Story Structure

Reposted from Here
Today we’re talking about the story skeleton, and the idea that any story can be boiled down to two simple sentences:


The idea is simply plug in what you plan to use as the variables. Now, the idea that this same model could be used for adventure design is pretty much obvious, so much so that some games have incorporated it. Probably the best example of this is Gareth Michael Skarka’s Underworld which has an extensive adventure seed generation section. It begins with a skeleton from screenwriting rather than novel writing, but which looks quite familiar.

The main characters must [DO SOMETHING] but have to contend with [COMPLICATIONS] while being confronted by [OPPOSITION](1)

Combined, they provide a flow that looks something like:
Premise –> Character —> Goal/Action —> Complication —->Opposition

The interesting difference is that novel version emphasizes the premise but does not worry about complications which are not opposition and the film version is indifferent to premise. I end up wondering if they’re the same thing – after all, in many stories, the premise establishes the complications. In reading, I think not, so I break them out. The Novel writing one is ultimately the one I’d stick with since it seems to be more conflict-driven (Since writing needs conflict, and film needs spectacle) but that’s a matter of taste.

Now, here’s the rub. If you can boil your adventure down to one sentence, that’s pretty powerful mojo, since it’s serves as an excellent thinking tool. Especially if, like me, you prefer a minimum of prep. it can Crystalize all of the things you’ve got rattling around. To take an example, I’m looking at my next Exalted session, as it currently sits in my head:

“With the forces of Thorns marching north, our heroes race to gather their armies and recover the artifact that may be the undoing of the Juggernaut. But can they succeed when in the face of Sidereal dedicated to eradicating their existence?”

That’s actually kind of weak, and boiling it down like that nicely highlights the potential problems for the game. First, I have 2 very separate goals, but only one notable point of opposition, which will probably be resolved by a big fight scene at the beginning of the session, and since Thorns is not going to show up until the end of the session, I’ve got a long stretch with no conflict. I could fill it with scenery chewing, but that would kind of be a cheat.

So I can drill down on the issue of raising their armies. They’ve gathered much of the mundane force already, have an NPC gathering another set of troops, but have not yet raised their spirit and elemental allies. That immediately suggests some possibilities – spirit court politics could easily add an element of intrigue to the latter half of the session, especially if I personify it – another God, equal in power to the PCs Ally, who refuses to fight and influences most of the local spirits. This could be complicated nicely by the fact that one of the mercenary groups the PCs hired have their own agenda. I could even extend it into the mortal realm, with the question of mortal soldiers and officers who think it’s suicide to stay. Were I to do this, the summary become more:

“With the forces of Thorns marching north, our heroes race to gather their armies and recover the artifact that may be the undoing of the Juggernaut. But can they succeed when the Sidereals strike and their armies are threatened from within?”

Much tighter and usable. (2)

Alternately, I could say “Ok, the army thing is going well enough, I need to find something else”. An old enemy or friend could show up. I could throw an assassin at them. When I get an idea, i can try to see if I can make a summary skeleton out of it.

So the skeleton can be a tool to create an idea (put flesh on it) or one to refine and analyze an idea (by stripping down to it). Some GMs may wan tto use it both ways, some only one or the other, but it remains a simple, powerful tool and one well worth keeping in the toolbox.

1 – He then expands that into amore gaming specific: The main characters must [DO] [SOMETHING] at [LOCATION] , but have to contend with [COMPLICATIONS] while being confronted by [OPPOSITION] and provides charts with 64 options for each variable. This is really neat, but it also subtly changes the purpose of this tool. Where the simple skeleton helps provide a tight focus on what you’re doing, this more detailed approach can provide more inspiration but at a risk to that clarity of focus. This does not mean it’s a bad method, quite the contrary, but it’s important to realize that more variables do not simple make it better.

2 – And it may well be the thing I end up using, despite the fact that some of my players will read this, because they’re all grown ups, and not everything needs to be a complete surprise. I would even go so far as to suggest that if a player group gets the skeleton in advance, it means that they can say to the GM “I’d like to make sure that this thing which is of interest to me comes up because it’ seems appropriate.” For example, If you know the next session is going to involve the Order of the Hand, and a PC has a mentor from that organization, it lets them go to the GM and say “I want a scene with him”

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