Monday, May 24, 2010

Endings - Part 1: The Importance of Endings

"Can't say I've ever been too fond of beginnings, myself. Messy little things. Give me a good ending any time. You know where you are with an ending." ~ Neil Gaiman, Sandman

I figure with all the show endings going on lately, as well as the ending of the L5R Lion game I was in on Friday, that I'd take some time to talk about endings on here.

It's a strange feeling, bringing a campaign to a close. Some people never do I know. I know someone who has been running the same L5R game for going on 10 years now. Oh sure the character's are different, people are now playing the grand children of the characters they first rolled up when the game began ten years ago. Did they know the game was going to go on for a decade back then? I don't know. I'd like to hope not, but at the same time there isn't anything wrong with it, after all, if someone told you that for a down payment of $30 you would be entertained every Monday for 5-6 hours for the next 10 years wouldn't you jump at it?

The thing is, I can't run games like that. Well, maybe I can, I've never tried, but I say I can't because the fact of the matter is that I don't really want to play in one. To me, especially now, gaming is about telling a story, and you know the thing that all good stories have in common? They end. You can see this clearly in things like Anime and Comic Books. Most anime tend to only run for 26 to 52 episodes, and then they end. Sometimes though, one will go on for much longer, numbering in the hundreds of episodes. Sometimes those really long stories can still hold a narrative that is concise and continuous, but mostly they get lost in the story telling. As things get drawn further and further out you're no longer watching a story, you are watching several characters to which things happen. Very similar, sure, but not quite the same.

See, if you keep telling a story endlessly, you run the risk of a few problems. The first problem is 'Jumping the Shark', essentially you do something so cool, so bad ass, that the game starts to lose its flavor and sense of awesome afterwards. Nothing is going to compare with that one brilliant moment, and so as you keep going it becomes more and more about going through the motions. The second problem is power creep, this goes hand in hand with jumping the shark. As the game goes on, you keep giving XP to the players, who in turn keep spending it. Eventually you are left with god characters, whom challenging becomes increasingly difficult without breaking the realm of the game. The final major problem is story cycles. This happens when to avoid the above problem, you cycle people back down to lower power level and they go up again. With cycles though either eventually the story starts to repeat itself so much that people stop caring, or you have effectively just had an ending and new beginning hidden in your game.

Now, as I've said, there are ways to not end a story and have fun. Campaigns about exploring the world do this really well, and the comic industry has literally made a business out of the continuing adventures of a hand full of repeating and recycling characters. But compared to something with an end, it generally just can't compare. Endings give closure to the story, help wrap up the loose ends, and done right give something to be remembered for much longer than the story could have ever hoped to do otherwise.

When you start with an ending in mind you get power over the story. You know about where the ending will be, or at least the possible endings will be. You can structure other parts of the story around it. If you want to end the game with Player A being the High King of Humanity, and Player B being the Avatar of Death, well now you have things you can foreshadow in your game. Things to hint at, reactions and interactions to set up. Even better, you have a guide for things. Getting closer to the end, but you haven't done anything for the future High King? Well you should focus a bit more on that. Knowing where you are going helps with planning the road to get there, especially when you need to find your way again part way there because the players took a 'short cut' through Mexico.

I'm going to talk about the execution of an ending either tomorrow (on top of the session review for tonight's M.A/C.C session) or wednesday. For now though, for those of you who are looking to run a game soon, take a good long look at where the end will be and how to get there. The story and game will benefit from this.

Happy Gaming

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