Story Arcs


Party Time

Wayne’s World, etc. Last week I talked about getting players to tell the story of how they got together, and I said to ask questions and work to get their story to fit with the setting. Basically, to play the role of the producer, rather than the director. There were a few tweets on what you actually do for that, so I’m going to do a short series on it. It’s easy to say, but harder to do, so I’ll get to some of the tools. This week is about helping them create a story arc. You’re the GM. You make these kinds of things up all the time, and often on the fly when they wander off the reservation, which is pretty much always if your players are like mine. They have a lot less experience, but here’s how you can help them without making the decisions for them. 

The ordinary story arc I use as a model has five things:

  1. A setup, some situation where both the characters would be.
  2. A common goal for the two characters.
  3. A challenge, something for them to overcome.
  4. A climax, where everything comes to a head.
  5. A denouement, where the characters recognize that they’ve bonded.

I use those as prompts to fill in what they’re missing.  If they have a situation, then the next step is to get them to identify a common goal. This can be a common enemy they want to take down, an item they both want to pursue, or anything else. Try to avoid common goals that put the characters in competition though, such as vying for the heart of a gentleman, or each trying to steal the same object. The idea is to get them to work together and trust each other. I’m not saying never, but make sure that the goal of establishing trust is in their minds at every step.

The challenge is often a villain, but it can be a natural disaster, a legal system, or just a large obstacle. Anything that keeps both of the characters away from their objective for a time will work. It also usually involves both of them working together to overcome it. Without that, there’s no need for them to rely on each other, and relying on each other is what will create trust. Get them to describe the challenge in detail. It’ll make it more real to them, and increase their investment. Then find out how they overcome it to reach the next stage of their journey. That can be another challenge, or they can move on to the climax.

The climax is where they have their final showdown with whatever. If they’re looking for the Gem of Storms, which stands in the a temple at the heart of a hurricane, then they might have to fight the temple guardian. If they’re trying to solve a murder, then maybe they’re chasing the killer down. Whatever it is, it’s big, it’s fast, and things are resolved in some way. They don’t have to win. A lot of great stories can come out of the characters not reaching their common goal, because unlike actual gameplay, the real goal of the exercise is to get them to form a bond.

Finally, there’s the denouement, where they trade quips and ride off into the sunset. How they part is nearly as important as how they meet, and creates a setup for what they’ll do when they meet again. Get them to set the tone for their meeting, and it’ll plant a seed for a more interesting relationship.

Here’s an example of a story arc.

Slade Grey is a gunslinger, tracker, and drunk. He crawled into a bottle after his wife was shot by Lucas Black, the deadliest outlaw in the West. He tried to face Black down, but he was too fast, and left Grey in the dirt. But Sam White, a gambler and man about town also has a grudge against Black. He heard a legend about a fox spirit in a cave out past the Thunder Mesa, whose magic can make a man as fast as lightning. Fast with cards, White’s afraid of guns, so he recruits Grey, and they ride out.

They face three challenges on the road to Thunder Mesa. the first is a brutal sandstorm, and Grey’s survival skills are needed to find shelter. the second is in the small town of Rock Falls where, after a barfight, the sheriff locks Grey up. A man died in that fight and Grey’s to blame. He’ll hang in the morning. White plays fast and loose to get Grey out, learning a few of the sheriff’s peccadilloes, enough to blackmail his friend free. He also learns that Lucas Black is also on the trail of the Fox Spirit, whose power will make him unstoppable. The final challenge is a gunfight with Black’s men outside the cave. Grey pins them down with his rifle while White sneaks behind for an ambush, dispatching them quickly.

Rushing into the cave, the two men find that they’re too late, as the outlaw Lucas Black is engulfed in crimson light. His hands are a blur, and a bullet slams into Grey’s chest, leaving him bleeding and wheezing. Another shot rings out, a smoking gun in Sam White’s hand. His knees are shaking, but it was now or never. the power of the Fox Spirit dies with Black, but the West is safe from his terror. Slinging Grey’s wounded form over his horse, White leads him back to Rock Falls where the locals can nurse him back to health. Sharing a final drink with the wounded warrior, White tips his hat and rides off into the sunset.

And that’s the arc. Setup, common goal, challenges, climax, and denouement. they’re ready to work together come game time again, and ready to learn about what the other has been up to since their adventure in the Thunder Mesa. Next week I’ll go over some specific questions that are good to ask when conducting this exercise. In the meantime, what are your ideas for challenges? How about common goals? Leave them in the comments!

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