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…