By Dru Pagliassotti
The hardest part of a story to write is the last line—and the hardest scene to run in an adventure is the closing scene. Unlike a story or a show, you can’t just end with a one-liner and roll the credits.
By the time you end the adventure, it’s often quite late and the players are starting to yawn … or they won’t stop talking and end up dragging the closing scene out interminably … or the whole scene is an anticlimax after the thrilling showdown and the characters just want to spend their awards and get healed. What can you do? Well, sometimes you can spice up that ending with a little bang to wake the players up, or shut them up, or bring them back to the problem at hand.
There are approximately five ways a successful ending scene can play out (if the adventure was unsuccessful, it’s another story, which I address in “You Win Some, You Lose Some”).
And They All Lived…: The most common ending is the simplest. Hands are shaken, the reward is collected, the booty is split, the characters go on shopping sprees, the end. This ending is the Old Reliable for one-shot adventures, although it’s also pretty standard in campaigns. And, in truth, it’s a nice, solid ending. Probably 80 to 90 percent of your successful adventures should end like this—nice and straightforward and satisfying.
Wrapping Up The Loose Ends: Often an adventure leaves the loose ends dangling—escaped villains, destitute victims, potential romantic interests. You may want to let the loose ends hang so you can tie them into another adventure, but you can also use the ending scene to wrap them up. Perhaps the escaped villain attacks the characters as they’re collecting their pay; or the victims show up on the characters’ doorsteps, begging for a handout to rebuild their burnt farms; or the romantic interest makes his or her feelings known at last, or is spirited off by a jealous lover or angry parent.
The GM can often predict what elements are likely to remain unresolved by the end of the game and should be ready to call them to the characters’ attention. Wrapping up a loose end doesn’t necessarily mean that the NPC can’t be used again to start an adventure—it just gives the players some extra closure on the adventure.
But Wait, There’s More! Sometimes one adventure can dovetail into another—this is common in mini-campaigns made up of a number of different adventures all leading up to an overarching main goal—but it can also be used in a normal campaign when one adventure clearly leads to further work. The GM can foreshadow the next adventure during the closing scene, letting players know what’s to come in the next session.
Some campaigns, like AD&D’s Al Qadim, were set up like this on purpose—AQ was deliberately created to permit the multiple embedding of adventures within adventures, emulating the famous tales of 1,001 nights. The players set off on adventure one, meet someone who drags them into adventure two, are forced to sidetrek into adventure three, complete adventure three and go back to adventure two, complete adventure two and go back to adventure one … and so on. This can be fun for a while, but players want resolution eventually, so don’t drag it on too long.
Unforseen Consequences: So, the mission seemed straightforward enough to the characters. They took it, completed it, and divvied up the rewards. But what if there’s something they hadn’t anticipated? What if their actions cause an economic collapse in a nation that is then invaded, and war commences? Or there’s a power vacuum after the villain dies, and somebody worse takes the villain’s place? Or the characters suddenly become famous and can’t get a moment’s rest because the media are clamoring at their doors, asking for interviews, and screwballs are claiming to be the characters’ long-lost lovers or suing for imaginary damages? Complexity theory shows that the smallest actions can have great effects on society, and most adventurers’ actions are far from small.
To work out an unforseen consequences ending, the GM should take a moment to consider the long-term, wide-ranging effects on the area caused by the adventure’s success. How will the ecology be affected if the local dragon nest is eradicated? How will the economy be affected if the market is flooded with smuggled diamonds? How will the global organization of terrorism be affected if the leading terrorist cabal is closed down? How many different groups have an interest in the local ecology, economy, or sociopolitical organization of the area? Will they fight each other for control? Who will that fight affect as they struggle to take over an area or fill a power vacuum?
In this ending scene, the characters should open a newspaper or hear some sort of report about the consequences, and realize (ideally, with horror) that those consequences were caused by their actions. This puts a little darker shade on the adventure that isn’t appropriate for most games (cyberpunk may be an exception), but if judiciously applied once or twice in a campaign, it can have great effect.
Mwa-ha-ha: Another ending to use sparingly is the doublecross or frame ending. There are a variety of ways this ending can play out, but in all cases, it’s bad for the players.
The easiest is to stiff the adventurers on their pay—they show up at the office where they were to collect their reward, only to discover an abandoned building showing no sign of former occupancy, or another business there that has never heard of their employer and claims to have moved into an empty office.
Another doublecross is to give the adventurers the reward but to make it hot—and then have the double-crossing employer tip off the local authorities. The authorities will arrest the characters and the employer will have, of course, an ironclad alibi when the characters try to blame him (or her). This works especially well if (1) the adventure had been particularly dangerous, and (2) it can be subtly revealed that the employer is related to an old archenemy of the characters who had been arrested or killed many adventures ago. The employer had hoped the adventure would kill the characters, but when it didn’t, s/he had a back-up plan.
A third doublecross is for the adventurers to perform a variety of duties for an apparently honest employer and later to discover that they’ve been working for a villain—a disguised demon, perhaps, or a famous thief, or a terrorist. The innocent adventures they’ve been sent on might have all had secret but horrible unforseen consequences or turn out to have been mere distractions for the authorities or ways of getting meddling adventurers out of town while the real diabolical plot was carried out elsewhere.
All of these doublecrosses—and the many others you’ll be able to think of now—are nasty tricks to pull on the characters. They shouldn’t be run more than once each, and generally not often at all, unless your campaign is particularly dark and nasty. Remember, if the game isn’t rewarding, the players will eventually stop showing up!
As a general rule, 80 to 90 percent of the endings to a successful adventure should be straightforward. The adventurers should be able to collect their rewards and go off to enjoy themselves. But don’t forget to add a little variety every eight or ten adventures! Different ending scenes tend to give the players a greater sense of the complexity of your world … and make the characters a lot more paranoid. And a paranoid character is a surviving character, right?