RPT#36 – Adventure Writing Tips: The Goal Reversal & The 9-Act Format

A Brief Word From Johnn

Whew, back from vacation. I hope your Summer is going great as well–and I hope you’re finding an opportunity to do some roleplaying as well!

I was a bit worried about what I would do for this issue, having just returned and not wanting to miss publishing another issue. But, thanks to Brennan O’Brien we have a super guest article that should give you some tips about plotting and pacing your adventures.

Until next week,

[email protected]

Graphic of logo used as divider

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

By: Brennan O’Brien

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.




Copyleft ? Brennan O’Brien  [email protected]
Details on copyleft can be found at:

Thank you, Brennan, for your great article on plotting and pacing. I find movies a great inspiration for my games and I have recently discovered two excellent resources for learning more about how writers make movies exciting, memorable and mythical–information you can definitely apply to your own adventure writing.

  • “Structures of Fantasy” by Richard Michaels
    1992, MES Press, ISBN: 1-882373-00-6

Unfortunately this book is only available directly from Richard, but much of the book is reproduced on his web site: http://www.megahitmovies.com/

  • “The Writer’s Journey : Mythic Structure for Writers” by Christopher Vogler
    1998, ISBN: 0941188701

This is available from Amazon.com among other booksites. Even better, I was able to get it at my local library.

I’ll be including tips gleaned from both these books in future issues.

Do you have any plotting or pacing tips to share? Send them along to: [email protected]

Have more fun at every game!

Johnn Four
[email protected]

Graphic of logo used as divider

This Week’s Article’s Tips Summarized

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

  1. One shot sessions are great for busy roleplayers. Plot and pace your game like a movie.
  2. Reversing, or changing the goal halfway through can increase tension and player interest in your story.
  3. Use the 9-act format to help plot and pace your story.
  4. Plotting and pacing this way takes practice, so keep at it.