Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Following the Path to its Rightful Conclusion.

An adventure is like a path winding up a mountain. Some of the sections are up a steep slope with the characters wheezing and slogging and working hard every minute and other bits are more relaxed, calm, perhaps even beautiful with a little bit of sightseeing and character growth along the way. The conclusion is right at the top of the mountain when the pacing has peaked and that last stretch of path is generally the hardest. Not always, as its a roleplaying game and not a movie and therefore you've got more flexibility with pacing, but at its best it gets tense and the stakes go up before the end.

The trick is ensuring that the game gets to its rightful conclusion. This is a tricky thing to do because the right conclusion isn't strictly about what you think is best and so you can't just rely on your own beliefs.

If you don't have the time to prepare for your ending because you're improvising it or the players have changed it up within the session you're currently running, then you'll need to go with your gut but pay a lot of attention to what you're hearing. If your players are getting really excited about setting up an ambush to take out the enemy, then consider letting it at least be partially successful.

Maybe it'd be too short and flat an ending to just let them snipe the Big Bad or maybe you know that the enemy has already been tipped off due to player actions or the set-up just wouldn't be conducive to their plans, but its often easy to make a few simple changes to let them get something out of their ambush. If their actions have built up to it, it would be flat for them to get nothing out of their efforts.

Especially as a good ending in any story is based off what the protagonists are doing and how that interacts with the antagonist's goals (or the threats' actions in the case of a non-sentient enemy). The players are always in control of the protagonists of the piece. Always. Other characters can be important and they can influence things but just like you'd be annoyed if you saw a Bond movie where some other character took care of the major plot threads for Bond, so will your players be annoyed. Hell, they'll be even more annoyed because its their spotlight you're taking away from them.

If you have the path skip right around their actions, therefore, they'll be irritated.

Having said this, if you've got the time to think about it you might be able to craft an even better ending by making more of their actions count. If they tipped off an informant and the enemy reacts accordingly, then that's good. If they scare someone into being an informant from the opposition due to their blundering, then that's even better. Cause and effect. Consequences. Not that you should string your players up by their necks for every mistake but the more you can tie in earlier actions with later outcomes the better.

So if you have the time then think about what the main characters have been doing. What choices have they made? Who have they been talking to? How did they talk to them? If they've put in a lot of effort to talk down the enemy, then even if you know that's an impossibility it's still worth letting that matter. Both on the thematic level of having to deal with someone who's too stubborn to live and on the level that perhaps the enemy is willing to discuss things over a trade in bullets - each shooting at the other when they get the chance while they talk it over. Sure, the bad guy doesn't get talked down but the players figure out a bit more about his motivations and his actions. They at least earn a more complete picture than they would have gained if they hadn't tried to talk him down.

Sometimes it can help to plot out all of the players' major actions if its been a particularly long adventure or if the campaign itself is coming to a close. Identify any loose plot threads and see if they can be resolved before the main action. It might be impossible to tie them all off as a campaign can quickly gather up a lot of partially completed plots and suggestions of further adventures, but perhaps there's a few main ones that can be dealt with.

Romantic interests, missing parents, an unexplained assassination attempt, that can be revealed to them beforehand. See if you can find a way to fold these through the main plot. A romantic interest is kidnapped and professes their love when rescued. Information on that missing parent comes up when they go to speak to their police contact about the nemesis. Perhaps their nemesis even reveals the information to try to distract them off their trail.

"Hey, your mother was killed by the police commissioner to get you to back off on the Macey Case and he's about to retire and move to Tahiti. You can track him down now or you can chase after me. Your choice."

Be prepared, though, for the above gambit to lead to a player character running off at the last minute if they're not suitably motivated to stick around. If so, make it clear to the player that their character won't be involved in the main event if they chase that lead and ask the player if there's anything the plot can do to keep them sticking around. If they insist, let their character ride off into the sunset (the villain's success) and contrive a way for another person to get involved. Its all good. If a character can die before the main event, they can get lured away.

In truth, your best bet is to know your players and what they love. They are your audience AND your co-writers. Its important that you know what they would love to witness as your audience and what they would want their characters to have to deal with. If your audience hates moral choices and always avoid them in-game, then don't include them even if you love them.

If your players have already had reason to become suspicious of you for taking the ending out of their hands and dragging them along your own path, then you'll have some making up to do. Take all the more heed of their plans and see what you can do to really help the players craft their own endings. Trust is something that takes time to set up. Once damaged, it takes all the more time to repair. But don't worry. Once you've regained their trust they'll be less resistant and you'll all have a more enjoyable time of it.

Well, that's been my experience of it anyway. You guys have any advice to add?

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


  1. Comment part 1:

    These thoughts might not be especially relevant because I'm a GM of the "set up an interesting situation, add player characters, see what happens, declare an ending at a point when it feels appropriate" school, but some things that jumped out at me:

    Maybe it'd be too short and flat an ending to just let them snipe the Big Bad or maybe you know that the enemy has already been tipped off due to player actions or the set-up just wouldn't be conducive to their plans, but its often easy to make a few simple changes to let them get something out of their ambush. If their actions have built up to it, it would be flat for them to get nothing out of their efforts.

    Assuming a scenario where the point is to defeat a villain (which I tend not to run because I prefer the PCs having more proactive goals than "Someone wants to so something which would change the world; let's stop 'em!") I'm a very strong advocate of the idea that players/PCs should enjoy the benefits of genuinely out-thinking the GM or the NPCs. If the villain honestly does predictably take a route where there's a nice sniping position and doesn't have his security detail go ahead to sweep for assassins then let 'em eat the consequences of their own incompetence (though even then sniping them would require the PCs to learn the villain's movements in sufficient detail to plan the ambush). If they're a bit more security-conscious but at the same time the players have come up with a truly brilliant way to neutralise the security then bravo to them, let 'em do it.

    I think the trick in making pushover endings like that not feel flat is in remembering that even though you know that the bad guy's been completely outfoxed and the PCs' plan ought to go like a dream provided they don't screw up, the players don't know that and shouldn't be given that impression. Pulling off an assassination (or a heist, or a ritual, or an exorcism, or a coup d'etat, or whatever it is the campaign's built up to) should be a tense process even if there aren't actually any unexpected snags. So if as GM you make sure to highlight the riskiness of the situation, the jumping at shadows as the players infiltrate the abandoned warehouse, the maddening way the rain keeps sounding like footsteps behind them, the way the sound of the sniper rifle being assembled sounds impossibly, horrifyingly loud, the moment where they're sure one of the security detail just looked right at them before the guard looks away again, then it should still be exciting even if goes 100% to plan.

    Of course, it takes only one botched roll to throw everything into chaos...

    1. Comment part 2 (sorry)...

      If they've put in a lot of effort to talk down the enemy, then even if you know that's an impossibility it's still worth letting that matter. Both on the thematic level of having to deal with someone who's too stubborn to live and on the level that perhaps the enemy is willing to discuss things over a trade in bullets - each shooting at the other when they get the chance while they talk it over.

      Or alternately you can revise your assumption about what's an "impossibility". If the players are constantly trying to talk to the villain then they're clearly telegraphing you that they're interested in a diplomatic solution to the scenario. The decision that this is "impossible" sounds more like a GMly decision that talky endings aren't fun - a premise the players clearly don't agree with in this example - rather than an in-character feature of the villain's psychology.

      If the villain thinks they could get what they want - or a close approximation of they want - by talking then a diplomatic approach by the PCs might be a golden opportunity for the big bad to make the case as to why what they want isn't so bad after all. Or they might plan on keeping the PCs talking, having realises that they tend to want to go for a diplomatic solution, with the intent that their goons can get in a better position to snipe the PCs during the conversation - at which point the PCs' diplomatic skills and what they actually have to say might actually be enough to make the villain reconsider.

      And, of course, diplomacy involves leverage. If the PCs have their adversary at a disadvantage even the most stubborn NPC might decide it's worth talking, so the difficult part of the ending might be getting that advantage in the first place. "Tell us why we should let you live" or "Freeze! This is a suitcase nuke! Pull that trigger and I'll blow us all to hell!" or "You should be aware that your son is in our keeping, in a secret location you'll never find if you kill us. We should discuss a peaceful settlement quickly before his air runs out" are all advantageous ways to kick off a negotiation.

      Another point: in my experience players try especially hard to talk to adversaries if their antagonists' motivations make no sense to them - because they want to understand why the hell the big bad is doing this in the first place, a lot of the time, and sometimes because they think they can get a win like the "talk the Master into realising his super-mutant plan is stupid" ending of Fallout. So it's probably also worth thinking about the tone of those attempted conversations. If the players are saying stuff to the bad guy like "Why? Why are you doing this? How does this even remotely benefit you?" that might be a sign you've not done a good job of communicating the villain's motivations or explaining the significance of what they're doing - which might be fair enough if they're meant to be mysterious, but in the interests of not being frustratingly oblique it might be best to make sure the players have at least a decent shot of getting a proper answer before - or even during - the final confrontation. This also lends itself for taking the ending in interesting directions because the PCs may, once they finally work out what the villain's after, decide that they approve of the adversary's goals but not their methods and come up with a clever way for everyone to come away happy. (Or, indeed, they could decide that the opponent's goals are so important that their dubious methods, in retrospect, are acceptable means to this end, and offer to regard their quarrel with their foe a misunderstanding and suggest an alliance.)

    2. Comments part 3 (really sorry)...

      Once you've regained their trust they'll be less resistant and you'll all have a more enjoyable time of it.

      I trust you mean here "once you've regained their trust they'll spend more time enjoying the game and less time second-guessing your decisions", as opposed to "once you've regained their trust they'll be less resistant to you doing the same thing which wrecked their trust again"? ;)

      I think the point about knowing your players and being unafraid to shamelessly cater to their preferences is an excellent one. Just as there's players who don't trust their GMs because of bad experiences with railroading in the past, I think there's a lot of GMs who don't trust their players to take the game in an interesting direction and aren't willing to give the players their heads for that reason. I also think that there's a lot of people who are so committed to their personal vision of what "fun" is that they're not willing to sacrifice much of their session to other people's conception of fun. (The old gripe about tabletop RPGs being "20 minutes of fun packed into 4 hours" seems to be a fond phrase of such folk - the assumption being that it isn't at all fun or amusing or enjoyable to let other players' preferences have a bit of the spotlight.) I think part of the mark of a good GM is that they enjoy helping their players get what their players love out of an RPG session, even if the enjoyment in question isn't usually to the GM's tastes.

    3. You've got some really good points here. In truth your first comment was what I was trying to say though you said it better. If they've figured out a way to out-fox the enemy that's clever, see if you can make it work even if you can poke holes in their plans. There's ALWAYS going to be some holes in any plan but people's plans do sometimes work.

      As for it being impossible for it to be impossible to talk someone down, if the situation is set up a certain way you can normally make some headway but I stand by the fact that some people in some situations are not open to negotiation. A serial killer won't just put the knife down and never kill again just because you had some good points - though they might just let this victim live. If you want to stop him and have no ability to arrest him, you may still need to shoot it out but the talking part may do part of the work for you and make the rest of your job easier.

      With the third comment, I'm glad you made that point because a lot of GMs with bad habits are likely to accuse players of being resistant toward their actions even when those actions are just repeated bad habits. The reason I put in the 'resistant' comment is that I've had players be suspicious about me for things I've never done but which they had to deal with other Game Masters.

      Still, every time a player is suspicious or resistant its still worth taking a hard look at yourself to make sure that their fears aren't true before claiming they're resistant. The moment you stop doing that is generally the moment you start being to blame.

    4. Re: talking - obviously you're not going to talk people into blatantly going against their own self-interest for no real benefit, and if your adversary is actually obsessed with a particular goal to a truly insane extent they aren't going to be swayed from it.

      At the same time, to run with the serial killer example a bit, I agree that they're not going to put the knife down and give up being a killer, but at the same time if the PCs demonstrate that they clearly have the killer surrounded and there's no escape this time they might be convinced that it's best to surrender and hope to kill another day than to resist and get gunned down right there. Obviously some situations aren't open to negotiation, but that isn't the same thing as someone being impossible to talk to: it's just a matter of engineering a situation in which they are open to negotiation (like the "I've got a gun to your head/have a bomb strapped to me/have your loved one in my power" example I gave earlier). That will, of course, require some smarts, some luck, and a good understanding of the adversary's motivations, but then again if the players have demonstrably sussed out how to exert that leverage that's good playing on their part.

      Re: "resistant" - I'm not 100% thrilled with using the term in discussion of the relationship between GM and players, to be honest. It's the sort of thing I've seen used in reference to doctors and patients and teachers and students, and I tend to think that if a GM starts thinking of their relationship with their players as that of an authority figure to people on whom authority is exerted that's a bad sign in itself.

    5. Ahh, the meanings behind words and how they affect us. I guess I kind of meant it to imply when people resist what they might enjoy based on fear so you've got me there. Having said that, I'd definitely say that GMs can be incredibly resistant as well so for me the word doesn't engender an automatic power relationship with the GM in control or in power.

    6. By the way, that wasn't a dig against us discussing whether we should use a particular word or not. There is a LOT of power in word choices and we have to take on board not just the meaning we ascribe to certain words but also the meaning that those around us ascribe to it.

      I may one day talk about power dynamics in roleplaying games (in generalities, of course, each game is different) but I certainly won't be using such a loaded term as 'resistant' because you are right. It is loaded with other meanings.

    7. Yeah, from the context I didn't think you meant it in a power-trippy sense, but I wanted to get clarification anyway because there's a whole mess of people who see GMing as a power trip out there and they don't need any more encouragement than they already get. ;)

      But yeah, players being obstructive or turtling up or trying to evade what the GM's trying to do is definitely a dysfunction that can happen, GMs refusing to go along with the direction the players want to take the game in or refusing to take player input that doesn't fit their purposes into account is a thing. Resistive would be a good word for it if it didn't have any outside baggage.