"The average hit film in Hollywood today has seven to ten major reveals. Some kinds of stories, including detective stories and thrillers, have even more. The sooner you abandon three-act structure and learn the techniques of advanced plotting, the better off you will be." - John Truby, The Anatomy of Story
The Grim Story
I mentioned in my previous post that Grim Portents are what I believe to be the most critical part of communicating a Dungeons and Dragons world to your Player Characters. This post will be about design, structure, and use of Grim Portents to evoke feelings in your players.
When I wanted to be a screenwriter in high school, my Drama teacher handed me a book: The Anatomy of Story by John Truby. And I devoured it. I never became a screenwriter, but that’s okay because it turned out I didn’t want to be a screenwriter, I wanted to be a storyteller. I’m lucky, then, that Truby’s advice is about stories, not movies, and DMs can still draw so much from it.
There’s this section in the book that relates perfectly to Grim Portents. Truby calls them revelations:
“At this point in the story, the hero gets a revelation—or reveal—which is a surprising piece of new information.”
Grim Portents are your revelations. Your surprising piece of new information. “Dragons are sighted”, “People go missing”, “someone noble is murdered”.
“This information forces him to make a decision and move in a new direction. It also causes him to adjust his desire and his motive."
Remember that this is our goal with Portents. We’re implying an Impending Doom, because we want our PCs to have to interact with our Danger. We want the PCs to have to reconsider their desires, their motives, the things they find important.
“Each revelation must be explosive and progressively stronger than the one that preceded it. The information should be important, or it won't pop the story. And each reveal should build on the one before it. When we talk about the plot "thickening," this is what is actually happening.”
Your Grim Portents should increase in intensity. We established that the Impending Doom should be an intolerable state for the PCs, so each Portent should get closer to that feeling of "this is unacceptable". A dragon all the way over in Thundertree is intense because dragon, but it isn’t too intense, we can just avoid it. It's interesting, but not intolerable. Riots in Phandalin though, or people in power being under influence of a dragon are more intense. They pop. Also note this provides us a good cheat for Portents where you go from “something happens” to “something happens to someone important”. And yes, I did that in my Venomfang Portents because it’s an awesome technique and I'm a hack.
Once you've figured out what your Portents will be, you have to give them an order. Truby again:
“1. The sequence of revelations must be logical. They must occur in the order in which the hero would most likely learn of them.”
The interactivity of RPGs makes this a little more flexible. But it does mean when you’re advancing a Portent toward your PCs, you need to ensure that you’re advancing the logical portent. If they’re underground in a dungeon talking to gnomes, it’s not likely they’ll know about people being eaten from Phandalin. Instead you need to ensure you’re advancing relevant, interesting, logical Portents. If that means you have to skip one of your other ones, then that's okay.
“2. They must build in intensity. Ideally, each reveal should be stronger than the one that came before it. This is not always possible, especially in longer stories (for one thing, it defies logic). But you want a general buildup so that the drama increases.”
We’ve discussed this. Think of the different axes of intensity: Something can be big, but far away. Something can be small, but close and personal. You can increase intensity by: Reducing distance, time, or available resources; or by Increasing intimacy, cost, or implied consequences.
“3. The reveals must come at an increasing pace. This also heightens the drama because the audience gets hit with a greater density of surprise.”
The best way I’ve seen this described visually is with Apocalypse World’s Countdown Clocks, which has markers at 3:00, 6:00, and 9:00, then has markers at 10:00, 11:00, and 12:00 much much closer:
“Before 9:00, that thing’s coming, but preventable. What are the clues? What are the triggers? What are the steps?
Between 9:00 and 12:00, that thing is inevitable, but there’s still time to brace for impact. What signifies it?
At 12:00, the threat gets its full, active expression. What is it?”
The increase in markings between 9 and 12, the use of the term “brace for impact”. This is how your revelations should increase in intensity.
Tools to Take Away
Originally this tools section was going to have a step-by-step process to writing and arranging your Grim Portents, but that isn't what either Grim Portents or Action Economy are about. This is about tools, philosophies, ways of doing things, not rules and checklists.
“Think of the revelations as the gears in a car. With each reveal the car (story) picks up speed until at the final one the vehicle is zooming. The audience has no idea how they ended up moving so fast, but they sure are having a good time."
I love this metaphor. When you put your foot on the story's accelerator, you're adding elements and drama, things are happening. You add Venomfang and the engine whirrs to life. You've got an idea of what to do if we go into combat, but what if the PCs don't (or can't) engage in combat? This is where our Portents shine. This is what they're for.
"If your revelations don't build in intensity, the plot will stall or even decline. This is deadly. Avoid it at all costs.”
This is the situation you’ve found yourself in if you haven’t had Grim Portents. You’ve gone “DRAGON!” and the PCs have run away, and then you haven’t had a way to build in intensity, and your plot has stagnated. Without a gear to move to, an accelerating engine will break, die, or be forced to decelerate. Instead, have somewhere to go, have a gear to change up to, have somewhere to zoom.