Adventures in Kishōtenketsu

Adventures in Kishōtenketsu:

Come on and do the Twist!

A self-contained adventure needs to do a lot in a relatively short space of time. It needs to establish its characters and settings, invest the players in the story and present them with challenges, give them a space in which to play and explore, before wrapping things up with a satisfying ending. So how can we structure an adventure to make sure we have all of this covered and keep things ticking along at a steady pace? Worry not, my friends, for Kishōtenketsu is here to help!

What is Kishōtenketsu?

Kishōtenketsu is a Japanese story structure that has its origins in Chinese four-line narrative poetry. These days, it often sees use in manga, movies, and wider short-form fiction, with a lot of writers turning to it in order to construct their plots.

It breaks down into four main parts:

Kiku (ki) = The introduction, the moment in which the characters and location are established.

The adventurers are drinking in a tavern when the landlord asks them to deal with the rats in the cellar.

Shōku (shi) = Development. The story progresses, the characters move on towards the next stage.

They venture down and begin their hunt amidst the barrels, following rat tracks, dodging traps the landlord left, and definitely not looting his precious alcohol supplies.

Tenku (ten) = The twist. Something changes, the story moves in an unexpected direction. This is the climactic point of the story.

The rats hold up little surrender flags and explain that they are the true landlord and his family and the man upstairs cursed them so he could take the pub.

Kekku (ketsu) = Conclusion. The end of the story.

The evil bartender is dealt with and the adventurers leave the pub in the tender paws of the rat family.

Going on an Adventure!

This is all well and good, but why does this lend itself well to crafting adventures? Quite simply, the Kishōtenketsu provides us with a useful road map, giving DMs a good idea of what they need to present to the players where. Each section of it has a function and each one maps pretty closely to the needs of a self-contained adventure I mentioned at the beginning.

Introduction gives us our chance to set up the adventure and introduce important characters (including the players’ characters). Development provides a space for the adventure to happen, a chance for them to overcome the challenges set up in the introduction, or just a space to explore and play as they see fit. Once these challenges have been overcome, they reach the Twist. Something unexpected happens, the characters (and hopefully the players) are blindsided by a shift in the story and suddenly the nature of the adventure changes. And, finally, the Conclusion. The climactic events of the Twist are resolved, we all get to see how the story plays out according to our actions and its time for tea and medals (similar to what Terry Pratchett referred to as the “cigarettes” portion of a story).

The Development and Twist sections in particular help in crafting a fun and engaging story for everyone to play through. These are the places where player agency really shapes the adventure. You’ve set up what sort of challenges they might face in the Introduction, whether this is a Murder Mystery or a Dungeon Crawl, now the characters make their decisions and push the story along.

Then comes the Twist. This is what I believe will make the story really memorable for the players. It means that you can take a standard adventure set-up and now take it in a fun direction. Provided you don’t throw in something that completely disrupts player agency and jars the tone of the adventure (suddenly a dragon appeared from nowhere and ate the scheming politician in the middle of their villain speech), this can be the moment that makes everyone sit up and sets a new challenge before them, mixing up the experiences of the game so far.

My Adventurer’s Tool Kit

I recently came across this story structure in a writers’ forum and tried it out on a few pieces of fiction I was working on. Later, I applied it to some one-shots I was running and found it to be extremely well suited to self-contained adventures. Of course, no plan ever survives first contact with players, but even when ad-libbing I found this structure useful to keep in mind.

OK, I know we’re in the Development stages now, here are the sort of things I can present them with. What new twist can I put on this?

It also helps to keep things ticking along at a fairly steady pace, with each section giving the events their own momentum. Introduction gets things started, the challenges in the Development section move the characters towards their goal, the Twist propels them forward beyond this, and the Conclusion brings everything together and presents the rewards for a job well done (or chaos well enacted, as the case may be).

Ultimately though, as with all things, it comes down to what you find most fun. I will not be using this structure for everything I run, but it is nice to know I have it in my tool box if I ever need it.