John Rogers (the creator of Leverage and author of a bunch of a nifty stuff) wrote a really great essay on “3-Point Plotting” over at Thrillbent. I recommend checking out the whole thing, but I also want to pull out a couple of concepts from it and talk about them in the context of roleplaying games.
I’ve said in the past that you Don’t Prep Plots when you’re game mastering, but a lot of what Rogers is talking about is still applicable. His basic conceit is that the plot of any given story consists of three points: DISRUPTION, REVERSAL, and CONCLUSION. (By “plot” he’s specifically talking about the causal chain of events that make up the narrative.)
Let’s start with the DISRUPTION:
THE DISRUPTION is readily apparent in episodic structure. It’s the inciting incident, the problem, the change which the characters in the show MUST deal with. (…) “Some problems can wait twenty minutes. Sometimes you gotta solve a problem in the next five minutes or unpleasantness shall occur. And sometimes there’s a guy in the room with a fuckin’ knife. Deal with the guy with the fuckin’ knife, and move on from there.”
The Disruption, ideally, is the guy in the room with the fuckin’ knife. Now, it’s not necessarily that. As you move the intensity of the Disruption back in the timeline, the tone of the piece changes. “Guy in the room with a knife” gives you danger, pulp plotting. A “five minutes from now” problem gives you urgency, but control. Part of the fun is in watching the ad hoc planning your characters throw together to deal with the “five minutes from now” problem. Competence porn lives in the world of the “five minutes from now” problem. A “twenty minutes from now” problem gives you dread.
In general terms, the DISRUPTION is the scenario hook. And if we’re talking in terms of the Art of Pacing, it’s also the Bang that you use to launch a scene. (Rogers is primarily talking about the plotting of serialized drama, but a lot of the stuff he’s talking about can also be seen fractally throughout a narrative.)
I find that conceptual distinction between knife problem/five minute problem/twenty minute problem in the second paragraph very useful (particularly when it comes to the emotional implication of each type of disruption). A lot of GMs (including myself) find it easy to fall into a rut with the way we handle our disruptions: If the PCs are exploring a dungeon, every disruption takes the form of a “knife problem” (i.e., the goblins jump out and attack the players.) But given the exact same goblins, you can also frame that in terms of a “five minute problem” (i.e., you can hear a large group of goblins coming towards you from the west, what do you do?) or a “twenty minute problem” (i.e., the ogre told you there was a large encampment of goblins on the second level of the dungeon).
Similarly, if you’re running a Shadowrun campaign and every scenario starts with Mr. Johnson calling one of the PCs and asking them for a meeting, see what happens if you start the next scenario by having Mr. Johnson come jumping through the window of the PC’s apartment with a bullet in his shoulder and assassins on his tail! (In other words, reframe your twenty minute problem as a knife problem.)
THE REVERSAL is best described by my friend DJ McCarthey: “It’s the moment, when the movie … becomes an entirely different movie.” Too many scripts I’m submitted have a bunch of mini-reversals, the dreaded “and then” syndrome. Stuff happens, and then other stuff happens … Even in a well-plotted story when all the plot developments occur primarily because of the actions of the characters or logical but unexpected complications of the setting (the much loved SOUTH PARK creators advice “replace all moments in the outline of ‘and then’ with ‘therefore’ or ‘but’) the story feels flat.
It’s a subtle distinction, but a good central reversal — and the middle of the story is the right place for it — always seems to elevate even a straight-ahead episodic-style story.
Because the GM isn’t in control of how a scenario actually plays out, REVERSALS can be a lot more difficult to pull off in roleplaying games than in other mediums. However, I would point out that the lack of control can actually make for some really fantastic reversals as long as the GM remains open to them: Allow the actions of the PCs to radically reframe events.
For example, in my Ptolus campaign there was a scenario I introduced where the order of knights that one of the PCs belonged to was experiencing a religious schism. I had the leaders of both factions send messages to the PC urging them to meet with them ASAP to discuss the schism. The intended scenario was that the PC knight would choose which of the factions he wanted to join. The PC, however, decided that one of the messages had to be a honeytrap: His loyalty was being tested. So he responded by reporting the message to the leader of the other faction. FIRST REVERSAL: This is now a story about the PC accidentally betraying their friend. This was followed shortly thereafter by the SECOND REVERSAL when the PC discovered their mistake and was now faced with the need to somehow warn and save their friend.
(Simpler example: You think is the story of Noble Hero A. But then Noble Hero A is arrested and, instead of being rescued or staging a daring escape, he’s summarily executed by the Evil Overlord. What the fuck? Of course, this sort of thing happens all the time when you’re determining the outcome of combat randomly and don’t give your PCs or NPCs script immunity.)
The other thing to keep in mind about REVERSALS is that they’re frequently based on incomplete or inaccurate information: You think one thing is happening and then the story suddenly reveals that the reality is something completely different. A lot of GMs make the mistake of having the official or unofficial mission briefing for the current scenario accurately report exactly what the scenario is going to be.
For example, the scenario the GM wants to run is a ruined castle full of soul-sucking undead. So he has the local villagers tell the PCs: “Hey, there’s a castle full of soul-sucking undead.” Nothing wrong with that, of course, but the GM could very easily stage the scenario for a major reversal by simply making the villager mistaken: “There’s something weird going on up at the old castle ruins. We think another band of gutter goblins have moved in there.” That way, when it turns out to be soul-sucking undead, the PCs will be totally surprised.
(An example of this that always sticks out in my memory: John Givler, who used to frequent the AD&D FidoNet Echo, once ran an adventure featuring an albino red dragon. The players, who heard reports of a “white dragon”, bought supplies to protect themselves from cold. “Imagine the looks on their faces when it breathed fire.”)
… THE CONCLUSION. The end. The new status quo. Not the return of the status quo, but the new one. Whatever new equilibrium has been reached. “Equilibrium” because it’s a situation, in serialized storytelling, which should be able to be easily disrupted. The status quo is always a delicately balanced thing, little stepping stones of resolution as you leap across the river of your season-long Stories.
Effective conclusions can be one of the hardest things for a GM to pull off when they leave the broken training wheels of railroading behind them. But a lot of RPGs are essentially serial storytelling and, as a result, Rogers’ advice regarding conclusions is particularly useful: When the status quo or equilibrium returns, try to focus the group’s attention on how the events they’ve just experienced have altered that status quo. (This change can be either internal or external in relation to the characters or the group.)
You can emphasize this alteration by using it to frame the next Agenda that will disrupt the equilibrium and drive the action forward.