The Big Finish
The Big Finish: ending your game
The shout goes up and everyone cheers and collapses into hugs, eager to tell their friends stories of their epic adventure. But hold on, let’s wind back a few minutes–not far, just a few–how did we get here? Today we’re going to talk about one of the hardest parts of gamewriting: endings.
Like all stories, every game has to end somehow, and there’s an art to it. In this post I’m going to lay out some ideas as to the philosophy of endings, run through the various types of game endings, talk about some common pitfalls to avoid, and give you some practical pointers.
Philosophy of Endings
So what makes a good ending? What makes an ending satisfying? Think of your favorite story climaxes, grand finales. They’re a summation of everything that came before, everything that built up to that point. The hero confronts the villain. The traveler accomplishes their goal. The tragic atoner finds redemption. Endings bring together the themes, setting elements, characters, and goals, combining everything into a grand climax.
The unifying idea underlying all of these endings is that they revolve around two things: choice and change. The protagonists make a choice about some kind of change, and then strive to enact that choice to see the change made manifest–or not! Of course, those ideas run through just about every part of most stories, but the ending is the moment when that choice is forced and the change is determined. This is absolutely true of Wayfinder games, or at least the ones with satisfying conclusions.
“Hold on,” you say, “what are my day camp PCs choosing to change when they defeat Dark Lord Maximus?” In most Intro Games, the villain is the one seeking to change the world (usually by conquering it), and the PCs are making the choice to reject that change and stop it. To enact their choice, they’ll have to confront the villain and prevent them from manifesting their change.
Many game endings are more complex than that, with less literal changes. In advanced games, characters are often fighting each other over different ideas of change. Sometimes they’re changing the world, sometimes they’re changing themselves, sometimes they’re changing others. Often it is only through the act of self-sacrifice (choosing to change oneself) that the players can emerge victorious. Even heroes who seem to emerge from their journey unscathed have had a drastic change of perspective, which is why returning home after an adventure can be so difficult (see: every fairy tale ever). Some games are more about personal change, and others are more about changing the world–both are totally okay, but you should have a clear idea about where in that philosophical spectrum your game falls, and that should be reflected in your game’s final choices.
Games with satisfying endings foreshadow that choice throughout. That might mean telling the PCs up front that they’ll have to choose, or it might mean showing examples of similar choices. It’s important to give an alternative choice, otherwise it’s not really a choice at all, is it? In the case of intro games, that often takes the form of making it clear exactly what the villain’s victory would mean for the world.
It’s also important that the PCs understand their choice. If the players make a choice that they think is right, but then in a twist find out that the choice they made is something totally different, they’ll come away unsatisfied, with a bitter twist in their mouths. It’s possible to do this well if you’re doing it intentionally, but in general you should be pretty explicit with your PCs about the choice they’re making, and its consequences.
What Actually Goes Down
Alright, with all that philosophical mumbo-jumbo out of the way, how does your ending actually play out? What do the PCs actually do? Let’s run through a few different common types of endings.
The Final Battle
Probably the most common ending type! The two sides gather up, give some speeches, then charge and have an epic battle. Last one standing gets to call game! More detail on this later, because there’s a lot to be said about final battles.
Everyone stands in a circle and says some stuff in unison. We joke about these being overdone, but they’re used so much for a reason–they work really well. It allows everyone to participate, it can be beautiful and moving, and it forms a nice parallel to the intention circle we start every game with.
Someone or something has to be rescued! Grab what needs to be grabbed, and get outta dodge. This is often a component of or motivation for a final battle.
EVERYTHING WILL EXPLODE! BOOK IT! This is tricky, because you need to give yourself a set destination to jump to. The docks? The helicopters? The train?
The Philosophy Debate
Let’s choose our fate! This is common when there’s an object of great power, and everyone disagrees on how to use it. These can be important, but often get bogged down in mechanics, bickering, and can be hard to draw to a satisfying conclusion, especially when a single answer has to be reached for the game to conclude.
This is similar to the Debate, but more individual. Some people have to do a thing, and others don’t. Who will step forward? This includes moments like people volunteering to stay behind to guard a tomb forever, using up their lives to power a spell, returning to the human lands, or giving up their magic forever. Each player has to make the choice for themselves.
Someone (or something) messed up! But they now repent, and are offered forgiveness for what they’ve done.
The time has come for us to leave this place, and we will do so. Everyone bids farewell to the world they know (or the world they’re visiting), and gets on the boat/steps through the portal/etc.
The Adventure Continues
We’ve finished this quest, but another awaits! Prepare yourselves, everyone, because we’ve got plenty more work to do. Done poorly, this is an unsatisfying cliffhanger. Done well, this is an exciting open-ended quest hook, that gives the players room to imagine the next chapters of their characters’ lives.
The chained god is unleashed, and everyone is consumed in fire for all eternity! The bomb goes off, and everybody dies! The monsters eat everyone! This ending doesn’t happen very often, but it… does happen. Sometimes intentionally, sometimes less so. It can be really cool, when done well! Last year’s Golden Blade ended this way, but it came about because one PC made a choice based on the way she had changed during the game, so most players came away satisfied.
Something Else Entirely
There are probably more and weirder ways to end a game, that haven’t happened before, or that I just forgot about! Push the limits, experiment!
Bringing it All Together
As you were reading through these, you probably saw your game’s ending in half a dozen of those. That’s totally reasonable! Few games end with just ONE of those endings. To make a good ending, feel free to mix, match, and combine from those. It’s not at all unreasonable to have an ending in which the heroes have an epic final battle with the Big Bad, then after defeating her, take her powers away in a ritual, after which she is redeemed, and the heroes must then depart back to their homeland. Totally reasonable ending.
The important thing is that the elements of your game have led up to this point. The players should feel like they’re using what they’ve learned and accomplished over the course of the game to pull off this finale. If they acquired artifacts, have those be useful in a big ritual! If they got sweet new powers, make them use those to defeat the villains! If they were forced to have intense moral dilemmas, bring those up again at the end!
It’s also vitally important to keep momentum going into and throughout your ending. An ending should be a big rolling climax, that sweeps up the PCs and carries them into a grand finale. If you have big plot twists, reveal them before your ending or after it–but not during. A big twist will cause momentum to grind to a halt as people react, and as information spreads through the PCs. It might seem like a cool idea to have your villain be dramatically unmasked mid-climax, but the reality of it winds up being a little impractical. It’s hard enough getting PCs to focus on their quests, and keeping that focus throughout an ending is even trickier.
The Grand Showdown
On that note, let’s talk about final battles. They happen in most games, but as often as not people don’t put much thought into them. Why not? Make your final battle interesting! Don’t just make it a bunch of people with swords fighting one big tall person with a monster weapon. At the same time, though, an overly complicated final battle can dissolve into incomprehensible chaos, which is just as unpleasant for the PCs. Here are some things to consider as you think about your final battle.
Balance. How big is the villain’s army? How many people have they recruited? Who has more powers? Do you want your PCs to feel like epic heroes rolling in and overwhelming the villains, or should it be a desperate and dangerous contest? Do you want to give your Big Bad unlimited spellslinging and tons of protections to make them a bigger threat? Or would you rather give them more backup to give the PCs more people to fight?
Objectives. Consider giving your PCs specific goals within the larger battle. This can be a fun way to make specific groups feel empowered. Does each PC team have a dedicated enemy they have to overcome? Will all the monsters respawn indefinitely until the Kaiburr Crystal is destroyed? Do the rogues have to smuggle a bomb onto the enemy’s shrine?
Tactics. Are your PCs a rag-tag band of heroes, or are they an army? What about your villains? What kinds of battle plans are the characters to use? If your PCs do have specific objectives going into the final battle, make sure they know exactly what they’re doing and how to do it, in order to avoid more and bigger chaos.
Length. How long do you want your final battle to last? Should it be a brief climax in which the PCs murder the villain? Should it be a long, knock-down drag-out brawl that leaves everyone exhausted? Should it happen in multiple stages, with changing objectives? This winds up mostly being a question of balance, but is still an important consideration on its own.
The End Button. What determines when the battle is over? Is it when the Big Bad falls, or do the last few monsters need to be mopped up? You should make sure there are one or two people who are standing by, ready to yell a lot and gather everyone as the battle reaches its climax. Transitioning into the wrap-up is a place where a lot of final battles lose their momentum.
Now, with all that said–it’s still totally okay for those questions to have simple answers. There’s nothing wrong with ending a game by having the PCs roll in swords drawn, stab the heck out of a person in a black cloak, and then celebrate with a cheesy speech. Of course, if your final battle is PC vs. PC (as occasionally happens with advanced games), then you need to give these questions some very serious thought, especially the last one.
“Hey,” you say, “I have this sweet super complex advanced scenario game, where all my PC teams want totally different things! How do I pull that off?”
Hoo boy, what a big can of worms. LET’S OPEN IT AND DIVE IN.
It is totally possible to write a game with multiple possible endings–it’s even possible to have a bunch of them happen simultaneously! Here’s how you do that. First of all, figure out what each group wants. What do they want to accomplish? What is the change they want to see enacted? Is it a personal change? A political one? A global one? Now, how do they go about accomplishing that? What is the practical way they can achieve their goal in-game? Do they send a message? Perform a ritual? Kill someone? What steps do they need to do to accomplish that?
Once you’ve figure out what your different groups are trying to do, figure out what specific thing they can do to trigger endgame. You generally want to make sure this is something that involves lots of people! A common trick is to have them need a certain number of people to complete their ritual, or need to get everyone to agree on a thing to do something, or kill an entire enemy group to satisfying their blood god. That way you don’t just get a group going off on their own in the woods and calling game.
But hold on, what if they do? What if that’s not the worst thing in the world? It’s actually totally possible to have your different groups have goals that aren’t mutually exclusive. I’ve run games where one group accomplished their goal, decided they were satisfied, and called game for themselves, while the rest of the game did something totally different for the ending. That’s totally fine! It’s up to you to decide if your multiple endings are mutually exclusive.
You do need to make sure that everyone does get SOME kind of ending, though. An easy to make sure this happens is to at some point force everyone to gather at the same place. Maybe each group trying to achieve their ending needs to use the same altar for it. Maybe there’s a crystal that everyone needs, but can only be used once. If you want your groups to fight over whose ending reigns supreme, this can be an effective way to do it.
Branching narratives and multiple ending possibilities are really tricky to juggle, but if done well, it’s one of the most intense ways to empower your PCs. If they feel like they were the ones to bring about the ending of the game–and they’re aware that it actually could’ve gone differently!–they’ll feel awesome afterwards. But of course, then you run the risk of disempowering the PCs who failed to cause their ending. It’s a tricky art, and there’s no one tried-and-true method! Good luck, though.
There are lots of ways to have an unsatisfying ending. The most common one is to just have a lot of people miss the ending! I was once in a game where someone grabbed a few props and ran into the woods with two people, and then came out of the woods five minutes later having called game. Uh, what? Turns out he was secretly the Big Bad in disguise, and had a nuclear bomb waiting in the woods, which he detonated. Well, that was sure thrilling. In order to avoid this, make sure your ending can’t happen unless a large number of PCs are present! Sometimes that can require a bit of silly shoehorning (especially if it results in your villains delaying their ascension ritual indefinitely until the PCs show up to interrupt it), but it’s still necessary.
Another common issue is when the PCs don’t actually understand the ending. This can take a lot of forms! Maybe they don’t get who the Big Bad is. Maybe they don’t really get who they’re supposed to kill in the final battle. Maybe the twist hinges on some big secret that was revealed while they were in the bathroom. Maybe your philosophical choice gets too esoteric and goes over the heads of the ten-year-olds. While some of these aren’t really your fault, you should do everything in your power to spell out the ending for the PCs, both during the leadup to the climax and in the resolution of it. Sometimes that can be a little ham-handed, but better that than the PCs coming away confused and unsatisfied.
It’s also very easy for endings to lose momentum. People get caught up in debating what to do with the crystal, or whether or not to execute the Big Bad for their crimes. Suddenly everyone has an idea about what to do, and people are bickering, and the focus is gone. The best solution to this is to have one or two people whose job it is to make sure things keep moving. Sometimes that means the leader who keeps the discussion moving smoothly and brings things to a consensus… and sometimes that means the angry militant who’s going to get bored of talk real quick and just resort to weapons. Either way, it’s better than just standing around waiting for plot to happen.
A common rookie mistake is to have your ending totally revolve around your SPCs. The PCs sit back and watch while their SPCs beat the evil SPCs! Then the SPC gives a sad speech and dies dramatically and the PCs cry. Okay, sure, cool, but what did the PCs actually do there? Did they fight a few monsters maybe to clear a path? Booo. Make sure the PCs are directly involved, and are the ones making the choice! If you’ve currently got some SPC sacrificing their life/magic to seal the Big Bad, consider–why not have a group of PCs do that instead? Much cooler.
An Ending to Endings
PHEW. That sure was a lot of words about endings! Let’s see if we can sum all that up…
Satisfying endings usually center on a moment of enacting choice in order to manifest or prevent change.
Figure out how to have everything in your game build up to your ending, so it doesn’t just come out of nowhere.
Make sure things keep flowing smoothly and that momentum doesn’t drop as your game ends.
Final battles are crazy and chaotic and awesome! Put some actual thought into how yours goes.
Be sure to think about who actually triggers endgame buttons, and how those play out mechnically.
Ensure that however your game ends, that ending is primarily PC-driven! It’s okay to have SPCs providing guidance, but your PCs, as always, should be doing all the work.
If you’ve done all of those things, sit down, pat yourself on the back, and then hit the submit button on your game! Are there things we left out? Further questions? Our askbox is always open! For now–good gamewriting, friends.
Original post 1/13/15