Saturday, December 15, 2012

Narrative Structure in D&D

Narrative structure is used in many types of fiction like movies, television, video games, etc.
I take a look at narrative structure and how it can improve storytelling and game play.

Narrative Structure means that a story is structured in 3 acts:
  • setup
  • conflict
  • resolution
We start with a situation and the characters involved.
A problem is introduced leading to conflict.
This conflict keeps rising until a climax is reached.
At the moment of the climax, the status quo can no longer be maintained.
The resolution results in a new status quo.


seed growing
"Grow Seed" courtesy of
A story in D&D can follow several flows:
  • optimistic growth model: The PCs encounter a challenge, overcome it and get rewards making them stronger.
    Even if loss occurs, it is temporary and easily fixed.
    For example: death with Raise Dead Ritual.
  • conflict model: The PCs encounter challenges and may endure a setback. This setback is usually due to choices they make.
    The setback can be the loss of levels, magic items, gold, allies, reputation, etc.
    Some challenges may even be unbeatable,
    retreat may be the only option.

Setbacks result in a source of quests.
The PCs want to make things right again.
Even one of the hardest setbacks,
a total party kill can be handled as a setback.
The story always goes on, even with complications.

Communication between DMs and Players is important.
The players should know what kind of game to expect.

Unpredictable players

Players are unpredictable, but the 3 arc structure can still be maintained.
Quests and adventures use the structure, but players bypass them or react unexpectedly.
This merely moves the resolution of the 3 arc structure to a different point in time.

A setup for an antagonist could be made, and the players bypass the conflict and immediately resolve it.
Or a quest is no longer available for the PCs and they witness only its resolution.
Or a setup for a quest is given but the PCs ignore it.


Quests usually follow the 3 act structure.
Adventures usually have a large scale 3 act structure spanning multiple sessions.

Either way, the 3 arc structure is focused on giving the PCs problems to solve.
This puts the characters before hard choices.
Character Development is driven by hard choices: push hard enough until a choice needs to be made.
The PCs have much more to lose and will be more invested.
Unless they lose too much or too much regarding their expectations.
Pressure creates creativity in actions and ultimately better play.

Nonlinear stories

Nonlinear stories
offer many possibilities:
  • In media res: the PCs are thrown in the conflict and gradually understand the situation.
  • False climax: lead PCs into an encounter which they think is the final battle. In a a twist the real battle follows. 
  • Converging stories: in the introduction session the PCs come together from different settings to start their journey as a group.
  • Flashbacks: the players control a low-level party, usually set in the past.
  • Flash Forward: Players get to experience a high-level version of their characters in a dystopia where they failed to stop the apocalypse.
Flashbacks and Flash Forwards allow players to play other characters in a long running campaign.
They are helpful to get information across, a nice way for exposition instead of an information dump.
This makes storytelling more like 'show, not tell'.

Have you used nonlinear stories?
What kind of setbacks your player characters endured?

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