The 10 Minute Plot Formula

The text of this blog is copyright 2012. Have fun with the content but don’t pass it off as your own or try to sell it, Okay.

Today’s blog entry is about a simple scenario outlining tool I like to use.  It’s based on alternating action and exposition within a 3 act structure defined by the conventions of the pulp adventure genre (with a little recently discovered (at least by me) feature of  cinematic screenplay writing called the “goal reversal”).

As a starting point for talking about Scenario design I thought it might be worth discussing the way I generate a plot outline. This is the first thing I do when designing a game. It now takes me only about 10 minutes to put an outline together this way (and can be a huge help when I need to generate something quickly but is also the way I develop games that are larger in scope).

With regard to the origin of this little formula, it has a number of sources. Many years ago I read a great little book called Writing Fiction by Gary Disher (http://www.amazon.com/Writing-Fiction-An-Introduction-Craft/dp/1865085898/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1349133114&sr=8-1&keywords=gary+disher+writing+fiction). In it he gave a really lucid exposition of three act structure and how it can be used to construct a plot. There are certainly larger, more detailed books you can read on the subject, but for simplicity, brevity, and clarity, this little book can’t be beat. With regard to the creation of pulp stories, Lester Dent’s Pulp Master Fiction Plot Formula (http://www.paper-dragon.com/1939/dent.html) is an invaluable source. The instructions on “pickup” plot design found in Evil Hat’s fantastic Spirit of the Century rules (http://www.faterpg.com/dl/sotc-srd.html) gave me my first insight into using the structures of fiction writing to develop Role Playing plots along with the Action + Exposition formula discussed in R Talsorian’s (sadly out of print) Dream Park rules. And most recently, a little article at http://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue36.asp has provided me with an easy way to add variety to the formula.

Before I go any further I’d like to state that this isn’t an invitation to a flame war. There are lots of different ways to develop a plot. Lots of people hate 3 act structure as a conceptual tool. Fair enough. This is just a method I find helpful and if you don’t like it, don’t use it. What works for me may not work for you or, to put it another way, your mileage may vary.

So, without further ado, here’s the formula (followed by a variation and a couple of examples).

Its basically an extended version of the old Action plus Exposition (A + E) formula.  Each element of plot involves some action that leads to exposition ( a reveal of a clue).  I am using the term clue here to refer to anything that pushes the plot forwards rather than strictly referring to the kind of clue you might find in a mystery story.  As well as the more traditional note scrawled in the victim’s blood or the signet ring found at the scene of the crime, a clue could be the royal command of the king that sends the players out into the wilderness.  Clue is just a convenient label for “those discoveries which allow the players to move forward in the plot”.

Basic Formula

ACT 1.

  1. Inciting Incident. (A + E)
    This is the call to adventure. Heroes don’t go out looking for adventure. They are magnets for it. Adventure finds them.
    An event occurs that brings the adventure to them. This encounter must end with the revelation of a clue that leads to the next scene.
  2. Initial obstacle (minor). (A)
    This is something minor that leads to the first clue.
  3. First clue. (E)
    This is the element that leads the players to the next scene. It doesn’t need to be a clue in the traditional sense. It can be a message, the players can be arrested, a portal into another dimension can open – just something that pushes the players into the next scene.

ACT 2.

  1. Raising the stakes – (moderate obstacle(s)). (A+E, A+ E, etc)
    The players encounter new and somewhat more dangerous obstacles. This scene is usually where the villain is identified (at least in part – enough to make the objective clear and the villain concrete). Provide a new clue to lead the players to the next scene.
  2. Point of no return – Burn the player’s bridges. (A + E)
    Set the players on a path that will lead inexorably to the final confrontation. Provide them with a compelling reason why they cannot turn back now. Give the player’s a clue that will lead to the next plot point.
  3. Rising Tension. (A + E, A + E, etc)
    The players encounter even more dangerous obstacles of ever increasing difficulty as the lead up to the reversal (or optionally the goal reversal)
  4. Reversal – (give the player’s their darkest hour – and reveal a bunch of stuff). (A + E)
    The players find themselves trapped, discover the artifact they have sought is a fake, fail to save the girl or otherwise encounter an obstacle that leaves them feeling all hope has been lost only to escape at the last minute and encounter a clue that leads to the final confrontation.

ACT 3.

  1. Climax. (A + E)
    The players must now escape the cage or other circumstance that creates their “darkest hour” and encounter a clue which allows them to chase the villain to the final confrontation.
  2. Final confrontation and victory(?) (A)
    The player’s pursue the villain to a final confrontation where a fight ensues and the day is won or lost.
  3. (Optional) Daring escape (A) and/or twist (E)
    Sometimes the villain has rigged the base to explode on their demise, or the volcano begins erupting etc requiring the players to dash to safety. Sometimes there is opportunity for one last twist in which the dead villains body is discovered to be a decoy etc.
  4. Denouement. (E)
    Whether the adventure is concluded or is being transitioned into a brand new adventure, the players need a moment to catch their breath and see the fruits of their efforts. Who got the girl? What consequences have flowed from the players actions? What friends and enemies have they made, etc?

Variation

The following are inserted between the rising tension and reversal of the second act.

  1. (Optional) Goal reversal (A + E)
    The players discover that the goal they have been pursuing has been wrong.  The villain is not the villain at all (but a misunderstood good guy) or the real villain is revealed, or the object so desperately sought must instead be hidden lest it release some greater evil etc.  A new goal is presented.
  2. (Optional) Reorientation (A + E, A + E, etc)
    The players encounter even more dangerous obstacles of ever increasing difficulty that lead directly to the reversal.

Over time I have found myself coming back to this formula again and again, to the point where creating a game outline based on it is now the first step I take whenever I am creating a game.  In fact I can usually create a game using this outline in under 10 minutes if I am really pressed for time.  The result of creating a scenario in 10 minutes or less is usually a tale full of plot holes and inconsistencies (but if the action keeps moving at a fast enough pace the players usually don’t notice).

But isn’t it a bit linear?  Doesn’t it result in a game that railroads players through the plot?

These are good questions and I’m the first to admit that this method of developing a game won’t suit those who prefer sandbox adventures (adventures where characters can choose to go anywhere and do anything) but it is possible to create adventures around these outlines that give players lots of real freedom and choices (more on this in future posts).  That said, if your players are the kind who rebel at the first hint of plot – choosing to depart for Africa when they encounter the cooling body of a murder victim rather than investigating it in case they are being railroaded – then this method is probably not for you (and definitely not for your players).

Example Outlines

The above formula is not limited in application to the development of Pulp Scenarios alone.  I’ve used it to create scenarios in a whole variety of genres. Before I conclude I want to provide a couple of example outlines for different genres (pulp, horror, and fantasy).  Each one took under 10 minutes to create and gives you a reasonable idea of what a completed outline looks like.

Quick Plot 1 – Investigative (pulp) adventure

Act 1

a) Inciting incident – The players are attending a gala dinner in honor of the Police Chief when the music for “for he’s a jolly good fellow” begins piping through the air and people start falling unconscious all around them. Unlike the majority of the guests, the mayor has been poisoned and lies dead. In his pocket is a blackmail note (which he ignored) demanding that a particular item in the museum (say, a weirdly glowing statue) to be handed over.

b) Early obstacle – While the heroes are visiting the local museum in search of the statue a small group of thugs in clown costumes break in (accompanied by the tune to “for he’s a jolly good fellow” to steal it and a fight ensues – the cultists are easily driven off).

c) First clue – One of the fleeing clowns drops a bronze blow pipe. On examination it is stamped with a makers mark for a foundry here in [insert your city name here]).

Act 2

a) Raising the stakes – Following the clue to the abandoned foundry the players discover it to be a hastily abandoned hideout and encounter a series of deadly traps (each presaged by the tune to “for he’s a jolly good fellow” that they must avoid or disarm in order to get to a safe containing the next clue. Documents in the safe reveal the villain to be a blackmailer with dirt on many of the prominent families in the city. The proceeds of the blackmail are being used to by electronic components and small quantities of refined uranium – apparently the statue at the museum was radioactive. The papers also reveal that the Police Chief’s daughter is about to be kidnapped as a reprisal for thwarting an attempt to smuggle in a carton of illegal electronic components.

b) Point of no return – Arriving at the home of the Police Chief the player’s discover the girl has already been kidnapped and that a ransom note has been left stating that the gold bullion in the city’s major gold repository must be delivered in a large net within two hours to a particular location or a nuclear device will be detonated to destroy the city – any attempt to evacuate the city will result in the death of the girl. Give the players a clue that will lead to the next plot point (eg. A neighbor saw the girl being hustled into a van marked with the logo of the (now defunct) Wilson Theatrical Supplies company on its side – a firm located on the other side of town – the neighbor’s attention had been attracted by the loud playing of “for he’s a jolly good fellow”.

c) Reversal – Arriving at the abandoned Theater Supplies company the players can see a pair of helicopters tethered on the roof. The building contains large amounts of theatrical supplies (including clown suits). They hear the sounds of “for he’s a jolly good fellow” just as they are gassed and pass out. They awake to find themselves in a cage a few short feet from a ticking nuclear device. The Police Chief’s daughter stands over them laughing madly. She is the villain and has been orchestrating all this to be revenged upon her father who has beaten and abused her all her life – the mayoral dinner in his honor pushed her over the edge. The timer on the bomb indicates there is less than ten minutes left before it explodes. The girl says she has an appointment with gold and heads up the stairs to the roof to fly to where her gold is waiting. The players must now escape the cage.

Act 3

a) Climax – The bomb has an electronic piano keyboard attached to it and can be disarmed by playing (you guessed it) “for he’s a jolly good fellow”. The villain has revealed her location and obligingly left a second helicopter on the roof to allow pursuit.

b) Final confrontation – After a breakneck flight to the point where the gold was to be left, the villain’s helicopter is seen winching the gold away. An aerial chase and dogfight ensues in which the villain is forced to drop the gold and attempt an escape and the players finally shoot down the opposing helicopter (or not).

c) Optional break-neck escape or twist – Looking through the wreckage of the helicopter it is discovered that it was being flown by remote control. The girl was not within and has escaped to fight another day.

Quick Plot Example 2 – Horror

Act 1

a) Inciting incident – The players receive a letter from a dear friend concerned that the children in the isolated mountain town in which she lives are going missing. Included in the letter is an oddly shaped gold cross – sharp and pointed at one end – (left to her by her uncle the vicar when he died) which she claims has been the focus of a number of attempted thefts. She has taken the liberty of booking the players some beds at the local “Wentworth” rooming house “ a lovely place right in the heart of town”.

b) Early obstacle – On the way there the bus/train/plane the players are traveling in is hijacked by red-eyed fanatics who take their own lives when fought off and foiled rather than be captured alive.

c) First clue – None of the hi-jackers have any I.D but one is carrying a small book (the ‘Libre Maleficent’). The frontice piece is stamped with the address of the Order of the Gnarled Oak in the town to which the players are traveling. There is a picture of the gold cross with the pointed end in it and a hand written note in the margin saying that it can prevent the success of the ritual of Ebon (whatever that is).

Act 2

a) Raising the stakes – At the train station they are met by a cabbie who offers to drive them out to the rooming house. “We’d better git movin’ as it’s a mighty long way out t’the Wentworth”. Either the players will remember that the Wentworth is supposed to be right in the middle of this rather small town or they will see the Wentworth rooming house as the driver passes it on his way out of town. If a fight ensues the cab will crash and the cabbie will die with the words “Father Donaldson will git yer” on his lips or, if the players play along, he will take them to a secluded field about a half hour out of town where a number of shallow graves await and will attempt to execute them with his shotgun. He is relatively easy to overpower (being alone) even with a gun, but will bite down on a suicide pill if cornered and will die with the words “Father Donaldson will git yer” on his lips. The police will not be interested in any stories that “outsiders” might bring about the “good reverend” being behind any murder attempts.

b) Point of no return – The names “Order of the Gnarled Oak” and “Father Donaldson” lead to an old brownstone town house – headquarters of “the Order of the Gnarled Oak”. Father Donaldson presides over the order and greets the players warmly. He claims to know nothing of missing children or red-eyed fanatics and murderous cab drivers. If presented with the book he will claim it was stolen from the order and will thank the players for returning it. He will not allow them to leave with it in their possession once he knows it is there. Every few minutes people come into the house during the interview and pass through to the back. They do not however come out again. The number of townsfolk crowding into the little back room is quite alarming. When they leave the players notice a massive storm front has moved in and cut the town off from contact with the outside world for the next few days.

c) Reversal – Returning to the rooming house, the players find their belongings have been rifled and the cross is missing.
With the town cut off from the outside world the Order of the Gnarled Oak makes its move and attempts to kidnap for sacrifice all the non-members of the group remaining in the town. The players fight off a couple of waves of cultists from inside the hotel but are forced out when the Wentworth is set on fire. Gasping in the smoke the players emerge to be clubbed into unconsciousness.

Act 3

a) Climax – They awaken to find themselves penned in small cages deep underground (presumably below the HQ of the Order). The friend who contacted them to come to the town in the first place is penned in a cage beside them. She tells them that they are too late. The children have been killed in a ceremony called the “ritual of ebon”, sacrificed to summon the creature which has taken over Father Donaldson and is now in control of the town. Tonight a mass sacrifice will occur to build power for a takeover first of the county, the state, the country and then… the world!
The players break out of the cages and free the townsfolk before rushing to face the thing that used to be Father Donaldson.

b) Final confrontation – Father Donaldson has broken the cross in two and discarded the shards in a corner but the sharp end remains functional. The players strike him with it and the odd metal causes the evil thing within Father Donaldson’s now empty shell to disperse but not before the underground caverns begin to cave in.

c) Optional break-neck escape or twist – A breakneck escape through dark tunnels leads the players into the rural night where the great storm has dissipated and the evil appears to have been thwarted.

Quick Plot Example 3 – Fantasy

Act 1

a) Inciting incident – In the past the town of Barrelhaven has been as broadminded a community as you could have wished to encounter and until recently was home to many races but now has taken on a rather unpleasant aspect. All individuals of Dwarven descent are being turned away at the town’s borders and, if they had lived there in the past, Dwarven residents have been dispossessed of property and cast out by order of Ulrik The Strong – a petty mercenary of sorts who is styling himself as a warlord to be reckoned with. A Dwarven family begs the players to rescue their son (who has unusually red hair and has gone missing in the town) while news is spreading that the local Prince is coming to put down “the uprising” begun by Ulrik and will arrive with his army in two day’s time.

b) Early Obstacle – The town is blockaded in preparation for the coming war, however it is rumored that a nearby smuggler’s outpost has a way in and out.

c) First Clue – The young red-headed dwarf was known to be part of the smuggling operation but was arrested by Ulrik’s Town Guard.

Act 2

a) Having entered the town through the smuggling tunnels the players discover that Ulrik has ordered every able bodied man to be pressed into military service in the town’s defense. Press-gangs roam the streets rounding up even the old and infirm and putting them in battle harness to face the coming battle. The players must cross the town undetected if they are to reach the watch house where the young Dwarf is interred.

b) Point of no return – The Prince arrives early setting up his army around the town and blocking all exits.

c) Reversal – The watch house is empty and the Prince gives the town until morning to surrender. If they surrender, the men folk will all be killed but the women and children will be spared. If they do not, then all will be killed. Ulrik has had all the prisoners marched into a cavern beneath the city. Apparently he is there now waiting for the slaughter to begin.

Act 3

a) Climax – Within the cavern is a baby red dragon. Ulrik (properly called the idiot) hatched and raised the thing until he could no longer resist its magical influence and was taken over by it. The dragon, young and overconfident, is behind Ulrik’s bid for power. Ulrik is slowly feeding it the dwarves and other folk contained in the watch house. The players free the red-headed dwarf who is clearly the one they came to rescue but the town won’t be safe until the threat posed by the dragon is dealt with.

b) Final confrontation – A fight ensues and the dragon is killed. It’s head is displayed to the Prince who realizing the dragon was behind all the trouble takes his troops back home. The dwarf is reunited with his family and everyone is happy…

c) Optional break-neck escape or twist – Numerous prisoners in the cavern claim to have seen at least three more unhatched dragon eggs but the eggs (and Ulrik) are nowhere to be found.

A Final Word

On the scenarios page I have placed an outline example that I propose to develop as I add entries to this blog. As the weeks progress I will add more and more to the scenario in order to demonstrate my process (such as it is).

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2 thoughts on “The 10 Minute Plot Formula

  1. Pingback: Fun Friday: Writing Resources | ClarksonPunk

  2. Pingback: The 10 Minute Plot Formula | Autism Mum on the Run

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