Ending Games without Endgame Conditions

Hello! I just posted this on the NerdNYC forums, and then thought: maybe I should it post it on SG, as well? Why not! Let me know what you think...

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There are lots of great games out there. Most of them don't tell you how to wrap up a game. How do you end it? How do you make sure the story reaches an endpoint that is satisfying and conclusive, and leaves everyone happy, sad, or otherwise fulfilled?

This seems like nearly unexplored territory. And it shouldn't be: in some ways, the ending is the most important thing. It's the last you remember, after all, and can make a good story a bad story... or turn a good story into a great story.

Here's a procedure I put together for my game The Camel's Egg:

You're playing a long-ish game. A campaign, maybe, if you want to call it that. And you're either: (1) feeling like the end is near, or (2) running out of time. Either way, you want to end the game.

So, one to three sessions before the predicted or desired "end", sit down with your group (preferably right after a game session) and spend a few minutes discussing what is happening in the story. On a big sheet of paper, make a list of questions you would like to see answered before the story ends. What are the main points in the story you have a burning desire to see resolved? Each player (including the GM) should write down one, two, or three questions. For instance, a group may want to know:

* Who killed the doctor?
* Will William manage to escape from the space station?
* Can Judge Jesaphat save his marriage from collapsing?
* Where did the Flying Dutchman end up, and why was it abandoned?
* Will Anastasia finally face her teacher in a duel to the death?
...

From now on, keep this sheet of paper on the table, on the wall, or somewhere else that is visible to everyone while playing. At the end of each session, or at important breaks, take a minute to discuss, and cross off any questions that have been answered. (You might need to rewrite a question occasionally, or add a new one, but try not to do that too much.)

When playing, from now on, the players should all try to (in whatever way they can in the game) push towards situations that make it possible to answer questions on the list. For instance, you might finally have your character confront that dude who never gives up his secrets. Maybe you'll need to push hard: threaten him with violence, drug him, bring him the priceless gift you've been hesitant to part with, or maybe even give in to his demands and compromise on your values so that he'll tell you his secrets. As another example, if you want him to keep mum, you might have your character (or someone else) try to kill him before anyone can get him to spill the goods.

More importantly, brainstorming those questions together will reveal each player's interests to the rest of the group. Everyone should now be able to improve the game for the other players by helping those questions be resolved in interesting or surprising ways. However, the questions are particularly useful for the GM (or any other players with enough authority in the game to frame scenes, etc.). The GM should have the sheet of questions on hand when preparing for the next session, and craft situations, characters, and locations that are relevant to these questions. In particular, look for connections between the questions and important traits, background info, or game stats ("Flags") belonging to the characters. Try to craft situations that address two (or more) such Flags and provide an avenue to answer a question.

Comments

  • Now, here's the little trick:

    As the GM (or any player who has the means to do so), you can use these questions to create unexpected revelations and plot twists. Just pick two questions from the list. Any two. Try to pick a pair that seems really unrelated, if you want a big surprise or twist.

    If certain questions seem to apply mainly to particular characters or interest particular players, make sure the two questions you pick do not belong to the same character or player. Pick two different ones! Any pair that seems unrelated--you can even try all the possible combinations until something good comes into your head.

    For each pairing, see if an event or situation comes to mind. Could the answer to these two questions be one and the same? Could a certain revelation or scene answer both at once?

    This little technique may create all kinds of unexpected and surprising twists, especially if the story has grown convoluted and mysterious, and particularly if you choose pairs of questions that seem completely unrelated. For example, if your list of questions looked like the example above, consider a scene where Anastasia's teacher let it slip that he was the only one who knew the fate of the Flying Dutchman. If Anastasia kills him now, will we ever be able to find out what happened to the Dutchman? Or, perhaps, is defeating him in a duel the only way to get him to reveal his secrets?

    In a cheesy Hollywood romance type of story, you might pair "what happened to Dolly's childhood love?" and "will Dolly finally agree and marry that weird recluse she's been arranged to marry?" The revelation is, of course, that the mysterious recluse is actually her childhood love, answering and resolving both questions.

    In a more interesting/less predictable genre, of course, it would be much more better if the childhood love was revealed to be someone else's groom or bride-to-be--hence the advice to make sure you pick questions that are pertinent to different characters. To continue the example from above, if the Flying Dutchman is an issue that involves some other player characters rather than something really important to Anastasia, it will draw those characters more intimately into Anastasia's personal story and her conflict with her teacher. They might try to stop her, or might try to rig the duel in her favour, for example.

    However, you may also find that you do not need to make a concerted effort: just writing down the questions might do the trick! Having the sheet of questions within sight at each session may be enough to get everyone cooperating in bringing about the conclusion of the story. In any case, within two or three sessions the story should be wrapped up sufficiently for you to end the game to everyone's satisfaction. Once the majority of the questions are crossed off, chances are good that you've already found a satisfactory ending together.

    Keep in mind that many great stories end with open-ended or ambiguous situations; the idea is not to tie everything up in a perfect ending but to make some statement about the story's most relevant issues. For instance, some tales end with the hero's fate still mired in uncertainty. He or she disappeared under mysterious circumstances, and we may not even know whether the hero is alive or dead. As an audience, however, we are satisfied because we know that, before disappearing, the hero managed to save the life of their beloved or finally found the courage to confront their greatest fears.

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    How do you folks end your long-form games? Any good tricks or tips to share? I'd love to hear some more advice about this.
  • Paul, this is a really good post, and I like that technique.

    I've found that I tend to start picking and planning endgames when I'm running out of steam on ongoing games.

    Picking the ending gives me the narrative oomf to get there!

    A lot of genres have very specific endings: The superhero defeats the villain (but broods about it, sometimes). The superspy saves the world at the last second. The scruffy space heroes defeat the evil overlord with the excellent costume. So coming up with what the ending is is not the issue. It's staging it, and building up to it properly. If I had more insights I'd give them! I completely agree there is much to be worked on for the topic.
  • This is awesome stuff, Paul. I am so-so on games with Endgames (some I think are awesome, others I think artificially *prolong* the game past the point I want it to end, etc).

    Having a piece of paper out there really keeps the focus on things, eyes on the prize and all that. Good advice. And I agree, it also reveals what the players care about so you can make sure to address what they like at the same time you weave it back into the overall plot.

    I have nothing further to add, other than, "Fuck I wish you had these thoughts 2 months ago when I was wrapping up my L5R campaign arc", because it is truly made of sweetness. Bookmarked and everything.
  • I think this could work really well with a relationship map. Just looking at an R-Map, you can generate a list of questions. And then turn those questions into rumors or gossip. Use the NPCs as carriers of this information. And take note when players show interest.

    As players show interest, write the questions down for everyone to see.

    If people get bored of a question, answer it quickly and tie its answer to a larger question. Or tie the answer to some sort of reward. Or to help to solve a larger question.

    Making several questions have the same answers is brilliant. It's similar to what I like to do with relationship maps. If 2 characters have a nemesis, why not make them the same person?

    Simplify and combine where you can. And eliminate any red herrings. Players will create their own complications without your help!

    Predictability tends to be a little boring. I've found that when the players know what the next 2 scenes are, instead of building anticipation, it can often induce disinterest. I find it better to hit the players with an end shattering climax 75% into answering the questions. And then tie up lose ends and explore consequences in the epilogue.

    It's also great to leave a few questions unanswered for potential future sequels.

    Epilogues unfortunately often get skipped. Having a funeral for a fellow player character can be very rewarding in of itself!
  • John,

    That's a great point about epilogues, especially in all those conflict- or combat-happy games! Showing the fallout is absolutely important to a good, and fulfilling story.

    Anyone else have a technique or some advice about how to end a game? How to know when the story is over? Or how to help pace the story so it ends when you want it to end?
  • Yeah, good point. The implicit point of this procedure is that the players are _agreeing_, in a implied social contract sort of way, to address that set of questions and not to spin off into other things (with occasional exceptions, of course). I think if you start at the beginning, you will just get a list that keeps and keeps growing...

    In my storytelling game design, I've found that is a major challenge:

    You have to encourage growth, brainstorming, development of new storylines, but then, at some point, you need to stop that and to start encouraging tying things up and settling accounts, or it just goes on forever and gets more and more unfocused.
  • Nice post!

    I've often had campaigns end unsatisfactorily because we just pushed on to the end without thinking about something like this. At the moment I'm about to go back to one of those games and try to actually wrap it up in a more satisfying way, so I think doing something like this first, writing down two questions each that the players want answered, will really help!
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