Friday, January 6, 2012

Story Arc Design

This is continuation of my theft of John Adamus' piece on The Beat of Game Design. The first part dealt with Adamus' five questions of designing a game, i.e., what are the rules designed to accomplish. The second part deals with how is the game structure - what makes up the beginning, middle, and end of an arc, and how does it feed into the next cycle?

The Opening is the introduction of the players (PC and NPC) in the drama, the conflict, and getting everyone settled into the rules system. Adamus breaks it down into five different pieces:

  • Introduction of Characters: The PCs are introduced, whether at character creation, or through the stock standard "You all are in an inn."
  • Introduction of Conflict: Games aren't any fun if there's no conflict. So what is challenging/thwarting/threatening the characters?
  • Introduction of Mechanics: The conflict will generally require there to be mechanics, and this is where the players start to get used to what their characters can do. This is comfort with the system versus the setting.
  • Disbelief Point: Hopefully at some point you get buy-in to both the system and setting. It'll take different things for different people. (Me personally, give me my moment of awesome and I'll probably be sold for a good long while.)
  • Move to mid-game/arc: As everyone becomes comfortable the game moves to the second stage.

The Middle Stage is all about expansion and thwarting the players. The Empire Strikes Back sucks for the heroes; there are up beats, but really it is about getting them really, really low so that in the third movie they can rise above the challenges. Four stages here:

  • Setback, smaller: Frustrate them a little so get their danger up. Get them motivated to do something. Minor challenges. These smaller setbacks generally return a character to where they started, or a little ahead. Mostly they are there for motivation.
  • Setback, larger: So you can't defeat the lich till you forge a blade of star metal? Yeah, that's a big setback, these are challenges that generally lead to large rewards to help later.
  • Things in Danger: The overused trope of threatening the family when the character is too powerful to threaten directly. Be careful with threatening the character's things because this lends oft-abused players to creating lone-wolf orphans with no ties to a community because they get tired of it all getting taken away from them. But it is good at pissing them off.
  • Reconfirmation: The pause before the storm, where the characters gather themselves before they head into end game.
Ah, End Game, where it all comes to a dramatic conclusion (we hope). Five more stages here to close out an arc:
  • Setup and Execution: Getting the master plan (developed in Act 2) prepped and ready to execute - everyone gets to their places.
  • Loss is Gain: Characters suffer loss which causes them to grow, the loss of mentors, protectors, other crutches that they've become dependent on. The trick is to remove the thing, but not the knowledge/wisdom of it. Tricky and often done poorly (See previous Things in Danger).
  • Big Battle: We have our epic fight/conflict. Players need to feel challenged generally.
  • Consequences: There should always be consequences. Not all consequences are negative, winning the hand of the princess, getting the loot are all valid consequences, as is making new enemies.
  • What's Next: Should feed from the consequences and kick us back into the next major arc; starting with the intro to characters and conflict.
Mostly I'm regurgitating the original text, but I'm hoping that it'll help when it comes time to arc out my first arc of the Dresden game - mostly because it is a new game and a new table (mostly) I'm feeling nervous about getting everything moving smoothly, especially as the last few starts (Changeling and Reign) started so roughly.


  1. I have plans (possibly Sunday it looks like) to do a sample arc following these beats....I might do two actually - one for a game and one for a movie or book, so you can see the versatility.

    Do you think that would be of interest to you?

  2. Of interest? Sure. I'm always willing to read well thought out theory, which you seem to provide.