Do games benefit from planned endings? Is this another meaningful choice that the whole group should be empowered to make? How does one go about saying when a game should end?
Do designs which encourage shorter games create a different kind of play than ongoing designs, and is this kind of play superior for those of us seeking thematic and Empowered play?
There are those who say that books -- like lives -- only take on their full meaning after they end. Are games the same? By playing games which peter out instead of go out with a bang!, are we robbing our protagonists of crucial and meaningful stuff?
These are great "actual play" questions. Everybody, please talk about your relevant actual play!
1. On 2005-04-21, Judd wrote:
Closure has become a big deal to me and the groups I play with. In my last campaign, The Riddle of Blood we looked at the pacing of the game like a TV series and it really helped everyone visualize the shape of the story. It was quite obvious to everyone involved where the first season ended and where the second season began.
The second season ended with closure but we can go back there if and when we want to.
When that game began I literally said to the players, "These first games are a pilot. If we like how the pilot goes, we'll renew for a first season and then go from there..."
This really helped everyone picture how the game ewas going to work. Thinking of games as TV shows first came to me via the Buffy RPG and then was cemented with Primetime Adventures.
The game before that was a revenge story. The ending was quite clear and it was again really great to have closure, to have a finite story. We didn't know how it was going to end, only that it was going to come to a conclusion.
I think I have been at this gaming gig too long to start games that have an infinite scope, that don't have an end-point somewhere on the horizon.
I believe that ending games is very, very important.
Think about what it means when a game just 'peters out'. It means that the last few sessions were boring, unexciting, nobody was committed to them. You wish to avoid that.
So the real question is whether you wish to have games that work toward a decisive end, or games that go on forever. Now, in a game where your character slowly improves over time - read, the vast majority of mainstream games - the benefits of the second variant are obvious. But if you wish to tell a story, it is far more satisfying to have climaxes in which all or at least most of the plot threads are wrapt up.
Also, having an explicitely recognised meta-structure for the game puts everything you do in much sharper focus, ensures that people do this thing _now_ (instead of hoping it will come along sometime in the indefinite future), and makes sure that people escalate, escalate, escalate. These are all good things.
And it is better for diversity too.
I have just started playing a game of Universalis with my group, and almost the first things we agreed on was that:
1) We wanted the story to be clearly defined in scope; that is, with a clearly recognisable ending which we can work toward. (We decided playing the corruption and fall of an idealistic hippy community.)
2) We will state at the start of each session what goals, in broad terms, we wish to achieve in the session. (Not goals that the characters wish to achieve; story-goals, that we, the players wish to achieve. "Introduce the setting; introduce the first cracks in the dream; end with a vision of doom.")
3) Anyone who starts a scene must say what purpose he wishes the scene to serve. (Introduction, escalation, intermezzo, overview, thematic flashback, ... - not, 'Mary and John will get married')
Abstract story-structure is your friend.
Based on my experiences with module play in D&D, I think a happy medium is possible. The end of the module gives closure, along with a climax, finale, big finish, whatever-you-want-to-call-it that is satisfying. But then the game is allowed to continue with the next module.
I agree that choosing to play a game with end-game condititons is a "meaningful choice that the whole group should be empowered to make".
Hm. I also think games with a planned finite end do lead to a different type of play, but I'm pretty sure you can find thematic and Empowered play in both.
I'm thinking of My Life with Master, Prime Time Adventures, and The Mountain Witch as finite games, here. I know in my long-running, no-end-in-sight Ars Magica game, we have gone through several seasons / story arcs by now, and once in a while there's a few less than stellar sessions (maybe they're the summer re-run equivalent?), but it doesn't feel like it's finished at all.
I have never had a better time with games that peter out instead of those that have endings. As a GM, or as a player. Now, the endings don't have to be epic or world shaking, it can even be a campaign of many "mini-story arcs", but its a vital thing. I run nearly all long term games this way, and those are the type of games I like.
Though I think all games should have endings, I don't think all games should have endgame conditions. I DO think all games ought to have a focus about when to wrap things up, and that's a vital thing many don't get in our hobby. I find that campaigns that do not define a central conflict or challenge also fail to have a good focus of when to wrap up.
I played a game for years with, essentailly, one perpetual character who went from story to story. The character's arc was indefinite; the individual stories were not.
A lot of the game was about exploring, just making up a world and a cosmology. It was the best time I've ever had role-playing, including the last year or so playing with Vincent et al., which has been excellent.
There was a plot - a friend and I turned into monsters, and we caused a big enough row that not only did some sort of monster hunter start pounding the crap out of us, but FEMA quarantined the state.
But more important than that was all the cool shit we did. I made myself into tea, and I could possess others by injecting the tea into them. I stole a troop carrier and a 57 chevy. I made myself a new body out of art supplies. I got my ass whupped by an 8-year-old boy.
Some of the stuff, the GM planned. Most of it, he didn't, but we just jammed together. I remember the basement in which we played a lot less clearly than I remember the world of those games.
Had the story been banging down the door, we wouldn't have been able to do that. I'm all for focus and finale (I've sent a lot of characters to tragic deaths, let me tell you!) but the imaginary world you can really see vividly is a whole experience that transcends the TV metaphor.
Ninja, that's exactly the happy medium I'm talking about. At least, it is if I'm reading you right. Just to be sure, you played stories with definite endings, right? But the understanding was always there that there would be a continuing story next week?
It may not necessarily be "endings" that give us such good stuff but the resolutions and closure implicit in them.
Those are things we crave in every aspect of life, but especially in narratives.
Games that have finite arcs encourage a playgroup to intentionally create resolution. Incorporating techniques like the ones Victor outlines allow a group to ensure that this will happen rather than leaving it up to chance and a hope. But it need not mean an end: closure may resolve all the tensions and thus end the interest in the plotline or character, or it may resolve it into a new situation that can then be explored. The happy medium with intention.
What's it like when a story doesn't end? A mess of creative potential gets squandered. If my character Caleth hadn't been caught & put on trial for murdering her parens it would have been a great loss to me in the character concept I wrote for her. If I'd had her slip out the back door of the covenant before she'd been identified, I'd have prolonged her story & dodged resolution, but I'd also have jettisoned what I'd asked for by creating her. My choice, perhaps, but ultimately likely to be less satifying.
Climaxes in storylines are resolution of the plot. They are just the payout of whatever we've put in to the game leading up to it. The characters, the setting, the situations, we put it there to come together in a mad alchemical mix that gives us that je ne sais quoi we get from a good game.
Rules that help me move toward resolution can help me move towards getting the full value out of what I've made up.
Endings & resolutions are at the same time new beginnings. Allowing and working towards giving a story resolution lets the characters--or the plot, or the world--be dynamic in a way that you are robbed of by having no clearly defined resolutions.
I think that Emily points to the important fact that 'ending' can either mean "significant resolution of major plot conflicts", or "final end of the story, after which it can never be developed further". I would argue that the latter is impossible, but at least not very desirable; and that the former meaning of ending implies that long campaigns with many distinct story arcs actually have a lot of endings.
Of course, there is very good modern fiction which does not have the conflict-resolution scheme of most fiction, and there is nothing wrong with trying to capture this in RPGs. So endings may not be necessary - but I guess that very, very few of the games without endings are attempts to create modern or postmodern literature.
(Hm, I now realise that the latest game I've been working on actually does try to drive the players towards a "final end of the story, after which it can never be developed further". I retract my statement. Somewhat.)
I think that explicit or implicit endings - whether were talking about story-arcs or entire games are important.
My play experience has been that story-arc endings are a lot easier to come-by than game endings. Mostly, this arises out of the rules and 'how-to-play' texts in most mainstream games.
I could crack open any random book from my vast collection of RPGs, and most of them have a section on running a 'campaign' - and they usually tend to describe this as the ideal.
In the last major campaign I ran, using Amber DRPG, the game had some awesome story-arc endings - worthy of inclusion in a Zelazny Amber story - but real life eventually ground the campaign to a sputtering halt without a cathartic end-game.
Since that time, I've played some one-shot or two-shot games using Sorcerer, Donjon, and Dust-Devils among others. These type games are great, because all the players know we're doing a one or two and done story - everyone seems to play balls-to-walls with their characters. As stated above, they escalte, escalate, escalate, pushing toward some stunning climaxes.
In the Sorcerer game, my character Hollis ended up sacraficing the last of his friends in a vain attempt to rescue his grandson, and finished out blood-opera style killing the antagonistic sorcerer - but wound up will-bound to the antagonist's demon. Good stuff.
I think, without explicit agreement from the group, it's hard to arrive at those kinds of endings, or have that "that was so cool" feeling when the story is done.
I wonder what role predeterminedness has, in allowing people to make use of all the good thing that have been mentioned, in connection with definite endings.
Frex, in Trials of the Grail, the end resolution comes at a more-or-less known point in time, after certain requirements have been met. And the players can more-or-less choose to win, choose to lose, or can let the dice and some last-minute thinking decide. I haven't seen enough people play to know which route is most commonly taken.
I guess I'm asking whether predetermination allows players to focus more on actually achieving good details of resolution -- and not having to worry about how it goes because it's decided -- or is crafting the resolution, during play, what makes it fulfilling?
I have had surreal games like Ninja Hunter J describes- tons of fun, but I wonder if they are different enough from the standard scope of named games in this thread to be something different in terms of finite/infinte.
The three games I've designed so far (now if I'd just, you know, add 100lbs of polish to them) have built-in rules for when the game ends. That's not to say that there's automatically closure of the situations in the SIS, in some cases yes and in some no. In one or two of them it's explicitly stated that closure isn't a necessary requirement.
Regardless, I think that knowing at least roughly when the game will end allows the players to sync their choices and narrations to fit the pace and eventual end point of play.
Pre-determined endings tend to be, IMO, more conducive to creating "dense" play experiences. Lots of drama, lots of tension, lots of stuff happening all over the place. I don't need closure of situations in the SIS but I do need play to be firing on all cylinders when the game ends.
Amongst the folks I RP with, games don't end because of lack of interest or because the story reaches an end. Games end because too many people in the group get schedules changed and we have to drop that game. Losing the GM is the usual deathblow; noone's willing to take over that role in a game, even if they're a decent GM themselves. The people scatter to their new days off and get into games that are being run on those days.
Dogs offers a solution to many of those problems (but "paladins in the old west" doesn't appeal to everyone and we can't just play Dogs all the time anyway). I just need to kick some people in the butt until they order their own copy of the game, 'cause letting mine get borrowed is a surefire way to never see it again.
For the last 4 or 5 years when starting a new GMing project I always try to envision an endgame. My rather-successful-if-I-do-say-so-myself Mob War mini-campaign had an overt end condition: When one gang or the other wins the mob war, the campaign is over. I estimated it would take 4 to 6 sessions to tell that story. On session 5 the PCs and friends stormed the summer mansion of Big Al Tolino, killing him and most of his trusted associates. With Al Tolino unceremoniously stuffed into an oven, the campaign was over. Each player was then given an opportunity to narrate a "years later" epilogue, adding one new fact to the game. That functioned quite well as the cherry on top. The epilogue round proved to be player-empowering by allowing them to decide what eventual fate their ne'erdo-wells suffered, but the decision to do the epilogues was imposed by me. But I'm working with players more into gametastic action sequences than negotiation of the shared imaginary space. This wasn't the sort of thing they normally do.
My present superhero game is explicitly structured as a "twelve issue miniseries" from Marvel comics. My plan is to pace the last few sessions so that we can end on session 12, with a similar epilogue round at the end of the campaign.
I am drawing upon action adventure TV metaphors for my d20 Modern game. We're planning on playing exactly 20 sessions structured as 2 seasons followed by a feature film. The last two sessions (UltraForce Omega: The Movie) will be played with the narrative stakes and special effects budget completely maxxed out.
In the past I've tried to run an AD&D game that was meant to be a fast-track to running the ridiculously high-end module H4 Throne of Bloodstone ("For Characters Levels 18-100"!?) but that campaign petered out in all the usual ways that games lose steam: people move, folks lose interest, the GM wants to run a shiny new game, etc. If my supers or d20M games take a similar dive, at least I can pretend that the comic or show was canceled by the coporate bigwigs. :)
We've talked about good endings before, but usually we wind up petering out as people's schedules change, people move, and the like.
Will was big on climactic endings; unfortunately, he was also big on the absurd. So we did have a few endings in his games-- but they were sharp breaks from the story to that point, diverged from the rules strongly, and were still somewhat fun.