Three Acts And The Hero's Journey
  • Three Acts And The Hero's Journey



    An RPG GM has many of the same tasks or duties as a game designer. Even though what I’m saying today can be taken as game design advice, it also applies to the GM as he/she creates an adventure, even as they prepare to run an adventure created by someone else. "A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder. Fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won." Joseph Campbell

    Film students are often taught that successful films and other stories - or perhaps just tragedies - always have three "acts;" but others suggest maybe five or nine acts, or seven points, or something else. I'm not going that far, but I will say that in games, if the game doesn't have phases where what the player does and thinks about changes from one phase to the next, then it had better be a short game or it's going to get tedious.

    There are MMOs (Massively Multi-player Online games) where people do the same not-very-interesting thing over and over again, called “the grind.” In fact it's so simpleminded that you can have bots (small automated programs) do it for you, and it can be so tedious that people are willing to pay somebody else to do it, and then buy the results (with real money). I would rather design a game/adventure where people enjoy the journey as well as the destination, so I try to avoid "the grind."

    There are lots of ways to define these three acts, going all the way back to Aristotle 2,500 years ago. The first act includes introduction of characters, and exposition of problems/conflicts. In the second act, the protagonist takes on various obstacles, usually an antagonist is involved, and this can be the darkest act when things look really grim. Then in the third act, you have a resolution or climax where the protagonist overcomes the obstacles, and a denouement - what happens afterward as things get sorted out.

    There’s plenty of disagreement about the ideal way to construct stories, which leads us to the modern notion of the Hero's Journey. This was identified by Joseph Campbell in the book The Hero with a Thousand Faces in1949. The original Star Wars movie, apparently deliberately, tends to follow the Hero’s Journey, with a call to adventure, an initial refusal to get involved (until Luke’s family is killed), a mentor (Obi-Wan), and on through many stages.

    Entire books other than Campbell's have been written about the story form. If you're into story creation you might read some of those books; but is it necessary for designing games and adventures? No, often the "story" is just an excuse to get to the action. Many adventures are about overcoming obstacles, not about stories, but what players and GMs prefer varies a great deal.

    Game designers design games, GMs design adventures, neither have to design stories. But some do. Some game designers (and some GMs) are frustrated novelists; they should become familiar with Campbell’s ideas.

    References:
    The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949), Joseph Campbell
    The Writers Journey: Mythic Structure for Writers, 3rd Edition (2007), Christopher Vogler

    ​contributed by Lewis Pulsipher
    Comments 13 Comments
    1. Jhaelen -
      'Grinding' has also been a part of the D&D pen & paper RPG. It's not unusual to find published adventure modules that include 'filler' encounters that serve no good purpose except make sure the PCs gain enough xp to level-up in time.

      It took D&D 4e to open my eyes to this common, boring practice. Now, the PCs in my games level up when it makes sense for the story, e.g. after completing an act. For me, as the GM it's great because I can concentrate on encounters that actually matter, and for the players it's liberating because they no longer feel they have to defeat every opponent. Evading a combat encounter is often the better option, especially since it saves time better spent roleplaying.
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jhaelen View Post
      'Grinding' has also been a part of the D&D pen & paper RPG. It's not unusual to find published adventure modules that include 'filler' encounters that serve no good purpose except make sure the PCs gain enough xp to level-up in time.
      Agreed completely. Pathfinder's Adventure Paths are full of these, as the story is enslaved to the system. I think a lot of people - that is, people I know and with whom I game - have moved away from hard XP and are instead providing for character advancement. I think this works well in a level-based game like DnD, where in my home campaign the party just came home from a mission and had some downtime, and are starting off on their next adventure a level higher. It just makes sense.

      This is different in systems that are skills-based and use incremental "advancement by piece," like FFG's Star Wars, any WOD iteration, or the new Star Trek Adventures. Different, but not harder, since advancement is far more personal to individual character/player activity and customized to each, as well.

      Anyway, using story chapters and progression to determine advancement ties that mechanical aspect of the game firmly to the story, regardless of how many acts or phases or whatever you might create as GM, which then helps the game feel more like a story. That's a good thing.
    1. robus's Avatar
      robus -
      Check this out: http://www.thewritersjourney.com/her...urney.htm#Hero

      the Writer's Journey is based on the Hero's Journey but for story creators rather than story analysts. There's a lot of great stuff in it, but you're right. Having story arcs that utilize key aspects of this will much improve the game.

      Edit: and now I see you included a reference to Vogler's book. It's very good!
    1. imagineGod's Avatar
      imagineGod -
      Thanks for mentioning the new RPG of Star Trek Adventures, lyle.spade.

      Yet, FFG Star Wars is still my most exciting RPG at my table for years now with its Duty and Obligation story level-up mechanics for Age of Rebellion and Edge of the Empire. With regards to these story level-up mechanics, whenever your rebels finish a session, they usually gain some significant Duty points, that in the next adventure facilitate even better favors or access requisition better starships for the next mission.
    1. lewpuls's Avatar
      lewpuls -
      Quote Originally Posted by robus View Post
      This is a good substitute for reading the books, gives some idea of the context in connection with all stories

      Thanks for the reference.
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      Quote Originally Posted by lyle.spade View Post
      Agreed completely. Pathfinder's Adventure Paths are full of these, as the story is enslaved to the system. I think a lot of people - that is, people I know and with whom I game - have moved away from hard XP and are instead providing for character advancement. I think this works well in a level-based game like DnD, where in my home campaign the party just came home from a mission and had some downtime, and are starting off on their next adventure a level higher. It just makes sense.

      This is different in systems that are skills-based and use incremental "advancement by piece," like FFG's Star Wars, any WOD iteration, or the new Star Trek Adventures. Different, but not harder, since advancement is far more personal to individual character/player activity and customized to each, as well.

      Anyway, using story chapters and progression to determine advancement ties that mechanical aspect of the game firmly to the story, regardless of how many acts or phases or whatever you might create as GM, which then helps the game feel more like a story. That's a good thing.
      Agree completely. I use PF arcs, but end up taking out huge swaths of encounters, or changing them to non-combat ones.Drives me crazy when Paizo will give an enemy a page of really interesting back story, and then just have him attack.I use milestones, the players don't end up as high level at the end, so then I am changing the villains to suit. A lot of the arcs end up very different, but I still use some of the arcs, because there is often good story ideas embedded in the story paths.
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arilyn View Post
      Agree completely. I use PF arcs, but end up taking out huge swaths of encounters, or changing them to non-combat ones.Drives me crazy when Paizo will give an enemy a page of really interesting back story, and then just have him attack.I use milestones, the players don't end up as high level at the end, so then I am changing the villains to suit. A lot of the arcs end up very different, but I still use some of the arcs, because there is often good story ideas embedded in the story paths.
      Years ago, when running the Kingmaker AP, my group decided to hand-wave almost one whole book - the Varnhold Vanishing - because it added nothing to the story and really served more as a way to build levels and enrich the party with magical items. Its connection to the metastory was almost non-existent, and it was more of a tedious dungeon crawl than anything else.
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      Quote Originally Posted by lyle.spade View Post
      Years ago, when running the Kingmaker AP, my group decided to hand-wave almost one whole book - the Varnhold Vanishing - because it added nothing to the story and really served more as a way to build levels and enrich the party with magical items. Its connection to the metastory was almost non-existent, and it was more of a tedious dungeon crawl than anything else.
      We have done that too. Think maybe arcs could be cut down to 4 parts. You are absolutely right, as there is often a whole book adding nothing to the story. Find the beginning parts are often way more interesting and varied.
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Quote Originally Posted by Arilyn View Post
      We have done that too. Think maybe arcs could be cut down to 4 parts. You are absolutely right, as there is often a whole book adding nothing to the story. Find the beginning parts are often way more interesting and varied.
      We ended up dumping the last book in that AP, too, as it took the story in a bizarre direction that was supposedly (according to the authors) foreshadowed throughout the whole AP, but hadn't been. I loved Kingmaker books 1, 2, 4, and 5, but 3 and 6 were odd departures from the story.

      I played in a group that made it to the third book in the Carrion Crown AP before we revolted against how awful the thing was. That third book was chock full of mindless encounters and others rooted entirely in the assumption that players would seek to get involved in every little thing along the way to their destination. Hand-waving those meant dumping most of the module, and we decided to dump the AP entirely. Bummer, too, because it had promise - but it was just too much of a railroad with a series of pointless stops along the way.

      Any system that emphasizes mechanics so much can fall prey to this sort of silliness.
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Quote Originally Posted by imagineGod View Post
      Thanks for mentioning the new RPG of Star Trek Adventures, lyle.spade.

      Yet, FFG Star Wars is still my most exciting RPG at my table for years now with its Duty and Obligation story level-up mechanics for Age of Rebellion and Edge of the Empire. With regards to these story level-up mechanics, whenever your rebels finish a session, they usually gain some significant Duty points, that in the next adventure facilitate even better favors or access requisition better starships for the next mission.
      Thanks for the nod. I like STA a great deal - FFG's SW, too.
    1. Arilyn's Avatar
      Arilyn -
      Quote Originally Posted by lyle.spade View Post
      We ended up dumping the last book in that AP, too, as it took the story in a bizarre direction that was supposedly (according to the authors) foreshadowed throughout the whole AP, but hadn't been. I loved Kingmaker books 1, 2, 4, and 5, but 3 and 6 were odd departures from the story.

      I played in a group that made it to the third book in the Carrion Crown AP before we revolted against how awful the thing was. That third book was chock full of mindless encounters and others rooted entirely in the assumption that players would seek to get involved in every little thing along the way to their destination. Hand-waving those meant dumping most of the module, and we decided to dump the AP entirely. Bummer, too, because it had promise - but it was just too much of a railroad with a series of pointless stops along the way.

      Any system that emphasizes mechanics so much can fall prey to this sort of silliness.
      I am excited about Zeitgeist. Am running it for my Pathfinder group. We have finished the first three parts, which were excellent. There is over arching story, but lots of room for players to get there however they please. Have high hopes quality will continue. Hope we have the stamina!

      We never finished Carrion Crown either. And my Serpent's Skull campaign ended up so different from Paizo's, that I wouldn't be able to comment on published one. My players had a blast, couldn't understand the poor reviews. Had to keep saying, you weren't actually doing that path...

      Council of Thieves was a favourite. Only had to do usual tinkering with that one.
    1. Shasarak's Avatar
      Shasarak -
      Quote Originally Posted by lyle.spade View Post
      Years ago, when running the Kingmaker AP, my group decided to hand-wave almost one whole book - the Varnhold Vanishing - because it added nothing to the story and really served more as a way to build levels and enrich the party with magical items. Its connection to the metastory was almost non-existent, and it was more of a tedious dungeon crawl than anything else.
      I dont get it, adventurers that dont want to be enriched with magical items? o_O
    1. lyle.spade's Avatar
      lyle.spade -
      Quote Originally Posted by Shasarak View Post
      I dont get it, adventurers that dont want to be enriched with magical items? o_O
      Funny! No, they were enriched with some of the stuff and a lot of the wealth. Rather than playing the adventure as their characters, we jointly narrated through it and added some elements, like more barbarian tribes from the east and a small brush war with them. The players, by the end of the 2nd book, were more interested in being kinds and running their kingdom and doing diplomacy and having wars and dealing with big stuff by that point, and not so much in dungeon crawls. So we worked through that part of the story around the table, treating it more like a strategy game than a 1:1 RPG. Once finished with that, I wrote some more story fluff to advance the timeline some (we recorded all this on the Obsidian Portal in addition to meeting weekly in person to play), and started the 4th book. It worked out well.
    Comments Leave Comment