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.

7 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.

  4. Josh W

    Something that pops out to me, reading that last thread, is that the connection should not be to the number. Like maybe you got a comment on g+ or twitter or whatever, but that guy’s comment was on set pieces, it just happens to refer to a structure that also has three acts.

    Here’s a question, how many episodes of the original batman series would you watch at a time? My bet is now, as an adult, if you’re really into watching them, you’d watch maybe two or three.

    So what if you use that batman “three act” structure (each of which ends in a set piece) as a stepping stone to make your own 9 stage rpg model?

    Step 1

    Introduce characters, tone and problem to the players. Things are open, low key, or possibly investigative. Fights are minor and threaten the environment and npcs more than the players.

    Step 2

    React with your npcs to players strategies dealing with the problem. Paraphrasing the batman writers, create rising action towards an inevitable conclusion. Great time to speed up compels, both to focus attention, and create problems.

    Step 3

    Kick off that conclusion, your big set-piece

    Step 4

    Start a new cycle, except instead of giving players hooks on a new problem, base it on what happened in step 3, maybe even give information in step three that makes investigation natural. Also a great place to bring in different supporting characters, just as a new batman episode might.

    Step 5

    Get ready for the next set piece in step 6, bringing in that increased opposition, compels etc. just possibly shifted towards making the new conflict inevitable or shifting your aesthetics to match it.

    And so on for the remaining steps, with 7 to 9 repeating 4 to 6, and with step 9 resolving everything completely.

    Is this a good way to run an rpg? It’s basically a process of breathing in and out, expanding the flexibility and uncertainty in the investigative phases (1, 4, 7) after the big set piece, then closing and focusing things down as enemies react and problem solving possibilities get reduced down to your setpiece.

    It is railroady, obviously, but if players are playing from the perspective of trying to find the big fight, then there won’t be so much clash between the different phases.

    One thing I notice that’s cool about this is that the batman cartoon treats batman as an iconic unchanging figure, and so this version of an act structure fundamentally focuses on the situation itself, rather than some of those more Dan Harmon-esque models of story that focus on protagonist characters going through changes. This is an “adventure driven” story writing model, which makes it fairly suitable to player characters who are similarly iconic and will just want to take the staging of a set piece and warp it to fit their internal aesthetics.

    The problems and set pieces can be set up such that they challenge one of the aspects of the player characters, like maybe even writing the set pieces based on contrasting them with one or two aspects the player characters have. So then, when they defeat this challenge set up by you basically just to be cool, it still feels character driven because of the way that the characters have made it relate to themselves again.

    Probably, instead of a one hour set of 3 20 minute mini-movies, you’ve got something more like a 3 hour session of 1 hour parts, as each stage could easily take between 10 mins and half an hour. Could be four hours easy with settle down time and wrapping up. (Though you could also build a cliffhanger at the end of the session, and continue this pattern forever!)

    But, that’s an rpg session! Done.


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