I don't have any formal training in this stuff, most the theory was just taught to me by my friend Mark "Bergy" Berghausen as we were writing LARPs together in college (more social/narrative focused, none of this "Lightning Bolt!" crap.) At first, I had only considered it as a way of telling stories in games, and only eventually (through exposure to the likes of Moviebob and the prequels' reviews) came to realize the three-act structure was very common to movies as well.
Anyway, here are three acts we're using for Hellenica.
Act 1. Introduction
This is the most subdued of the three acts as the heady stakes have not yet been introduced. Most of the party members should be introduced in this act. Likewise, most of the combat mechanics should be introduced to the player at this time.
Act 2. Adventure
During act 2, the protagonists are committed to their task, and they will gel and gain confidence throughout this act. The high stakes should be established, but their consequences aren't immediate, there's still time for the party to prepare.
Act 3. Apocalypse
During act 3, the stakes are at their highest and immediately threatening. Everything seems to be falling apart and the world might end unless the heroes can do something right now! This is also the act for desperate and extremely heroic actions.
Already, this serves as a general sort of emotional outline to adhere to when writing all the social hubs on a given story level. So even though a player in act 1 can choose to shift her priorities from consulting the Oracle at Delphi about a vision to instead looking for a missing theomechanist (inventor), both of these quests have a similar sort of exploring/learning about the world vibe.
That part isn’t so bad. Far more complicated than managing the tone in social hubs is coming up with compelling transitions between the acts. Because of the way our story is structured, there are about 15 different paths leading to 6 different hubs at the end of act 1 and 2. To address this we made sure we paid very close attention to these “plot points”, brainstorming and discussing a bunch of transitions that would make sense for our world and characters before writing the adjacent social hubs.
**** SPOILERS, HIGHLIGHT TO READ ****
For the first plot points (the act 1 -> 2 transition) events like learning the meaning of your vision from the oracle or seeing the wicked luddites seize power in Athens after Socrates’ assassination make the world feel less safe and give the party a force (and usually a villain) to work against, shifting us from Act 1’s “introduction” tone to Act 2’s “adventure”.
Similarly, our six second plot points (the act 2-> 3 transition) are full of crisis and plans gone awry, Obi-Wan dies, the invasion of the fire nation during the solar eclipse ended up being a trap, and Master Li kills you and takes the spirit monk amulet (okay, those are technically from other stories, but they have a similar feel as our second plot points, and I hate giving away spoilers).
So that’s how we use a three act structure and plot points as narrative linchpins to keep a cohesive pace throughout our story web. Of course there’s more to a story than pacing, and we’ll talk about narrative and thematic cohesion some in future posts.