Sufficient > Great When It Comes To Ending
This may be a bit controversial, but in my opinion you are better off aiming for a "sufficient" ending. The reason for this is because of risk management. A great ending will make a good story great, this is true. However, a sufficient ending will not make a good story bad or even degrade a great story from being a great story. A bad ending on the other hand can make a great story horrible. Also, in aiming for a sufficient ending you are more likely to make a "good ending" or even a "great ending" on accident than if you are trying to knock it out of the park.
What Makes A Sufficient Ending?
That is a good question, and there are a lot of answers that I'm sure Creative Writing and Literature majors could spend hours discussing. Ultimately though, for our purposes, a sufficient ending is an Act (in the story telling definition so a series of scenes effectively) that brings the larger narrative to an acceptable conclusion. Now, for an ending to be acceptable, and thus sufficient, it needs to do a couple of things.
- It has to make sense
- It has to tie up all major loose plot threads
- It should give a sense of what comes next
Not much to it, is there? Then again, we're not aiming for amazing or good here, we're just aiming for sufficient.
How Does An Ending Make Sense
For an ending to make sense, or rather to plan an ending that makes sense, you first need to know what your story is about. This is both thematically and in the broad strokes of what is happening in the action. For example Dragon Age Origins is about the revitalization of the Grey Wardens in Ferelden and the war against the newest Blight. Thematically it is about the struggle between good and evil. Fortunately, Dragon Age Origins recognizes this and so the end of the game involves the big fight to stop that blight, good's attempt to triumph over evil, and - if done right - involves the Grey Wardens being brought back as a power in Ferelden.
Games Are Rarely That Cut and Dry
If Dragon Age: Origins was a story that ending would be acceptable. However, games are not that cut and dry. Games are as much about the journey as they are the destination, and table top role playing games are very similar. In truth, one of the reasons I used DAO as an example here is because the game is very similar to a table top game.
If you break DAO down a bit further you actually have two core stories being told. The first is the narrative arc, which is what I detailed above. The second is the story being told through gameplay. This is the involvement of the player - and the player is part of the audience for both DAO and your table top campaign. So what story does the gameplay tell? The gameplay story is of the growth of the main character - the PC - and their interactions with the world around them, particularly the other party members - as they progress through the narrative arc. Effectively, the gameplay story is the personal story fully customized by what quests the player chooses to take and not take, what dialogue choices the player chooses to make, and what narrative choices - when presented - the player chooses to take on.
How Does That Impact The Ending?
The gameplay story impacts the story by giving us a second version of the three things we need for a good ending. The gameplay story needs an ending that makes sense, ties up the major loose plot threads, and gives a sense of what comes next.
In the end when planning you r end you need to ask yourself the following.
- Does this ending make sense to the narrative being told?
- Does this ending make sense to the gameplay that has happened?
- Does this ending wrap up the major narrative plot threads?
- Does this ending wrap up the major gameplay plot threads?
- Does this plot give a sense of what could come next narratively?
- Does this plot give a sense of what could come next gameplay wise?
Answering these six questions - or three questions twice - will help you craft an ending that even if it isn't the greatest end all and be all. Also, when answering these questions don't just say "yes" or "no" but explain to yourself how it does this.
For Dragon Age Origins the answers could look like this (yeah, spoilers below here.)
Does the ending make sense narratively and from a gameplay perspective and how does it do it?
Yes, the ending makes sense. The story and gameplay focus on building up and uniting the forces of Ferelden for the climactic battle which the ending focuses upon primarily. In the end the player/audience sees the culmination of the alliance and the giant battle for the fate of the country that is fought because of it.
Does this ending wrap up the major narrative & gameplay plot threads?
Yes. In the course of the final act not only do we see the end of the major arc of the war against the blight but all the major characters also come to the end of their personal arcs, taking their chosen place in the world and standing their ground for the climactic battle. While some questions are left behind - i.e. what will Morrigan do with the child? - all major plot threads are tied up.
Does this end give a sense of what could come next narratively and gameplay wise?
Yes. After the battle we get a denoument showing the status of the world going forward. This finishes tying up the loose threads. The major factors - the monarchy of ferelden, the grey wardens, etc - have their status stated and plans to go forward are layed out. Gameplay wise the player gets to say goodbye to the companions they've traveled with for dozens of hours of gameplay and find out where those companions plan to go next. In some cases the player can even be invited along to go on that adventure, their duties permitting.
I tried to keep that spoiler light, but it shows how the basics of the plot are all answered. By keeping those thoughts in mind you can deliver an ending that satisfies. Just remember, and if necessary ask your players, "what is this game about?" and keep that answer in mind as you plan out your ending.