Branching Scenarios in Storyline: Layers or Slides?

When you build branching scenarios in Storyline, one of the decisions you need to make is when to create new slides and when to create layers. In my work, I find that layers are effective for feedback in a gauntlet or constrained branching structure. For everything else, I build new slides for the consequences of each choice. Using layers might seem like it saves some development time, but it can actually create more complexity (and hassle!) if the branching paths cross or you revisit options more than once.

Branching Scenarios in Storyline: Layers or Slides

When layers work well

Layers work well for feedback and consequences in simple branching scenarios. The simplest branching scenario structure is a series of questions and responses, but no matter what you pick, you return to the main path. This approach is called a gauntlet or constrained branching structure. (It goes by some other names too–Cathy Moore calls it a “control freak” scenario, for example.)

Many people start with this gauntlet structure when they are first learning how to create branching scenarios (I did too!). It’s the easiest to understand and manage. It usually looks like this, where you have a choice, some responses, and then return to the main path.

Screenshot of a scenario with a gauntlet structure in Twine

In a scenario like this, using layers for the feedback makes sense. You can have the question in the main layer, and the responses and feedback in additional layers. The navigation takes you to the next question on a new slide, and the process repeats.

In Storyline, the main layer for a question would look something like this, with triggers on each choice that show the layers for the responses.

Screenshot of Storyline with a scenario question. Each choice shows a layer for the response.

Each of the three response layers show the next part of the conversation in response to the choice. You could also include feedback here. After each question, you continue to the next slide for the next question.

Screenshot of a scenario in Storyline with a character response and a continue button

For a simple branching structure like this, layers are probably more manageable. There isn’t really any branching structure to work with; it’s essentially just a series of multiple choice questions with customized feedback.

When slides work better than layers

Once the branching structure becomes even a little more complex, I find that layers become more difficult. Partly, that’s because I start with a map of the structure in Twine. Mentally, it’s easier to think of each passage in Twine converting to a single slide in Storyline. But the larger consideration is that it’s much easier to link to slides than to link to individual layers.

Take a look at the structure for this scenario. In this client screening scenario, the paths frequently cross. I often reused choices to give users a chance to correct their mistakes.

Screenshot of a Twine scenario. The scenario is short, but it has multiple intersecting paths

This sort of branching structure would be much harder to keep track of using layers. Therefore, I used links to new slides for each choice rather than showing layers. The structure in Storyline looks fairly similar to the structure in Twine.

Story structure in Storyline with multiple paths

In this scenario, each choice jumps to a new slide. You can try this scenario example yourself or read more about how I built it in Storyline.

Screenshot of Storyline where each choice jumps to a different slide

Typically, this second example is how I build branching scenarios in Storyline.

Reusing choices, opportunities to correct mistakes

If I had used layers instead of slides, it would have been trickier to reuse choices.

For example, in the first decision point, you have three choices.

  1. Send Robert a price estimate. (Bad) Jump to slide 1.3 Price Estimate
  2. Send Robert some client screening questions. (Good) Jump to slide 1.4 Screening
  3. Send Robert questions on the course length. (OK) Jump to slide 1.5 Course Length

On their own, it would be pretty simple to add the responses to those questions in layers. However, if you choose the OK option above, you get another opportunity to pick the best option. I reused that choice, but I reworded it so it wasn’t as obvious. “High level questions about goals and budget” is the same as “client screening questions,” just said a different way.

  1. Send Robert a price for the whole project. (Bad) Jump to slide 1.3 Price Estimate
  2. Ask Robert what level of elearning he wants. (OK) Jump to slide 1.8 Level
  3. Ask Robert some high level questions about goals and budget. (Good) Jump to slide 1.4 Screening

It’s possible to jump to a specific layer of a slide. But in my workflow, it feels more complicated to use variables to check which slide the user last visited when they enter the slide, and then have a conditional trigger based on that. It’s more straightforward to just build more slides. It’s also easier to see the structure in Story view, which makes it easier to troubleshoot and revise.

Your approach?

While this is the approach that works best for me, I don’t think this is a hard and fast rule. There’s definitely an element of personal preference here, although certain situations may be easier with either slides or layers. If you have built branching scenarios in Storyline, especially more complex branching structures, what do you prefer? Do you mostly use layers, or do you primarily rely on slides? How do you decide which approach to use?

9 thoughts on “Branching Scenarios in Storyline: Layers or Slides?”

  1. Suzanne Reardon-Mulhall

    I wish I’d seen this a few months ago!

    To drive home the content delivered in a recent course, it needed real-world scenarios. I wrote the scripts for each response, the stakeholders approved them, my director liked them, and I was prepared to use Tom Kuhlman’s guidance to build in storyline.

    What I didn’t consider is that each response required its own unique response. My first scenario required 40 unique slides to complete properly, but I had 4 scenarios to build. Instead, I gave feedback to the first question of the scenario without branching, continued to tell the story, then did the same for the remaining 3 questions in the interests of saving time in developing the course. (I went way over hours by trying to do the scenarios first.)

    Using Twine to map things out would have shown me early on that the intended script was too complex.

    My problem with the layers is that as you mentioned, something that could be reused would require copying it. The bigger issue I had was that the triggers weren’t cooperating.

    As I invested a lot of time into the unused branching activity, I decided to save it to refine and tweak for our team to use as a working template in future courses. My advice is to go no more than 3 questions, as that requires 12 layers of responses on 4 slides (good/neutral/bad feedback). For more complex scenarios, chunk the information to have separate segments, then a transition sequence before moving to the next scenario. That’s my takeaway from my poorly designed effort.

    1. Oof, it’s so disheartening to put in that kind of work and then realize it’s not feasible! I’ve been there though. Those lessons are hard won.

      I do have some other tips for managing the complexity of branching scenarios in another post as well. There are ways to structure it so you can have more than 3 questions without letting it grow to unmanageable levels. Cathy Moore sometimes recommended 7 decision points in a learner path as a good target for branching scenarios–but you need better strategies to plan the structure and prune the paths if you’re going that deep.

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  3. I just created my first branching scenario in Storyline, for this week’s Articulate E-Learning Heroes Challenge using T/F variables. Previously I have used BranchTrack (I’ve heard of Twine but felt a bit intimidated by the format!) I used slides because it wouldn’t have made sense to me to use layers. I wanted to the learner’s answers to the questions to result in a unique solution. Your explanation makes sense to me, especially about using slides if you want to give the learner opportunities to get back on track. Thanks!

  4. I recently built a branching scenario course using inbuilt characters within Storyline. The user picked one of six characters as their avatar. The problem I ran into when using layers was the amount of data that each slide contained. Storyline will “pre-load” the next three slides when the user is working through the course, and if the slide has a lot of layers, or the layers contain too many images, moving to the next slide can be delayed by several seconds, leaving the user wondering if something is broken. They can also end up tapping the “next” button several times and accidentally tap a choice that pops up before they have a chance to read the next slide!

    I ended up re-working the project using only slides instead of layers, and this solved the delay problem.

    1. Ugh, how frustrating! I can see how something more complex like that would work better with more slides though. That’s generally what I’m hearing from multiple people: layers are OK for simple scenarios or for conversations within a single scene, but not for more complex scenarios. Thanks for sharing your experience!

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