A lot of people disliked Mass Effect’s ending (pictured left) but to be honest I didn’t mind it. Most of the complaints were structured around how the ending clips were really quite similar to each other, which is so often the case in videogame endings. I was just happy it wasn’t a ten second clip that barely gives you time to catch your breath before dumping you into the ending credits. Anyway, enough on the choice of videogame picture.
The trick with endings is that they generally depend on your audience and their needs and perceptions. For each rule of thumb I provide below, there’ll doubtless be an exception to the rule. In truth, there may be many exceptions because pen-and-paper roleplaying games are quite fluid and players prefer an ending that gives a big case of mood whiplash rather than be strapped into a pre-plotted ending that they must sit back and watch.
On the other hand, you might pre-plot an ending and if you do such a good job with it the players may well be happy to watch it unfold and hope their dice rolls are good enough to nudge it to a better conclusion. This is more often the case in either fantasy dungeons, where the player contract states ‘go there and kill the Big Bad’ so forcing them to ‘kill it’ is fine, and investigative horror games, where the players expect to follow the clue trail to a big encounter that is played for maximum effect. But still, you might get player acceptance of a pre-set ending in the most sandy of sand boxes if it’s truly something special. The problem is that you won’t know if it’s truly something special until it happens and, odds are, if the players think it’s truly something special than they probably also think it meshed quite well with their own choices even if their choices changed nothing.
Anyway, so endings are frustrating when they are....
....Pre-Set. A pre-set ending is an ending that can’t be changed unless the players go to ridiculous extremes to knock it off the rails (which normally results in their death or an early end to the adventure). It’s distinct from a default ending that is kept in reserve in case the players somehow follow the path the way you had intended without deviating too much. In a pre-set adventure, even if the players truly wish to talk down an enemy, throw police at them, or try to assassinate them, the enemy will be immune because they can only be killed in the rooftop garden of the Pizzaz Restaurant after the mayor has been killed and the city is in an uproar. If the players have put efforts into stopping him before now that have all been foiled by Storyteller handwavium than the players will be justifiably annoyed when they have to deal with further consequences that should, by rights, not exist.
....Punitive. It’s one thing if the genre is known for its unhappy endings or the players have a flair for the tragic, but generally players want the game to end on an empowering, if not upbeat, ending. What they generally don’t want to see is all of their efforts swept aside for an ending that has a huge scale of consequences, unremitting bleakness, and a motto to the story that says that all of their deeds were pointless, or worse, counter to what they were hoping to achieve. If you do want to go with a punitive ending, ensure that the mood is obvious from the out-set so that they know that this is about the story and not about player actions. Perhaps consider having a single ray of hope, even if it’s only that one character’s dog survives. If you do want a punitive ending because you think your players are idiots, then it may be time to close up shop until you find new players. Trying to hurt them proves nothing.
....Boring. You don’t build up the tension. You don’t throw counter-strategies at the player characters. The enemies are hopelessly underpowered or are used in such stereotypical ways that the players can predict them from a mile away. Without that rising tension, the ending might as well be the beginning or perhaps even cut off.
....Matches nothing that came before it. So this has been a socio-political campaign where the players have been cautious to never let things fall into combat and are expecting to finally manage to outwit the prince to climb into the various primogen positions but the Storyteller forces the final tactics to fail by exploiting holes in the plan (all plans have SOME holes) so that there had to be a violent show down. Err, what? If the players want to have a political coup using social tactics than drive up the tension by exploiting the holes on a political level that forces them to be all the more cunning for the final thrust. Players generally rejoice at the chance to do something different.
....Show the Power of the Game Master. They make it to the arch villain’s lair only to find a room plagued with traps with an enemy who is ‘technically’ within their Challenge Rating but who has been built with the characters’ specific weaknesses in mind and has a load of underlings prepared which will turn the whole thing into a meat grinding Total Party Kill where your only option is to end it shortly after everyone dies or have them beat a hasty retreat and return with new party members again ... and again ... and again.
It’s not clever to find ways to kill players. It’s really not. You know their sheets. You know their abilities. You know their tactics. You don’t need anyone to approve the abilities you give your monsters. Heck, you can bend or outright break the rules and they wouldn’t know. Your antagonists don’t need to slowly grind their way through the game to get those traps or even roll to ensure they work properly. They just exist because you decided they should exist. You have so much power you could literally click your fingers and declare a character dead for no other reason than because you said so. So please, focus on what is enjoyable for everyone and not what makes you feel epic.
You’re the god of the game world. What could be more epic than that?
The main Endings article (and all the various links) can be found over here.