Using the Story Circle for Episodic Sessions

Tod's picture

[This is a lightly-edited reprint of a post on the DayTrippersRPG Subreddit, based on another post to the DayTrippers Patreon blog.]

Those who have read the DayTrippers GameMasters Guide know that part of the GM's job in a "full-book" DayTrippers session is to control the "vertical" position of the narrative in runtime, regardless of the directions or actions taken by the Players (who can be said to control the "horizontal"). This approach allows the GM to provide a logical and satisfying "shape" to the emerging story, without knowing any specifics about the key obstacles or crises ahead of time.

My original method (DTGMG edition 1) involved the creation of a set of free-floating conditional branching elements, tracked on a "RunSheet". Elements on the RunSheet would be called into play when triggered by actions, proximity or events, and would resolve depending on Player actions and rolls of the dice. While this approach satisfied the conditions mentioned above, it was also unwieldy in play and could easily be misused, meaning that it could too easily turn into a railroad-like structure without even trying, due to the level of specificity required in prepping it. To state it simply, I have found this approach to be unsatisfactory.

So. Over the last year (or two) I've been trying various techniques for story-mapping DT sessions, looking for another approach to replace the original "RunSheets" from version 1 of the game. This new structure would have to (a) require only a modicum of prep to get started and (b) support the emergence of a satisfying narrative arc, but it would also have to (c) allow for story development to occur in runtime, guided by the actions of the Players rather than by any "railroading" on the part of the GM.

As of today, counting the original, I've playtested 14 different RunSheet designs. I believe I've finally hit upon the one that will replace the old RunSheet when the second edition of DT comes out (hopefully) next year. Here's an overview...

The standard narrative structure of a DT session follows a four-act episodic formula which can easily be related to Joseph Campbell's famous "Hero's Journey" archetypal story arc. It is particularly well suited for episodic and procedural narratives, such as those frequently found in television series.

A few years ago, Dan Harmon (Community, Rick and Morty) created a stripped-down version of this structure he calls a Story Circle, which he uses in all of his television writing. You can think of it as an abstract form or "container" for a four-act narrative structure. Typically each act hits 2 beats, giving us a total of 8 phases. As you can see below, Harmon's eight phases go like this:

  1. You (a character is in a zone of comfort)
  2. Need (but they want something)
  3. Go (they enter an unfamiliar situation)
  4. Search (and adapt to new situation)
  5. Find (find what they wanted)
  6. Take (and pay the price)
  7. Return (and go back to where they started)
  8. Change (now capable of change)

Dan Harmon's Story Circle

This Campbell/Harmon structure seemed to provide most of the things I needed. One major modification had to be performed, however, to make it more suited to episodic roleplaying games - and this is something that wasn't particularly obvious until I thought about it for some time. The modification comes in the fourth act, where phases 7 and 8 need to be swapped.


Because in the traditional arrangement (for movies or television), once the hero has (7) returned home and (8) changed things (or proved themselves capable of change), the audience is satisfied and can turn off the TV. They have no need to dovetail the characters back into the regular routine of their lives, or to hash out the minor repercussions of the storyline they just viewed.

For roleplayers in a mission-based scenario, however, returning home is a different sort of very important step, and it involves not only returning to your regular life but also such "meta" concerns as payment, experience points, character advancement, and a bit of bookkeeping. In other words, the "Return" step really wants to happen last.

Thankfully, it also helps us to put step 8 in the 7th position. Why? Well, look at it this way: In a well-written screenplay, the visible storyline is really nothing but a symbolic veneer for interior changes undergone by the protagonist(s). But RPGs - especially mission-based or adventurous ones - don't tend to emphasize character development as the underlying "purpose" of a session. In an RPG, any changes the characters undergo will be experienced in the heat of play, and players will enact these changes as they occur, rather than waiting for the narrative "denouement" to prove that they've changed. PCs don't need to land that point safely home for the "audience" - because the group is its own audience. And this means that for a PC, it's in the Climax where they become the greatest, most "resolved" or "heroic" version of themselves. Not after arriving home. Not after beating the Big Boss. No. Right then, while they're facing off against the bastard. This Climax tends to happen in step 6 or (more often) 7.

So now you can take a look at RunSheet 14, and you'll understand why the order goes like this:

  1. You (chargen/intro)
  2. Need (inciting incident)
  3. Go (commitment)
  4. Search (pinch 1)
  5. Find (midpoint)
  6. Take (pinch 2)
  7. Change (climax)
  8. Return (denouement)

Runsheet 14
Note that phases 7 and 8 have been switched, relative to Harmon's original.

Having attained their climax in phase 7, that last phase - "Return" - is where the PCs travel home (or to wherever their home base is), experience is distributed, payment is made, effects are determined, loose ends are tied, and we wind down as a group, ready for the next session.

The top half of RunSheet 14 is designed for on-the-fly placement and tracking of events and story beats (by writing directly into the circle), while the chart below is for keeping track of PC details and experience points. This may be viewed as a rough sketch of the new RunSheet design, which will replace the old one in edition 2 of the DTGMG.

DeReel's picture

I had read of Harmon's circles, but this tool can be combined with : 1-- the altitude metaphor for story tension 2-- clocks and threats.
For 1 it would be even better with an additional pattern indicating when to "play slow" between altitude (=tension) levels.

Tod's picture

Precisely. You may have noticed the interior arc spanning segments 4-7 (from the second phase of act 2 to the first phase of act 4). That span indicates the Zone of Rising Tension, which is my connecting point to the earlier conversation (Narrative Control - Horizontal and Vertical). In a typical game of DayTrippers, the RAW is to create 3 obstacles of increasing difficulty (all of this is easily quantifiable in DT rules), a suggestion is first 1/2 the party's TCV (Total Character Value), then 3/4, then full TCV for the final confrontation.

This is all restating stuff from the DTGMG, but I believe it's generally applicable to episodic play regardless of system. Yes, in DayTrippers I can easily quantify the point value of not only an NPC or monster, but also any trap, puzzle, obstacle, maneuver, or rhetorical opponent. But whatever, you can do that by eye for your own system. The important thing is that the tension generally increases as you move through that treacherous section of the circle. The GM's job is to be on the lookout for opportunities along the way, preferably ones that link up with Psychic Content coming from the Players themselves, also nice if arising "organically" from circumstance (i.e., tied to something that's already happened in this world), and best of all if it's somehow highly symbolic (at least for the PCs, if not also for the humans sitting around the table).

Rising Tension need not be an obstacle or opponent, although those are the easiest to come up with. The Crisis that causes the Tension to rise could be anything that increases the stakes, puts someone or something in jeopardy, upgrades the problem, pushes up the ticking clock, surprises the PCs, demonstrates their ignorance or powerlessness, forces them to think on their feet, etc. It could happen on stage or off. It's not a hard-and-fast rule or anything, but when I break down my process I get the "COED" options I discussed in the other thread:

  • COMPLICATION -- something goes wrong, gets harder
  • OBSTACLE -- something must be overcome or obviated
  • EFFECT -- something unexpected is caused to happen
  • DISCOVERY -- something is learned to have implications

It's actually best to look for these in the reverse order (DEOC), because the latter ones (Discovery and Effect) are more likely to arise from Player-driven actions, while the earlier ones (Obstacles and Complications) arise more often from setting, encounter rules, or GM fiat.

So after a session, if you cut the Harmon Circle at its start/end point and opened it out into a line, you could then look at that line "from the side" and see something like this (super-sketchy) example of a vertical arc:
8-segment narrative arc

BeePeeGee's picture

Interesting stuff. Some thoughts:
As a game system, I'd find a simplification more practical. I.e. merging "Go, Search, Take" into Explore.

Another idea: I really like the Momentum mechanic in Ironsworn and I could see that very well combined with the story arc.

Tod's picture

Sure. There is another aspect of the Story Circle that I haven't mentioned before, in which the circle can be cut into four quadrants (the horizontal and vertical lines intersecting the central point).

When divided this way, the upper half represents the "ordinary world" and the lower half the "other world." These terms are to be interpreted very loosely; they usually imply different locations, but they may be no more than different social circles, or different states of mind. The key thing is that they are dramatically different worlds - physical, mental, social, etc - for the protagonists to be moving around in.

Similarly, the right half represents "wrong" and the left half represents "right." Again, these terms must be interpreted as loosely as possible, so "wrong" may simply mean 'missing a thing" and "right" might mean "possessing the thing." In TV and film this dimension usually represents the protagonist's interior struggle, some moral lesson, life choice, coming to terms, etc. Something is wrong/missing inside the character themselves, or wrong/missing with the way they see the world.

4 quadrants of story circle

If we look at the circle this way, we can see the story consists of four stages (and each contains two beats):

  1. Ordinary World / Wrong
  2. Other World / Wrong
  3. Other World / Right
  4. Ordinary World / Right

As the protagonist moves clockwise around the circle:

  1. They start out in the Ordinary World, but something is Wrong, or they need something.
  2. They move into the Other World, perhaps to find the thing, perhaps for some other reason. Stuff is still Wrong.
  3. Somewhere in the Other World they find the thing. They must pay a price for it, but at least now things are Right.
  4. They return to the Ordinary World, and now everything is Right.

Your concatenation of phases 3-6 amounts to the "Other World" half of the circle.

Tod's picture

4.5 and 6... I believe you're referring to the "pinch points" in the circle.
Spotlights as collaborative techniques for discovering/expressing the pinches?
Pretty cool!