Satisfactory Conclusions

The recent backlash Mass Effect 3 received has got me thinking about my own gaming.  I had a long conversation with a co-worker today about how the end of Mass Effect left him feeling empty and unsatisfied.  He wanted an ending that tied up all the various plot threads that had come up during the course of the story, he wanted a final scene with his Shepard’s chosen love interest, and he wanted a conclusion that mattered to him.  Instead, he felt like he got, what he described as, writers being too in love with themselves.


There’s a lesson to be gleaned here.  As a DM you have a very select audience and they want you to deliver.  This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t tell the story you want to tell, but, you should tell a story they want to be a part of.  And that includes the climax of the entire thing.  Nothing ruins a great story like a dissatisfying ending.  Imagine if at the end of Star Wars, the Emperor turned out to be just a normal man and Darth Vader never had his redemption.   Imagine if at the end of the Lord of the Rings, Frodo falls into Mt. Doom and the story ends with the ring being destroyed and everything else left in question.  Do you really want to make your players feel this way?


As I’m plotting out my games, I often make note of when a new storyline begins and where the players will be able to conclude it.  In an ideal world, the players will pursue each and every one of these plots themselves.  Each one of these sub-plots will have its own end leading to the grand climax.  While not being the true conclusion, each ending, even small ones (like the death of a long time enemy) will be satisfying and if it isn’t satisfying, it’s not the end.  I’ve written about Black Claw a lot here.  The last the players saw of him was him being crushed by rubble after inexplicably transforming into a hideous monster.  For me to end it like that would be irresponsible.  They haven’t gotten their proper revenge, and the thing inside him hasn’t been fully explained.  Until both those things happen, Black Claw’s story isn’t over.  They’re going to see him again and when they do, they’ll be one step closer to a conclusion we’ll all appreciate.


When I plan the overall arc of a campaign, I have several points I want to hit, the beginning that draws the players in, and an ideal ending.  Sometimes the ending will morph and change in my head as the game goes on, the players’ enemies change, and I get new ideas about the story. For one of my games I’d planned eight endings, each one decided by their failures or successes along the way, one of which was them losing and the entirety of creation being erased.  Right now, I have two possible endings. One good and one ‘bad’.  By bad, I mean the players being bad, not bad things happening to the players.


Whether my players become the paragons of Eberron or the ultimate villains, one thing is guaranteed to them:  when the end of this campaign comes, they won’t be left wanting more.  Mostly so I won’t have to endure them starting a movement for me to change the ending…


A Family Affair

Recently, my Dad asked me to explain Dungeons and Dragons to him.  Since he had no real basis for what D&D is even like, I had to break the game down pretty far.  I gave him the ‘party line’ of D&D being, at its core, a group of people creating a story together.  This wasn’t the first time I’d had this conversation, not even close.  I’ve explained D&D many a time to friends, family, and girlfriends, but this was the first time my father had asked about it.  First time he’d ever really shown an interest in it.  That’s probably why it meant something more than all those other times.  It got me thinking.

One of my players is at a different stage of his life than me.  He has two sons and I can’t deny a certain amount of jealousy.  He’s brought both of his sons down the rabbit hole.  The older one is now our fifth player and the younger one is better than many players I’ve met.  He is currently raising the next generation of D&D players, something I hope to eventually do myself.  To me, D&D has always been a social experience, but maybe someday it could also be a family affair.

I’ve gotten loved ones involved in games before.  The significant other at the table thing never works.  There’s always some sort of favoritism.  It doesn’t matter who at the table is in the relationship, more often than not it can derail the game.  The couple that roleplays together, from my personal experience, has been the exception rather than the rule.  I’ve gamed with a few girlfriends myself.  One annoyed everyone at the table, one just wasn’t into it (and fell asleep, nice right?) and one was only doing it for me.  I think the last was the worst.  I guess it’s just a personal preference, but I like it when everyone at my table is there by choice.

So, I’ve played with friends and girlfriends, but never with family.  It’s strange really.  My uncle used to play, but never really introduced me to the game, never even brought it up.  I didn’t find out he played until I went to college.  I’ll never play with my father, I know this, and I accept it.  It’s not his thing and I can tell he won’t enjoy it.  Maybe someday I’ll teach my own children, but only if they really want to learn.

I think the most important thing I’ve taken from these musings is that you can’t force anyone to love D&D.  Not everyone is going to want to play, despite the fact that everyone should play this game at some point in their lives, and not everyone will enjoy it.  I guess the best advice I can give for bringing a loved one into D&D is not to thrust it upon them.  Let them ask you to try it, let them play on their terms, and most importantly, let them decide on their own if they like it.

‘I Have a Thing for Airships’

During the last session, I gave my players their first taste of airship combat.  One of the things that drew me to Eberron is the amount of vehicles and places that can be used as locations for interesting and intricate encounters.  These are the kind of set pieces that are so interesting that they become characters in and of themselves.   Trains and airships are both viable settings for adventures.  I’ve used trains before to great effect.  I’ve had players dueling enemies on top of the lightning rail as it speeds toward its destination.    My players have found themselves on an airship called The Brokenhearted, which is flown by the smuggler Koulton Brightwind.

They met Koulton when they arrived in the Lhazaar Principalities looking for passage to Xen’drik.  Koulton, a wanted man, agreed to help them in exchange for a hefty smuggling contract.  This gave them access to an airship, access I immediately revoked when their ship was shot down by Lyrandar airships.  But not before some serious ship to ship combat.

For the encounters that followed I used reflavored monsters with flight or special movement abilities to represent the Lyrandar boarding parties.  The players were given a ballista to fire at the enemy ships.  These encounters taught me several things that I’ll put into place when they see more airship combat.  One thing is that the weapons on the airship should be useful against enemies on the deck.  The players wanted to try and shoot an enemy at one point but didn’t, fearing they would damage their own ship too much.  Another is to reward the players for trying to throw enemies from the ship.  I was reluctant to let that go too far with these fights (they were fighting elites and I wanted the fight to last) but with future fights, I’ll be sure to allow these things to happen, and reward them.  A final lesson was that players respond to familiar terrain.  More than one combat on the same map gives them a sense of familiarity and they start to do more interesting things with the terrain available them.  Familiarity breeds a sense of ownership for them and this can be enhanced when I play the monsters as not having the familiarity they have or I have as the DM.

So, with all these upsides, why would any good and just DM take their new airship away?  Well it wasn’t their airship.  Not yet.  By taking the ship from them and destroying, I give them the chance to rebuild it.  The ship, when rebuilt with their input, will truly be theirs.  They’ll have a base of operations for future adventure (which make or may not take place across the entire game world) and will give them something they may have to defend in the future.  It gives me options to expand the story, gives them options to expand their characters (I assume each character will eventually have their own room on the ship) and it gives them something they feel they earned.  Something that’s truly theirs.

I Noticed Your Party Has No Wizard

Sometimes, after you’ve started a regular campaign, your players tell you ‘hey, we have this friend…’  It’s that unavoidable moment in every D&D game where you have to add another player.  This can either be a great time that expands and enriches you game or it can be a huge pain in the ass.  Sometimes it just ends up feeling unnatural and forced.

We recently added a new character to our group.  Rob’s son joined us, playing as the elf druid Losdrides.  He had sat in on one of our games (the first game since the three TPKs in a row) and crafted a backstory that fit into the theme and goals of the campaign.  And I, wanting to make the story make sense from a literary sense, put the characters in a situation where his character would make an immediate impact.  All in all, between the two of us, we made a situation that didn’t feel forced on the other players.

Here are some tips to help you make the best of adding new players:

  • Don’t feel bad saying no.  If you can’t fit them in, you don’t like the person, or one your players doesn’t like them, don’t do it.  Don’t add someone just because you feel you have to, add them because you genuinely want to hang out with this person.  Always remember, a campaign is a heavy time investment, and you’re going to be spending a lot of time with the people you play with.
  • Don’t feel bad saying not yet.  You want to add the person, the group wants to play with them, they’ve made a character and written their backstory, but there’s one problem, the characters are currently miles underground in a series of tombs.  Should you add the new player?  Only if it’d make sense.  Adding a player where it wouldn’t fit in a narrative sense can quickly make things feel forced and iffy.  However, adding a new character where it would make sense or enhance the story can make for a more rewarding experience.
  • Put the new player in the limelight immediately.  In shows and literature, a new character will show up and make an immediate impact on the narrative, making this happen in your game will make the character more imbedded in the ongoing story.  You can do this by putting them in a situation tailored to the new character, an adventure based on their backstory, or an encounter that plays to their strength.  Right now my players are in Arenal, the elven continent, and the new player, the elf, has to do all the talking.
  • It doesn’t hurt to have them there before they start playing.  This one isn’t necessary, but it will help a lot.  By having the new player there, before they start playing they are able to get an idea of what the group needs, how the game plays out week to week, and what tone the campaign has.  This leads to a character who fits into the ongoing narrative much smoother than someone coming in with no prior knowledge.

So don’t fret over new people.  As with most things in RPGs, with the proper forethought and planning, it will always enhance your game.