The beginning of a story is important. The development and the plot twists throughout the middle of a story are important too. But no part of a story can ruin the whole thing as easily as the ending. If everything has been going absolutely perfect in your story, but the ending is lame… all of that work is for nothing. Well, maybe not nothing, but damn near.
That’s why Endgame is so important in any story-driven game. From one-shots to long-term campaigns nothing will cement the overall impact of your game in the minds of the players as the quality of your ending. To raise the stakes even further, in a novel the writer only has to coordinate with herself in order to accomplish the ending she desires. In a game all of the players have to cooperate for the ending to work out well. Since the GM doesn’t have complete control over events, and most importantly – control over the protagonists of the story, the ending is the biggest mystery about the game.
In my opinion this is part of what makes story-driven gaming so compelling. It is similar to novel-writing or other creative endeavors in that the GM gets to lay out a situation and a plot and some major characters, but with a game the ending is a surprise to everyone, even the GM. This gives everyone a strong impetus to keep moving through the storyline to find out how it resolves. On the other hand, surprises can be unpleasant. So there are some tips I would give any GM for how to help boost your chances for a great ending.
First – Get a consensus from all the players about the nature of your game before you ever start playing.
Are you playing a game about triumph over evil? Or slow moral decay? Or descent into insanity? What is the basic nature of the game you are playing? Everyone should agree and want to play that kind of game. They should design characters with a character arc in mind that fits that theme – ie: they should be expecting to go insane if they are playing Call of Cthulu, or they should be expecting to struggle with moral decay if they are playing Vampire. Know what your game is about, that will tell you a lot about how it should end.
Second – Nothing is as important as a satisfying ending for everyone involved.
Typical gaming concerns like verisimilitude, staying in character, the rules and mechanics of the game, or the plans of the GM are all second to making sure the ending is satisfying. It doesn’t matter if your main villain technically has plenty of HP left – if you are on the verge of a disastrous TPK it’s time for the villain to die or your ending will be ruined. This isn’t just the concern of the GM, either. Players need to know and agree that a satisfying ending is more important than other concerns, thus they should set aside what they or their characters want if necessary for the sake of the game. I once ended a campaign as a player by having my wizard obliterate the party with a nasty spell because I was sure it was “what he would do” under the circumstances. It resulted in one player being so angry he eventually left our gaming group. In the middle of a game such a mistake can be salvaged. Players can change to new characters or there can be some kind of reconciliation in the context of the story. During Endgame mistakes like that are permanent.
Third – Take notes from the endings of all your favorite stories and movies.
Quite often, what works in a novel or a movie works in a game. Notice how authors make their endings effective. They use literary techniques like foreshadowing. They build the action to a climax and they let the reader/audience know that the climax is coming by predictable cues. You can get great energy going for your endgame just by letting your players know it is coming and letting the anticipation grow. Save a surprise or two for the end. A common theme in heroic stories is that the hero nearly fails before he finally wins. Make your players anticipate failure, or let them believe they are succeeding and then pull the rug out from under them. Success is most satisfying when it is hard earned, so make your players earn it, but remember the goal is a good ending. Also, notice that a story rarely end with the climax. Give time after a climax for the players and NPC’s to have resolution. Think of the awards scene at the end of Star Wars Episode IV, or when Frodo sails away with the elves. The denoument is nearly as important as the climax. Don’t skip it.
Fourth – Plan thoroughly but don’t railroad your players.
You can’t control the protagonists in a game the way you can in a novel, but hopefully your players are cooperative if you’ve done what I described above. You CAN however control all of the NPC’s, the environment and the events of the world. Make sure you’ve thoroughly thought out how people will respond to what the PC’s do. Try to predict your player’s actions as best as possible and come up with different outcomes for different scenarios. If you have an idea of how you would like it to end, then encourage it in that direction with hooks, NPC advice and generally manipulating the material available to you to make it happen. Don’t however, force your players into an ending that is undesirable to them. The whole point is everyone’s satisfaction. If you set up an ending that the players are happy with they won’t really need prodded at all. They’ll happily jump into it.
More time and energy should probably be spent on Endgame than on almost any other aspect of the story, because of how Endgame can mess up the rest of your work. It’s completely worth it though. Nothing is more fun as a GM than getting to the end of a storyline and having your players sit around afterward talking about how awesome it was.