Good stories need good endings

Though one of my GM mentors recommended the “never-ending campaign” that has no ending, I rather like endings to be honest. It comes from liking the ending of stories, though not the fact that they end, as it really leaves you satisfied that what you enjoyed reading or viewing all that time has really paid off.

So how can campaign endings work? And what do they need to achieve? As a Level 1 GM, I have only done a handful of campaign ending sequences (four to be precise, and only two that I was happy with), so I am going to draw on my knowledge of endings in general, from fiction.

Perhaps we could start this with the simplest of questions…

Why Have Endings At All?

We like endings in the same way that we like fiction to be different from life. Aristotle said this (among other things) in Poetics. It’s why we make stories, we want to try and make sense of the world. In a story, everything is conveniently organised and colour-coded. We have good guys and bad guys, we have a beginning a middle and an ending. Life isn’t like that, so it’s rather comforting when we can put something (like a work of fiction) in a convenient little box where we know the limits are.

Take a look at some of the good long-running television series that have ended on a high note. People complain that a particular show isn’t on anymore (I say this about The West Wing) because it ended. But ending something before it gets bad is much better than having it drag, trying some desperate measures to grab ratings and then getting cancelled by the network.

The same thing can be said for RPG campaigns. They are, very much, a story but a collaborative one. Yet if the GM has that ending in sight, whether an actual scripted sequence or just a goal, they can still guide the players towards that so they can get the big pay off

And that is really what endings are about: the pay off. It’s one of the reasons why we strive to beat computer games, everything we do in the twenty or so hours of gameplay is leading up to that one cut scene: the ending sequence. And then if it is not as good as we hoped it to be (like the ending of Knights of the Old Republic II for example) it feels like a let down.

What Endings need to do

Endings in roleplaying games need to do several things, precisely because this is a collaborative story.

Firstly, there is the big pay off described above. The players need to feel that getting this one game session is worth all the time (it may be months or even years) to get to this point. It’s the GM’s chance to go all out with their storytelling, and they need to do it right if they want the players to remember it. The Darths and Droids webcomic does a good job of explaining this.

Secondly, the end of the campaign is a good time for any “housekeeping” to be done. If the players are rolling new characters or even leaving the game, this is a good chance for them to roleplay them out of the game, saying the intentions or even commenting on their own eulogy if they went out in a blaze of glory. The GM may also have similar coda, such as various NPCs that the players know or the fate of the village/city/land/planet/galaxy that they may or may not have saved. This can be particularly important of the next campaign begins sometime after the current one ends. There may not be the need to tie up loose ends, you may not have to do a Friar Lawrence and explain everything so that all characters PCs and NPCs, are on the same page. It could even be a lead in to the next campaign.

How they should work

A little out of game work needs to be done beforehand to get a good ending sequence. I would suggest telling the players that you are expecting the campaign to end ahead of time, and they should give a little thought as to what their characters say if they succeed or they fail. Not everyone will want to do this, of course.

This is also the chance to tell players that if they want to switch characters, they can incorporate their own character bowing out of the game in this sequence.

For the ending itself, it’s not a bad idea to have some sort of NPC leader congratulating/condemning the players at what they have done and perhaps reminding them of some of the steps they took along the way. Not a bad idea to have a party and incorporate this into the session itself. You just managed to finish the campaign, it’s a good reason to celebrate!

Finally, don’t be too afraid to create atmosphere. Feelies and music can do things. I try and incorporate the John Williams music for the end of Star Wars movies, as they generally give the right feel to the situation as well as a clear and defined moment when I have ended. This also gives me a limited time, sometimes, depending on which one I have chosen.

Hopefully my limited experience can help you here, and if you’re not sure for an ending don’t worry. They often can find you.


~ by katanageldar on July 13, 2010.

One Response to “Good stories need good endings”

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