Aug 222012
 

How do you know when your game has reached this point?

One of the most profound, formative movies I have seen in my life is Apocalypse Now. It’s certainly visually, and to an extent, existentially stunning, but it remains part of the cultural zeitgeist because of the pop culture references contained therein. There is one in particular of which I am frequently reminded: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1b26BD5KjH0

In the context of role-playing games, it’s difficult to talk about the end of a particular game. Obviously, almost every game that has ever started has come to an end at some point, whether that was a story-appropriate finish, a glacially slow increase in the frequency of sessions, the sudden departure or life-change of one or more players, whatever. I think games always start out very strong, usually fueled by a lightning-like stroke of inspiration and a great, resounding wave of enthusiasm. Those of us who have played in many games know that they rarely end this way.

I think there are two separate paths that need to diverge here. One deals with the end of a game/campaign/story/system, while the other deals with the end of a gaming group. I am going to primarily talk about the former, but the second one is probably way more common. People, especially as adults, have lives and, as we’ve mentioned before, tend to value their gaming at different points in their hierarchical organization of their lives. For some of us, gaming is our lifeblood, and for others it’s just a from-time-to-time hobby like bowling or going to the movies. Gaming groups disintegrate all the time, and it’s usually because everyone’s expectations for the game are different. Perhaps we’ll talk more about this in another post.

For now, let’s stick to ending games but sticking with the same group. This is at the forefront of my mind because my group just finished up a campaign (which I was running) earlier this week, and they opted to retire their characters instead of progressing onwards (and frankly, it was the wise choice, since we were playing Call of Cthulhu and a few of them were on death’s or insanity’s door).

I’ve always had great enthusiasm for beginning games. I love the part of the game where all the characters are introduced, they can show off their quirks and flaws and powers and weaknesses, they interact with each other and develop personalities, they investigate and interact with the world, gain faculty with the rules and laws that govern the game, make acquaintances with NPCs and run afoul of evildoers. And it’s this early period which sets the stage and lends an emotional weight to the campaign’s inevitable end.

We become attached to our characters, come to enjoy the world we’ve collaboratively created. We like that familiarity. We like coming up with new ways for our characters to grow and new goals to achieve, we love the prospect of seeing what new challenges await us in undiscovered corners of the world. I imagine that it’s the same feeling that one gets when they read the last few pages of the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or any series whose characters and story are powerful and addictive – we’re sad to see it go.

But go it must, eventually. And that’s never easy.

The most important part of the campaign, for me, is the climax of whatever story arc the characters find themselved embroiled in. It’s not my favorite, but coming down from the climax in storytelling usually involves some denouement or wrapping-up. This is the moment when a lot of stories go awry. I think it’s that desire to hold onto things that we love, but if the arc is truly over, we should probably just accept it and decide right then: are we continuing with these characters, this (broader) story, and this situation, or is the campaign effectively over?

If you decide the campaign is over, as a GM I would offer some wrap-up. The fate of the characters, the fate of the world, and so on. Maybe have another hour or so for everyone to talk about their characters’ goals for the future now that this particular story arc is over. Then, collectively decide what is going to happen next: someone else is going to try the reins as gamemaster, we’re going to switch to a new system, we’re going to play future or past versions of ourselves or NPC’s we’ve met in the world, and so on.

If you decide you want to continue,then you ask them how they get out of the white dragon’s lair, what is next for the party after slaying the evil lich before he could destroy the nation, how they really just uncovered the tip of the iceberg, and on, and on.

In general, we tend to frown upon railroading, but I would argue that limp, unsatisfying game endings (and often beginnings) come from our desire to have a true sandbox. Since there is no clearly defined beginning or endpoint, and since characters have a greater tendency to die or drift in and out of games, it becomes much harder to wrap up any particular arc. There’s no sense of closure. Now, is the “closure”, which, admittedly, is a nebulous topic to begin with, necessary to roleplaying? Well, I think to an extent that if we look at roleplaying as collaborative storytelling, then there is indeed a story, and that story should have some kind of beginning, middle, and end. Most sandbox games ultimately are not linear, but are episodic instead, which can offer, in itself, a kind of closure.

And I believe that’s the point – too many roleplaying games end without closure, and even when they do offer some closure, it’s very difficult to land upon an ending in which each player is satisfied. As a player we want to feel like we’ve earned what we have, and as a GM we want the challenges to be, well, challenging and also interesting, and it’s hard to have the denouement be challenging and interesting. Not impossible, but difficult.

I’ve had many awesome campaigns just go out on kind of a ‘meh’ note, and I hate that feeling. We are slaves to the recency effect, so we really hate when the last taste in our mouth is sour or just, well, bland. So do what you can to try and make your games end on a great note – as I said, I think this is mostly timing and just not holding on too long. Handwave your denouement if it’s not interesting, end the session after the boss is killed and move on to the next thing. Give your players something to remember right at the end before you move on to whatever entices you next.

Until next time, happy gaming!

PS: Do you have any thoughts regarding what the best way to end a story arc is? Or even how to put a game on hold when you try something differently?

Photo credit: Flickr user bennylin0724. CC BY 2.0

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About Nick

Nick is an inquisitive type, never satisfied with what he reads in a book.

Aug 152012
 

Some gamers getting ready for the big game.

I have always gotten extremely nervous before serving as the GM for games. It doesn’t seem to matter if it’s before a group of newbies or a bunch of seasoned veterans, a game at a convention or one in my own apartment, some people I’ve never met or my most stalwart friends, new material or re-hashed stuff I’ve already done. I get anxious that the game I’m about to run is not going to be fun.

I know that this is the result, to some extent, of being a perfectionist. For some reason, I just have never felt that I’m adequately prepared for a session. I can always design one more encounter, or add a bit more detail to a room, or tweak the numbers a bit to make things more balanced. After all, what is all this extra time for but for more planning? It doesn’t matter that I’ve been shown time and again that sometimes what I plan for one session actually takes three to four, there’s always the creeping sense that things are going to go off-book and I’m going to have to come up with things on the fly.

But, that should be something great about roleplaying: not everything can be scripted. Not everything can go according to plan. And even if it does, there’s no guarantee that your players will even really like that plan or that script. They’re going to like what they like, and you have to adapt your story to be some middle ground between the story you want to tell and the story they want to hear. This is the curse and the blessing of the Gamemaster. You’re totally in charge of the game. I used to say to people who told me that my games were really fun that most games were 50% GM and 50% players. I’ve had games I thought would be amazing turn out to just be rather bland due to what I’ll egotistically call “boring play”. I’ve also had rather bland or derivative plots turn into riotous, uproarious, truly memorable romps.

I got the same feeling back when I was in school and had to prepare for tests. There were always a few minutes left and a few more facts that I could memorize. So, studying and preparing for a game often become an act of settling, of recognizing diminishing returns (more time spent for less product) and cutting yourself off after you reach a point somewhere past good enough. Sadly, I’ve always been the kind of person who cares more about the quality of his RPGs than the quality of his grades, so I find the exercise of locating good enough to be very challenging.

What’s my point with all of this? Well, I want to share a few things I do (or try to do) before each game session. Maybe it will inspire you to better organize your game planning. Maybe it will clue you in to the oft-incredible amount of time GMs can put in to planning RPG sessions. Maybe it will just be interesting to look at someone else’s process.

  1. At the end of each session, I make sure to write down a to-do list after everyone has gone home. This usually takes anywhere from 5 to 20 mintues, depending on the amount of material the group got through, how many questions they had, and how much of the next few sessions are written or conceptualized. It helps to keep a running list during the session, I find, that way nothing gets lost to the ether and you’re left not having a good answer when someone says “Remember when I asked…”.
  2. I try to knock off as many things on this list as possible when I have free time. Having a list is great, I find, for a spare 15-20 minutes here and there where you can just knock off an item or two.
  3. During this inter-session period, I also try to write down in a stream-of-consciousness kind of way random ideas that I come up with. Sometimes I try to incorporate them, other times I plan to do so down the line.
  4. I schedule for myself a sit-down of at least a few hours for “game preparation”, usually taking place a few days before the session. This is when I go over my notes: check the overarching plot and see where we are, note what things have changed, who’s dead, and so on. I start planning a “Next Session” document, which is just a piece of paper which has what I want to accomplish on it. It might read: ambush at night, conversation with the Duke, 24 hours downtime in town, arrival of the caravan. Now, I can never be sure that the players will¬†actually do all this stuff, but with some experience GMing you can guess where they might go next. I make sure to prepare the few most likely places they might visit. During this session I plan any major physical projects I’ll need to spend time working on, specifically intricate hand-outs or props.
  5. I design the encounters and draw the maps in my notebook, as well as note what important NPCs and phenomenon happen as in-game time passes.
  6. Then I take a break for a few days to try and relax. Because:
  7. The night before the session I always start to get nervous, so I usually give myself a little time to go over the session, make some final notes, tweak encounters to account for player absences, new abilities gained, and whatnot.
  8. I make sure all the physical materials I need for the game are ready to be used. Clean the battlemats, organize the figurines, make sure there are pencils and markers. If I’m hosting, I try to get a snack or two and some drinks to provide.
  9. I make sure to get a good night of sleep, and eat well the day of the game. Don’t game tired or on an empty stomach, it saps your energy!
  10. I can’t help but think about the game all day during the lead up. I usually take this time to do some game flourishes. A handout here, a piece of papercraft there if I have the time. I always like to make tokens for NPCs and monsters.
  11. When I get to the session, I take about 10 minutes to set everything up. I lay out the map, draw on it (if a combat scene is happening imminently), put up my screen if I’m using one, get out my dice, get a drink and a snack and settle in.
  12. At the start of the session, we go over anything that happened in any downtime, and do a quick recap of where we are and how we got here. I then answer questions if anyone has them, the players get a little planning time, and we go!

The way I described it probably makes it seem more complicated than it actually is, but I find that if I miss too many of these steps (as happens when life gets in the way), the quality of my sessions starts to suffer. There are some games I can do, for example, without a lot of prior planning (such as Paranoia!) and others that I absolutely must have the encounter design (crunchy D&D dungeon crawls).

One size definitely does not fit all when it comes to planning for your sessions, but you should absolutely find a system that works for you and try to stick to it. You probably already do have a system, if you just grab a bottle of Mountain Dew, throw on a movie and draw dungeon maps every Thursday night, even if you don’t call it a system. Your game will be better for it.

PS: I think preparing for games is something that players should do as well. You need to correlate all your notes and information gained in previous sessions, do your inventory housekeeping, determine where you want to go next and what is your next goal, and so on. The more of this happens outside of the game, the less time your co-players spend waiting for you to flip through the rulebook to buy your 17 items from the shopkeeper.

Photo Credit: Warhammer Games (Mick Garratt) / CC BY-SA 2.0

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic License.

About Nick

Nick is an inquisitive type, never satisfied with what he reads in a book.