Adventure Writing Tips: The Goal Reversal & The 9-Act Format

From Brennan O’Brien

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0036

More than anything, I hate when I get into a rut for new plots for my characters, or when the plots I try run a bit flat in the game sessions and I myself confronting those most diabolical of monsters — the Yawning Player.

The last time I ran into this problem, I started looking for some inspiration, and what I found has really helped. I thought I would pass my experiences along to others who may be in similar situations.

Plots can make or break a game. Similarly, plots can make or break movies and books. So I started looking at how movies and books cope with plots, assuming that if I could understand how these classic plot systems work, I would be able to adapt them to my own uses. As I researched, I learned for me, gaming is a lot more like movies than like books. The images in my players’ minds mostly come from movies, because Hollywood establishes a connection to our most dominant sensory capabilities.

Books, while dramatic and enjoyable, don’t carry the same force in our minds. At the same time, movies have a constriction similar to our games — limited time available to tell the story and reach a conclusion. Personally, I like starting and ending a scenario in a single session because this style adapts better to my and my players’ busy lives. Similarly, movies have the ability to sketch activities in a fashion most books do not–glossing over details in order to keep the pace up.

Again, this style seems to match my needs in a game more than a book does, because I foremost want to keep the plot moving along.

Once I realized movies seemed to be the better match for me, I started researching how movies and screen plays are developed and determined how I could make use of this format. Knowing we’ve all seen movies that were wonderful (and that were rotten), I wanted to understand what made a fun movie. My discoveries here focused around two items — first, the “goal reversal” and secondly the “9-act format”.

The Goal Reversal

The goal reversal is the process of the characters committing to a specific goal, then about half way through the plot discovering some reason to pursue a second or different goal. This format is used in about 90% of the most successful movies. In contrast, movies that tend to be less successful use a linear plot-line, where the characters commit to a goal and proceed through the plot towards that goal.

For short movies (or games) this works fine, but longer adventures need more tension in the plot. By “reversing”, or changing the goals, the interest in the movie or game tends to remain strong.

The 9-Act Format

The second method I’ve discovered is incorporating the “9- act format” into my plots. The 9-act goes something like this:

  1. Set the stage. Necessary Background Info.
  2. Something Bad Happens
  3. Meet the Heroes and Opposition
  4. Establish Commitment of Heroes
  5. Go forward towards Goal #1
  6. Realize Goal #1 is flawed, reverse to goal #2
  7. Go forward towards Goal #2
  8. Climax
  9. Wrap-up (rewards and punishments)

Now, in general, we already know who the Heroes are, so step 3 may be pretty short. The hard part is timing on this whole thing, but it makes a difference. You want the characters going forward until they make a final realization, then go off in a different direction.

Example: The Demon’s Skin

In play, I’ve found this technique to take a while to get used to. You want to provide plenty of opportunity for the reversal to occur, because this is the element that people will end up remembering. The first time I tried this, it went something like this:

The backstory was about a demon who was stripped of his skin and imprisoned in a gem. The Heroes and the opposition were introduced to one another when a minion of the demon hired the characters to retrieve an “item” from the depths of a dungeon. The minion gave the characters a focus crystal (really the demon prison) which would allow him to get the item magically once placed on the item.

The characters fight their way down to the item, which looks like a suit of armour. They put the crystal in place, and the demon appears (now reunited with his “skin”).

This was the reversal. The characters valiantly fight, but they are about even with the demon. Finally, the characters figure out the achilles heel of the demon and attack. The demon is temporarily defeated and retreats, but the characters have no doubts he will return.

Having adapted to this new format, I’ve found my players are happier with my games and more interested in what’s going on. I hope my findings help some of you in your games.