Ask The GM: Story Structure

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[Insert Evil Laugh Here] Story Structure is a topic that beats close to every GM’s heart but is often shied away from. Everyone’s ideas are fine and everyone’s game is just perfect. You don’t need any developmental editors to write your content and move the plot along, just… wait… that’s for novels… is it though?

Player Agency dominates most conversations regarding storytelling and content. Story structure however puts the spotlight on the GM. Are your ideas good enough? Do you have the right pacing? Is it worth it?

GM Tips w/ Satine Phoenix gets deep with content on the Story Structure episode and it’s valuable to get caught up on. Amy Vorphal and Satine share solid advice for anyone who is penning a story…or book.

This topic can be rather beastly to have practical application, but I’ve asked Satine a few questions and here is what we came up with.

Ripping Apart The Module

Let’s talk home-campaigns and regular longer running games. It’s one place where you can sit down and create a plot-outline and story beats for your players. Delicately crafted PC back stories flow right into a world tailored and grown around them, based on their actions and your ideas. But sometime, you REALLY want to run Curse of Strahd, or Shadowruns: Book of the Lost, but you just can’t. Incorporating pre-canned modules almost never fit.

My simple hack has always been to get the book anyway and remove all the story intro and dialogue boxes—replacing it with my own. The core of the campaign is the adventure beats and the encounters, and those are worth using. Here is what Satine had to say when I asked her the following. What’s your advice for plugging pre-canned modules into your ongoing campaign?

“I have dozens of pre-canned modules. Sometimes I reuse the whole module, just changing bits and pieces and sometimes I take my favorite parts of different modules and frankenstein them together. Make sure you have an idea of the story you want to tell and pick the modules or module pieces that make sense.”

Illusion of Player Agency

The skeleton of the story structure is ultimately, what the storyteller sees… provided the players all play down their set paths. What if they don’t? How do you keep your story structure intact when players do their best at roleplaying cats that need herding? I myself use a ladder plot-track with three separate branches. Each player action or choice along the story will shift the behind-the-scenes plot along one of those three. This way, I can plan ahead, and the players still have a choice.

Satine, how do you incorporate player agency into your story structure?

“Everything I describe to the players has the possibility to change the world around them. My plot track looks more like a spiderweb. What I pre plan can get warped and shifted and I react to player choice by either rerouting the environment to get them on track, or I’ll change the possible outcomes. Nothing is set in stone, even my story. Honestly, it depends on the length of the game, who i’m playing with and what kind of game I want to play at the time. Shorter games, less player agency. Longer games, more player agency.”


You can’t have a proper story structure, or any classical hero’s journey, by lumping a group of players together and assuming they all have the same motive. “You all met at the Tavern of the Purple Pelican” will not cut it either. One-on-one side adventures or mini-side scenes are a tool you can use outside of game to develop a personal character plotline. Things like reporting to your thieves guild, or developing greater personal ties with NPC back stories.

Satine, do you use sidequests and do you prefer them one one one? Or do you make them a full group adventure, even if one character is the focus?

“The few times I have had sidequests i’ve simply talked it out with the player between games. In game I give the player a short amount of time to explain what we discussed, to the extent of what they want the other players to know. As long as it’s something that I already know won’t kill them.”

So how do you handle your story? Hot oven-mitts of evil cookies? Hit us up with questions or stories in the comments or stalk us on Twitter!

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Rick Heinz is the author of The Seventh Age: Dawn, and a storyteller with a focus on LARPs, Wraith: The Oblivion, Eclipse Phase, and many more. You can follow game or urban fantasy related thingies on Twitter or Facebook.

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