If you’ve ever crafted a fictional world, dropped your player characters into it, and asked them “So what do you want to do?” you may have encountered blank stares. Your players may be paralyzed by choice. You may need to run a different style of campaign.
Narrative-driven campaigns are a type of storytelling designed to follow the journey of heroes following the call to adventure to its epic conclusion, saving the universe from immeasurable evil. Before a Game Master can get into the minutia of encounters in story arcs, they first need to outline the plot points their story needs to hit. I would like to share with you a modern story structure that originated in The Round that will draw in your players and help them invest in their characters and your world. In this article, we will discuss how to structure your campaign using The Seven Steps of Professional Wrestling.
The common structure of the “seven steps of professional wrestling” is often seen in a five-minute wrestling match, with each step consisting of a series of maneuvers. Translating these concepts to your campaign should also be applied to events in the greater story. This should not be adapted to individual encounters. This thesis also operates under the assumption that the player characters (PCs) “always win.” As we dissect each step, I will explain how the party can technically win, while still losing, and generating “heat” for your antagonists.
Before a match begins, wrestlers are introduced to the crowd individually, with the villain entering first. This is done to introduce the threat to the audience: the millionaire oligarch, fan of the rival city’s sports team, or a large undead menace. By identifying the threat, it is then easy for the audience to identify the hero, which is why they enter second. Your session zero should follow a similar motif. You do not necessarily have to show Darth Vader capturing the princess, but you should at least introduce overarching threats the heroes will confront, such as the evil empire. Your players will create characters that exist in the world, and with a vested interest in protecting their attachments to that world.
1. The Shine
The first sequence of events to run your players through is the shine. In the shine, we prove our heroes’ formidability, and desire to see them win. This is where the party fights the giant rats in the tavern cellar, the goblins raiding the village, and possibly the foot soldier minions of the main antagonist. Use these opening adventures to establish the “normal life” the party will return to once changed, and get a sense for who the characters are. Slowly introduce the overarching plot by having the party deal with the collateral damage of the antagonist’s plans. Peaceful forest denizens turn violent from Fey influence. A mephit escapes the cultist that summoned it. Undead haunt a place the antagonist raided. Displaced kobolds attack travelers crossing their newly claimed domain. The antagonist may or may not be aware of the heroes, but the shine alerts the antagonist to their presence and the threat they pose.
2. The Cut-Off
Once there is momentum behind the heroes, and victory seems inevitable, we move to the cut-off. Our heroes encounter their first major blow. This is also where we first encounter the nuance of the players always winning while losing. The game master’s role is to provide challenge, but ultimately lose. Never plan to win a fight. Your dice will betray you, and you will betray the trust of your players. Instead, use this part of the adventure to have the heroes return to find their attachments beset upon by the antagonist. A much-needed caravan of supplies has not arrived yet. They return to find their quest giver is not around to reward them for the quest they just took. The McGuffin, stolen. Their village, destroyed. Their mentor, struck down by a dark force they have history with. You’ll want to craft adventures around fetch or escort goals. Don’t plan on defeating the heroes when your antagonist’s lieutenant attacks their village. Plan on the heroes successfully defending one particular area, but unable to interact with the lieutenant’s main goal. Perhaps make the goal of the adventure a successful escape by escorting the important McGuffin away from the conflict.
The game master’s role is to provide challenge, but ultimately lose.
A McGuffin, the term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock, refers to a desired object or person that drives the plot. In film and literature, it compels the protagonist, and oftentimes the antagonist. The Holy Grail, The Death Star plans, and Infinity Stones are all examples. For the purposes of gaming, and particularly this narrative structure, I would encourage your antagonist to be primarily motivated by the McGuffin. Your players don’t have to be motivated by the McGuffin. They can be motivated by the actions taken in pursuit of the McGuffin.
3. The Heat
After the heroes are cut off, the villain starts The Heat. In professional wrestling, this is when the villain begins fighting back against the hero. Creating momentum behind your villain while still giving your players achievable goals can be difficult and may require some nudging by NPCs. I will start by reminding you don’t write encounters you expect to win. Your dice WILL betray you. More importantly, the goal is for your story villain to draw ire, not yourself as the storyteller. Giving the players an achievable goal will help maintain their trust in you as a storyteller, and thus keep the campaign progressing cooperatively. I would not recommend bringing in a strong encounter intended to defeat the party. Instead, give the party a McGuffin to escort away from the location. They may need to be prompted to do this. Perhaps let them successfully fend off the attack, but they were unable to protect a McGuffin. Find a resource the party needs and cut them off from it; money, a mentor, their NPC cleric, their base of operations. If you do plan to bring in the main antagonist or a lieutenant, give them a way out, like flight or teleportation.
Another aspect of the heat to be aware of is how long and how far reaching this time of strife lasts for the party. I would recommend a minimum of two scenarios or story arcs where they are struggling beneath the victorious villain. Your antagonists’ army may control several cities at once. Maybe other gods at other churches are not granting spells. Perhaps the next MacGuffin is already in their possession, but thanks to clues left behind in ancient texts, coupled with your MacGuffin, you know where to go next and the villain doesn’t. I would be very cautious to drag this out more than three story beats because you risk turning off your players’ investment if they don’t feel like they are making progress.
4. The Hope Spot
Your overall story may need “more heat,” but you will need to break it up with the fourth step, the hope spot. Give your players a decisive win. This provides a good point to force your villain to pivot their plan, or perhaps a revelation of something greater to strive for. The heroes might recover their denied resource, or replace it with something better.. You might also want to kill the villain’s lieutenant here, or… kill your main antagonist as their lieutenant presents themself as the true, greater threat. The hope spot concludes this specific subplot arc in your campaign narrative.
You may need to go back into the “heat” step if you introduce a new main antagonist, so you can establish the threat they pose to the heroes. I wouldn’t recommend dragging this out too long, probably no more than one scenario. If you increased the threat level of an existing antagonist, you could skip this altogether if you want. Your story should have enough backstop and unresolved plot elements to already establish the danger the party is facing. Dragging out the story too long where the party doesn’t actually feel like they are succeeding against the villain can discourage them from wanting to pursue further. They will either distract themselves with side quests so they feel adequately equipped to handle the threat, or they will check out of the story because they feel like the storyteller is going to win regardless.
Dragging out the story too long where the party doesn’t actually feel like they are succeeding against the villain can discourage them from wanting to pursue further.
5. The Double Down
After the hope spot, you’ll move into the double down. This is where the heroes place the villain between two pieces of fried chicken… No, this is where the heroes and the villain find themselves at their lowest point. The heroes score a victory, but at a cost so great, they feel as though they have lost. The party may have been unwitting pawns in the villain’s grand scheme, defeating a powerful guardian monster that appears when the McGuffins are aligned. The defeat of the villain may be the needed catalyst to reveal their true power. Perhaps their success requires the sacrifice of a beloved NPC. Despite the loss, this should open up a path for ultimate victory for our heroes.
6. The Comeback
All of the suffering the party has endured will begin to pay off as we then move into the comeback. Your players should recognize the opportunity or advantage they now have over the antagonist, and have some motivation to put an end to them once and for all. Their denied resources are renewed and expanded beyond their previous capability. This is when the players can begin eliminating remaining lieutenants, freeing previously occupied territories, breaking curses and healing wounds. Their power and experience are greater than when they first encountered these problems. Reluctant acquaintances become allies. The Gods judge them worthy of their boons. This should take a few scenarios to work through and be its own story arc as the heroes build up for the final confrontation.
7. The (False) Finish
Finally, you’ll end your campaign with a series of false finishes and the finish itself. In professional wrestling, both athletes have a maneuver they perform that is strong enough to finish off their opponent. Should their opponent break free from a three-count pin attempt after suffering such a devastating blow, there is shock and disbelief. Each opponent raises the stakes, hitting harder and harder strikes until their ultimate victory. You may recognize this as “Now, I’ll show you my true power.” “This isn’t even my final form.” The villain may also be aware of their own weakness, and planned for it accordingly. You may want to involve a short side quest prior to the final encounter that can weaken the Big Bad End Guy (BBEG). Perhaps you plan your fight in multiple phases, and the environment changes after a few rounds. The more damage the villain takes, the thinner the wall between the material plane and The First World becomes. The giant robot inflicts area of effect damage that destroys or weakens some of the landscape. The BBEG is simply stalling the party so the party cannot disrupt the ritual bringing the evil god into existence… and a tentacle just poked through a portal.
Your dice WILL betray you.
I’ve included some examples below of story beats that follow the professional wrestling narrative style to inspire your games. It requires a well-thought-out antagonist, an understanding of their plans, and how the players act as obstacles to those plans. The campaign can be run as a pseudo sandbox as the story arcs of the shine, heat, and comeback can be more open than a straight railroaded campaign.
I hope you have fun trying this narrative structure in your next game and playing, not just the game, but also with your players’ emotions.
|Pop Culture||Shine||Cut off||Heat||Hope||Double Down||Comeback||Finish|
|Pro Wrestling||The babyface punches and slams the heel.||Heel pokes babyface in the eye.||Heel punches and slams babyface.||Babyface dodges an attack, and gets a few hits in.||Babyface flies from the top rope to the heel, knocking both down for a while.||Both rise, babyface blocks heel’s offense and strikes back.||Heel blocks babyface’s finishing maneuver, tries to cheat. Babyface dodges the cheating, finishes heel and wins.|
|Infinity War/ End Game||Heroes stop Black Order from getting gems.||Thanos obtains the gems himself.||Thanos snaps.||Ant-Man returns and the heroes discover time travel.||The heroes obtain the Infinity Stones in the past, ultimately gathering all the stones for Thanos and losing Black Widow.||The heroes restore their fallen allies and fight back against Thanos’s army.||Thanos wrestles the Infinity Gauntlet from Captain Marvel, who loses it to Iron Man, snapping away Thanos.|
|Star Wars||Obi Wan Kenobi saves Luke, Leia, and the droid from the Empire’s control.||Obi Wan sacrifices himself so the rebels can escape.||The empire prepares to destroy the rebel base on Yavin IV and nearly destroys the rebel fleet.||The Death Star Blows up. Literally a New Hope spot. Luke learns of Yoda.||The Empire taking Hoth and Cloud city are heat spots. Luke rescues most of the rebels, losing his hand and Han. Darth Vader fails to not only finish the rebellion, but fails to recruit Luke to the Dark Side.||The rebels rescue Han Solo and launch their attack to end the Emperor once and for all.||It’s a trap! Luke and the rebels appear to be defeated, but are rescued by Ewoks and Darth Vader turning good.|