I just had the amazing experience of reading a wonderful advance of a new book (coming out next year) and got to give a long, satisfied sigh of a ending well writ. Now, this story may or may not be the first in a series but the book I read most certainly ended. Closure given, my reward as a reader assured, while still (possibly) leaving room for more.
And so… Endings.
A lot of great writers say they write the first chapter and then they write the last and the work writing itself is the journey to link the two. GMing can benefit from a similar approach. You can’t easily get somewhere without knowing where it is. So when contemplating your next game (or current one if it is early enough) consider the following as some of the possible endings from the beginning:
* The Big Bad Dies – This is a really intuitive break point in gaming. The final battle is done, the bad guy beaten and things can finally start to heal from whatever our naughty antagonist was up to. This approach works well for casual games, organized play or convention one shots. In these situations the investment in the characters is probably not as specific to your game but rather the scenario or overarching intention of the event or play structure. These endings are often LEAST satisfying to the long term gaming group. If you terminate a campaign without even a little bit of wrap up players will be left hanging, continue to ask you follow-up questions and/or be angry enough at the return on investment to be uninterested in your next game.
* The Adventure Ends – Similar to the Big Bad this end is more due to the conclusion of a pre-published module or scenario. The story ends because that’s all the publishers of the adventure gave you. Page 42 has final experience and treasure rewards and if you are lucky a few notes of wrap-up. Higher quality companies and campaign based products are frequently more complete and may have suggestions of where to go if you don’t think your group is done. But they are done, and if you don’t change it, you play group will sense it.
* The Characters Are Recognized – By far the most common ending to published and homebrewed games, the moment of reward is often the perfect end to a game. Titles, riches, prestige or power are heaped on our heroes and they are now free of their heavy burden and presumably go back to their old lives. This can be a great way to go, it usually includes the above steps and provides more individualized and complete coverage of the closure giving information.
* Moment of Ascension – Sometimes your players are just THAT powerful. The paladin died and came back and now heaven comes to collect. The mage has unlocked a new magic of transformation. The monks transcendent meditation separates him from the physical plane. These moments CAN signal the end of a game, or merely the end of a play period and the launch of something else. But rest assured this moment will count as some sort of ending.
* The Lovers Unite/Triumph of Love – This covers princesses returning home to awaken their sleeping-stone-toad princes and mothers reuniting with long lost children. Nothing quite beats these moments as endings but the set-up and trust a player has to exhibit in co-developing these stories can be difficult.
Also consider the scope of the ending:
* Is it over for everyone? Maybe Steve’s paladin is leaving when he goes back into active Guard duty. If you know this you can plan a “sub”-ending for that character and still reward his play in your game while working the character out in a natural way. Maybe Amy is only home from college for summers, account for her character’s rescue and subsequent summons from her father in a manner that will allow her to come back right in time for Christmas break. Creative use of planned endings can ease stress at your table while enriching the stories you tell.
* Is there a bigger goal? Sure the game may be ending but will it be THE solution. Is there an obvious continuation for a second connected game? Maybe the Dragon your heroes slay is the only reason three younger dragons haven’t moved in on the territory. Generation 2 might need to handle that? Is there still work to do? Can you just continue the game in a new direction to do it? Should you?
* Is there a legacy? Did the PCs establish something? A knightly order? A mage school? Invent a spell? Enchant an item? These things are reprisal goldmines. Don’t let them go easily.
When readying and running your end a few more things to keep in mind:
* Keep notes. – The temptation at the close of a game will be to take less notes because well “Hey, it’s over, right?” In a persistent setting nothing could be more wrong. Players do the things that matter most to persistent settings at the END of your games. Write it down. Nothing will make having a return game more real that acknowledging changes that a prior campaign caused. I regret everytime I fail to do it.
* Are you and the players on the same page? Are your players in agreement? – I could write a pile on this but get to know your players and read their interest levels. If the Big Bad is dead, and people don’t like their characters much or seem to be struggling, don’t have them go and collect the 64 McGuffins the Big Bad hid… Stick a fork in it. Similarly, if most of your players are done and someone else is insisting you run their Mary Sue til the grand ascent of the Celestial Temple. Maybe its time for an ending for the game. If you ARE interested in that character too maybe you start a new game focused on their journey and give the other players a chance to bow out or create new characters.
* Does your group know it is coming? Should they? As your group matures you will notice different patterns of opinion about the ending of games. Most people that get to know a GM can sense when they are going to wrap up a game with relatively little warning but sometimes that is not the case. It can be incredibly traumatic to spring this on your friends un-forecast. Sometimes surprise is the right way to go. If possible give general expectations to an ending story or advancement progression I would recommend periodic hints of your intentions.
Looking forward to endings can save your campaign’s last night from being yours as a GM too.
And for tomorrow… “Buy what about UN-planned endings: TPK”