Recently I've been very interested in learning about formal story structure. I find it fascinating, but do game masters have the luxury to think of their stories in such defined terms?
Stories are often described in terms of either three or five “acts,” described as follows:
Note that these are pretty similar, and can often be applied to break up the same story in slightly different ways. They both describe a beginning, middle, and end; five act structure just gives a bit more delineation of what goes on in the middle
If you have fifteen minutes to spare, I recommend checking out this video by Lessons from the Screenplay. It discusses how Five Act structure can be thought of as a more detailed description of Three Act, and questions the purpose of obsessing over where these arbitrary act breaks fall.
Speaking of five act structure, JohnnFour’s Five Room Dungeon template has become a popular method for designing D&D adventures. I have more than a hunch this was based off of Five Act structure, just from looking at them side-by-side.
I fell in love with this design when I first read about it, but found that there are several limitations with a standard five room dungeon. First of all, I think they’re a little short. If the party comes up with a clever solution to one of your obstacles, that’s a full 20% of the adventure down the drain. Clever solutions to obstacles is one of my favorite elements of tabletop roleplaying. It’s also explicitly linear. There’s nothing wrong with this— I’ll often design event-based adventures where one step naturally follows the next. However, I think it’s important to have variety in all things and break this up with a more open and nonlinear dungeon.
My philosophy of D&D session design lines up much better with three act design. I feel like it is possible to plan out a compelling setup and resolution to the story, but that most of the middle portion should be left up to the players or improvised at the table. This gives a lot more flexibility as opposed to building your adventure on the assumption that all five acts will be hit as intended.
All of this still focuses on acts as a semi-arbitrary unit of storytelling. What defines an act? Why should game masters care about all this theory?
Acts, scenes, arcs, encounters, adventures, campaigns— no matter what terms you use to organize your game, each one of these consists of a complete story. A scene starts when the party opens the door to the next room of the dungeon and sees some goblins. It ends when the goblins have been killed. The story of the goblins in room 13 has been told. That might take half an hour of gameplay. The story of delving to the bottom of The Lost Tomb of Fantasar and claiming the magical Cup of Magiccup will be much longer, but still a story all on its own. And this might make up part of an even larger story, where the party only needs the cup as part of their quest to defeat Baron Bygbadd.
This forms a kind of fractal structure, where individual encounters or scenes come together to tell a unified story, ideally played out over 2-3 hours (or however long you like to play in one sitting). Those adventures then come together to tell the even larger story of that character level, which is part of an even grander story arc
As I’ve written here before, every session should have a climax and resolution, but the last session in a level should be more significant and the last session in an arc of 4-5 levels even more so. This is kind of a "duh" moment, but as I said at the beginning, traditional act structure is so embedded in most of our consciousnesses that we use it without thinking about it.
The original Star Wars trilogy provides a good example of this in popular fiction. Each film is a self-contained narrative structure with its own climax, but it can also be examined as a whole. A New Hope introduces us to a galaxy far, far away; The Empire Strikes Back doesn't need to do quite so much exposition and instead escalates the tension; Return of the Jedi drops us right back, eventually resolving the conflict that has run through all three (until The Force Awakens revealed that what seemed like a death-blow to the Empire didn't actually change anything).
D&D's tiers of play also function well for this. There first three to five levels should have their own story arc, but are also a fantastic opportunity to introduce players to the world. In the middle levels, not only are the players naturally fighting stronger enemies than before, but it's suggested that the scope of the plot increase. Instead of dealing with issues threatening a single town, they may save a kingdom, perhaps even rule one. And at the highest levels of play, stakes should be on the worldwide or even multi-versal level.
Do you need to go read a bunch of Aristotle, Syd Field, or Joseph Campbell to be a good game master? Of course not. If anything, I think that going too far down the rabbit hole of formal story structure can be detrimental to a good tabletop roleplaying game. However, I think fractal design provides a good opportunity to impose a little bit of order on the chaos of an ambitious home-brew campaign.