This morning (as I write this) I was chasing down a vague notion about an emotional “color wheel” that wouldn’t quite come together.
While pondering it, I realized that GMs sometimes think that they can end adventures on just about any emotional note that seems appropriate to the circumstances, and that I had never seen anything written about the subject anywhere – let alone here.
Naturally, I immediately decided to do something about that state of affairs!
How you end an adventure, and especially it’s tonal value, colors how that adventure is perceived, reflects how that adventure fits into the bigger picture of the overall campaign, and provides the context and momentum for the start of the next adventure. All that makes it pretty darned important.
The Tinting Of The Past
In some ways you can look at Adventures as being how you get from an initial situation to an outcome, and that outcome is perceived in terms of the emotional spin imparted by the concluding note of the adventure.
Take, for example, The Empire Strikes Back – overall, a dark movie from the perspective of The Heroes, full of one setback after another. The tone at the end of the original Star Wars was one of jubilation, of celebration, and of an improbable victory with the destruction of the Death Star; the only sour note from their point of view was something that they could not even know about at the time, the survival of Darth Vader.
The tone for the opening sequence in Empire is quite different; despite their victory, the Rebellion is still on the defensive, and losing, badly. Every time they try to set up shop, the Empire shows up and they are forced to flee, losing part of their force in the process (They were still unpacking on Hoth when the Empire came a-knocking, and the crawling text that preceded these events made it clear that this was a continuation of a pattern). Bleeding from a thousand small cuts, they are dying from attrition. As Empire precedes, the rebels get driven off Hoth (losing valuable ships and men in the process), Luke gets sidetracked on his personal mission to Dagobah, The Millennium Falcon (with Leia on-board) has one narrow escape after another, the Empire tightens its stranglehold over the Galaxy by forcing independent contractors like the Bespin mining station to heel (despite old friendships), Han gets frozen in Carbonite and turned over to Jabba The Hut’s bounty hunter, Luke shows up at the worst possible time and in the worst possible way, losing a fight – and his hand – to Vader, and having his spirit crushed by the revelation of his parentage. Even worse, the destruction of the Death Star is shown to be nothing more than avoiding the Executioner’s Block at best – beyond that, not much is actually changed. Oh yes, and C3PO gets dismantled. Depending on how you count them, that’s a score of 11 or 12 victories in a row for the bad guys, or worse.
Balanced against that, Luke rejects the Seduction of the Dark Side, Survives the encounter with Vader, and the Millennium Falcon (with Leia and Lando Calrissian) shows up in time to rescue him and make a clean getaway. Even so, if this was an RPG adventure, there would not be many high-fives going on between the players. And yet, the final note of the movie makes it all acceptable – Luke’s hand is replaced, and Empire ends on a note of Hope and Grim Determination, setting the tone for the rousing opening part of Return Of The Jedi and Han’s rescue, which also serves as Luke’s real coming-of-age. Even the funeral pyre for Yoda manages to sustain this tone of a flickering ray of hope beginning to burn more brightly once again. Times may be dark, but there are the first hints of a turning of the tide.
Watching the movie for the first time, you aren’t aware of that hint of hope until the appropriate scenes; but as soon as you look back, the entire plot changes from one in which the Empire keeps winning, to the story of that hope surviving against all those challenges.
The Framing Of The Big Picture
That is because, in the broader picture of the entire trilogy, it is the solitary spark of hope against the gathered darkness that is the outcome of the middle third of the plot, and how Empire fits into the bigger story. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter what the victories of the Empire were, just that they scored win after win without ever quite being able to extinguish hope. As soon as you begin to look back, you begin to segue from a position of reflecting on the immediate past and seeing things from the perspective of the overall plotline. The two are inextricably linked.
The Context Carry-forward
Equally importantly, that tone sets the stage for the next adventure. There were only two options, from the position the situation was left in by Empire – either the light of hope would go out, or it would experience some measure of resurgence. The first holds no box office appeal (and would not have been popular amongst the heroes, either) – so the shape of the first reel of “Return Of The Jedi” was always going to be something akin to what it was, a juggling act between edging as close as possible to that “light goes out” scenario (to generate, sustain, and and intensify suspense) before a rousing victory snatches a small victory (in overall plot terms) from the jaws of defeat (quite literally in terms of the Sarlac!)
If it comes to that, the tone at the beginning of Empire is no less predictable, from the perspective of good storytelling. Look at the end of the original Star Wars again – because no-one knew that it wasn’t going to be a standalone movie, it had to end on a high note of victory, with the implication that this was the end of the Empire, and it was only a matter of waiting long enough for the rest of the dominoes to fall.
Quite obviously, then, the start of the second movie has to be a resurgence of the bad guys in order to give the rest of the trilogy some maneuvering room. The problem with that is that once events start moving in the Empire’s favor, even a little, they are so big relative to the Rebellion, that they are going to keep winning until there is an extraordinary confrontation that begins a new trend – a trend that can only be in the opposite direction. Again, it doesn’t especially matter what the specifics of the victories are; what matters is that the Empire is going to take win after win. So the end of Star Wars dictates the tone of the beginning of Empire, which dictates the tone of the rest of that movie, which in turn dictates the tone for the start of Jedi. Personally, I expected treason on the part of one of the nominally “good guys” to occur in Empire – either one of the principle cast (Han seemed a strong contender) so that he could be reformed in the third movie. Instead, they decided to introduce Calrissian to be the betrayer, and had the reforming of the character take place in Empire, which still feels a little rushed to me, to this day.
Who wants to bet that if everyone knew that Star Wars was going to be a trilogy, the original movie would have been a bit different? I think its’ pretty obvious, myself, and that this would have changed the shape of Empire and possibly even Jedi. Hindsight is, of course, always 20/20.
No-one’s ever put together a a list of ways to end an adventure, at least not that I could find. I’m not even sure that it’s possible to create such a list and have it be truly comprehensive. I suppose that by being vague and generic past the point of all usefulness, it might be possible to generalize something that looks like such a list, but it would be of no value in this or any other discussion.
Having realized that I would have to bite the bullet and attempt the almost-impossible, I gave it my best shot and ended up with a list of 31 possible tones. I’m quite sure that the list is both incomplete and generalized to the absolute maximum; the analysis I’ve performed should be treated as stating a general case that may very well have exceptions (some of which I have identified and will discuss). So even categoric statements should not be taken as gospel.
More important to me was to illustrate the principles articulated earlier in this article (which were actually devised after crafting the list) as diversely as possible so that readers would be empowered to assess their own planned adventures, and – if they deemed it necessary – choose a plot structure that enabled them to attach one of the other concluding tones.
The RPG Restriction
Not all of these will work in an RPG context. Some won’t even work in movies, and others for some forms of TV. Most are suitable for literary efforts. These diverse restrictions are due to the natures of the different forms of media, and specifically how they connect one story to another.
Novels are generally self-contained, multi-volume epics notwithstanding. Thus, they have the full palette available to them, as the only condition they must meet is that they end. Even in those multi-volume epics, there is often considerable time passing in between individual installments, making them essentially self-contained.
Having said that, there are some ending modes that are less popular than others, and so could potentially harm sales. The most dystopian novels rarely end on a downer, unless it is by virtue of a specific literary contrivance, such as a pyrrhic victory, which rarely happen in real life. This was not always the case; Shakespeare wrote a number of tragedies, including arguably his most famous work, Romeo And Juliet, and the ancient Greeks were notorious for them. But it’s very rare for modern tragedies to be unalloyed; in Titanic, Jack may die – but in the process he grants Rose, his love, a long and full life.
Most movies are also designed to be self-contained, though the success of Marvel’s comic movies may alter that. Witness, for example, the need to at least partially reboot the Avatar plotline to make room for the sequels; it has proven necessary to undo some of the finality caused by the self-encapsulation of the original, specifically resurrecting Sigourney Weaver and Stephen Lang’s characters as described on the Wikipedia Page for the original film.
TV shows fall into two categories: those with strong continuity between episodes and those without. As you might expect, this makes quite a difference, but this factor is overshadowed by the short separation between episodes – usually only a week or two, sometimes only a day. Season-ending episodes thus have different rules, falling into two categories: potential ending points for the shows and cliffhangers designed to encourage the renewal of the show for another season. There is also some suggestion that DVD compilations are beginning to have an effect on the way TV shows are structured; when one episode follows another immediately, the two can be treated as a single storyline or can be treated more separately. I have seen it suggested, for example, that first-release limited-edition box sets contain extra “bridging scenes” that connect one episode with the next, which would be subsequently removed from the general DVD releases. So far as I’m aware, no-one has actually done this yet, but the suggestion itself is highly interesting. The purpose, of course, would be to drive sales of the premium-priced product, maximizing early sales.
This shift in thinking makes available certain endings that would have been less palatable in the past, while making other, more “conclusive” options less desirable. As an omnivorous watcher of TV, and possessing a mind of analytic bent, I found these changes very helpful in my analysis.
And that brings me to RPGs. There are some things that can work on TV because the next episode will be appearing in a short time-frame, and won’t work in an RPG simply because the gap between play is longer, and/or less reliable – we’ve all had game sessions canceled every now and then. At the same time, we are not bound by television seasons and the need to seek renewal, and so can plan over a broader canvas. But we also have to contend with the interactive nature of RPGs; the players are participants, not mere members of an audience, and the mindset that we impart in one adventure will shape how characters react at the start of the next. The choice of concluding tone is not just an aesthetic consideration, it’s a tool that can be used to shape the direction of the campaign. In many ways, it’s more closely analogous to the Empire Strikes Back analysis offered earlier (which was why it was so extensive, and why anyone who skipped or skimmed it should go back and read it more thoroughly!)
Analyzing the Options
The list of concluding emotional notes in an adventure is divided into 19 that work and 12 that don’t. There are sure to be others that I haven’t thought of, but these should make it clear by both explanation and example why they fall into their respective categories, and that in turn should furnish the reader with the tools needed to categorize anything else they come up with.
Options That Work
Options that work are either a definitive state used to punctuate the adventure (mandating a cold start next time) or propel interest forward into the next adventure. In fact, all but one are the latter; punctuation is relatively rare, except in very episodic campaigns. For example, I try not to use “punctuation conclusions” in my Zenith-3 and Seeds Of Empire campaigns, as these are very continuous in nature. However, these will sometimes be utilized to good effect in the Warcry, Adventurer’s Club, and One Faith campaigns, and are the normal state of affairs in the Legacies Of Lovecraft campaign, simply because these are more episodic in nature, and I’m happy for time to flow between adventures. The Shards Of Divinity campaign is a different animal again; many of the adventures are disjointed, with internal gaps within the adventure, while the adventures themselves may show strong continuity or be separated by punctuation, as best suits the relationship between the two adventures.
All that having been said, it’s time to look at the concluding emotional tones that usually work in an RPG. There’s a lot of them, so I’ll try not to linger along the way! In the hopes that it will serve as a useful Mnemonic, I have named most of them with song titles, most of which should be known to the majority of readers. Care was taken to ensure that the song in question reflected the tone to which it refers.
1. Peace On Earth and Goodwill to all
Let’s start with an outlier. One time when it’s perfectly satisfactory to bring an adventure to a definitive conclusion with absolutely no forward momentum is with this seasonal tone. These are usually standalone seasonal adventures and may have zero respect for ongoing continuity, even in a continuity-heavy campaign.
Under those circumstances, you can quite happily end on a note of peace, however temporary it might be. There may still be troubles in the world, but all the problems are for tomorrow. For today, trouble is on hold, and all is right in the world.
Strictly speaking, this should be amongst the concluding tones that don’t work simple because there is no forward momentum, but the epitomization of the subject matter overrides that concern.
2. Another One Bites The Dust
Ending with the triumph of the PCs lets them go into the next adventure with a sense of confidence, which is perfect when you’re setting a trap and want the PCs to nibble at the bait, and useful when the PCs are coming out of a period where the opposition have been doing a lot of the winning. Or when there’s a nasty twist coming that is going to subject their world to a little upheaval.
3. Distant Thunder
Ending with a victory can be sweet, but if your next adventure has a slower buildup, or you want to keep your options open, attaching a little epilogue warning of trouble on the distant horizon can put a slight edge on the victory celebration. Or even building such a tonal quality into the adventure in the first place – the current threat is gone, but in the process, the PCs learn that somewhere out there is a bigger threat which will eventually rear its head. Either way, there’s trouble coming, but for now all is well.
4. A Step In The Right Direction
This tone happens when the PCs have been under pressure for a while, when the bad guys have been running rampant, but the PCs have managed to score a small victory against the general run. They may not be out of the woods yet, but they have made progress. It leaves the GM with two options: to restore the usual pattern at the start of the next adventure, or seem to, minimizing the effects of the victory before ending in a similar fashion, and setting a trend towards a hard-won victory achieved by grinding away at the opposition one win at a time; or, choice two, to enable the PCs to build on that victory by picking up where they left off and turning it into a game-equalizing advantage. For me, the nature of the main antagonist of the campaign would be the deciding factor – if there is just one or two – “The Empire” – then choice one is the better (unless the campaign is now heading for a big finish, of course); if this is just one of many threats to be dealt with, let the PCs have their victory, it will keep them busy while the next threat sets up shop.
5. Light On The Horizon
Slightly less decisive victories come under the “light on the horizon” category. Yes, I have a whole string of these, each suggesting a different magnitude of accomplishment. “A Step In The Right Direction” derived from a definite victory that moved the PCs definitely closer to ultimate success; “Light On The Horizon” is slightly darker, and represents an achievement yielding more than a glimmer of hope, and less than a sure and certain path toward victory.
This choice of concluding tone is most effective when the next adventure is all about converting the victory they have just achieved into a more substantial advantage, and this conversion won’t happen automatically but requires braving new dangers. It has far more of an “Empire Strikes Back” (Early reels) feel to it.
6. A Candle In The Dark
One step further removed from a victory worth celebrating comes when the odds are still stacked against the PCs but they have managed to avoid a devastating defeat. Enemies still stand on all sides, but there is still the dimmest flicker of hope. This tone more or less demands that the next adventure follow more or less the same blueprint as the last, but ending with that hope of victory burning a little more brightly again – in other words, the adventure that follows this concluding tone should be “Light On The Horizon”. This is the feeling that dominates much of the third season of Babylon-5.
7. I Won’t Back Down
Orchestrating an adventure which is designed so that the PCs lose is much harder. Here, there is no hope – only a grim defiance and perhaps a touch of desperation. This is one of the most difficult tones to achieve in an adventure, simply because you can do all the manipulating you want, it’s still in the hands of the players how the PCs will react. It’s much easier in a scripted show or novel, when you can control what the heroes feel! Nevertheless, it is possible, especially if NPC allies can set the tone.
It’s pretty much mandatory that this is followed by “Light On The Horizon” or “A Candle In The Dark” – in other words, converting the defiance that characterizes this “darkest before the dawn” into an actual hope of victory.
It’s not really possible to get much farther in this line than “no hope at all”, so the next grouping relate to tones of fear and apprehension.
8. Shadow On The Wall
This is somewhat akin to “Distant Thunder” but without the same certainty as to the nature of the threat that is beginning to loom. The PCs should know nothing concrete, but either have ominous signs, vague warnings, or disturbing rumors with no substance, so there is nothing that they can put their fingers on as the cause but still they have this sinking feeling in the pits of their stomachs.
Fear in RPGs is a subject worthy of its own article sometime. For now, suffice it to say that it’s a tricky proposition; you want the PCs to “feel” it but the circumstances make it difficult for the Players to feel it, and you don’t necessarily want them to do so, and certainly not to the same extent as the characters are supposedly doing. Achieving this is a matter of slowly building up a “creepy” factor over a period of time. Consider, for example, an “adventure” which is all roleplaying encounters, at the end of each, one of the characters spots something out of the corner of their eye, only to find that there’s nothing there when they turn around. Keep that up for several hours, with one or two other small touches, and you should achieve the desired effect.
Trying to achieve the same thing in a small scene is much more difficult; it requires something dramatic and shocking, and those attributes don’t result in fear very often. You need to pull out all the stops and go all-out for “creepy”.
Used too often, these techniques will eventually desensitize the players, and some will resist the effect anyway. So every time you use this, you need to pay off on it in the next adventure or your efforts will be wasted. And that brings me too:
9. A Chill Up The Spine
This is very similar to “Shadow On The Wall”; in both cases, something Scary just happened. The difference is that in this model, the something scary is concrete and can be pointed to. For example, you may have established in the past a villain as being something close to all-powerful (relative to the PCs), and then let the PCs defeat him through sheer blind luck, resulting in his (very definitely confirmed) death. Then you have an adventure in which the PCs are hunting zombies or some other form of reanimated dead; they defeat them, after something of a struggle, and in the final scene, an NPC tells them that the body of that arch-enemy has gone missing…
Although this doesn’t get old in the same way that “Shadow On The Wall” does, it’s still essential that you pay off on the scary event or occurrence at the start of the next adventure by giving the PCs time and opportunity to panic for a bit. Whether you then go on to resolve the event or leave it lurking in the shadows for a while is a more open question and depends on what you’ve got planned. In the example offered, it would depend on how much of the original mind/personality was resurrected with the dead – if a lot, the resurrected character should remain in the shadows; if not so much, then I would press on and give the PCs the opportunity to resolve the situation fairly quickly. And if I were planning it in advance, which I normally would be, I would set the villain up so that being undead removed the vulnerability that enabled the PCs to win the first time around, while introducing a new one!
10. The Calm Before The Storm
From one form of apprehension to a very different one. This tone can be summarized, “The fertilizer is about to hit the fan, and furious action is about to begin (in the next adventure). A great way to end an adventure that has been a mystery-solving exercise is to segue into a portent of action. But the felicity of this tonal conclusion extends well beyond this rather obvious application. Any adventure that ends with a villain/monster (unrelated to the adventure just completed) stepping from the shadows and saying “Let’s Rumble” (or the equivalent) falls into this category. And so does any adventure that ends with the PCs reaching the point of fighting back against something – “All right, [Villain X], now it’s our turn”.
This ending tone promises that the PCs are in a position to commit extreme violence (perhaps after an adventure filled with frustrations) and do not intend to waste it.
As with the fear-related tones, however, there is a problem in that you cannot force the PCs to react in any particular way; you can only engineer the circumstances to encourage a particular reaction. In this particular case, it’s also unwise to try and have an NPC lead the charge, as the player may well feel that you are trying to rush them into taking precipitous action that you will subsequently take advantage of. At best, NPCs can form a cheering section.
As with many of these tones, it is vitally important that the next adventure delivers on the promise; but in this particular case, there can be no delay in doing so. If you can, I would even cut short any bookkeeping and synopsis to enable a ‘with both feet’ jump straight into the action. A couple of other things worth noting: the action should be intense and flashy, and the credibility of the entire campaign can suffer catastrophic collapse if the PCs don’t at least hold their own, and preferably do even better than that. That last point is less significant if the trigger is an unexpected enemy from the shadows, but if the PCs promise some smackdown (and are confident of being able to deliver), don’t get in their way. If that means occasionally fudging enemy capabilities or success downward, so be it – you can even the score on another occasion. Better yet, buy yourself some leeway by fudging in the enemy’s favor in the sequence leading up to this confrontation, artificially heightening the drama of their reversal of fortune.
11. I Can See Clearly Now
A revelation, especially of the solution to a problem that’s been plaguing the PCs for a while, is a great note on which to end an adventure (it can sometimes help to think of such revelations as being the Reward that results from efforts to solve the mystery in question). This also applies when something is revealed that’s been going on in the background for a while without being noticed by the players, or that is more significant than they had thought.
When the Fog of confusion and the veil of ignorance are suddenly lifted in this way, there are a couple of different tools that I sometimes employ. They are pretty much mutually exclusive, so think carefully about which alternative (if any) you are going to employ in any given situation.
- The first is to get each player to write down their characters immediate reaction while the players are still coming to terms with the surprise, even though they won’t get to actually roleplay those reactions until the beginning of the next adventure. This is specifically to counteract the opportunity to invest thought into the situation in between game sessions.
- The second is to determine how long the characters are stunned by the shock immediately after the revelation, so that players know that they won’t get to make any immediate response beyond roleplaying surprise when the next adventure begins.
A further trick that can be useful, and which does combine well with either of the above, or on it’s own, is to follow one shock revelation (delivered at the end of the previous adventure) with another at the beginning of the next adventure. Piling twist on twist in this way restores the players to a surprised condition that corresponds with what their PCs should be experiencing.
One GM that I know, with whom I discussed the use of revelation many years ago, was of the opinion that this tone was only possible to achieve if the mystery had been a central point of the preceding adventure, so that the revelation was a payoff from that adventure, but it’s quite easy to demonstrate that this isn’t the case, though he was partially correct in that some investment in the revelation is needed in advance. Let’s say that the PCs have an enemy about whom they know very little who uses a code-name of some sort to identify himself. This enemy opposes them indirectly, working at a distance rather than engaging them directly. Some time after this begins, a new NPC enters the PCs lives and slowly earns their trust while the enemy continues to harass them from time to time, even saving the PCs bacon a time or two. In an epilogue at the end of the adventure to contain the “I Can See Clearly Now” tone, and completely-unrelated to the content of that adventure, the PCs (or an ally) get a lucky break and learn how to penetrate their enemy’s computer systems long enough to identify their enemy’s true name. In a stunning revelation, it is revealed that the NPC Friend/Ally is really their arch-enemy.
Of course, when you tie all the plot threads together into a single paragraph, this is not all that surprising a revelation, but if spread out over a considerable time frame in the way suggested, this should be a far bigger surprise.
The distinguishing characteristic of this form of revelation is that it should pay off into immediate reaction/response/action on the part of the PCs.
12. Joker In The Deck
A variation on “I can see clearly now” is “Joker In The Deck”. This is the discovery, often relatively low-key, of a secret that is going to have far-reaching implications, but is not going to be an immediate action trigger. The best way that I have found to implement this tone is to roleplay the act of discovery (or narrate it to the players if it is being made by an NPC) without actually announcing what the secret actually is as part of the concluding events of the current adventure. That enables you to use the actual revelation as the payoff next time around.
That’s actually the trickiest part to get right. It needs to be significant enough to justify and payoff the anticipation that you create without being “drop everything including jaws” important. The goal is to lead into a mystery/investigation sequence in the next adventure, not to make the PCs drop everything.
Another important element to keep in mind is that this should be an expected revelation. I once had the PCs investigate the cold-case murder of a policeman at the request of the man’s daughter. This was a relatively minor adventure that eventually led to the capture of a low-level criminal who had gone undetected for over a decade. It was only when the PC in charge of doing the paperwork that month was writing up the report of the case that he happened to notice a couple of faces in earnest conversation in the background of a photo of the policeman receiving a civic honor, a photo that had been shown to the PCs several times in the course of the adventure without ever being really closely examined. It showed the then-mayor, now-Governor, in deep and agitated conversation with a building contractor who had disappeared without a trace with $1.6 million dollars supposedly earmarked for the construction of a new city hospital. Subsequent investigation had revealed that the contractor was also laundering money for The Cartel, a relatively insignificant Criminal Organization, and there was a lot of speculation that he had ruffled someone’s feathers way back when, but nothing was ever proven, and neither he nor the missing money were ever seen again. In the course of the next adventure, the PCs discovered that the contractor had laundered nearly 40 million dollars for The Cartel by constructing and then reselling office blocks in the downtown region of Denver, Colorado (because it was one of the least likely places I could think of for such a scheme but still plausible). But the contractor had cut corners, used substandard materials, and stolen at least half if not more of that $40 million – and in such a way that it wasn’t immediately obvious to anyone. $1.6 million in stolen money was a lot of motive to disappear back in the 1970s (when this adventure was set) – but $20 million of stolen mob money in 1974 dollars was a heck of a lot more. What’s more, at least one set of ledgers were discovered to have vanished at the same time – raising the prospect that he had actually escaped, and taken some incriminating “insurance” with him….
It turned out that most of the civic buildings built during the then-mayor’s tenure had been built by mob contractors, and that they in turn had put him into the governor’s office to soften up the ground for legalizing gambling within the state, and that the Governor’s brother-in-law was actually the contractor, having had plastic surgery off-the-books in Asia – and that the same contracting firm, minus it’s missing CEO, but still working for The Cartel, had been responsible for the construction of Stronghold, the prison to which all the captured supervillains got taken, a location chock-full of classified technology – any or all of which might now be in the hands of the criminals. And if Stronghold had also been built with substandard materials and cleverly-cut corners (it had), it might begin breaking down any time now…
It went on from there, but the critical observation to make is amply-illustrated, and that is the way something trivial-but-interesting keeps building up in importance until it becomes the tip of a very large and immediately-threatening iceberg.
One of the purest of ways to end an adventure is as the PCs behold a vista or scene of wonder and awe, or simply of tremendous natural beauty. There are two ways to handle this, and which one you choose should depend on the players and the characters that they control.
Option one is to end on the vista depicted through a piece of appropriate eye candy with neither description not explanation beyond the image. This means that the next time you play, the sense of “wow” will have faded somewhat, and the players will be ready to absorb the details and mechanics and how it works and so on. This works when the characters are jaded adventurers who react quickly and feel like they’ve seen it all before, and that’s exactly the tone I would go for in the adventure to follow, set in this scene of wonder/beauty. At best, the characters might regretfully realize that they have become jaded, have lost the capacity to merely appreciate what is before them. I would probably then spin that into an adventure built around the theme from the final chapters of The Lord Of The Rings – “for something to be saved, sometimes someone has to give it up,” to paraphrase.
Option two is to end without the eye candy. I might provide a thumbnail description of the location, which might be complete or select only a single feature, or might end without describing anything beyond the initial reaction – a reaction that will persist only as long as they players choose to wallow in it. I then kick off the next adventure with a very brief synopsis which leads to the revealing of the eye candy, and then an around-the-table pointing out features of the landscape to which each character should have a strong reaction. This means that, rather than targeting the PCs with the sense of Gosh Wow, I’m targeting the players, and doing so in such a manner that they will make decisions while under its influence.
Another factor to take into consideration is what I expect to happen within this location. If there is going to be an epic battle with lots of collateral damage, I might choose option 2 even with relatively-jaded adventurers simply because it will make them “feel” that collateral damage more. Similarly, if there is likely to be a roleplaying encounter with someone that I want to be impressive to the PCs, I might choose option 2 because the sense of “Gosh Wow” will transfer from the location to the resident. On the other hand, if the NPC is to be underwhelming to the PCs, leading them to potentially underestimating him, I might choose option 1 even if the adventurers are still enthusiastic enough to still experience the full “Gosh Wow” factor.
14. A Door Opens
Anticipation – the more edge-of-your-seat, the better – is a classic way to end an adventure (usually in a postscript or epilogue that is actually a preview of the next adventure). “Klaxons sound throughout the facility, a voice from the security office yells “Intruder Alert! Intruder Alert!” over the intercom, followed by “Intruder heading for the [bridge/control room/whatever]”. The PCs get ready, not knowing what to expect, as the Security Office instructs, Lieutenant Havelyn, can you get a visual on the intruder? What are we dealing with?” and the reply comes back, “I don’t believe it – it’s — it’s —” before the signal is lost. And then the door to the [bridge/control room/whatever] slowly opens…” and CUT! Next time…
This is a pretty extreme example of the buildup (At least I didn’t throw in a “…but he’s dead….” on the part of the NPC Lieutenant!), but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The important thing is to be sure that whatever extent you build up to has to be paid off at the start of the next adventure in terms of the identity of the mystery person. The last thing you want is for you to make the big reveal and one of the players responds, “Who?”
Except that it is entirely too likely to give the game away, I’d be tempted to find a way to include the relevant character’s backstory in the previous adventure. I’m sure that you will be tempted to do so when next you encounter this situation. Don’t yield to this desire, it never – well, hardly ever – works out well.
The other way that you can incorporate this tone is to underplay it to generate a sense of menace. “You’ve won! The Darknight Guild are shattered, and while never is a very long time, they are most unlikely to pose any threat for the foreseeable future. In the nick of time, you prevented them from opening the gateway to The Plane Of Nightmare and the Ravening Horde of Exaltreal that waited hungrily to be liberated into the Material World. And yet, energy is can never be created or truly destroyed, and the Darknight Guild had invested considerable force in trying to pry open this crack in the seam-coating of reality. All that energy had to go somewhere, and so it is that deep in an unfathomably remote hyperplane, a door opens between one reality and another…”
Here, the demand is NOT to pay off on the anticipation in the next adventure – or the one after, or even the one after that, for that matter. You want this lurking in the back of the players’ minds, ready to be connected to unrelated events by threads of mounting paranoia…
15. You’ve Made Your Bed, Now Lie In It
Scenes that dramatically narrow the options open to the PCs, especially as a result of previous choices they have made, are a great way to end an adventure. While these can sometimes be pre-planned by the GM, more frequently the PCs will make a choice without fully appreciating the consequences; and still more often, the PCs will make a decision and the GM will later realize that he can attach greater significance to that choice than the PCs imagined at the time. Ending an adventure by revealing some of the more unanticipated consequences helps unify the continuity of the campaign and make the players feel like their choices have consequences, not always ones that are to their liking.
There are a couple of restrictions that should be observed when contemplating this ending. The first is that the permissible interval between decision and consequence is proportionate to the memorability of the decision, ie the immediate consequences. The bigger and more memorable the decision, the longer you can wait before springing the unexpected consequences on the players.
The second is that that the longer the interval between decision and consequence revelation, the more dramatic, surprising, and effective the revelation will be. This is especially the case if there have been other consequences unfolding behind the scenes that went unnoticed by the PCs at the time, but that will be recognizable after the fact. So there is pressure to take the interval to it’s extreme limit, but you can’t afford to go beyond that limit – a knife-edge that is difficult to adjust.
The third is that the longer you wait, the bigger the consequence needs to be when it finally gets revealed. If it is not important enough, the bigger the anticlimax.
Finally, there is an assumption that the consequence that you reveal will form the focus of the adventure that is about to unfold. As with many of these final tones, it represents a promise that you have to pay off right away.
Ultimately, this is all about the PCs having taken their eyes off the ball at some point in the past; you want to smack them right between the eyes with the consequences of that, but doing so should rouse them into a reaction.
16. The Fond Farewell
At first glance, this tone doesn’t seem to generate that forward momentum that has been one of the primary criteria in compiling this list. Nevertheless, an emotional farewell can serve as a great end-of-adventure tone that generates a different sort of momentum if you can conjure a tone of “the end of one ‘chapter’ or era and the beginning of another.”
This tone works best if there is also a sense of inevitability about the transition. The archetypal example of what not to do that I always refer back to is Avengers Vol 1 #16, “The Old Order Changeth”. This was the issue of the comic in which Iron Man, Thor, Giant-Man, and The Wasp all retired from the team, leaving Captain America and a trio of reformed villains – Hawkeye, Quicksilver, and The Scarlet Witch – as the new members of the team.
The problem with the way this was handled was that the decisions to leave all seemed to come out of the blue, with no buildup. Of course, this was in the early days of modern comics; these days I have no doubt that the lessons in storytelling that have been learned through the years would result in foreshadowing of the decision. It’s also a little improbable that all three decisions would be reached at the same time, but that sort of compression can be forgiven, especially if there has been the appropriate foreshadowing and groundwork.
The other way that this tone can be achieved is when the decision is one that is forced on the departing characters (usually NPCs / Mentors, though it may be one generation of PCs giving way to a new one) through injury or major error of judgment that produces a loss of confidence. The latter would not make a very entertaining game without very careful orchestration by the GM and the cooperation of the players, the first can work.
I’m sure someone will want me to expand on that “careful orchestration”. There’s no definitive answer, but I can offer an example: The PCs make a decision. The GM manipulates the circumstances to turn that decision into a major error of judgment. He then offers an adventure in which the PCs – perhaps at great risk, or with great sacrifice – sets their mistake right in the course of their final adventure. With their honor restored, they then bow out and hand the reins to their protégées (the new PCs). Ultimately, it’s all about foreshadowing and justifying the transition.
Of course, a new beginning needs to be followed up with one of two things: either a focus on an existing threat, emphasizing that it might be a new incarnation of the group but the old problems have not all gone away, or a new threat, emphasizing the new beginning. If you go down the “old enemy” path, its important that the new PCs make progress of a sort and degree different to the achievements of the old, which also emphasizes the new beginning by means of the resulting subtext.
17. Turn The Page
This is pretty much the same thing without the goodbye. Presaging a new beginning always works well if the adventure leading to the change is significant enough. Essentially, this is ending one campaign and carrying the PCs forward into a sequel campaign, with continuity and background elements also perpetuated into the new Campaign.
In essence, all the advice offered under “The Fond Farewell” applies here.
18. Misplaced Love
The second-last option that works is again one that carries a different sort of momentum forward – in this case, emotional momentum. An admission of love (especially if that emotion is unrequited) works as a sentimental ending, promising emotional complications to come. Obviously, you can’t control when a PC makes any such deceleration, but you can absolutely control an NPC!
This option is different from just about all the others in that you don’t want to pay it off in the next adventure – if anything, you want to ensure that the target of the deceleration gets interrupted by something vital and doesn’t get the opportunity to respond. You need time for the fuse to burn; letting it get put out right away does no-one any favors!
19. The Sounds Of Silence
The final concluding tone that I recommend for your consideration is one that shouldn’t work by any measure: “All through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”. This option only works after a climax, but instead of resolving that climax, you end with silence to create a sense of anticipation: What happened? Did it work? Are we alive?
Nature abhors a vacuum, or so the saying goes – and in this case, that vacuum is filled with nervous anticipation…
Options That Don’t Work
The reasons why an option may be unsuitable are a little harder to pin down. Each of the following has a reason why they don’t work well at the end of an adventure, but those reasons vary all over the place. Often it comes down to these options not having the effect that the ones that work do.
If your adventure ends with one of these, the need is to append something from the list above as an epilogue or even as a prologue to the next adventure. That way, you can have your emotional “cake” and eat it, too.
1. The Man With No Eyes
Never end with a death. There is always a shock element to games in which someone significant (including an major enemy) dies, and that arrests game momentum for a while. If this is the final tone in the adventure, it ensures that the next adventure is going to start from a dead stop, and will feel slow and ponderous for a while.
If the death is a climax (and it should be), you need a subsequent scene in which the shock can play out – an aftermath, or a funeral scene, or whatever – and then another scene (which may be an epilogue) with a completely different tonal value, and specifically one that generates some momentum for the next adventure.
There is one exception to this: when it’s been established that a death will have massive repercussions, you might be able to use those potential repercussions to create the momentum by means of “The Sounds Of Silence”.
For example, in the last Zenith-3 campaign (1950s setting), Stalin had received an alien-tech pacemaker following his heart attack in 1945 and biochemical treatment to relieve his high blood pressure, thereby avoiding the stroke that was fatal in our history in 1953. He also took to wearing a steel suit of mechanized armor to support his weakening bones and protect him from assassins. Fully aware that some of his subordinates were ready to seize power if he died, and would not at all be averse to bringing forward that succession if they thought they could get away with it, he had the launch instructions for the Soviet Nuclear Arsenal wired up with a dead-man’s switch connected to his pacemaker. He was confident that without outside “assistance,” his mechanized armor/life support would keep him alive, and wanted to discourage anyone from providing that “assistance”. What he hadn’t counted on were some brainwashed fanatics from the US who had been sent on a suicide mission to force change in the Soviet leadership by assassinating Stalin. When the PCs got wind of all this, they had no choice but to make it a three-way donnybrook, in the course of which, Stalin’s life-support systems were hit. As it happened, I had the time to let the adventure play out on the day, but if time was pressing, I had the option of letting the missiles launch, signaling the death of Stalin, and then fading to black…
2. Sad Songs Say So Much
TV shows can sometimes get away with a sad or bitter tone to end an episode, but it really doesn’t work for an RPG adventure. If this is the tone that you have to deal with at the end of the adventure, you need to either alloy it with something else or to attach some form of postscript to the adventure to introduce a different tone. Ending an adventure on a downer like this generally means that your next adventure is fighting that tone for at least half the day, and that’s assuming that the subsequent adventure has a tone that can be characterized as optimistic in some way.
What do I mean by “alloy it with something else?” Let’s take the case of someone dying of old age or some sort of disease, who has some great regret, perhaps some injustice that he knows of or suspects, or some mistake that he made that he wants to confess or set right before it’s too late. He calls on the PCs to do something about that regret. His condition provides the core of their motivation to succeed, and to do so in a timely fashion. The PCs succeed in doing so, but when they return to the Hospital, they find that the motivating individual has died before he could be told about that success (Sad ending). And yet, the nurse reports that just a few minutes before the end, he relaxed and smiled, almost as though he knew (alloys a sense of victory and satisfaction with the sad ending).
Even though this works, at best it leaves the game in a neutral tone; I would still be tempted to end with an unrelated postscript of epilogue of some kind to generate some interest that will get the next adventure off to a flying start.
3. Back In Black
Even worse in gaming terms, but something else that TV shows can occasionally get away with, is to end with a Funeral. This combines and compounds the downside-effects of both the previous tones, to the point where not even a contrary-toned epilogue or postscript can salvage enthusiasm for the next adventure. If you must have a funeral as part of your plot, make it happen early in the day’s play, precede it with something that will offer momentum to get you through the funerary scenes, then capitalize on that momentum with the rest of the adventure. Nothing else that I’ve tried in a game has worked.
Almost as bad is ending on some sort of retrospective look back, unless that retrospective can also be characterized as something else that definitively does work.
Somebody trawling through old records who discovers a hidden plotline that the GM has been building up for some time? That works as a revelation, for example, and a revelation is the most obvious “alternative classification” that can be offered. (I would be tempted to end with some dramatic pronouncement about the discovery and save the details for the opening of the next adventure, simply so that players don’t have to remember – or misremember – those details from one game session to the next).
There is one exception to the above: where events within the adventure hinge on an event or action that was not known by the PCs at the time, it is acceptable for the character involved to “fill in the blanks” at the end of the adventure – though, arguably, this might also be considered a “revelation” reclassification.
Nostalgia might work for Grandpa Simpson and in other forms of media, but it doesn’t work well as an ending tone for an RPG.
5. Black Dog
If sadness doesn’t work, Depression, and its cousin, Hopelessness, are even less suitable. I’ve tried a couple of times, with the plan of bringing in a ray of hope in the course of the next adventure, and it just doesn’t work. You definitely need to postscript these with one of the “hope”-oriented tones.
Irony rarely works, it’s too transitory. However, it can sometimes be made to work if you can mix in some other tonal quality, but I have been unable to discern any pattern that separates success from failure; it might even be something outside the GM’s control, like the personalities of the players. Because of this unpredictability, I can’t recommend this tonal quality, even if it seems like it will work in your individual case.
7. Roses Are Red
Requited Love is even worse than unrequited love, from the game-momentum perspective. We want consequences, or the threat of consequences; we want drama, or the promise of drama. Exceptions are possible if the love is somehow forbidden, or if it has already been established.
8. I’m Not In Love
Ending on a note of Affection without deep commitment is the same as Romantic endings but more wishy-washy. The lack of commitment will be reflected in how the players feel about the situation, and that is what they will then carry into the next adventure.
9. You’ve Got A Friend
Friendship as a conclusion only works if the new friends were at loggerheads, or even enemies, through the adventure. This distinguishes RPGs from almost every buddy-cop movie out there, where an expression of friendship is the norm for the final tone before the credits roll. The difference is that most of those buddy-cop movies don’t directly lead into a sequel, i.e. into the equivalent of the next adventure, even when they are part of a series. This means that such sequels normally have to re-establish the relationships between the protagonists at the start of each movie, which is effectively the same as starting from a neutral position.
It follows that ending on a note of friendship (except in the case of the exceptions) is also the same as starting from a neutral position, and without the self-generated enthusiasm that is normally felt when first starting a new campaign.
The two exceptions are worth a little exploration.
- The first works because the renewed friendship after being at loggerheads carries a promise of better days to come, and this positivity has its own momentum; it is important to build on that with the next adventure, however, because the momentum is easily lost.
- The second works because an enemy has become, at the very least, an ally; this changes the context of the entire campaign, even if it’s only temporary, and that in turn has elements of “Light On The Horizon” and “Another One Bites the dust”, two of the concluding tones that work. In this case, the advice offered under those two categories spells out how the tone of friendship should be utilized in the next adventure; they are listed as items 2 and 5 on the list of techniques that work.
10. No Way Out
Never end with a situation in which the PCs have only one choice of action. Not only is this railroading of the worst sort (unless the narrowing of choice to “none” is the result of the PCs actions or choices), it’s obvious and overt railroading to the players even if this appearance is unwarranted or incorrect. In other words, it doesn’t matter whether or not this is the result of the GM railroading his plots, it will seem to the players as though that is what he is doing. From that point on, protestations of innocence only sound like offering excuses and get the players further offside. This tonal value can be poisonous to a campaign.
11. Blue Bayou
Peace and tranquility may work, when used appropriately, but Serenity doesn’t, it has no forward momentum to offer. If anything, it tends to dampen forward momentum, so it will be even harder to get the players roused and active at the start of the next adventure.
12. I Can’t Tell You Why
Mysteries should work, in theory, but in practice they don’t – because the players will spend at least some time in between game sessions speculating, and the mystery will have all the impact of cold spaghetti when play resumes. Instead, attention will be on all the different theories and possible solutions. Don’t end on a note of mystery (with the exception of “A Door Opens”, where the tone is part of a complex blend of menace, possibility, drama, and mystery), end on the announcement that someone has discovered a mystery, possibly accompanied by a worst-case forecast of the consequences, and leave the actual description of the mystery to the opening scene of the next adventure.
There are a couple of terms that I’ve been using throughout the preceding sections that I should probably define before this article comes to an end. These all relate to the structure of an adventure.
When the final scene of an adventure is part of the main plot of the adventure, the adventure just ends, to be followed by another one. The ending adventure may even define the context or starting point of the next adventure.
I go back to the standard of the single-sentence summary, with no “ands”, “buts”, etc. Each individual adventure can be summed up in a single simple sentence.
A post-script is an extension of the adventure, often bringing to light unnoticed events or consequences, or providing a fresh context. Post-scripts supply an emotional kick-off point for the next adventure, and may even provide a context for it and future adventures, but have no relationship beyond that with the content of the next adventure. Postscripts don’t directly involve the protagonists of the plot to which they are attached, but may describe how the actions during the adventure have changed the world, or part thereof. The content rarely relates directly to the next adventure, though it can do so.
Epilogues have two forms. The first is virtually synonymous to a Postscript, but does directly involve the protagonists of the plot in an interactive manner. However, by virtue of that interactivity, they more frequently relate directly to the adventure to come, though they don’t have to. In every other way, they are the same as a Postscript.
Epilogue, version II
The other version of an Epilogue is as a prologue to future events, in particular to the next adventure. It can be thought of as a Teaser for that forthcoming adventure, one which gives away as little as possible about the content of that adventure. It may or may not directly involve one or more of the protagonists of the last adventure, but usually does not directly involve a PC, simply because they are pre-scripted to some extent. Quite often, they are repeated as the actual prologue to the next adventure. This variant always relates to the forthcoming adventure.
There’s a lot more to ending an adventure than announcing “You all live happily ever after – or at least until your next adventure.” Your choice of how you end the preceding adventure can be a millstone around your neck, or can enable the next adventure to hit the ground running. The latter means that instead of struggling up from zero intensity, your adventures can be on the go from the very start, enabling you to calm or intensify the emotional intensity as needed to amplify your adventures, taking them to the next level.
A side-subject that needs special attention is the question of downtime, when the PCs are free to study, exercise, or simply live their lives. Downtime doesn’t work when the end of one adventure connects directly with the next. It follows that if you strongly-connect your adventures in this way, you should actively and deliberately build some down-time into you plots – usually at exactly the right time for the enemy’s plans to mature, of course!
Some unhappy personal news
Well, there’s nothing like medical problems to complicate, if not completely disrupt, the best-laid plans. Today is the Sunday before this article is to be published. If all had gone according to plan, it would have been finished on Tuesday last week.
Instead, that Tuesday saw me waiting at the Doctor’s surgery, dealing with unexplained numbness and tingling in my right hand; Wednesday took me to a specialist for a CT scan of my neck; Thursday was always going to be disrupted by life in general, and by final editing and publication of the last part of the One Player Is Enough series; and Friday I was back to the Doctor for the results of the scan. So that’s essentially the whole week lost.
In a nutshell, I appear to have neck problems relating to the C4/C5 joint, where a disc protrusion is pressing (from time to time) on the nerve bundle, causing problems with my right arm, hand, and shoulder. Right now, the symptoms are relatively minor and I am in the early stages.
The uncertain impact of the problem grows when I state that he has referred me to a Neurosurgeon to determine the appropriate course of treatment. In the worst case, this could involve surgery on my neck, which would involve a massive but short-term disruption to activities like writing and publishing articles here at Campaign Mastery; but this is very much considered a last resort. It is far more likely to involve some form of outpatient treatment of still-unknown frequency, producing a long-term, ongoing, but somewhat smaller disruption.
Ultimately, this will manifest as the occasional missed post here at CM. Fortunately, I had built up some cushion. Part 3 of the New Beginnings Series was already written, as was the afore-mentioned conclusion to One Player Is Enough, and next Monday’s article is also partially-written. In addition, I have various guest authors working on articles which may plug gaps here and there. I’m going to play the situation by ear, giving priority to my health, but wanted to warn all you readers out there. More news as it develops.