Narrative Architecture

Below is a talk given by Alexis Kennedy on the fundamentals of Narrative Architecture and Failbetter Games' approach to it. This presentation was given at Stagconf in Vienna, in 2011.

Linear Patterns

These structures provide a story with a fixed beginning, middle and end.

Simple Chain

Every step has a quality Y minimum X, maximum X requirement. Every success event increases quality Y by one. So the first one has minimum 0 maximum 0 quality Y, and quality Y goes to 1. Second one has minimum 1 maximum 1 requirement, and quality Y goes to 2. The effect is that you see each one in turn after success.
This is (broadly) how the Ambitions in Fallen London work. This is a very useful but rigid and brittle way of controlling narrative.

  • Chain link: resource sink. 'Pay 100 Whispered Secrets to advance to the next link.'
  • Chain link: quality block. 'Pass a Shadowy 35 roll to advance to the next link.'
  • Chain link: quality block + resource sink. 'Pass a Shadowy 35 roll to advance to the next link….and it'll cost you X Connections to try.'

Chained Pyramid

See Pyramid, below. Fallen London uses this in the Nemesis and Vake ambitions: you're generally advancing along a Chain, but certain links allow some flexibility in how you advance, or even allow you to drop back. So from Nemesis 12-15, you advance in steps of 1-3, from a variety of Opportunity cards. You may even step backwards (once you get above 13).

Pigeonhole Qualities

This is a little fragile but has allowed us to get away with many fewer qualities. We just treat different levels in a single quality as different outcomes. So 3 is one conclusion, 4 is another, 5 is a third. It is very important to update quality notes when you do this.

Flexible Patterns

These structures are less linear


A chain with multiple points of access and growth. In Fallen London, the Cheesemonger is our primary extant example.

A Burn After Reading storylet starts you going, and gives you a Key quality. We'll call this the Pyramid Key. A straightforward example: an investigation to find a kidnappee, and the quality is 'Kidnap Investigation Progress'.

There are about five Pyramid Foot storylets that require Tiered Pyramid Key for entry. Every time you succeed in one, it increases the Key rating. So you're interviewing the local gravediggers with Persuasive, you're searching the scene for clues with Watchful, you're following the cook with Shadowy. Pyramid Foot storylets get locked out for you when the Key reaches, say, 3.

Then we have a whole bunch of storylets at the next Pyramid Tier, each with Key 3 as a Min requirement. Again, you keep levelling up your Key, and eventually move on to the next Tier.

Eventually the Pyramid narrows to a conclusion. The Key may serve as a Mark of Cain that locks you out of the Pyramid once you're done - or there may be a separate Mark.

Any and all of the steps above can combine with earlier strategies. Some of the Pyramid storylets might be Burn After Readings. Some might be have other Keys (eg: Connected: Tomb-Colonies). Some might be Cherry Locked (you have a 'Constables are Bored' cherry quality when you start, and that drops with some storylets and eventually locks you out). And so on. The only difficulty is keeping this all straight and organised. Which is not, not, not, a small difficulty.

Descending the Pyramid: The Pyramid quality is a Cherry rather than a Key - that is, it locks you out until it drops or is gone. We use this in Fallen London with the Rats in your Lodgings - new options on how to deal with it pop up as it drops.

Note from experience: if your Cherry Pyramid quality uses change points, then the initial high levels can take a while to get through, which can have a strong disincentive effect. It's better to let them see progress early.


Think of a boa constrictor that's swallowed a rabbit. The tail of the Python is an opportunity that appears once; if you play it and succeed, you get a Mark of Cain token, a quality at 1, that unlocks the Bulge.

The Bulge is a number of ops or storylets that can be played in any order, each of which ups the token quality. Success at these will advance the narrative, but in a nonlinear way; eg investigating a puzzle, you could interrogate different people in whichever order you choose.

The head of the python is one final storylet, unlocked once the Cain token reaches a high enough level; success at this wraps everything up. The head storylet could be a test on the Cain token quality, in which case it should be possible to go back and grind the bulge storylets a few more times to increase your chances. Or it could be a multi-branch storylet to allow you to choose the direction of the end (see Hydra, below); in this case you might or might not want to lock off the bulge qualities at that level.


A multi-headed snake. So, a storylet at the end of a Python that has multiple branches to allow the player to decide how they want to end the story. This will also work with some of the other structures

Content-Parsimony structures

The purpose of all these is to present a limited number of storylets in a way that makes them more interesting, and involves choice, without needing to build complex branching structures.

Midnight Staircase

Level a transient quality (Staircase quality) up through repeated actions. Transient quality unlocks difficult, high-reward storylets ('landings'). Playing one knocks quality back down to zero.

There are usually different, tactically interesting ways to raise the Staircase quality with different levels of risk and other effects.

Midnight Buffet

More than one transient quality, and a variety of actions to increase or spend it. The consensus is that this i's a bit confusing. Go cautiously.

Beggars' Banquet

Essentially, building up a transient quality with resource sinks. An opportunity gives the first transient quality, then spending resources through a pinned card increases it; opportunities also appear to allow you to increase it in different ways.

Fallen London's Scandal menace-state works like this, for example (although that involves decreasing Scandal by buying favours, the principle is the same).


Level a transient quality (Carousel quality) up through repeated actions. As with a Staircase, the quality unlocks new storylets along the way. However, some of these storylets also advance the Carousel quality; and when we get to the end, the Carousel is reset to 1. This is how we do the University term in Fallen London.

Grandfather Clock

This uses a transient quality (the 'minute hand') which goes up and down, and a less transient quality (the 'hour hand') which generally just goes up.

For a midnight staircase, you level up the progress quality to the desired level, then choose any of the unlocked 'landings' to get off at from a list, which resets the progress quality, and you repeat. With a Grandfather Clock, you level up the minute hand quality. When it's high enough you're faced with only the current slet in the chain according to the hour hand. You do the slet, minute hand gets reset to zero and the next time you level up you get the next slet according to the hour hand.

Note from experience: We've had feedback that this feels grindy, even in a context where there's stacks of content.

Staircase in a Bottle

This is one storylet pretending to be several. A Story in a Bottle has a transient progress quality that is increased by one branch and that then locks out or unlocks other branches as it rises. This can be very robust, and you can use the Visible when Locked checkbox to determine whether players see the other branches when they don't qualify for them.

Monty's Pyramid

This is a Midnight Staircase that you can only (usually) play once - the transient quality is a Cain quality. At each landing you are offered increasingly tempting incentives to step off the staircase. At any point the incentives for subsequent / final landings may become undesirable. This works very nicely with Quagmire Forks, above.

The Road with Many Faces

This is a chain or python which covers N stories and requires N+1 qualities: one progress quality and N story markers. So let's say we have the Shapechanging Curse quality along with Wolf or Bear or Weasel. There's three storylets in which you might be bitten by each of those animals, and each one gives you Wolf or Bear or Weasel but also Shapechanging Curse at 1.

Shapechanging Curse gradually rises, and you have slets where you wake up covered in blood or have to decide whether to tell your family or whatever. Nearly all these slets are the same: some may be different for flavour, and the endings may vary based on the story markers. But we don't need to write similar paths for each one separately.

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