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August 1, 2014

Pacing 3 - The Three Act Structure and the Hero's Journey

This post is part of a series on pacing.  See the other articles below.

In Pacing 1, I said why you need pacing.  In Pacing 2, I defined the elements of pacing:  scene types, agency, stakes, story scope, and unresolved tension.  In Pacing 3, I'm going to look at the bigger picture to talk about pacing the entire story.  If you pace the story correctly, it should maintain and increase in energy and excitement until the very end.

The Three Act Structure

Most western stories are structured around three acts.

The first act spends a lot of time on the introduction of the setting and characters.  The audience (in this case, your players) is still getting to know the setting and characters.  There are a lot of exposition scenes. It ends with a call to adventure (which the protagonists often refuse or misinterpret), and first act twist -- the event that commits the protagonists to the adventure.  This is the first real threat scene, and it pulls at the PCs' motivations -- their character hooks and group premise.  The stakes (other than general sorts of stakes related to characters and setting) aren't even in effect until the call to adventure.  The stakes don't start to rise until the first act twist.

The second act is the majority of the action in the story.  The rising action 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.  There are a lot of opportunity scenes, fewer exposition scenes, and more and more threat scenes.  Tension builds as the protagonists uncover more and more problems -- more than they can resolve, leading to a growing pile of unresolved tension (hence the name "rising action"). The second act ends with the second act twist -- a major threat that ruins the protagonists' plans and shows that all of their preparation is not enough.  The story problems are more insurmountable than they thought.  Threat after threat arises after the twist, sapping all of their agency, creating what's called "the darkest hour."  At this point, the protagonists are about to lose hope.

The third act starts with a revelation.  The protagonists learn what they need to know or find what they need to have in order to resolve the story problem.  They revise their goal and plan, and reach the climax of the story.  At the climax, there's usually a big, high stakes opportunity scene where they risk it all to put their plan in place.  The antagonists respond with a big, intense threat, but it opens up a new opportunity for the protagonists to land the knockout punch.  The third act ends with wrap-up, where loose ends get tied up, and we see the protagonists return to the state they were in at the start of the first act, only changed by their experience.  In RPGs, the third-act wrap-up is where the PCs are reminded of the adventure hooks and magic beans they picked up along the way -- their tie in to the next adventure.

The Hero's Journey

The hero's journey or hero cycle is a mythical version of the three act structure.  The two progress in a similar way.  I will use the three act structure to describe the hero's journey, so that you can think of both in the same frame of reference.

The hero starts off in the familiar world he knows, and the audience gets a feel for what that world is like.  It creates a baseline for the changes that are about to happen.  This is the first act introduction.  The hero doesn't understand the call to adventure or refuses it.  Problems mount, but the hero refuses to engage them, or doesn't see them.  Then the hero acquires a spirit guide or supernatural aid.  This is the thing that makes the hero special -- a magic sword, a wizard companion, a rogue AI, a prophecy, etc.  The problems build, and with the aid of this new supernatural ally, the hero crosses the threshold, accepting the call to adventure and crossing into the unknown.  This is the first act twist that helps the protagonists to see clearly that adventure calls.

This begins the second act.  The rising action is expressed as tests, temptations, and trials.  The hero also gathers resources, grows in skill, and learns about the mystery of the unknown.  In the hero cycle, the hero recruits several helpers.  In a classic hero cycle, the hero recruits the party in act 2.  In a typical RPG, the hero is an entire party of protagonist PCs; so this is where the party gains NPC allies.  The second act twist in the hero cycle is death (literal or symbolic), which takes the hero to the abyss (literal or symbolic), which is the same as the darkest hour of the three act structure.

From the abyss, the hero is reborn anew.  This starts the third act.  The hero goes through a transformation or turning point and acquires a talisman or elixir in the abyss, which the hero brings out to use against his foe.  This is the revelation of the three act structure.  From here, the hero vanquishes his foe, in the story's climax.  Then the hero returns home to the familiar world for the wrap-up.

As it is depicted as a cycle, the hero departs and returns from the same place - the familiar world they know well.  Their home.

Pacing the Three Act Structure

Now that you have the vocabulary to discuss pacing and a primer on the three act structure and hero's journey, let's go over how to use the elements of pace to create the three act structure and hero's journey in a tabletop RPG.  This is a sure fire way to keep the players' interest in your campaign.  It's a time-tested method for every session being more exciting than the last.

  1. Act 1
    1. Introduction:  Mostly exposition, some opportunity scenes; only use low stakes threats for setting and character development, if at all.
    2. Call to Adventure:  Exposition should be incomplete.  The call may be vague or confusing.  The need for adventure should start small and grow.  Continue with mostly exposition, slowly building tension toward the first act twist.  If you like the hero cycle, this is where you give them their supernatural aid.  They don't know what it is yet or why they need it.
    3. First Act Twist:  All of a sudden, raise the stakes with a high stakes threat that forces the PCs to form a plan.  Select stakes that are personal to them, hooked into their character backgrounds.  If you're using the hero cycle, the PCs' supernatural aid helps them survive the threat.
  2. Act 2
    1. Rising Action:  Build tension by using a few opportunity scenes to address the story problem (one or more to gather resources, then one or more to advance their plan to achieve their story goal), followed by a threat scene to build tension, and an exposition scene to add more unresolved problems related to the main story problem.  Repeat this process, slowly increasing the ratio of threats to opportunities.
    2. Gather Resources:  This is part of the rising action.  Make sure your allies are memorable and iconic.  Make the PCs either love them, hate them, or laugh at them.  This goes for factions, unique and important objects, and locations.  Love, hate, or comic relief.  This has the effect of bringing those people, places and things closer to the PCs' hearts, so that imperiling them later raises the stakes.
    3. Second Act Twist:  Hit the PCs with threat after threat after threat, driving them into a reactive, defensive posture.  Raise the stakes and give them some exposition to show that all that they have wrought is not sufficient to overcome the problem they thought they could overcome.
    4. Darkest Hour:  Push them until they hit rock bottom.  Take away all but one hit point.  Drive their sanity stat to the breaking point.  Kill off some of their allies, and send the rest into hiding.  Break their magic sword or total the AV-4.  Drive the stakes so high they seem impossible...
  3. Act 3
    1. Revelation:  Give them brief exposition and a big, desperate opportunity.  This is their second chance.  This is their chance at rebirth.  This is the magic elixir in the underworld (if you're using the hero cycle).  They put everything into one last super-duper high stakes opportunity scene... and win!  They're back in the game!  This should empower the players, making them feel in control again.
    2. Climax:  With their new resource, they attack the antagonist.  Here's another big opportunity scene with moderate to high stakes.  Follow it with a high-stakes threat that the PCs wallop, leaving the antagonist open for one final big opportunity scene -- the highest stakes of them all!  Climax!  Victory!
    3. Wrap-Up:  Take all the loose ends, unresolved problems, potential plot hooks (magic beans), etc. and let some resurface in low-stakes threat or exposition scenes, leading the PCs to the next adventure.  But let them go home, to the familiar world so that the familiar juxtaposes the intense world of the foregoing scenes.  Give them their reward for vanquishing the foe and solving the adventure problem.

A Tool for your GM Kit

Here's a tool to help you put all this to use.  Use this pacing planning sheet to help put scenes and events in a logical order that builds tension toward a climax.  The three act structure and hero's journey are archetypal story structures.  Using them will make your plot resonate with your players.

Up next, Pacing 4 - Eight Quick Techniques


  1. 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 post above 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?

    1. In part 1, I explain that better pacing leads to a better and more consistent increase in tension, which leads to greater excitement, which is more fun. The three act structure is a comfortable archetype for consumers of western media, like almost all gamers, so they will consciously and unconsciously react to it and support it with their actions. Would you mind sharing some of your thoughts about the consequences of using the 3 act structure or hero's journey?

  2. Mediaprophet - from the book, How to Run: an Advanced Guide to Managing Role-playing Games

    The formula for the three-act structure has developed over the centuries, as a means for playwrights to produce as full a range of human emotions as possible in the space of a two-hour play. Audiences become restless and unhappy as the clock approaches the third hour, even when they are given time for plumbing, cake and ale. They will sit in silence for only so long. Performances that run longer than three are hard to sell, and must rely upon a very special selection of theatre-goers, who will usually consider the longer play a badge proving their commitment to the arts. Because there are not enough of those to go around, however, drama is compressed as much as possible. Otherwise, audiences will dwindle, leaving the cake and ale sellers without coin.

    A role-playing game is not a theatre. There is no passive audience. The players are both audience and performers, switching back and forth as necessary. When the DM speaks, he has an audience; but then he diminishes and the players take parts with the DM and each other. The ‘performance’ is unlimited in time except by mutual consent – but four to six hours is a comfortable span. A single session may last from the late afternoon to the witching hour, or still on until dawn, if the participants are so inclined. Even at that, the string of sessions for one adventure may run forty or fifty hours, if sufficiently involved. The players themselves may change from session to session.

    In short, role-play is not limited by the constraints of the theatre. There are no merchants to satisfy. No narrative theme requires development and resolution. Without a passive audience, without a time limit, without even the need for a single climax or the weaving up of loose ends – which may proliferate, as there’s no requirement to tie them off – we must confess: there is no need for the three-act structure!

    Nor is there a need for the ‘adventure’ that demands a story arc with a beginning and an end, complete with middle path. Our insistence upon the format comes from our continuous exposure to familiar art forms – film, television shows, lectures, plays and historical tours . . . all of which are structured, from beginning to end, upon the limitation of time. Each is designed to tap emotions from the passive audience. We do not know how to do it otherwise.

    Settling down to produce my early adventures, I adopted the three-act structure without having known there was such a thing. It seemed natural, appropriate. Familiar. The question of its logic, where applied to role-playing games, never occurred to me.

    The tenets of drama are theme, orchestrated conflict, climax and denouement. These events rise and fall in a pre-conceived wave to compel the attention of the audience. The purpose is to send a message, give a lesson or highlight some relative aspect about life. Drama isn’t anything like a game.


  3. The tenets of the role-playing game are accumulation, application and ambition. The players acquire. They apply their skills towards their ambitions, which they develop from examining the setting and determining their capabilities. There is no playwright to define their capabilities. Only the DM exists to stop the players from aggressively pursue their ambitions and that is not the DM’s function.

    Drama moves inexorably the end of the performance – but there is no end in role-play. There is only more. More and more! There are short-term ambitions and long-term ambitions, and beyond those are impossible ambitions.

    In drama, the frame of the events is oriented towards an audience, where everything of importance can be seen without needing to turn one’s head. There is no frame that limits role-play. Not even the world itself, or the universe, is a hard limit. Drama is a ship in a bottle. Role-play is a ship upon the ocean.

    Hope that gives a sense of the larger chapter surrounding the subject.

    1. Hmm. Very thought provoking. And for old school sandbox play, I think it hits the nail on the head. But I prefer a game that draws me into drama. I prefer building tension; as Robin Laws puts it, to take me from hope to fear and back to hope. I like to feel that sense of progress, and get hit with that dastardly twist, but triumph anyway, 'against all odds.'

      I also write my games with problems to be resolved. The structure of that resolution is so much more exciting when the tension builds and then explodes at the climax.

    2. I also think that because the audience IS the protagonist(s), it makes building up tension so much more effective.