3 Act Story Structure for RPG Scenario Design

As an end of year special I’ll take a detour into the land of RPGs. Specifically story structure.

I first bumped into the 3 Act Story structure in the context of RPG Scenario Design. The 3 act structure I ended up with is pretty simple: hook, journey, confrontation. In truth I always found role playing discussion of this structure confusing. I couldn’t imagine having only three scenes in a RPG scenario. Well, the answer is obvious, of course. Acts are not scenes. Acts contain scenes. Clearly I have dive deeper into the 3 Act structure to understand how to apply it to scenario design.


Deep dive on 3 Act Structure for Novels and Movies

The 3 act story structure is probably the most common format for plotting stories, both novels and movies. The 3 act structure comes from Ancient Greek drama. Aristotle analysed a number of plays and found them to conform to the rather obvious pattern of having a beginning, a middle and an end. That is the 3 Act structure at its essence. But there have been a lot of embellishments since Aristotle’s day.

If you look into the 3 Act Structure you’ll find different names for the acts and different descriptions. I’ll use the structure described in How to Write a Novel Using The Three Act Structure because this divides each of the three acts into three subsections called “beats”. This, in my opinion, makes quite a nice nine part structure.

All of the beats in the story take up a period of time in the story line. This might be longer or short. Some beats also correspond to particular key moments. For example, Plot Point One is the literal boundary between Acts 1 and 2 but is also the part of the story line leading up to this boundary. Similarly the Climax is the scene with the final conflict, but is also the moment where the tension in the story line reaches a crescendo.

  • Act 1: Setup:
    • Beat 11: Exposition
    • Beat 12: Inciting Incident
    • Beat 13: Plot Point One
  • Act 2: Confrontation
    • Beat 21: Rising Action
    • Beat 22: Midpoint
    • Beat 23: Plot Point Two
  • Act 3: Resolution
    • Beat 31: Pre-Climax
    • Beat 32: Climax
    • Beat 33: Denouement

The point of this structure is to take reader/viewer on an emotional journey following the tension within the story. In parallel the protagonist goes on a related but different emotional journey with different peaks and troughs.

Balagan 3 Act Story Structure

Balagan 3 Act Story Structure

So lets look at the parts in more detail. I’ll talk about the protagonist (main character or hero) and antagonist (the person or force acting against the protagonist). I’ll use the singular for both protagonist and antagonist but both can be plural.

Act 1: Setup:

Act 1 is about giving the reader/view all the information they need to make sense of the future events. It introduces the protagonist, some key characters, and their world (Exposition). It then pushes the protagonist towards a course of action via the Inciting Incident and associated Plot Point One. It takes about 25% of the story time.

As the Angry GM points out in Narrative Structure for REAL Morons, Act 1 doesn’t have to be boring and can contain dramatic episodes (or adventures). But the purpose of these episodes is to provide appropriate context. And Angry GM also rightly points out that learning about the characters and the world is not just an Act 1 thing, it continues through the entire story.

Beat 11: Exposition

In the exposition we establish the main characters, their relationships, their flaws, and how they fit into the world. It is more powerful to reveal aspects of characters through action rather than description.

Beat 12: Inciting Incident

The Inciting Incident, also known as the catalyst or “call to adventure”, confronts the protagonist with a choice. This is the defining event that starts the protagonist on their emotional and physical journey. It is usually the antagonist that either directly or indirectly instigates the Inciting Incident.

Beat 13: Plot Point One

Plot Point One is a decision point for the protagonist (and Point Points in general). This is the protagonist’s decision to engage with whatever action the inciting incident has sent their way. Will the protagonist accept the call to action or reject it? Will the protagonist decide to:

  • take the job?
  • recover the artefact?
  • rescue the girl/boy/cow/droid?
  • capture the killer?

The questions vary but the they all result in the protagonist accepting they must do something different. From here, everything moves in one direction, towards the goal (even if the protagonist doesn’t know what the goal is yet). And having made that choice, life will never be the same again.

In some stories, the Inciting Incident and Plot Point One happen in the same scene. This is because the trigger and the decision to do something naturally flow together.

Act 2: Confrontation

Having accepted the call to action in Act 1, the protagonist must now leave their comfort zone and go on a journey to resolve the problem presented in the Inciting Incident. As readers/viewers we are thrust into the forward motion of the story while the protagonist starts trying to achieve what they want. The situations are ever worsening and the protagonist will experience failure in the process. This act is longer than the other two and generally occupies half the story time (50%).

Beat 21: Rising Action

This is about the protagonist’s journey and it is a bumpy ride. The protagonist is forced to react to a number of obstacles in the form of people, objects, and settings. Each encounter is there to stop the protagonist progressing in their journey. As the story progresses the obstacles appear with rising potency and increasing frequency hence “Rising Action”.

Act 2 is known as the “Confrontation” because the protagonist starts to feel the presence of the antagonist. The protagonist and antagonist may even start to actually clash.

Depending on the story the protagonist may also meet their mentor, love interest, and/or allies.

In facing the challenges, the protagonist will develop. They will get to know their new environment better and will learn new skills. This will put them in a stronger position when they get to Act 3.

Beat 22: Midpoint

A significant event should take place at the literal midpoint. This event usually involves something going horribly wrong. As the story tension increases the protagonist’s assessment of their own chance of ultimate victory declines. The protagonist thought they were making headway on their goal and then then something came and threw them off the rails.

Some people call the entire of Act 2 “Rising Action” because after the crisis the obstacles continue. These are hard times and the obstacles are harder and more frequent.

Beat 23: Plot Point Two

In terms of the protagonist’s emotional journey, Act 2 ends the moment your character suffers the worst loss imaginable. Often the protagonist will reflect on their journey so far.

The Midpoint will demonstrate to the protagonist that they must switch from being a “passenger” to a more proactive force to be reckoned with. It is this decision, to actively seek the resolution, that is the core of Plot Point Two.

Act 3: Resolution

Act 3 features the resolution of the story and its subplots.

Beat 31: Pre-Climax

The Pre-climax typically typically stretches over a series of scenes. The protagonist faces their biggest challenge, or a problem so huge that they can’t possibly win. While the protagonist has been on their journey the antagonist has been getting stronger. The antagonist’s true strength is revealed, and this usually catches the protagonist by surprise. The antagonist exploits the protagonists fears, flaws or weak spots to defeat them casting doubt on the final outcome. This defeat is why pre climax is sometimes called “The Dark Night of the Soul”. The protagonist has to lick their wounds before trying again.

Beat 32: Climax

The Climax itself is normally contained to a single scene. This is the final moment of the story’s overarching conflict and the tension is at the highest peak. The dramatic question is answered, the antagonist defeated, and the conflict is resolved.

Beat 33: Denouement

The dust settles and significant loose ends are tied up. If the protagonist did not achieve their goal during the Climax they achieve it now.


TV Series using the 3 Act Story Structure

Ken Miyamoto, in The Screenwriter’s Simple Guide to Formatting Television Scripts, contrasts movies with TV series. In a two hour movie the protagonist is thrust into a conflict, struggles through it, and then eventually either succumbs to it or works their way out of it. We have closure at that point. With a TV series, of 10-24 episodes, the end of each teleplay or television script leaves the main story unresolved. It takes the entire TV series to bring resolution.

Jason Lynch, in his Here’s the recipe Netflix uses to make binge-worthy TV, explains that you can use the 3 Act Story Structure for an entire TV Series. The series Bloodline was structured to have Act 1 in Episodes 1-3, Act 2 in Episodes 4-7 and Act 3 in the remaining Episodes 8-13.


Mini RPG Campaign using the 3 Act Story Structure

Katrina Ostrander did something comparable and devised The 3-Act Formula as a Mini RPG Campaign Template. The end result is nine sessions with one for character creation and prep, two for the first act, four sessions for the middle/rising action, and two for the finale/climax.

Ostrander’s Mini RPG Campaign Template looks like this:

  • Act I: Introduction
    • Session 0: The Hook and Setup
      • Dramatic question/premise
      • Character creation
      • Character backstories
      • Side/personal quest assignments
      • The Inciting Incident that sets the plot in motion
    • Session 1: The Key Event/Call to Adventure
      • Establish the setting, a hint of normalcy before shaking things up
      • Draw the PCs into the plot with action/conflict/a challenge
      • Show the PCs a glimpse of the villain’s plans (but might not fully comprehend them) and highlight the stakes (what will happen if the PCs fail)
    • Session 2: The First Quest
      • The PCs meet a supernatural/powerful mentor or ally who can help them in their goals
      • The PCs get directions to or travel to the first new location
      • Subplot #1: The PCs take action to achieve the first part of their goals
  • Act II: Rising Action
    • Session 3: The Villain Retaliates
      • One of the villain’s minions or plots makes things worse
      • The PCs are forced to flee/abandon the location
      • The PCs bargain with temptation; a shady trickster can help them, for a price
      • Character spotlight on one of the PCs’ strengths/motives or their side quest
    • Session 4: The Midpoint/Second Quest
      • The PCs travel to the second new location
      • Subplot #2: The PCs take action to achieve the second part of their goals
      • The twist, or true nature of the dramatic question, is revealed
      • Character spotlight on one of the PCs’ strengths/motives or their side quest
    • Session 5: The Villain’s Revenge
      • One of the villain’s minions or plots triumphs over the PCs temporarily
      • The PCs question their abilities/motives
      • The PCs are forced to flee/abandon the location
      • Character spotlight on one of the PCs’ strengths/motives or their side quest
    • Session 6: The Third Quest
      • The PCs travel to the third new location
      • The PCs reconcile with an important figure from their or the villain’s past
      • Subplot #3: The PCs take action to achieve the third part of their goals
      • Character spotlight on one of the PCs’ strengths/motives or their side quest
  • Act III: Climax
    • Session 7: The Darkness Before the Dawn/Rebirth
      • The PCs suffer a major setback due to one of the villain’s minions or plot
      • Nearly all hope is lost
      • A new option for confronting the villain is revealed or realized
    • Session 8: The Final Battle
      • The PCs assemble the allies/strengths/items they earned from all three quests
      • The PCs travel quickly (or are chased) from the third location to their final destination
      • The PCs confront the villain

I love this structure. You should be able to see the overlap with the nine beats I outlined above. Ostrander stretches and abbreviates the acts to get a good fit for a mini RPG campaign. Act 2 is basically twice as long as the other acts, exactly as per the 3 Act Story Structure. I have a couple of minor quibbles. It seems to me that Session 2: The First Quest should really be part of Act 2. She has left out the Denouement, and perhaps none is necessary or it is included as part of Session 8: The Final Battle. But these are details.

For me the big problem is that this is for an RPG campaign and I want something for an RPG scenario.


TV Episode using the 3 Act Story Structure

Perhaps TV Episodes can suggest a good structure for single RPG scenario.

Diane House outlined Television Script Format based on the 3 Act Structure. She points out that there may be up to three storylines running concurrently:

  1. A story is the main plot
  2. B story is the major subplot
  3. C story is called a runner or minor subplot, usually character developing.

I have paraphrased House’s version of the 3 act structure as:

  • Act 1:
    • Set up the goal for the protagonist.
    • Protagonist runs into an obstacle.
    • By the end protagonist should reach the immediate goal, or have failed.
    • About 10 minutes.
  • Act 2:
    • Complicate the protagonist’s mission, then raise the stakes.
    • Raise the stakes again as you move the subplots forward.
    • C Story usually occurs three times within the episode.
    • By this point, protagonist is at their lowest point.
    • About 40 minutes.
  • Act 3:
    • The protagonist has reached a new level of determination and has to dig inside as things get even tougher.
    • Deal with the subplots and tie up loose ends.
    • Reach resolution or pay-off.
    • About 10 minutes

Looking at 3 Act Stories for TV, like Diane House’s, it seems to me that Act 1 and Act 3 are truncated compared to novels and movies. Normally Act 1 is to introduce the protagonist, context, and the goal, but in a TV show we know the first two. So in TV Act 1 is just to introduce what is relevant to this episode, i.e. the inciting incident, and skips over most of the exposition. That means, rather than 15 minutes of a 60 minute show (25%), Act 1 only gets 10 minutes (17%). Similarly for the Act 3, rather than 25% it gets only 17% (10 minutes), and loses some/most of the denouement. The bulk of the time (40 minutes; 66% or 2/3), is in Act 2 where the protagonist is facing obstacles. I’ve redrawn my diagram of the 3 Act Story Structure for TV. To do this I’ve left in the underlying structure but shaded out the bits that don’t appear in a TV episode and changed the percentages to reflect the remainder.

Balagan 3 Act Story Structure for TV

Balagan 3 Act Story Structure for TV

Warning: I’m not a TV guy. So this diagram is entirely speculative. But it makes sense to me.


More Acts in a TV Episode

Truth be told a lot of alternative structures are available for TV episodes: 4 Act, 5 Act, 7 Act, whatever. I don’t agree with James Bonnet, in What’s Wrong with the Three Act Structure?, that the main benefit of acts is to provide refreshment breaks in movies and plays. I firmly believe the 3 Act Story Structure is about the evolution of the story. But I do think he is spot on for TV programmes. The acts help the writers structure their story around ad breaks. More acts means more ad breaks.

I am not convinced, however, that more acts changes the story structure. The way I look at it is that structures with more acts just split up the 3 Act Story Structure into smaller bits. For example, splitting Act 2 into two parts, before and after the low point, creates the 4 Act Structure. Making the beats of Confrontation (Rising Action, Midpoint, and Plot Point 2) into acts, renaming them in the process (e.g. Midpoint becomes Twist), creates the 5 Act Story Structure.


Conclusions

I’m convinced that the 3 act story structure can be used for RPG scenario design. Act 1, 2 and 3 are relevant although we’re likely to put less time into Act 1 and Act 3 for a scenario within a longer RPG campaign. All of the variations on the 3 act structure described above can be used to inform scenes to include in each act.

There is one big problem with this approach. Movies, novels and TV episodes are linear. The story is the story and the reader/viewer passively watches it unfold. In an RPG the protagonist(s) is an active participant and can change things. Their decisions can change the order of scenes or just create entirely new scenes. So in a future post I’ll have a look at the protagonist’s role in the unfolding story line.


References

Bonnet, J. (n.d.). What’s Wrong with the Three Act Structure?. Writers Store.

Hellerman, J. (2018, 6 November). Three Act Structure: Breaking Down Acts One, Two, & Three in Movies. No Film School.

House, D. (n.d.) Television Script Format. Movie Outline.

Lynch, J. (2015, 20 March). Here’s the recipe Netflix uses to make binge-worthy TV. Quartz.

Miyamoto, K. (2018, 5 January). The Screenwriter’s Simple Guide to Formatting Television Scripts. Screen Craft.

Ostrander, K. (2015, 2 December). The 3-Act Formula as a Mini RPG Campaign Template

Reedsy Blog. (2018, 15 June). How to Write a Novel Using The Three Act Structure. Author.

Rehm, S. (2018, 30 May). Narrative Structure for REAL Morons. The Angry GM.

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