When you're running a game with a strong narrative bend to it, there will come times when things need to come to an end or when things are just coming to a beginning. These moments can be very powerful moments in the game, and can generate the kind of sessions, scenes, and actions that players will talk about for a long time. However, despite this power, sometimes it can be hard to tell when something is coming to an end or when it is only now coming to a beginning. I don't think I have the definite answer on this, but it is something that I wanted to talk about with you all today.
Recognizing an End
In a lot of ways Endings are far far kinder than beginnings. Endings are, generally, cleaner. At least, they're cleaner when you look at it from a plot thread - or thread count - point of view. See, with an ending, almost everything should be coming to a close and thus be getting wrapped up. It is a time when you give out more answers than questions, and while things may come to their peak of tension the drop off afterwards is also a lot more significant as a return to normalcy arrives.
This means that you can judge an end by when it looks like there isn't much left on the PCs active "to do" list. Sure, there may be some long term goals, but the stuff that is important for the right now is coming to a close. Maybe Susy wants to become the queen of the underworld (long term goal,) but lately she's looking into a series of kidnappings in her neighborhood. As she catches up to, and finds out what is going on with the kidnapping she is coming to an end point in the story. Not the final end point, but an end point none the less.
It's Just The Beginning
A Beginning on the other hand can be very messy. This is when you really shake things up. Questions are flying out all over the place, and immediate concerns and needs are being recognized as things that have to be addressed. That said, beginnings can also have a sense of closure as whatever the previous trappings were are left behind. In the Dark Heresy game I am in, the players have just found a lot of answers to a lot of their questions, but those answers have also set out a slew of new tasks that need to be handled. What three sessions ago felt like it was an ending has quite suddenly become a beginning to the next act. Whether this new part of the story will be long or short remains to be seen, but it is still a beginning.
You can often identify a beginning by the excitement in the air. Endings have tension and excitement too, don't get me wrong, but it is a different kind of excitement. Where an ending may have the world in the balance and everything at stake, a beginning has a more joyful experience. It's the first step on a new path, full of the bravery and amazement at what may be seen.
Why Does This Matter?
So why am I talking about this? Because recognizing your beginnings and endings are important for a GM. If you are on an ending,t hen it means that you are about to be given a lot of freedom in planning and preparation for the next bit. things are coming to a close, which means a bit of down time and then something new coming to the fore. If you are on a beginning, then it means that you have less freedom. Questions are already out there, and you need to be prepared to show the PCs the road to the answer.
More to the point, an ending can very quickly become a beginning and vice versa, and if you are expecting it to be one when it turns into the other, you can be caught unprepared and with the GM equivalent of pants around your ankles at an important social event. It's frustrating, and embarrassing. So try to keep your finger on the pulse of the game, and figure out just what you're working towards. Sometimes a year or more of game time can quickly just become the prologue to a much more exciting and daring story.
The In Between
The time in between an ending and a beginning are very important. I like to use this time for time skips when I can. Why? Because it gives the players a chance to think long term - which helps divorce themselves from the character for a bit - and to think about what they may want to do next. I can then quickly go over these long term goals with the player, determine what happens in the time they have, and get them to a new starting point. Sometimes, even taking a break from the game to do a one - or two - shot in another system can be great. It not only gives people time to prepare, but further divorces them from the character at the last end.
Then, when the game starts up again we do a quick recap and work through where everyone is. This re-establishes a status quo, and lets folks see how their char may have changed/grown/developed from the end of the last arc. When the questions start to come out, and new things begin to happen, that excitement can grip people a little easier because everyone is still feeling out their "new" take on the character.
What do you do to manage the differences in beginnings and endings in your game? What have you done in the past? Sound off in the comments.