Pre-Planning: The Three Act Structure

PREVIOUS: Pre-Planning: Branching Storylines
NEXT: Welcome to Seattle – Seattle

One of the guiding tropes of most entertainment media, from movies to gaming, is the Three Act Structure; similar and related is the Rule of Threes. It specifies that in the begginning their is the first act which introduces our protagonists and sets the plot in motion, a second act which pits the protagonist against difficulties and obstacles and finally a third act featuring the climax as the plot reaches a conclusion.

The Three Act Structure can even be extrapolated for larger or smaller scale storylines. For example, in a tabletop gaming scenario, the heros could be presented with a job / mission / problem facing them (Act 1), set out to investigate the issue and remove the threat (Act 2) and finally square off against the antagonist in the climax (Act 3).

Along the way, minor versions of the same structure could be used for discreet plot points. For instance, the group begins investigating who is causing the trouble (Act 1), discover they have been misled (Act 2) and then return to their source and find the correct information (Act 3).

Each session the players partake in can also build towards an overarching metaplot. Over the first four or five adventures, the group, by solving various local problems, can be exposed to the overarching event or BBEG who has a neffarious plot the heroes don’t agree with (Act 1). Over the next dozen sessions or so (depending on the scale of the campaign), the heroes attempt to thwart the antagonist’s plans by confronting his armies, seeking powerful artifacts to confront him with and generally being a pain for the villian (Act 2). In the final few sessions (Act 3) of a campaign, the heroes marshall their forces and eventually confront the antagonist and emerge victorious (or maybe not).

The Tiers of Play in Dungeons & Dragons are setup in a similar structure to the Rule of Threes and lend themselves to the Three Act Structure. In D&D, the rules let players create and play heroes that can begin and level up from levels 1 through 30. They divide that level range into thirds and label each a specific tier: Heroic Tier (level 1-10), Paragon Tier (level 11-20) and Epic Tier (level 21-30).

What I find especially interesting and worthy of emulation is how they break down the scope for each tier of play. In the Heroic Tier, players can expect to deal with threats to towns, cities and their own lives. Greek stories such as the Illiad and Oddessy would fit firmly within the Heroic Tier. It introduces the heroes, their deeds, initial accopmlishments and sets them up to be an influencial force of the world (Act 1)

The Paragon Tier then steps it up another notch. The Heroes start dealing with threats that are large enough in scale as to be a danger to whole nations, even the world. Threats like the Scourge and the Lich King Arthas from World of Warcraft represent the kind of groups the heroes would be expected to go up against with only their small party. The group then is fighting against all odds to save the world and establish themselves as greater than any else who live (Act 2).

The Epic Tier then overshadows the other two, pitting the heroes against mighty, otherworldly demons, dragons and perhaps even the gods possibly on other planes of existance. More importantly, the final tier prepares the heroes for their final destiny; the story of how they exit this world and achieve immmortality. For the characters, this is their climax and how they, and possibly the world, will end (Act 3).

The descriptions of the three Tiers of Play is obviously stilted towards the sorts of stories and settings that are commonly played in D&D. The basics though, the build from small time heroes to the end of their great story, is one that is worth looking at and applying when applicable.

The first Shadowrun campaign I am currently wrapping up fits the players quite firmly in the first tier of play. The Runners are competent and deadly individuals, but they’re certainly no movers and shakers of the industry. They take whatever job gets passed their way and, more often than not, they are small cogs in the overall machine simply trying to surive and get paid in the process. Their jobs involve small scale operations against gangs or corporations with only the occassional interaction with big time individuals.

While planning for follow up campaigns with these players and characters, I started thinking along the lines of the Tiers of Play. If I label the current campaign as the Shadowrun equivilent of the Heroic Tier, then the next campaign should be at an equivilent to the Paragon Tier.

From a plot writing / mission design standpoint, that means the Runners should start encountering larger persons and performing more meaningful tasks against corporations and their adversaries while overcoming and discovering more about their own backgrounds and the unknown forces that may have impacted their early lives. In the current campaign, I’ve already gone about seeding references and hints regarding the next.

In the back of my mind, I’ve also begun to formulate some very generic ideas for the Shadowrun equivilent Epic Tier campaign. Details on it won’t be formed until we get closer to that point, but planning for and knowing that the characters may have an end destination has helped to form the scale and ideas behind the second campaign.

Specifically, I’ve had to keep in mind that if, during the second campaign, the characters are dealing with the largest corporations in the world and possibly interacting with characters who make things happen in the world, where do they go from there? In D&D the heroes might assend to God-hood or achieve immortality. That’s a bit beyond the scope of the Shadowrun universe, but they could begin having a global impact on corporations and individuals. The goals they persue during the final act should be of appropriately epic scale and their impact on the course of events in the world should be substantial.

– Geoff

PREVIOUS: Pre-Planning: Branching Storylines
NEXT: Welcome to Seattle – Seattle

2 Responses to “Pre-Planning: The Three Act Structure”

  1. 1 veganshane
    3 January 2011 at 17:14

    Just stumbled on your blog, as an SR GM I am enjoying it, I do like the multi tier idea, my players have sort of been self regulating as far as what sort of jobs, contacts and what not they are in pursuit of. Although not all agree where they want the team to end up.


    • 4 January 2011 at 09:39

      Thanks! I’m glad you’re enjoying it.

      So far, my players have always been more interested in coming to game and dealing with whatever job they’ve been handed. In my experience with them, open ended “What kind of stuff do you want to do?” questions results in only vague suggestions, usually pertaining to that particular character’s background.

      Hopefully, though, I would like to build up to a similar system for the Third Act. It would be great if I could present the players with a general situation, let them choose a goal they would like to persue, make decisions about how they want to reach that goal and then write missions around those particular hinging points.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Archived Logs

Enter your email address to subscribe tothese logs and receive email notifications when new ones are posted.

Join 190 other followers


%d bloggers like this: