Three Fights vs. Three Acts

A few folks brought up the three act structure in response to the three fight model, and while I get where they were coming from, there’s a distinction I want to call out that I think is REALLY important.

First, it is SUPER useful to understand the three act model for plotting your games. I would also say it’s very much worth learning other versions, most notably the 5 act model which is very common on television. Understanding these structures and tools can make you a better GM. Not because they provide strict rules to follow, but because if you get why they work on the screen and stage, then you can apply them in your play.

This is deep, valuable stuff. But I fear I consider the three fight model to be much simpler for one reason: it is much, much dumber.

That probably feels like a criticism, but it’s not. There are tools we want to be smart, and tools we want to be dumb, and the three fight model is in the latter camp. Its virtue lies in its simplicity, and I can illustrate this very simply:

  1. Imagine the cast of, say, Voltron. Any version. Pick one you know. If you don’t know Voltron, pick an action-y cartoon you like.
  2. Now, imagine that’s the game you’re running and those are the character’s played by your usual stablemates, with all their tastes and interests.
  3. Next, try to think of three cool fight scenes. Don’t go too deep, just sketch out the idea.
  4. Now set those aside, and instead think of a three act arc for them.

Was there a difference in ease between #3 and #4? If not, I envy you more than a little. See, for me #3 is super easy – I just mash up a few elements (Location, status, enemy type, maybe a gimmick) and I’m good to go. But when we get to #4, I have questions. I need to know more about the characters, the players, their interests and how to hook them in. I don’t want to tell a three act story, I want to deliver the experience the players want, which means I need a lot from them.

Heck, even if I didn’t need more information, I’ll end up struggling with the blank page problem. Building a three act structure is so profoundly open ended that I will be paralyzed just starting. In contrast, a fight scene is a constrained enough idea that I can churn it out.

That is why the three fight system is amazing to me where a lot of other structured models are merely interesting, informative or helpful. It strikes a solid balance between constrained enough for focus, but open ended enough that there are still bazillions of things to be done with it.

Now, having separated these two ideas, I should add that they do eventually grow together. Once you have the idea of three fights in your heart, it becomes possible to do more with the model (such as have the fights correspond with three act pacing, or finding other scene types that you can build as easily and well as you can fights). But I really want to call out that there’s nothing magical about structure or the number, three, the power is in how usable it is.

6 thoughts on “Three Fights vs. Three Acts

  1. Aaron Griffin

    I wonder if the Three Fight model works as a Three Obstacle model? If it does, doesn’t that make the Three Fight model and Five Room Dungeon very similar? The difference is that the Five Room Dungeon model specifies the types of the fights, challenges, and connective tissue.

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Yes, sort of. It can really be the 3 ANYTHING model, but its speed of use corresponds directly to how constrained the ANYTHING is.

  2. Simon

    My first thoughts here about the three fight structure (especially since you introduced it with Robin Law’s Feng Shui) is how to morph it onto an investigative, Gumshoe style game.

    Do you start with 3 clues that solve the mystery. Give each a compelling set piece and then dump some connections between them?

    1. Rob Donoghue Post author

      Tricky, because I like to oversupply clues with the expectation that only a subset will be revealed. So, maybe, 5-6?

  3. Marcus Burggraf

    This will work great in the pulpy games I prefer. I had not heard of the Three Fight model before. I even have Feng Shui but to my shame never got around to reading it. Thanks for bringing it back to my attention. As Aaron said, some 3 Anything ideas would be great too. But I get that you need to constrain it otherwise you are too open and it becomes work.


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