C – The 5 Act Story Structure for RPG Storytelling6 min read

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Campaign Flow - 5 Act Structure
Campaign Flow – 5 Act Structure

About the 5 Act Story Structure

The 5 Act Story Structure is one of many storytelling structures: 3 act, 4 act, 5 act, 6 act, and many more. These structures give you a narrative framework with which to begin assembling your story to make sure you have the pieces to keep the drama running and to keep your players hooked into the game. The acts may be very compressed or simplified during a one session side trek or it may span many sessions and scenarios for a main campaign arc.

These acts each have their own distinct rhythm and feel. The first act, the Introduction, should start just like any other day for your characters and then things start to get complicated. The farther along you go the more intense and fast paced it should be because the stakes are higher and so is the danger. There are many resources online to learn about plotting and what each section means as well as the different act structures.

Here is a brief overview of the 5 Act Structure modified for RPG use:

  • Act I – Intro (lowest intensity) [15%]
    • Scenario(s) with life as normal for the characters; getting to know the setting and their characters
    • Fight the lower levels threats; characters may still not know an organized threat exists yet. 
    • Characters are introduced to the threat and commit to stopping it
  • Act II – Raising Tension (medium intensity) [30%]
    • Dealing with plans of the organized or driven antagonists, combatting them
    • Finding out that the threat is organized and who or what the threat really is
    • Figuring out what the threat is trying to accomplish or what they are planning, realizing what is at stake and the true scope of who is really endangered
    • Deal with a setback or complication
  • Act III – Rising Action (higher intensity) [30%]
    • Defend against the action of the Boss and minions as they try to stop the PC’s and try to carry out their nefarious plan
    • Finding out who the boss is and what it takes to stop them
    • Fanatically gather resources to battle the Boss or stop they ultimate threat or plan
    • Deal with a crisis situation
  • Act IV – Climax (highest intensity) [15%]
    • Finding the Boss and/or final plan
    • Beating the Boss or stopping the final plan
  • Act V – Resolution (medium intensity) [10%]
    • Recovering from the final battle and a world in recovery
    • Reveal next arc

The end of each act is heralded by a specific event:

Act I –
Inciting IncidentThis event introduces the characters to the main threat of the arc and incites them to act to solve the problem or to become part of the solution.
Act II –
Raising Tension
Complication or SetbackThis event or revelation makes it harder for the characters to accomplish their goals, but they will overcome this and move forward.
Act III –
Rising Action
CrisisThis event really packs a punch in that it may make the final goal seem totally unreachable (losing the McGuffin) or the stakes are raised so high that desperation may set in doing whatever it takes against impossible odds to win – even sacrificing oneself. This may manifest as a brutal revelation or betrayal as well.
Act IV –
Final FightAfter all their preparation and dealing with setbacks and a crisis or betrayal of sorts they are finally ready for the final confrontation.
Act V –
New ArcThe Resolution Act may end up more like shorter Act 1 with “life as normal’ here meaning: recovering from the previous arc’s final conflict and its ramifications, with the act ending with the revelation or the imposition of the new threat onto the characters’ world (Impending Threat which not becomes the Current Campaign Issue), and therfore starting the storytelling cycle anew. =)From the standpoint of an RPG, this event announces the end of the resolution of the current story arc and the beginning of the next story arc. A book may use this as a cliff hanger which announces the threat of the next book.

Each act will take an approximate proportion of the story time to tell. This is primarily taken within the context of all of the individual scenarios that deal with the arc itself, and does not take into account subplots, although subplots should be taken into account when judging the overall length of each act and its tension level. These percentages can be taken as a percentage of the arc’s total scenarios.

As an example: if you plan on having a longer arc with 20 total scenarios (adventures) then the base number of scenarios may break down like this in the following unified table:

act% story# scenariosintensityact ending event
Introduction15%3lowinciting incident
Raising Tension30%6mediumcomplication or setback
Rising Action30%6highercrisis
Climax15%3highestfinal battle
Resolution10%2mediumnew arc reveal
Act vs Intensity Chart
Act vs Intensity Chart
Act vs Intensity Diagram
Act vs Intensity Diagram