Why I Mistrust a Planned Game Ending

A couple months ago, Trask on LivingDice, comparing games to well-known TV series, wrote a post about why a GM should write the ending of the campaign first. While I agree completely with the advice when it comes to writing a story (most of my efforts didn’t have the ending pre-planned, and rather suffered for it), I’ve learned from personal experience that there’s a lot more risk to it in an RPG than just the possibility of throwing something together at the last minute and it not working at all.

The problem comes, first, from our expectations for the finale of a long and grueling narrative. It’s big, it’s dramatic, it probably pulls at our heartstrings or involves something blindingly epic. People crash airships into magically secured places to prevent the end of the world, pop into other realities to do battle there, discover that all their efforts were ultimately in vain…. it’s cinematic, it’s spectacular, and it, particularly the very end, has clearly been planned long ahead.

That’s where the problem lies. When they’re so busy with their carefully planned endings that they forget that it’s not just their story.

The advantage playing an RPG has over writing a story, for the GM, is that someone else is providing the brains behind the other characters. The advantage tabletopping has over playing a video game, for the player, is the ability to choose beyond a predetermined set of paths (within reason, though I’ve never seen a situation a good player couldn’t take a third, fourth or dozenth option on), to actually lay claim to the story rather than just experiencing one’s way through it. It’s easy to forget that, though, when you’re set on this thing that the protagonists are going to do (even when the protagonists themselves are having none of it), or that they’re going to fail to do (in my humble opinion, if a person must do this for the ending, they should at least give the PCs a chance to fail with honor). And very easy to get bogged down in the beauty and the cinematics. Or just to see the players going off the rails, even if it’s in a very interesting way, and panic. My climax! My denouement! My cabb—sorry, wrong continuity, ignore that.

It’s not guaranteed to make anyone very happy, and quite likely to do just the opposite. The people who see the RPG as “collaborative fiction, with dice” are probably going to want to know what happened to that collaboration, particularly if the end involves cutscening them or obviously railroading them in any way, shape or form. Mechanists who’ve been pulling every victory through their character-building skills, tactical acumen and inconvenient if not downright inhuman logic might find themselves griping about the game being yanked from under them. If it’s something where the control was yanked at the very last minute, you’re likely to be dealing with “love the conclusion, hate the ending”, a phenomenon where people liked where the story was leading up to but weren’t so sure about what happened once they got there.

Besides, insisting on bringing everything towards a specific ending can eliminate all sorts of considerably more interesting conclusions. My primary game, for instance, included the recruitment of what was supposed to be a group of running antagonists, one event happening way out of sequence because of a combination of the antagonist’s good dice rolls and a little bit of “What would be more dramatic right now?”, and one player’s attempt at implementing an anime cliché turning into a plot that completely changed what was supposed to happen after the defeat of the final antagonist (whom the group ran away from on their first run-in on his home turf): if I’d clung to my original plan, I’m not sure I would have had the guts to let any of that, and all the later advantages it brought, happen.

If it must happen, the ending should probably be an outline, rather than prewrit. “X happens, and the players respond; if Y then Z, if W then Q, else make it up as I go along and hope it can be channeled towards something I was hoping for.” It should above all else stay in theme with the rest of the story if at all possible, particularly if the theme is one of the game’s major draws. And if the end must be “this happens no matter what”, it might be a good idea to at least give the group a chance to create the thing that happens with the GM. Else in the end, it’s no longer their story, and that doesn’t always sit well.

1 comment

  1. UZ says:

    Hm… I’ll allow in advance that my gaming experience is both old and narrow, but the only game I ever finished (and the favourite one for the players involved) was something that started out as an investigative campaign and ended up as Storytime with Zombie.

    My personal theory is that the story had a special place in people’s hearts because it actually came to a conclusion, which the rest of them didn’t, so maybe this is a poor example. Still, when everyone else says that boxed text should be kept to a minimum, I often end up describing everything anyway. I think it’s because I played a lot of text adventures as a kid.

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