We’ve all been there: The game is going gangbusters, but it’s getting late. People have work or school in the morning, and you have to stop soon — even though the adventure isn’t over.
Before my baby daughter Lark was in the picture, I was up for gaming until two or three in the morning on Saturday nights. I could sleep in the next day without any worries, so quitting time didn’t really matter. These days? I need my sleep.
So what do you do when you’re faced with stopping at a less than ideal point in the adventure? You’ve essentially got seven options — some good, some bad; some easy, some a bit trickier to pull off.
1. OK, We’re Done
The simplest option isn’t the best one: You just stop right where you are, regardless of where that is — even mid-combat.
Except in emergencies, there’s almost no value in going this route. Don’t stop cold unless you absolutely have to.
2. Play Until the Bitter End
Just forging ahead until the end of the adventure is another non-starter — it’s just not realistic for a lot of groups. Don’t do this.
Gaming rocks, but real-world obligations — which tend to require sleep — take precedence.
3. Try to Reach the Next Stopping Point
This is the most common approach, and it’s usually the easiest option. Think ahead to what you have planned for the rest of the adventure, and consider whether there’s a potential stopping point ahead — bearing in mind that it won’t be perfect.
As a GM, I generally find my players are OK with this; as a player, I’ll suck it up and push a little past bedtime if it gets us to a better stopping point.
4. Give Your Players Options
If I don’t see a second-choice stopping point on the horizon, I call a quick break and present my players with some options: “We can stop right now, which would sort of suck. You might finish this scene quickly, which would put us at a good stopping point — or we could go for another hour and hit a great break point. What do you think?”
Usually we wind up doing #3 (trying to reach the next stopping point), but sometimes everyone grabs a drink, gets their second wind, and we press on longer to reach a more ideal conclusion.
5. Keeping Playing, But Short-Handed
I’d do this after #4 (giving your players options). If only one person needs to call it a night, you might be able to play to a good stopping point with the rest of your group.
As a rule of thumb, if half or more of your players need to go, call it a night. This is a definitely a compromise, and less than ideal all around — but then again, so are all of these options.
6. Juggle Things On the Fly
If you’re quick on your feet, you can fiddle with things behind the scenes to bring a good stopping point into range — especially in combat. In a game with long, involved battles (like the two most recent editions of D&D), this might be your best option if you find yourself needing to stop mid-combat.
A D&D example: The party is facing several enemies, and you’d estimate that they’re about halfway through a two-hour battle — too long to keep going, but a shitty stopping point. Stop now, and no one will remember where you were next time.
You know how many hit points the monsters have — but your players don’t. Scratch off half of each mob’s HP, and you’ve shaved off some valuable time. Or have several monsters lose morale and make a run for it, thinning the ranks. Or add a vulnerability to an attack the PCs haven’t tried yet, allowing them to blast away most of the opposition with one good shot.
The key is a) not to make it obvious what you did, and b) to make sure the battle is still fun. A hard-fought combat that suddenly becomes a cakewalk is going to leave a bad taste in your players’ mouths.
7. Chop Goes the Weasel
Think about what comes next — can you ditch it without screwing up the whole adventure? And if you do, will you reach a good stopping point? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, do it.
This works best if you plan out your scenes in advance, but don’t have rigid connections between them — and if you use Island Design Theory, so much the better.
You can even do things like folding together two NPCs (the PCs won’t meet the countess now, so her political connections get transferred to the duke who appears in the next scene), or cutting out a scene and re-inserting it at a later point (so you don’t waste your prep work).
Needing to stop before the end of an adventure is never going to be a great option, but it’s a situation nearly every GM will face at some point.
The key to making the best of it is to use an approach that works for your group, and that takes into account everyone’s enjoyment of the game as well as their real-world obligations.
What techniques do you use in this situation?
If there isn’t a sensible break point coming up, and I can see it’s almost time to stop, I’ll try and get things timed nicely so that it ends on a cliffhanger — a startling revelation from an NPC, the realisation that the PCs have walked into an ambush, or whatever. Then I’ll slam my rulebook shut with the words “And I’m going to stop there. Don’t miss the next exciting episode…” At which point everyone will groan and start recriminations about whose fault it was they never saw that coming, and those who need to rush off to catch the last bus home can start gathering their belongings together.
I am going to add an Eighth option, but it only works with narrative scenes and not for combat.
Option #8: Take It Online
If you are in a narrative scene, and you need to wrap your game for the night, agree to pick up the narrative thread online. The discussion between the PC’s and their NPC patron can occur online, and in some cases will result in a longer conversation since there is no pressure to wrap it up and get to the next combat.
This is also a great option, if the players are about to plan some kind of heist or ambush. By stopping the play at the table, and moving it online, the players have much more time to discuss things.
Again, this won’t solve the problem if you are in the middle of combat.
If I think the group can finish an encounter with an extra 30 minutes of play, then I usually try to let things roll along towards a more natural breaking point. If not, then cliffhangers are a great way to delay the start of a combat encounter. Not only does it create suspense and anticipation for the next session, but it allows the next session to open with excitement. It works more often than not.
I think that ending right in the middle of a combat encounter is about as bad a way to wrap up a session as it gets. Why? Because it is awfully hard to remember what happened the session before, particularly in fiddly details about a specific fight. And lord help you if the GM lost his notes concerning intitiative order and what the status of everything was when you ended off.
In our midweek roleplay we always stop between 11 and 12. so I know that around 11 i have to start working towards a stopping point. the good thing is that I know when I’m writing my adventures, that they will nog be played out in one session, so I write in stopping points from the start.
How about this option for when you are in mid combat: Overtime Rules!
Have a modified version of the combat rules such that everything goes faster. A simple idea: double damage on all hits, monsters included.
In fact, as a side note, I’ve been tempted to speed up all 4E D&D games by halving monster (but not players) hit points and doubling the damage they do. Warning: I have not had a chance to test out this probably oversimplified scenario. This also assumes that most monsters will still take a few hits to knock down even at this rate.
I like most of the above options, but my problem is a little different. We play on Friday nights, and the week of work can leave a few players exhausted. While they’re game for a while, they often start drifting– though at unpredictable times.
We’ll often continue for a while per #5 (short handed, semi-ignoring the snoozing person), but it’s really lackluster. It’s very hard to plan for, since there are nights everyone’s good for playing past 1 am, while other nights players start dropping as early as 9 pm. Having someone asleep really makes struggling on to the next good stopping point (#3) tough– particularly if their character’s necessary before the next stopping point.
Other than “make your game more interesting” 😉 what’s a good way to deal with the situation?
But we can’t quit now. We have only one … more … room to go! 🙂
I try to avoid this issue by asking up front: “Does anyone have issues playing past X o’clock?” If the answer is yes, I’ll keep that in mind and aim short of that (knowing that we’d go over if I aimed for the exact time).
Something else that can be done is to end a bit earlier, at a good stopping point (it makes sense, it’s a cliffhanger, whatever) and do a recap or receive feedback (and give feedback).
For instance, in Burning Wheel, we’d stop even earlier than planned for and do a small Trait vote or alter Beliefs and Instincts based on recent occurences in-game. Those sorts of things give you an additional time buffer so it isn’t GO-STOP!.
A lot of RPGs have other mechanisms in the game that can be used to fill in a bit of time if needed. Those sorts of things help you hit a good point to end the session, allows a bit of necessary “book-keeping” and also stops you from spilling into overtime.
It really depends on the game. With D&D I never have a problem calling at the end of a fight or in the middle of the plot. Usually I can time it well enough so that I don’t have to. When I run Call of Cthulhu, we always end up playing through to the bitter end at 2AM. It’s hard to tell how long a CoC game will take before you start playing it and breaking in the middle really wrecks the feel.
@LesInk – OK, that approach I’ve never heard of — what a cool idea!
@Scott Martin – We have that problem in my group, too (maybe in all groups). I’m usually the problem, though it’s not ALWAYS me asleep at the wheel. 😉 I have no idea how to handle this — Island Design Theory, maybe?
@Rafe – I’d never considered stopping sooner and padding things with something less involved — that’s an excellent idea!