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Posted by : Frank Lee September 20, 2013

When it comes to story design for RPGs there seems to be one principal form which has three parts: a problem arises, the heroes then take an active role in solving it, and finally you have a climax in the action and the problem is resolved (if the heroes are successful). To put it in an example, a dragon steals a town's entire population of fair maidens, your heroes decide to help the town by tracking down the dragon and finding a weapon big enough to use against him, then they sneak into his lair and do battle.

This is how three act adventures work, this is also how one act adventures work. One acts that I've studied have the same structure, but they're pretty short so it seems silly to call them three acts. Still you could if you wanted to. Some one acts I've broken down may only be 6 to 10 scenes in length, but they'll spend the first 40% providing exposition for PCs, the next 40% throwing challenges and demanding action from the PCs, and then save the last 20% for setting up a final confrontation (because you want the biggest challenge/fight/difficulty to come at the end).

This information is hardly mind=blown, but once you know it, and you know you know it, you can use it to guide story building tools like the Story Charts in my upcoming book. The two work hand-in-hand. So you're not just pulling random ideas out of the ether and wondering how to turn a jumble of potential events into a story that doesn't feel lame.

Two acts are a little different, but instead of coming up with a different form of events as covered above, they simply take two one acts and put them back-to-back within the same narrative. So what does that mean? You start off with a problem and exposition, the heroes take some action to resolve it, except when we get to what normally would be the ending, instead a bigger problem arises because of their efforts. And then the process is repeated, the heroes gather information, develop a plan of action, and finally this time we reach a climactic ending.

You've seen countless two acts in your life if you watch television sitcoms. It's a great form for allowing characters to over-react to an initial problem, cause their own new problems, and then struggle to get out of them. It allows for a lot of comedy at the expense of the constantly messing up characters, and it also allows for an eventual return to the original stasis we started the show with.

For example, on The Simpsons in an episode I recently rewatched, the Simpsons' house has a foundation problem and is sinking sideways into the ground (an initial problem!). Homer can't cover the cost of the repairs, but after an old man is forcibly retired from Mr. Burns' nuclear power plant, Marge applies for his job to make the extra money (an active attempt to solve the problem). But while she gets the job and the money to repair the foundation, Mr. Burns falls in love with her at first sight and tries to woo her (an even bigger problem arises out of our heroes attempts to solve the problems of the first act). He then fires her when he finds out she's married, so Marge tries to get Lionel Hutz to sue Mr. Burns (attempt to solve problem of second act). But that doesn't work, however, an angered Homer demands Mr. Burns apologize to his wife, and Mr. Burns, touched by Homer's concern sends Homer and Marge on a romantic weekend getaway.

Two acts, both completely silly, starting with what is really just some throw-away problem in the first act to cause events to happen, leading to a problem involving greater emotional stakes for Mr. Burns and for Marge, then finally coming to a happy ending where stasis is fully returned (Marge no longer works at the power plant, the house is level again, and the characters can move on with their lives).

Of course one does not need to return the characters to their original lives, with no progression, just because you use a two act. And you could also write sitcoms in three acts.

Now good stories for consumption as a viewer, and not as a character yourself, often have different requirements for success, ones that are usually accomplished by taking the middle of a story and breaking it down into its own necessary parts. But there's still something to learn by studying those methods for a GM. I'll cover what we can glean from popular one hour television dramas (in case you want to have your own Game of Thrones or Star Trek style game sessions), provide a proper 5 Act analysis from the Shakespearean perspective better than any you'll find elsewhere on the internet, and discuss modular adventure design in my next few blog posts. And post some samples from the Horror and Sci-Fi story charts so you can see how they're coming along!

Until next time-

{ 2 comments... read them below or Comment }

  1. Nice to see your process for breaking down a plot! Thank you for sharing.

  2. I have read about 3 acts and 5 acts but never heard of one or two acts before. Very nice article. The example was perfect. Thank you.

    I have been reading and studying about plots and story structures for years (some of it is over my head). I was trying to find a better way to structure my gaming with "Mythic" RPG. Sometimes I wish I had not read those. It ruins reading, TV, and movies as I know the outcome but not the specifics.


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