Yesterday I saw an article about the pacing in RPGs and 3-act story-arcs at Run a Game, which made me think of something that has been on my mind several times before. I actually think it’s a really good explaination of the subject and I don’t mean to criticize the authors views, but I think there’s something fundamentally flawed, or at least problematic with the whole premise of the subject.
The first sentence of the main article goes “Most western stories are structured around three acts”. And that’s the whole problem with it.
Three act story structure may be a classic and considered tried and true, and I think when it comes to theatre plays and movies, it’s still a valid approach. There are only two or maybe three hours to tell the whole story and that really isn’t that much time to have an elaborate beginning and end, as well as a good deal of additional action between them in the middle. But when we’re dealing with both literature, roleplaying games, and also video games, this is usually not a restriction the writer has to work with. And there is a serious downside to this approach. Because three act structure is comon in most western stories, things tend to become fairly formulaic. Not only do we have a pretty good idea what will happen, but also when it will happen. Things are getting too predictable. The first act twist and second act twist are not twists, and the third act revelation is not a revalation. Because we already know that they are coming, often long in advance.
A great example of this would be the Mass Effect series. In my oppinion, Mass Effect 2 is the greatest video game ever made. It actually beats everything else that is out there. But when I finished the game for the first time and the credits were playing, my first thought was “Wow, what a great ending. But what room is there really to continue from here?” While each game may have its own three act structure, the series as a whole is three acts as well. The first game introduces the great threat, and while it is contained for now at the end, we still know that this was just a first taste of the real trouble to come. In the second game, it is “where the protagonists make progress toward solving the story problem, coming up with a goal and plans to address it, then gathering resources to achieve their goal: knowledge, skills, allies, and equipment. The stakes rise in the second act.” This was quoted directly from the Run a Game article (which again, does a really good job at examining the subject). But as soon as the credits ran, I know immediately what the next game would be like. Because there could only be one way the third game could be like. Things start to get much, much worse and it’s looking really bad for the heroes, but all hope rests on a newly introduced superweapon that may have the power to destroy the enemy, but will only be able to be deployed right at the brink of total annihilation when everything comes down to a massive final battle.
And that’s exactly what happened. Because it could not have happened in any other way. The conventions of the three act structure and the action hero genre demand it. Mass Effect 3 is now famous for being one of the most despised endings of any video game series with a backlash rivaled by few, if any, other things in the business. But as many problems as I have with the game, and there are a lot, I do give the writers a lot of credit for their attempt to break out of the overused cliches and do something different at the very end. They completely blew it in the execution, but I have great respect for them for at least trying.
I say, when it comes to the pacing for a campaign, stay well away from the standard three act structure. It’s just too predictable. In a minor spoiler for Mass Effect 3, there is a moment at the very end when the hero presses the button on the Phlebotinum Device and collapses from her injuries (female Shepard is the only true Shepard), having come all this way to do what nobody else could have done, overcoming countless obstacles that defy what should be possible. And nothing happens. You even get a radio call from your allies, asking frantically if you have already activated it. Now in the game, there comes one more thing the hero needs to do to save the galaxy, but imagine if it didn’t. Imagine everyone put everything on one card… and it’s a dud. What happens then? Is it all over? Well the battle might have been lost, but turns out it wasn’t so final at all. What now? Do we have a Plan B? We really need to come up with a Plan B now! And that’s when things are getting really interesting and exciting! The players are in a situation they don’t know, in which there is no default way to continue on. And that means that at this points, the players have actually more freedom to take control of the game than they did at any other point of the campaign. But you don’t have to wait until the very end to do this, you can start with it from the very beginning. Have NPCs switch sides, have people change their mind about important things, let people make mistakes, and let good plans end in failure. Don’t have the players simply going through the motions and performing their role. It may be called roleplaying game, but it’s not about performing a role in a script, but take free control over a character. In recent years I’ve come to love Japanese and Chinese movies because they are telling stories I have not heard before. Things are happening that I didn’t anticpiate and not just because it’s an obligatory sudden twist that was unforseeable. There probably will be a cool fight scene in the end, but usually I don’t know who will win and who will get the girl. Maybe the girl wins?!
So yeah… Three act story arcs are bad, mkay…?
One thought on “3 Acts and no End in sight”
As it happens, the breakdown of the three-act structure, moment-by-moment, the methodology by which it is used in role-playing games and the manner in how dramatics LIMITS the role-playing game are fully covered in chapter four of my book, How to Run. The linked article does a fair job of comparing the 3-act structure to adventuring, but doesn’t go that extra step – if applied, what are the consequences? More importantly, what of the 4th wall, the one that breaks the drama and is intrinsic to the design and fully-fleshed conception of role-play?