jones, or James Bond movies, but most specifically the first Mission Impossible movie. These are the poster children for having adventures before the inciting incident.

    This seems to be a good way to start modern campaigns, where even 1st level characters are expected to be hardened, well trained heroes. I see a lot of merit in letting the players find their sea legs on the rug before you yank it.

    • I’ve only seen Raiders of the Lost Ark from among the examples you give, so I’ll talk about that. Yes, Indy has an ‘adventure’ before the main plot kicks in, in that he’s in the Hovito temple plundering the golden idol. But this is not part of the main story of Raiders of the Lost Ark, which is about recovering the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis can. It sets up Indy as an adventuring treasure-hunter and introduces the world of ancient temples and treasure-hunting he lives in, but doesn’t have very much to do with the rest of the film.

      The confusion, I think, comes from two separate definitions of ‘adventure’. There is an ‘adventure’ before the inciting incident, in that there’s an exciting series of events in a far-off country (the general day-to-day definition of adventure). But that’s not an ‘adventure’ in the sense of part of a complete story (the narrative structure definition). Hope that helps! (and that I’m not wildly incorrect and about to get a thorough lambasting).

      • Technically, with Raiders, that IS a first act. That is Indiana Jones’ normal life. Which is why it starts that way. To establish the guy is a pulp hero. We see Indy having a totally normal, Indy adventure and then teaching at his college. And then, an opportunity comes along when he is hired to hunt down something amazing for the government. That’s the call to action. Indy even initially tries not to take the job until they convince him to. The conflict is established and the adventure starts.

        What’s really interesting is that – even though it’s establishing a larger-than-life pulp hero for whom adventure is normal – it also does the standard movie setup where the hero is kind of a struggling loser. Indy gets betrayed, he gets chased, he loses his artifact, he gets scared by a snake, and so on. It’s just like when we see Sarah Connor in Terminator struggling with a crappy job or Billy Peltzer showing up late for work with a clip-on tie after his car won’t start or Luke getting stuck on Tatooine for another season.

        The Hovito temple adventure isn’t part of the adventure because it’s just Indy’s normal life. It establishes the baseline for the character. The only thing it does establish is the subplot with his rivalry with Belloq.

        The second Indy movie does the same thing, showing that Indy’s normal – before he was a teacher because this was a prequel – is as a globetrotting mercenary adventurer. And it also shows him getting screwed, kicked around, poisoned, and conned. And then he ends up in a new situation – stranded in India – and then the call to adventure happens – find the Sankra stone that was stolen by the Thugee cult in Pankot Palace.

  12. Brilliant!

    This is the first time anyone has presented me with “Narrative Structure!” in way that made F$&%ing sense rather than leaving me confused and frustrated. The analogy about the concept of a “room” and it being a description rather than a definition especially helped; it has the feel of a nifty cognitive tool I’m sure I’ll find tons of uses for.

    I’d love for you to spend even more time going into depth on Syd Field’s breakdown of narrative structure, as a cursory google search confronted me with naught but the same dumb graph that plagued me through my college writing and film courses.

    Seriously, well done. I can’t wait for more!

  13. For me, this is another example of the “You don’t know what you don’t know”. I knew about 3 act structure and hero’s journey, but I had no idea about Screenplay, so there was a whole toolbox I was missing that I didn’t even know existed.

    As soon as I read that, my mind instantly went back to the first Knights of the Old Republic game. After the major setback, they make you go and do side quests for a whole other planet. At the time, I knew this was a mistake and really ruined the mood for me, and this explains perfectly why that happened.

    Now the problem is that I know. And an hour into every movie I’ll be shouting in my head “There’s the point of no return!” Or “That’s not a point of no return- oh man, this movie probably sucks.” 🙂

    • I have made a game out of pausing movies at the 60 minute mark to see what the “tent-pole” scene is. You’ll be pleasantly surprised to learn they all have one. And very rarely do they come early or late by more than a minute.

  14. I’ve found it useful to look at different types of stories (drama, comedy, tragedy) and how they handle turning points to inform the different ways player agency can go. I look at each turning point and decide “what if they succeed; what if they fail.” NOT to plan a CYOA game, but knowing that a tragedy turns on the protagonist’s compounding poor fortune/decisions and that a high OR low can come just before the climax helps emphasize the story the players create.

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