Page 9 – The Four Acts

Here is the next part of my GM’s campaign designer workbook. This section explains the four acts model that is central to my idea of how to plan your campaigns.

     This workbook uses a simple four act design that is not only the structure used for the campaign overall, but it is also embedded into each act itself, each session, and even individual scenes.

     This formula is used again and again because it works. After becoming familiar with the formula you will notice, or perhaps you already have, how it is used in many works of fiction (films, television, novels, etc.). The reason that it works is because it is hardly noticeable unless you are actively looking for it. The four act formula blends the background seamlessly so as not to distract the audience, but it is easily observed when needed by the analyst looking to understand a work’s structure better.

     There are variations to the four act model, and you are encouraged to research and use those variations whenever you feel that you are ready for them, but for now focus on mastering how to use the four act formula. The individual acts are as follows:
  • The Introduction – This act is literally used to introduce the audience to the important elements of the story. It introduces the protagonists, the antagonists, the general setting, and any elements of the plot that will be relevant to the rest of the story.
    Do not confuse the introduction to be the same thing as a beginning. Many great works of fiction “start in the middle”, meaning that the action is already taking place. For instance, if a major element of your story is an invading army do not introduce your audience to this army as it beginning to form. Introduce your audience to the army during one of its attacks! Or introduce the army by having the audience hear the story of an attach from a surviving witness.
    The most important aspect for you to introduce is the conflict between the protagonists and the antagonists. Establish what each side wants, what each side is risking, and establish why a compromise cannot be reached.
  • The Rising Action – Once your audience knows the major components of your story you can focus on the conflict that you established. During the rising action you increase both the stakes and the potential rewards for each side of the conflict. This is done by introducing complications early in the act (which is an example of how the four acts scale both up and down).
    Continuing with the invading army concept, if your antagonists (the army) were seeking to capture every village on the edge of a nation and your protagonists (the PCs) were attempting to defend the villages you can introduce a complication for both sides by escalating the stakes and potential rewards for each side. The invading army might try to invade the capitol city which will surely bring them great wealth, but the risk is that they now face much stronger defenses as well. The protagonists might learn of an officer of the invading army who wants to defect to the other side. Finding and escorting that officer to a safe location would result in greater knowledge of the enemy, but it can only be done at the risk of going behind enemy lines.
  • The Climax – By now there should be a great deal of tension in your story. This is then the conflict that was at the heart of the story is resolved. It is the moment of truth for the protagonists, and if executed properly it will either change the protagonists or confirm what the protagonists have always claimed to be.
    Back to the invading army example – if in the previous act both sides overcame their complications (the invading army sacked the capitol city, and the PCs safely delivered the defecting officer to a safe location) you can repeat the formula by introducing a new story element. The defecting officer reveals that the leader of the invading army must complete an ancient ritual in the tower of the capitol city by midnight tomorrow to seal his power. During the rising action of the climax (again, the formula scales) the PCs learn that if they stop the ritual the evil leader’s army will crumble apart, but if they fail to stop the ritual the leader will have a new ally in the form of a powerful demon. The climax of the climax act (the formula scale yet again) is when the PCs and the leader face off at the tower right before midnight.
  • The Conclusion – With the final act you will explain how the various conflicts that were introduced throughout the previous three acts were resolved. Some of these conflicts will be resolved by setting up the story for the next round of the formula. In other words, the resolutions lead to new introductions for the audience.
    The conclusion of our invading army example might be the that the PCs prevented the ritual from being completed, which results in the invading army crumbling apart as its members literally atrophy and turn into piles of dust. The PCs capture the evil leader and learn that he is to be imprisoned for all time in a magical vault. The conflicts with both the army and the leader are resolved.
    Yet the PCs will then learn that the defecting officer who reveled the evil leader’s plans to them has vanished. Why? How? This strange event can now become the first act of a new series of four acts.
     Learn to use the four acts not only on a large scale, but also on a smaller scale. Every scene can follow the four act structure. You can introduce a beggar to the PCs who claims to have knowledge of what they are searching for. The rising action may be a negotiation between the PCs and the beggar, such as the beggar refuses to just give up his precious information for free but has revealed a small part of what he knows in order to whet the PCs’ appetites for the knowledge. The climax would be the resolution of the negotiations. Perhaps the PCs trade something of significant value with the beggar for the information, or maybe the PCs simply threaten the beggar with force. The conclusion comes in either the beggar giving the PCs the information and taking the trade, or perhaps the beggar lies to the PCs in order to escape their wrath. In either case, what the beggar tells the PCs is an introduction to another series of acts.
As always, tell me what you think about this idea and the draft content by leaving me a comment below.