Wednesday, October 20, 2010

GM Mentoring: The Nine Act Plot Structure as Campaign Design...

Good Evening, All:

I have been toying around with the idea of using the screenwriter's Nine Act Plot Structure as the basis for a campaign story arc. In many cases, each Act could almost be considered an individual adventure, ala the EPIC Adventure System proposed by Marc Miller for Traveller. With that in mind, you can find my initial thoughts on the matter below.

Act Zero covers the background for the entire campaign arc, and as such, should be revealed only in small portions over the course of the campaign. While this wouldn't be a formal adventure in and of itself, it provides the motivation for the other eight Acts, and so should be heavily considered to insure consistency and continuity.

Act One makes for a great starting adventure. This is the module that introduces the characters to the milieu, and helps to establish the mood and flavor for the rest of the campaign. Often, this adventure establishes the status quo before it gets interrupted and things go out of control in the next Act.

Act Two gives our heroes the big hook for the rest of the campaign arc. Here's where the GM introduces the major complication that pushes our adventurers and the setting forward into the main storyline of the campaign. Just as the first adventure set the scene for the players, this Act helps us realize that something's going wrong, and there's a need for adventurers to fix the problem.

Act Three establishes the main villain and their supporting characters. This is the adventure where the party begins to invest themselves in the setting. A good villain gives them that opportunity, and this is the adventure in which the villain is showcased. Obviously, he can't be put in a position of danger here, so it is advised that either the party meets a representative of the villain should combat arise, or that the villain only be present during social scenes where slaying him is not an option. (For example, maybe he's a guest of the King, or is meeting under a flag of truce.)

Act Four provides the party with their first goal. They should believe that this solution will address the problem introduced in Act Two, and thus overcome the villain from Act Three. As the Referee or GM, you should consider either offering the goal piecemeal and letting them put clues together over the course of this adventure to arrive at the solution, or simply presenting the solution to them at the end of the adventure.

Act Five could easily represent one to three adventures, as the party pursues their first goal. Each step toward this goal is harder than the last, and the complications continue to pile up. It should seem like the villain is winning at this point, but not so much so that the players are overly frustrated. You don't want them to quit, but you do want them to feel challenged by the scenarios. At the end of this Act, over the course of the final adventure (or perhaps right at the end of that adventure), the party should discover that they've been pursuing the wrong goal, and this should be the point when the villain looks most likely to succeed in his long-term goal.

Act Six is the adventure that realigns the party's focus on the second goal, the one that will actually resolve the complication for them, save the day and end the tyranny of the main villain. This is where they get that final clue or insight that empowers them to successfully move toward a positive completion of the campaign arc.

Act Seven offers an adventure that should involve heroic sacrifice of some sort or another. Even though this is the correct path, it should not be a walk in the park. The party should deal a significant blow to the main villain here, but they should also have to make a hard decision in order to do so. This gives more emotional weight to their investment and ultimate victory.

Act Eight is the final adventure, where the party wraps up the campaign arc, finishes off the villain, ties up all the loose ends (or at least the big ones, anyway), gets the treasure, saves the world (or at least their small part of it), and potentially wraps up the campaign.

These are my thoughts, anyway. So, what do you think?



David said...

It's a good plan, and keeps both the players and the GM focused on the final goal of the story. This allows you to plan ahead and drop little clues that don't mean much until brought together further along the arc, as well as leave herrings of various colours lying about.

Alan said...

Very interesting article, I'm going to use some of the structural ideas in my next campaign.