So, I talked Monday about the importance of endings, its something I think I've done before in a bit of a round about way but wanted to address directly, but it also seemed appropriate to the recent going ons as well. Famous shows such as Lost are ending (no, I never watched an episode and from what I've heard I'm glad), but in general this time of year is when we get a lot of Season finales, and on a personal score two games I'm in have also come to gripping ends. It leaves the question though, what do you need to have a good ending?
#1: Answer Questions
Throughout stories we pose numerous questions to our audience and players. "What is going on? Who is doing it? Why are they doing it? How are they doing it? Why is this important? " Now while some of these questions will be answered automatically, the end is your chance to make sure that all the questions are answered. I've listed questions first, as it is the most obvious but also because I wanted to point something out. When it comes to an 'end' in a RPG campaign this is the least important of the steps to answer. The other ones are more important, because unlike in other mediums after the game is over and people have rolled the dice for an individual character for the last time, you are right there in front of them. You can answer questions that weren't answered, clear up points of confusion. You need to have the answers ready, you need to know them or things won't make sense in the execution, but they don't necessarily have to be shown. If the PCs don't ask questions, or don't go looking for them, don't force feed them. They can always ask you after the fact, where you can explain in great detail now that there are no longer any spoilers.
#2: Complete Objectives
By very definition the end of a game is the end. After the end there is nothing more, or at least nothing more that is scheduled to happen. You may come back to the world, to the characters, at some point or another, but odds are that after this you are done. You'll start another game, do a different story, have different characters and that is it. What that means is that the end is your absolutely last chance to help the PCs accomplish their objectives. Has someone been hoping for a death duel with their father? Someone else hoping to finally propose to that girl? Has the Party Leader been working all game to buy that shiny new hunting rifle? Well, they're not going to get another chance at it later, so why not help them do it now? Give the guy that duel with their father, let the other one have the dramatic moment, and allow the party leader to finally get that rifle he's been looking for all game. What is it going to hurt? The game is ending in a few sessions anyhow.
Completing objectives is an important thing to do near the end. It helps gives players a sense of accomplishment, helps gives their characters a better sense of closure knowing that there isn't anything huge looming over the character that they may never return to. Leaving objectives unfinished can leave a sour taste in a players mouth. That doesn't mean every objective can, should, or will be finished, but if there is something that is important to a player or character you should at least give them a shot at it.
#3: Deliver on Promises
This is very closely related to #2, but needs to be listed on its own. This is also, in my opinion, the most important aspect of an ending. Throughout a story, any story, we are making promises to our audience. In games there are promises to the players, and in turn the players make promises to the GM. The end is the time to deliver on these promises. What are they? Well that is hard to tell just flat out, but look at your game. What was the concept for the game? What have people been doing? They are unspoken promises in the context of the game.
If you are running an epic military game, based around larger than life characters fighting against impossible odds, your ending should include a big epic battle. If you are running a mystery, than your ending should include the solving of that mystery. These are the big promises yes, but they are also the easiest to show. How would you feel if you went in to an Epic Military game only to end the story around the negotiation table instead of fighting? Sure some people may be ok with this, but I'm willing to bet most of the players made characters for a combat game and talking things out between armies isn't exactly a "Group Activity". The same with the Mystery game, if you leave the mystery unsolved than what was the point of the game?
#4 Keep It Relevant
I am including this specifically because of the reviews of the Lost finale, and it is closely related to deliver on promises. Keep the actions of the PCs, the actions of the story relevant. Don't sweep things under the rug, don't take the easy way out. If someone has sacrificed, make it a worth while sacrifice. If someone has died, make it a worth while death. When you give an ending that just wraps things up in a neat little bow, and doesn't care what was done leading up to it, you are cheapening your entire story.
That isn't to say there aren't ways to make things happy in a game where people are dying and sacrificing. Just that doing so is very tricky. Something to be shied away from unless you are sure you can do it, are sure of how your audience will react to it. Nothing seems to turn the knife in someone quite as much as having all they've worked for pointed out to be meaningless. So don't do it to your players.
Finally, the last thing we have is leave them wanting more. That doesn't necessarily mean more of this game, or those characters, but more game in general is good. Make sure people had fun, ask what they liked, ask what they didn't like. Answer questions about things that didn't get revealed, clear up confusion.
Endings to stories in RPGs can be tricky. You don't have near as much control as you think, and you get even less as you approach the end. The number of relevant people grows slimmer, and as such the controllers of the PCs get significantly more control, not to mention the control the dice have as those vital actions come into play. Set it up right though, and you have something to be remembered. Just remember those 4 things to keep in mind, and your next ending should be at the very least a decent one.