Introducing the Hollywood Formula

Recently, I listened to a fantastic podcast on using the so-called Hollywood Formula to heighten the emotional impact of one's writing (you can listen to it here). The Hollywood Formula, as developed originally by Dan Decker, is simply a list of characters and events that occur in most good movies, and the order in which they should be introduced. The Formula was derived by observing the entire 100+ years of cinema history to see which elements came together to form good films - it is the condensation of an entire industry's wisdom.

What would happen if we tried applying it to a tabletop RPG?

So much of our craft is already inspired by Hollywood. Just look at a few articles from MoonHunter. Taking lessons learned from cinema and applying it to GMing is a recurring theme of his work:

Lights Camera Action
The Crawl Doing It the Cinematic Way

If we can apply 'Hollywood magic' to combat or to the classic dungeon crawl, I'm sure that we could use the same principles to tighten up a whole campaign. Once you know what the Formula is, you'll be able to view your campaign in a new light as the Formula points out potential areas for improvement.

Below I outline the essential components of the Hollywood Format (in bold) and their suggested pacing (in italics). I also give my thoughts on how a game master might try to apply it to a specific campaign. Let's dive right in!


The Hollywood Formula requires three specific characters and proscribes some of the dynamics between them.

Protagonist: the hero of the story. In the case of a tabletop RPG, the whole party should hold the place of the protagonist. In the Hollywood Formula, the protagonist must have a concrete, achievable goal. It is the GM's job to provide the party with such a goal and then give each PC sufficient motivation to pursue that goal.

Examples: Good and Bad Goals

Become wealthy (BAD)
Rob the royal treasury and make off with the fabled Jewel of the North (Good)

Save the world (BAD)
Discover why the goddess of life is missing, and free her from her prison (Good)

Become powerful (BAD)
Rescue the princess and receive lands and titles in return (Good)

Antagonist: the character who directly opposes the goal of the party. This is not necessarily the 'bad guy', though it can be. You can make this into a group or organization, but be aware that a single character may create the opportunity for more emotional impact

Relationship/Dynamic Character: someone with a close bond with the protagonist. The relationship character is someone who impacts the campaign in a big way. They usually have wisdom that the party requires, or can provide them with support or guidance (though they don't necessarily have to be on friendly terms with them). In Hollywood, this is the character to whom, or by whom, the theme (something that the protagonist needs to understand in order to achieve his goal) of the movie is stated or exemplified.

Examples: Casting Choices

The Matrix: Protagonist is Neo. Goal is to free his mind and become the One. Antagonist is Agent Smith, who kills Neo's comrades, kills the prophet and attempts to kill Neo before he can realize that goal. Dynamic/relationship char is Morpheus. Statement of theme: 'Free your mind'

The Dark Knight: Protagonist is Batman. Goal is to quit crime-fighting and live happily ever after with his girlfriend. Antagonist is Harvey Dent, who isn't a good enough man to replace batman (thus preventing Batman from realizing his goal). Dynamic char is the Joker. Statement of theme: 'Don't pretend you're like them. You're not like them, even if you'd want to be. You're a freak. Like me!'

Order of Events and Pacing

The Hollywood Formula also covers pacing, and includes a breakdown on when certain events are expected to occur. The podcast I listened to used a 120-page screenplay as an example, but I would like to use something more specific to our craft. This requires a little bit of forethought, however.

First, plan out how many levels/sessions you want the campaign to go for. This may be different from the total number of levels you want to play with the group. For example, say you want to take a group from level 1 to level 15. You may plan two or three separate campaigns within that frame: a low-level campaign (1-5), mid-level campaign (6-10) and high-level campaign (11-15). It is important to preplan the length of each campaign this way, so that we can get the pacing of the Hollywood Formula right.

Lets take a hypothetical mid-level campaign (levels 6-10) and say that we want our players to level every 4 sessions on average (this might be a bit quick, but makes the math easier for this example). This leaves us with 20 sessions of gameplay planned for our campaign.

Next, split that campaign into three acts.

Act 1: Introduction

Length: 5 play sessions (First 25% of allotted time)
Purpose: Introduce the main characters and their objectives. The party members need to be introduced and consolidated into a cohesive whole during this act. The relationship character must be introduced, and the theme of the campaign articulated through a conversation or interaction with them. The Fateful Decision (see below) must be made, the party's primary goal must be defined, and the antagonist must be introduced as someone who opposes that goal.

Session 2-3 (10%-15% of the way through), introduce the Fateful Decision. This is the point where the party commits to going on the adventure - a.k.a. 'the hero's call.' The party might reject it at first, but that's OK. In literature, the hero often rejects the call to adventure the first time. It is common for Act 1 to end when the hero has finally made the decision and accepted the call, though you can play with this a little bit.

Examples: The Fateful Decision

Lord of the Rings, Movie 1: When Frodo says, 'I will take the ring to Mordor.' Everything he had done up to that point had been a reaction to imminent peril. Without this single decision on his part, he could have gone home and there wouldn't have been a movie.

The Matrix: Red pill or Blue pill, Neo? The Matrix, however, plays with this a bit and introduces the Fateful Decision three times: first when Neo gets the cellphone in the package and decides not to step onto the ledge (rejecting 'the call'). Second, when he chooses to stay in the car with Trinity instead of getting out. And last with the two pills.

Act 2: Complications

Length: 10 play sessions (50% of game time)
Purpose: This is the main part of the story, where most of the adventure takes place. The party should be posed with questions - riddles, puzzles and clues that they can follow up. The party will pursue its ultimate goal while the antagonist opposes them (directly or indirectly). You should play with the relationship character now; he/she could offer advice & support, become a hazard himself or introduce a plot complication, make the life of the party better or worse.

Session 10-11 (50% of the way through, or the midpoint of the campaign): switch gears from ASKING questions, to ANSWERING them.

Session 15 (75% of the way through): The Low Point. Things simply cannot get any worse for the party. They should be the furthest it is possible to get from their goal.

Examples: The Low Point

The Matrix: Morpheus is captured. The traitor has killed everyone on board the ship but Trinity, Neo and Tank. It is only a matter of time before Morpheus' mind is cracked, and there are sure to be several agents guarding him.

The Princess Bride: The Masked Man has been tortured to death. Buttercup has been captured and returned to the evil Prince Humperdink. She will be forced to marry him in the morning.

Act 3: Final Battle

Length: 5 play sessions (Remaining 25% of allotted time)
Purpose: The party must recover from their low point and fight their way to achieving their goal. Unlike in the movies, the party may not ever achieve what they set out to accomplish - the bad guys might win; some of all of the PCs might perish. Assuming success, however, there are Three Key Events that should happen during this act:

  • The party must defeat the antagonist.
  • The party must either achieve its goal, or give it up for good.
  • The party must reconcile with the dynamic character.

The closer these three things happen together, the more emotional impact your story will have. Ideally, all will happen within the very last session, though you could spread it out between two sessions.

Examples: Three Key Events

The Dark Knight: Batman resolves with the Joker by telling a joke and shooting him in the face (J: 'Do you know how I got these scars?' B: 'No, but I know how you got these!'). He then goes on to confront and kill Harvey Dent, thereby accepting his place as the Dark Knight, giving up his goal of quitting.

The Lion King: Simba defeats Scar in battle and accepts his role as King (achieving his goal). Resolution with the relationship character, Mufasa, comes as a single whispered word from the heavens, just before Simba achieves this goal: 'Remember.' This harkens back to original statement of theme: 'Remember who you are.' Observe how all three of these events occurred in the span of about 10 minutes, resulting in an ending with a lot of emotional punch.

Thoughts on Execution:

Alright, Gming is not like writing a novel - you don't have complete control over what the party does or what your players find interesting. How can you still make the Hollywood Formula work, without railroading your PCs? Why not use Act 1 to set everything else up? Have several campaign ideas in mind and see which one of those the party follows. Have several potential antagonists and/or dynamic characters ready, and see which ones the party reacts most strongly to. Make liberal use of your knowledge of the PCs' personal motivations and goals, and tie those into your campaign theme. Give your party ample reason (ideally several) to pursue the plot, and you will probably be rewarded.

If the party still rejects all of your pre-conceived plotlines and goes off on their own tangent, just relax and try to adapt. View their decisions through the lense of the Formula and see if you can save it: what was the party's Fateful Decision (the point at which they chose to pursue their goal)? What is their true goal? Who might fit in as a dynamic character and antagonist? Once you have those elements, you can plan to start reintroducing those characters during Act 2, and design your campaign around what has already happened.

Subplots and Character Plots: One thing that stuck with me when reading MoonHunters advice on starting a campaign was that the GM should strive to have several plotlines attached to each character at all times (he suggests three). I think this is solid advice - after all, the game should ultimately be about the PCs. But how can you fit those character-based plotlines into the wider campaign, and still remain true to the Formula? How do we incorporate ANY sideplots, for that matter?

One approach is to make sure that each subplot, while focused on a particular character or group of characters, has a tie back to Formula somehow. Does it share the campaign theme, for example? Is the dynamic character involved? Is the antagonist making an appearance? Could the character's personal plotline somehow shed some light on the questions raised in Act 2? It might be helpful to draw a relationship diagram of your overarching plot and the individual subplots and see where you can make the connections - draw lines between persons or events, and see where it leads you.

Remember that each subplot is a promise to your players. Try not to leave any of them dangling or unresolved when you move into Act 3. If you do, at least try to tie their resolution very close to the climax of Act 3, when the party achieves its goal and defeats the antagonist. That way, the resolution of the character arc will have heightened emotional impact, and the subplot won't detract from Act 3 or slow down the action too much.

Dynamic Character: Be careful not to make him into a Mary Sue. It is important to remember that, while important, the dynamic character is not the hero of the story - the party members are. His presence should be felt in the campaign, but not so much that he becomes an true annoyance to your players. Make him interesting, but not overpowered. It helps to make him obviously inferior to the PCs in some way as well. Is he a washed-up hero who rejected the call, or made the wrong choice at the Fateful Decision? There's a reason why the dynamic character is relying on the party to achieve the goal rather than doing it himself - emphasize that as much as necessary.

Remember to Play with the Formula: Die Hard is an almost entirely 'Act 3' film, meaning that it's low point comes early on (the hero with his feet cut up by glass) and the rest of the film is dedicated to the upward struggle. You can do this with your campaign, as well. You can have several low points, or perhaps two dynamic characters. In the end, the formula is just a recipe: once you understand what the different ingredients are for, you can start to substitute and replace them to get the effect you need.


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