Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Cultivating a Decent Default Ending

Top points if you can recognise the game that the picture (to the left) is from. While you're figuring it out, onto the article's premise. Cultivating a decent default ending. Firstly, it's funny how divisive the idea of a pre-planned ending can be and how different games tend to have different rates of accepting it.

Pathfinder and D&D Dungeon Masters and players tend to be more accepting. You're meant to take note of the players' actions and allow them to go off the path but people acknowledge that the sheer amount of preparation time involved in mapping, monster building, NPC character sheets, loot builds, and other such odds and ends means that straying off the path completely can lead to a premature session end unless the Dungeon Master was given advanced notice by the players' actions in earlier sessions.

True, the players expect to be able to change *how* they confront the threat but they're generally willing to accept that the threat's location and responses are likely to be well-established. I think this is also why those occasions when they truly re-write the ending by luring the lich out of its hidey hole or talking down the ogre becomes all the more memorable.

In investigative games like Call of Cthulhu people's opinions on pre-set endings are more mixed. You're expected to have a default ending (as the enemy is meant to have their own plans) and a horror format allows some gentle nudging towards a certain conclusion (i.e. fight the cultists AS they're summoning the byakhee and not beforehand) but you're meant to play fair and if they change the entire ending than that's an acceptable option. After all, the enemies don't have to be painstakingly folded into locations, traps, and supporting enemies. You can even re-use old sheets.

In storytelling games like World of Darkness people can be quite against the idea of pre-set endings. This is probably because its designed to be a sandbox game and so character choices are meant to really matter. Your choices define you and they should define your experience. Also, enemies are arguably easier to create than in many other systems and you don't have to read up on Darkness rules and the effects of terrain beforehand. Since it's easier to wing it, the players won't be so forgiving of any form of rail roading - no matter how gentle.

Now that we've gotten a bit of a background, let's break it down. I'm going to use the term 'pre-set ending' to refer to cases where the ending is inviolate and unchangeable and 'default ending' to refer to cases when the ending is subject to change but the Game Master still has an option up her sleeve that ties into what came beforehand.

Is a 'pre-set ending' somehow immoral? No. It's a tool and like any tool it can be used well. Having complete control of the ending allows you to tell the tale in a way that fully links to the beginning as well as the story themes and provides a sort of message for the players. It generally should be kept for adventures that have as their backbone a very moving story that is best told in a particular manner.

If the players HAVE to sacrifice one of their own into the machinery to slow down an enemy that they HAVE to fight with fire that may set the hospital alight, then that is just fine if you're telling a tale of tragedy and misery. However, is there any reason why the players HAVE to walk right up to the lich in a dungeon crawl without taking advantage of stealth, freed prisoners, and rigged cave ins?

Bear in mind that its easier to pull off a pre-set ending in a one shot adventure as the players have less time to exert their influence and it gets a little illogical if their multiple attempts to change the course of the game fail. Also remember that any constraints on their actions in the ending must be based on realistic in-game constraints. If the players manage to surmount those in-game constraints then, well, let them. Making the world inconsistent will just make your ending jarring and silly anyway.

If the freed prisoners are too frightened to help than a paladin's speech and Aura of Courage SHOULD shore up their will. If they're level 1 Commoners (and always have been - players can tell when you shift the world just to say no to them) then they won't be much help in a distraction and using them will likely just get them killed. If the players are okay with using a crowd of prisoners as a meat shield and manage to bully or cajole them into doing it then let them. Yes, it won't give you the heroic ending you were after but if the party are keen on that angle then you weren't going to get that anyway. Heroism based on the inability to be evil isn't heroism at all.

Perhaps you want to use a pre-set ending because you are in love with that idea and it was the inspiration for the entire adventure. This can be risky as it can tempt you to keep it even when it no longer makes sense. On the other hand, it could truly be a cool idea that your players will enjoy. You could always get player buy-in but once they're roleplaying their characters they might drift off the path. Your best bet is to start with the Ending. You want to explore the cool, crazy factor of a sinking ship? Don't let the characters get a whiff of the sabotage plot until after the ship is sinking. That way you get your exciting adventure premise sooner and they don't feel railroaded.

Now onto 'Decent Default Endings' these are just endings that you have up your sleeve in case the players don't come up with another option and just take the predictable path. It keeps you from being left on the spot when they head into the villain's lair. It gives you a rough gauge on what the bad guys are doing and how far along they are likely to be. It also gives you a chance to come up with something that is cinematic and in line with the players' experiences thus far.

If you're worried that you might fall in love with a 'Default Ending' despite the label then push yourself to create three plausible endings that are equally viable. This is often a good idea, anyway, as it can keep the players from getting stuck if they don't make a leap of logic to figure out your idea nor are sufficiently imaginative / logical to come up with a reasonable alternative. One of the big dangers of investigative or occult adventures, particularly during a sandbox game, is that if you don't think about how it could be solved or the threat dealt with than it might well become an unsolvable plot. Resist the urge to make any of them the Bad Ending (unless its a horror game where Bad Endings can be the best). You can always bear it in mind but try to have multiple Good Endings.

Creating a decent default ending often involves looking at the threat's goals or it's nature and the characters' abilities and interests as well as the likely reactions and behaviours. Then stick the label 'default' on it, write it down and accept that something not used never existed ... and thus can be used later.

Hope this helps you somewhat.

The main Endings article (and all the various links) can be found over here.


  1. Is a 'pre-set ending' somehow immoral? No. It's a tool and like any tool it can be used well. Having complete control of the ending allows you to tell the tale in a way that fully links to the beginning as well as the story themes and provides a sort of message for the players. It generally should be kept for adventures that have as their backbone a very moving story that is best told in a particular manner.

    I tend to take an even harder line on this one. Obviously I don't think preset endings (to use your language) are actually immoral (it's a game after all) but I do think that they're a necessarily bad thing.

    To put it another way, I agree that pre-set endings only work in a very moving story that is best told in a particular manner, but I would argue that the particular manner in which those stories are best told is *not in an interactive medium*.

    I don't mind games that set up for tragic endings, I don't even mind games that have unavoidably tragic endings, but in that case I expect the tragic ending to involve me actually making a meaningful decision.

    To put it another way, I don't mind a game in which the only way to defeat the villain is for one of the player characters to sacrifice themselves, but in that case I want the end of the game to be about the party deciding who, if anybody will sacrifice themselves, not just about the process of sacrificing, if you see what I mean.

    Effectively I'd want the game to include three possible endings at least, one where a PC willingly sacrifices themselves, one where they are unwillingly sacrificed by the other players, and one where the players make a positive decision not to make the sacrifice.

    I'll also want a damned good reason why we can't just go out and grab a homeless guy like they do in Perdido Street Station.

  2. I'd argue that the three endings you pointed out is actually one ending with three reactions. There's a difference between a pre-set ending 'The curse won't be lifted without a sacrifice' and a pre-defined decision.

    Multiple endings would be 'The curse can be lifted by a human sacrifice' OR 'the three McGuffins the characters may have found along the way if they were very clever lifts the curse' OR 'the group can decide to flee before the point where the sacrifice comes up and thus leaves the town to the curse'.

    Also, in some cases, choosing not to make the sacrifice isn't a positive decision. Its the cowardly one that means that everyone else gets to suffer eternally just so the PCs don't have to get their hands dirty. Which is still a valid choice, of course. Welcome to Horror!

  3. The Ninth Planet wrapped up recently, and its default ending ended up being used. I think it worked out rather well. It was by no means a foregone conclusion, as the players knew the gist of what was going on even if the specifics of the Mi-Go plan and its goals eluded them. They had over two months as their ship flew back to Earth to do something, but in the end they chose inaction. They knew the situation: their commanding officers were under Mi-Go mind control. They had absolutely no proof, but they knew it for a fact all the same (a critical success on a Psychology roll left absolutely no room for doubt). They knew at least one possible, obvious solution: kill their commanding officers. They debated within themselves and with each other (and with a couple of NPCs, who tried to dissuade them for their own reasons). However, they could not accept the consequences of taking drastic action (saving Earth, but possibly dying in the effort and, even if successful, becoming murderers, being branded as traitors and mutineers, and hunted as fugitives). Instead, they did nothing, and they had to reap the consequences of the Mi-Go succeeding, which would forever alter humanity's future.

    I wrapped things up with a final scene that tied up all of the loose ends, though none of the player characters were present. In this brief scene, the players saw the Mi-Go masterplan revealed as it came to fruition and realized the terrible fate that awaited the human race thanks to their failure to act.

  4. In comparison my Ash chronicle has three pre-set endings. You can make the sacrifice, you can find the Sleeping God and reveal it to the Ash, or you can try to bunker down survivalist-style somewhere safer - perhaps even trying to get overseas. Each one of these choices will have its own outcome and its own costs but there's no way to shift out of those outcomes or their costs. If I allowed it, it would invalidate chunks of the game (it is horror, by the way).

    Even though it is a campaign I defend the choice as its a post-apocalyptic world land and the endings are consistent because the pre-sets are based on certain laws of this game's reality. Some of these laws have already been revealed. Its like adding water to hot oil - it will have a certain effect.

    In my two Home Front games I have no pre-set endings and am still working on the defaults as I don't know enough about the characters to peg a good one. A pre-set ending would be really dumb here as there are so many variables that can, and should, have an effect.

    In my Pathfinder game, I don't bother with default endings or pre-sets because the adventures are too short to have an Act I, II, and III except by the loosest definition. Assassinating a brothel keeper is both the middle and the end of that quest. In my Demon game, its a little too sandbox for that.

  5. I'd argue that the three endings you pointed out is actually one ending with three reactions.

    I'd argue that it's a *little* bit more subtle than that.

    Basically I think we're talking about two superficially similar, but actually very different games, one of which only has one ending, and one of which has three.

    The first game is about *how you will beat the villain*, and it only has one ending - you either beat the villain by making the sacrifice, or you fail to beat the villain by making the sacrifice.

    The second game is about *whether you will sacrifice yourself to save others*. This game has multiple endings, because the only thing that matters is the way the individual characters react to the scenario.

    The situation is problematized because you can also reframe the second game in such a way that it has only one ending again. When you suggest that in some situations not making the sacrifice would be "Its the cowardly [choice] that means that everyone else gets to suffer eternally just so the PCs don't have to get their hands dirty" you're effectively ruling that out as a valid ending of the game (in much the same way that a TPK isn't really and ending to a dungeon adventure - it's just a failure to conclude).

    Basically how many endings the "sacrifice yourself to save the world" scenario has depends on where the GM puts the emphasis. If the GM only cares that the sacrifice happens (or fails to happen, as a "loss" condition) then the game only has one ending. If, on the other hand, the GM cares most about the way the characters *interact* with the possibility of sacrificing themselves, then the game has multiple endings.

    Of course, if the GM and the players care about different things, the game has bigger problems.

  6. Ahh, sorry, I wasn't clear. I'd got sidetracked and started making a moral argument about how refusing to sacrifice someone if it will save lives isn't necessarily a positive one.

    I also haven't been clear by what I mean by endings. I don't mean endings from a story perspective but from an adventure creation perspective of 'ways of resolving the plot'. The beginning is how you hook them in, the middle is how they learn more and tackle lesser objectives to get into a position to deal with the threat, and the ending is the way they resolve the plot.

    If the players are only allowed to use direct combat to resolve the plot, than that's a pre-set ending. If the players must sacrifice someone to resolve the plot, then that's also a pre-set ending. Fleeing may, or may not be, a valid way of resolving the threat. Fleeing the radius of an exploding bomb would be a valid option rather than defusing it. Fleeing the location of an Outer God summoning that will destroy the planet isn't a valid option as its basically a voluntary TPK. From a story perspective, both are valid 'endings' in that they end the story. From an adventure creation perspective, it only matters if you allow escape as a valid option of 'winning' or at least 'surviving'.

    A default ending is where you have in mind one possible way of resolving the plot but are open to player creativity. You understand that the threat can be talked down or killed in direct combat but if the players come up with the idea of luring it into a car yard and dropping a car on it then you're happy to let that deal with the threat.

    With pre-set endings you have already defined the only options and nothing outside of those options will work. This can be a good thing if there are in-game no other valid options (i.e. there are no lifepods on the shuttle and the engine needs repairing or it'll explode, you're forced to repair the engine or die). But if a pre-set ending rejects other valid options (why can't we surrender to the cops? because the ST wants a shoot out) then that is something to be avoided.

  7. Which means, basically, that I don't think we're in argument as a psychological game where the 'plot threat' is the inner conflict of what humanity are willing to allow in order to survive would have many potential resolutions and in the end the final question of: "What would you sacrifice to save the world?" would be satisfied by any answer: Myself, a Friend, a Random, No One.

    Generally, though, I prefer to keep things broader with default endings but I tend to run more sandboxy games.

  8. Then I guess the ending of The Ninth Planet wasn't a default ending. I was thinking of it as what happens if the players do nothing in this case. The Mi-Go did not wipe out humanity, but their plan's success does enable them to rule and exploit it in secrecy (at least until something happens to change the situation). There was no one default ending by that definition, as the endgame situation did not have to play out that way and any number of things could have happened. General Pryce might never have even fallen under Mi-Go domination. In fact, it was extremely unlikely to happen on the first attempt. There were a number of possible outcomes, though the finale that did crop up did require a sacrifice in order to thwart the Mi-Go plan, and the players chose not to go through with it.

    Interestingly, Sarah would willingly sacrifice herself to save the world in Ash if she believed it would work, but it wouldn't work if she volunteered for it. Lionel would never allow it, of course.

    Is the picture from Silent Hill?

  9. Oh, that might be the 'default ending' if that was the only one you had previously determined as a possible resolution. Surrendering to the enemy may resolve the tension involving the Mi-Go in that case.

    The main reason why I harp on about the default ending's purpose is that I've been in too many games where the ST obviously hadn't thought of a potential resolution to their ridiculously hard plot and we had to sit around scratching our heads with no ending in sight. Of course, it is possible they had default endings in mind but they were so ridiculously complex and vague that we never would have thought of it.

    Poor Sarah. She could theoretically save the world except her willingness undoes it all. On the plus side, if their current plan succeeds then even if everyone isn't returned, if they find other societies they can rebuild a world that doesn't have a ticking time bomb inside it. Which in the long term might be the better option. Besides, if the entity did recombine them all ... would they be recombined right? *Dun Dun!*

    And no, the picture isn't from Silent Hill. It is from a survival horror, however.