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From Screenplay to RPG: Interweaving Plotlines with a Three-Act Structure (Part One)

From Screenplay to RPG: Interweaving Plotlines with a Three-Act Structure (Part One)

Ophelia by John William WaterhouseWarning! Possible Railroading Ahead!

Okay, now that the disclaimer is out of the way, we can delve into the realm of plotlines. Interweaving plotlines within a campaign can be amazing, but it can also lead to your players feeling like you are forcing them down certain paths. The trick is to build layered subplots without limiting choices.

The Three-Act Structure

Typically, screenwriters build their scripts out of three “acts.” Each act has a specific purpose and contains certain milestones that can be seen from movie to movie. This is sometimes referred to as the Three-Act Structure or the Hollywood Formula, but really it is a manner of storytelling that evolved over the centuries to become ingrained in our minds.

Act One introduces the hero, the villain, and the problem at hand. In Star Wars, we meet the characters and learn about the Death Star.

Act Two follows the hero along the ups and downs of the adventure. The middle of the act is marked by a high point or a moment of victory, and the end is marked by the worst possible thing that can happen to the main character. Luke and company fight their way to the Death Star and rescue Leia (high point), but then as they escape Obi Wan dies (low point).

Act Three brings the hero and villain to their final confrontation and we learn if the problem presented in the first act is solved. Luke blows up the Death Star.

Formulating Three-Act Subplots

So how does that apply to RPGs? That’s where you need to be a good juggler. By putting your subplots into a three-act structure, you highlight moments of similarity between them and can more easily find places that need to be filled. Since you don’t want all of the moments in each of your subplots to happen at the same time, you can offset them from each other creating a layered effect. Doing this will make the campaign seem like a coherent adventure rather than three separate subplots.

In my current campaign, my players are trying to free their home from the control of a council of nobles determined to purge adventurers from the city. That’s the overall plotline. Within it, however, are three subplots, which I will show with their three-act structure.

A – Tracking down evidence to use against the Council Leader

Act One: Heroes discover that the hated Council Leader has something shady going on

Act Two: The Heroes hunt for an ex-henchman with dirt on the Council Leader

After much searching, the henchman’s daughter agrees to help them (high point)

The henchman is murdered before passing along the info (low point)

Act Three: Learning the daughter has the info, the Heroes rescue her and get the info

B – Evading the clutches of the Council Guard, the Redcloaks

Act One: The Redcloaks raid the Hero’s home, forcing them to go on the run

Act Two: Hunted by their foes, the Heroes search for a safe shelter

A minor Council Member takes them in (High Point)

Betrayed by her brother, the Council Member is arrested; Heroes almost captured (low point)

Act Three: The Heroes rescue the Council Member, evade the Redcloaks, and get a new base

C – Protecting the city from a strange influx of Revenants

Act One: Learning about the Revenant threat and a few first encounters

Act Two: The Heroes attempt to track down the source of the Revenants

They follow a Revenant to an arcane machine producing the foes (high point)

Heroes reveal that many Revenant machines are hidden across city (low point)

Act Three: The Heroes confront the mastermind behind the machines in his lair.

Now these subplots and plot points are tailored to my campaign and my players. I’ve gamed with them a long time so I have a pretty good idea how they will react. Even in my game, being this specific can be a problem. Players are not always so predictable. They will go off on tangents or draw the wrong conclusions or simply follow something shiny. My advice is to make the milestones in your own subplots specific enough to advance the plot but vague enough that you can alter them on the fly and plug them in where needed.

For instance, in the Subplot A (Act Two) example above, even though it says “After much searching, the henchman’s daughter agrees to help them,” it does not have to be the daughter. If the players seem friendlier with another NPC, I will make that character help them.

It is a tricky balancing act, and you may have to completely abandon or delay a subplot if things don’t come together. But that’s okay. It’s far better to put something on the back burner than to force it down your player’s throats.

Next time we’ll look at how to weave these different subplots together.

5 thoughts on “From Screenplay to RPG: Interweaving Plotlines with a Three-Act Structure (Part One)”

  1. I know how silence is harder to take then feedback, any feedback so here it goes…

    Issue 1) You’re fighting a generational stereotype that hollywood and screenplays are mostly regurgitated garbage fueled my the money people and lacking in originality. Ironically you’re suffering a marketability issue because people regard hollywood as too commercial.

    Issue 2) You basically throw out the possible largest objection to the rest of your article out in the front. TL:DR this is about railroading your players… there goes players reading this at all and all of GMs…

    Issue 3) RPGs have more in common with improv theatre then screenplays. No matter how good you are the players are always a factor you cannot accurately predict. Even if you could predict the players you cannot predetermine the outcome of the dice. I’ve seen plotting foiled by players throwing 3 20’s in a row and a dragon survive certain death because the archer failed to not roll a 1

    On a positive note: You’re older stuff with the monsters kicked some serious arse. In particular I liked the canivorous ship…

  2. In response to Mr. Gori,

    I don’t think the author is fighting anything. He outlines his content and prefaces it with with what might be reasons not to read it. He uses a scenario that people might be familiar with to illustrate a method of story creation (intertwining subplot). He then goes back to discuss how to avoid a common pitfall (railroading) by allowing for real-time adjustment of the intertwining subplots.

    I agree that improvisational theater is a better analogy to roleplaying around the table but the players are not there when it is time to write and plan the content of the game.

    In response to the article: These are the reasons that I go to this website every day. Thank you for your contribution. I find that it is better to have a larger plot: “Bring down the empire” and then entwine a couple of smaller subplots around it: “Save the princess”, “Escape the clutches of the empire”. Note that the smaller subplots are shorter and when one ends it will be time for another to be introduced: “Win the battle at Hoth”.

  3. Braiding multiple plotlines between short-term arcs and long-term arcs is a design essay I’ve been asking for since 2008.

    Thank you, it’s a fantastic piece, and one I’m happy to see posted. :) I’d have mentioned it sooner, but I’m buried in deadline hell.

    RE: Railroads– I don’t think this method even runs afoul of railroads, because it helps delineate the progression of the plotlines. Do your players decide to ignore a plotline to pursue something else? That’s ok, because you introduced it, and you know it’s place and progression, so they can pursue whatever sideline they’ve chosen, and you know to have your offered plotline advance to its next point, as if the players hadn’t changed the course of events, which they haven’t.

    Excellent! Thank you again. :)

    -Ben.

  4. Thanks for the feedback, Frank. You bring up some interesting points.

    Issue 1) You’re fighting a generational stereotype that hollywood and screenplays are mostly regurgitated garbage fueled my the money people and lacking in originality. Ironically you’re suffering a marketability issue because people regard hollywood as too commercial.

    I’m not sure I understand the generational thing, but I hope I didn’t come across as suggesting that Hollywood only produces junk. After all that’s where I make my living so some of that junk might be mine! :)

    Basically I was showing the most basic or simple screenplay format. It’s the one most screenwriters are taught first. We bend that format, break it, tie it up in knots and simply ignore it. But we all know it.

    I can’t speak to people feeling that Hollywood is too commercial. Like most things in life, Hollywood today a mixture of stuff – creativity, commercialism, entertainment and, yes, junk.

    Issue 2) You basically throw out the possible largest objection to the rest of your article out in the front. TL:DR this is about railroading your players… there goes players reading this at all and all of GMs

    Throw away? Not at all. That was a joking warning, not an attempt to avoid anything.

    Look, like it or not every GM railroads their players to some degree. We have to in order to set up and run a game. Even the act of throwing a monster at your players is railroading because you are forcing them to deal with that encounter one way or another.

    You can’t even build a campaign without railroading to some small amount since you have to set up stuff for the PCs to do. Railroading is a necessary part of the game.

    That said, too much railroading removes the power or choice from a game and is probably one of the worst mistakes a GM can make. In terms of plot construction and inter-weaving, you can use railroading to your advantage while making your players think it *isn’t* railroading.

    …Issue 3) RPGs have more in common with improv theatre then screenplays. No matter how good you are the players are always a factor you cannot accurately predict. Even if you could predict the players you cannot predetermine the outcome of the dice. I’ve seen plotting foiled by players throwing 3 20′s in a row and a dragon survive certain death because the archer failed to not roll a 1

    I think that it depends on which part of the game you’re talking about. For encounters, NPC interaction, world description, and all the little ways a GM makes a world come alive, I totally agree that RPGs are more like Improv.

    However, for crafting a narrative campaign with depth of story that has your players marveling at the web of connected events linking their actions to a larger plot, RPGs are more like screenplays.

    The honest truth is you need both, in my opinion. But then I come from a screenwriting arena so naturally I tend to look at things through those lenses. Hopefully some of these insights will be helpful to you and the other folks who were kind enough to give it a read.

    On a positive note: You’re older stuff with the monsters kicked some serious arse. In particular I liked the canivorous ship…

    Hehe, yeah, that one still haunts my games…..much to the joy of my players.

    Thanks,

    Brian

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