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Lessons From The Long Campaign: Never Write The Ending

In my first installment of the Lessons From The Long Campaign: Setting Up An Epic Campaign [1], I was asked by my fellow Gnome, Telas, how much I had to “Railroad” [2] my players through the campaign.  My answer was very little, because during the course of the campaign, I adopted a philosophy of never writing the ending to a scene.   In this installment of Lessons from the Long Campaign, I am going to talk about now not to write endings to your scenes, and to use that lack of an ending to empower your players to guide your campaign.

You set the pace, push the characters into conflict and crisis, and describe the consequences of their decisions. […] For instance, it’s never the GM’s job to plan what’ll happen.

Dogs in the Vineyard – Core book (lumpley games, 2004)

This quote was my personal inspiration for abandoning the ending to my scenes.   In past campaigns, I would set up the scene, then I would write how the scene should end, and then later, run the game.  For a while, I thought that I was a pretty good judge of my players, as we always seemed to get to the ending that I wrote.  The truth was, that with the ending written in my session notes, I was subconsciously steering the players towards the ending, by the way I described things, my rule decisions, and my use of NPC’s.

When done improperly, your players will feel railroaded, and you will convey to the players a lack of creative input; in that their actions have little bearing on the outcome of the scene.  When done correctly, the players hardly notice your skillful steering of the plot.  The downside is that as a GM, there is no excitement; no uncertainty, when you guide the outcome of the scene.  In someways the GM might as well be reading a story to the player.

So all you improv GM’s know all about this.  You guys who hardly write any session notes, prep your game a half-hour before your players show up, and then run 4 hours of a game off the cuff, you are not going to be surprised, at what I am going to say.   For the rest of us, and I will call us Structured GM’s (don’t read too much into the name), we walk a fine line between running the story we have written and railroading the players through our story.  For my Structured brothers and sisters, I am here to talk about something you can do, to inject a little freedom into your games, while maintaining your more structured elements.

Leaving The Door Open

What I liked about the quote from DitV, was that it freed me from, what was often, the most difficult part of writing my scenes; that was I did not have to worry about figuring out what the players should do, but rather put the fate of the scene into their hands, and just play off of it.   When I write scenes for my campaign now, I write up how the scene opens, I write what events occur in the course of the scene.  I do not write how the events will or should play out in the scene.   I do include a single line at the end of the scene notes, that defines what will close the scene out, and lead us to the next scene.   Here is an example from my campaign:

That’s all I wrote for the scene.  Honestly, when I ran the scene, I had no idea if the players would kill the fiend or not.  During the course of the scene, inspired by some of the players actions, the Fiend turns out to be sympathetic to the humans and shows an interest in the human’s religion.  The heroes, after some debate, decide to let the fiend live, and to help him covert to their religion.  Fast forward several sessions, and the young fiend returns to his Demon controlled city, where his new found faith is used to create an underground movement that helps the humans take the city.

The scene turned to be a big turning point in my campaign, and the only reason that it came to be, was because I did not have a preconceived ending in mind.   The scene was not total improv, it had structure, but only enough to set the stage, not to dictate how it would end.

From Scene To Arc

I also applied the same technique to the overall story arcs of the game.  During the course of the campaign, I had seeded a number of goals that the players would have to achieve before they were ready to combat the Demon King. Each of these things were their own 3-4 session story arc.  It would have been easy to just string the arcs in a logical progression, from one to the next, and lead the players through them, but I wanted to carry on that freedom to my players, that I had given them at the scene level.

What I did instead, was towards the end of the arc I was currently running, I would ask the players what they wanted to do next.  We would review the existing list of goals that were outstanding, including various plot hooks, and clues that the players had uncovered, but did not have time to follow.  The group, without my input, would come to a decision on what they wanted to do next.  I would then get started coming up with the notes for that arc.

It was quite liberating not to have to structure so much of the campaign.  Sure I knew the goal of each arc, but by not forcing any order to how they had to be completed, I was able to be surprised by what they players decided where their priorities.   For me as the GM, there was an element of uncertainty that would arise in the campaign, as the players made their choices.

For the players, it deepened their investment in the overall story.  Rather than some baron handing them a quest each week, the arcs they played were based on their decisions, and played out at the time when they thought they were the most important.  At times, the players had differing opinions of what arc should be next, and they would negotiate and bargain with one another in order to reach a decision.  It made for some great PC to PC interactions during sessions and between sessions.

Some Structured Unstructuredness

I would be remiss in not covering some skills that make this style of running scenes and campaigns work well.

Lesson Learned

As a Structured GM, letting go of the ending of my scenes was one of the most exciting things I had done in some time.  It was the GMing equivalent of letting go of the handle bars of your bike the first time.  There is a rush in the freedom of being a bit out of control.  But like letting go of your handle bars, you can reach out and grab them if you start to wobble, and put the bike back on the path.

Letting go of the ending of your scenes and your story arcs also empower your players, giving them a true impact in the course of the events that surround their characters.  They will reward you for your trust, by keeping your game exciting and unpredictable.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Lessons From The Long Campaign: Never Write The Ending"

#1 Comment By Fang Langford On September 26, 2008 @ 8:33 am

Very well said! I do much the same as you said and with Improv GMs, it’s nothing new.

I do have one suggestion. A common problem GMs have are players who do not aggressively chew up their content. Worse, there are cases of players who take their characters and hide in ‘the bunker’.

Most GMs don’t know what to do with these. Solutions include motivating them (like using a hot poker) and destroying the bunker. I think those approaches tend to embattle players.

I usually try a different tack. One approach involves ‘opening up’ a direction for them that makes their defenses irrelevant, not impotent. For example, for heavy physical defenses, open an emotionally engaging direction.

You can also use bait. Not bait and switch, but real bait. And when they can’t resist and take it, do nothing. Let them have it. I’m a big proponent of the ‘give them enough rope…’ school of gamemastering; this goes great with consequences (like above), if you delay it nicely.

May favorite by far is the catastrophe. Look carefully at what the players have built up. Let them keep it. Now look for what the players think they can count on (but not in their backgrounds or properties). Pick one of those things and make a profound change in it. While destroying it is the simplest, it’s also the most boring. When you change things the players take for granted, you don’t make them do what you want; you make them just do something, anything.

And that’s how you create action for the above.

Fang Langford
Creator of [7]

#2 Comment By Virgil Vansant On September 26, 2008 @ 9:10 am

I had set up a great battle between the PCs and a villain. They had been after the villain for the longest time. They talked in and out of character about how they can’t wait to finally get their hands on him and defeat him. When all the pieces were in place, and the party found a way to get the upper hand in a fight, one player decided to instead talk to the villain.

In hindsight, it made sense, but I was surprised at first. I think the rest of the players were, too. I paused, considered the consequences, and then we went with it. And now this villain has become an unwilling ally against an even bigger villain and the first villain’s former leader. The party sees it as a necessary evil to work together.

It’s just one of the many things I never planned on happening. But I’m glad it did, now. Not only is it giving us all some great role-playing possibilities, it takes a character I was planning on getting rid of as just a minor villain and gives him a larger role. Once his former leader is out of the picture, he might just step up to take his place and become a bigger thorn in the party’s side…

#3 Comment By TerraNova On September 26, 2008 @ 9:59 am

I could not agree less to this post. Call me a tyrant, an armchair dictator, “no fun” or worst of all: old fashioned. It will not change one bit of the most important lesson in GMing i ever learned: Do not ever attempt to put the reigns away. They have been given to your of a reason, and that reason is that one person needs to have a high-level view of what is going on, where it is going, and what the whole point to it is.

I agree that it is very tempting to abuse that power. I have done so, and always the campaigns suffered for it. But consider in analogy a book. How many of these do you find with more than three names on the spine? Few, and most of those are the technical kind you do not read for enjoyment. As the GM you are the author of the heroic tale of the PCs, and this is a big responsibility.

Now, if I were to follow your advise, and never write the ending to the scene, then the PCs would without a doubt enjoy the scene a bit more. How much more is open to discussion, of course, but they would feel more in control than if they knew that there only is a set number of resolutions you planned ahead. Yet, and more importantly, they would probably enjoy the next scene much less. Why? Simply because the GM had no way of preparing it. No well-thought-out NPCs, no rich descriptions, no interesting dilemma. Now, there might be better GMs than me, who can come up with such rich texture on the fly, and pull off a competent and interesting plot without giving it a thought beforehand. I know i tried the same thing. It ended very poorly, with interchangeable stereotypes for NPCs. It usually degenerated into plots that could be solved by waiting until the GM lost patience and solved it for the group.

Interestingly enough, the very freedom the group enjoyed was to the detriment of player interest. No player was really involved, because each featured that the GM would not “start railroading” by enforcing some consequences, and every call of “no, NPC X does not suddenly fall in love with you after you made a few rude remarks” was likewise caught into question. After a while, the sessions degenerated into destruction of large amounts of snack food with occasional roleplay attempts.

All that i have written assumes a “long-running” campaign with the kind of players i usually have. Better players or better GMs might be more successful to this technique. Other media (PbP games to just name one) might be more suited due to longer message times, and more thought into each utterance.

#4 Comment By Rafe On September 26, 2008 @ 10:06 am

Letting go is certainly an issue of mine. I like the story element and often get too caught up in the idea that it’s my story, when it’s the players’ story. I’m just a guide for it.

Consequences are absolutely vital. If the consequences don’t change between performing X vs. Y, the players will feel that their choices don’t matter and will start to lose interest in the story elements and making key decisions.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On September 26, 2008 @ 10:50 am

I like the scene outline you wrote. Did you write it on a 3×5 card, carry it around mentally, or what? How did you organize your potential scenes? Were you able to avoid overwriting successor scenes, or did you have a next scene sketch for each of the closing scene options?

I envy your ability to Pause Before You Act; I often get carried away by the enthusiasm of the players and the lure of “what’s next?” The whole article’s great advice for easing into slightly less structured play– I hope that anyone who is interested in giving it a try sees your post.

#6 Comment By draugen On September 26, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

While I’m firmly in the improv-heavy camp, this seems like a very good model to plan scenes in. might just steal that myself 🙂

and the bit about actions having consequences is very true – my players have been forced into owing both of the two rivalling gangs in my urban campaign a large favor by their actions (they did get a crapton of cool magic shit as compensation though).

#7 Comment By Scott On September 27, 2008 @ 12:25 am

I’ve always been fond of this style. I’ve seen too many GMs who treat the game as though it were a novel, or who feel that it’s entirely their responsibility to entertain the players. I did both, myself, when I was starting out.

Letting the players have some freedom and learning to improvise has been nothing but good for my game.

I like the way you laid out your scene… might steal that for some index-card goodness.

#8 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On September 29, 2008 @ 8:16 am

The reason you’re reaching the conclusion you are with the givens you have (IMO) is because you’re still approaching the game with the mindset of the plot-oriented GM. When you design a scene or situation or area for a plot or for a free-form event, you do so very differently.

When you’re designing for a plot, you more or less write a story. You say: The players go here. Then this happens. Then this guy says this… yadda yadda.
Your prep work is focused on the areas in which you know the PCs will be, and you prep those areas throughly because you know exactly what will occur in each area, with each NPC, etc…

When you’re designing more free-form, you instead prep a lot more things, but prep them all less intensively. If you’re preping a castle, you’ll have to toss a note on your map “This is the kitchen/pantry” because even though the players wouldn’t see it in your scripted version, if you let them, maybe the players will disguise themselves as waiters so they can infiltrate the banquet being held and get to the evil Grand Visier. Who knows? However, this prep more or less balances out because there’s a lot less plot, if-thens, and canned dialog to write. When the game actually goes down, you have a list of lightly detailed locations/clues/items/NPCs, and every time the PCs or the NPCs make a move, you take a look at the characters on the board (under your control) and say “Who is aware of that action? What is their reaction to it?” and that’s what happens.

So your fears that your game will suck as soon as your PCs “jump the rails” is founded only so long as you try to run free-form games while prepping for a linear game.

#9 Comment By Eclipse On September 30, 2008 @ 4:43 pm

I agree this is the best way to run, and play, a campaign. Unfortunately, this also seems to be one of the hardest ways to run a serious game, as it takes a lot of prep to have a wide range of information available, even if most of it is general, in case the players do one thing or the other.

The upside is, most of this work is done upfront, and once the campaign starts, you can just dive in and enjoy. Of course, some things will still need to be updated, tweaked, and reworked depending on what the players do and any new ideas that come up will also need to find a way in when appropriate, but all the heavy lifting is done ahead of time.

#10 Comment By kiel223 On June 2, 2009 @ 10:55 pm

Great post 🙂
The most enjoyable games in my opinion are those that develop major aspects of the storyline during play– where all actions taken by both PCs and NPCs have consequences which affect the future of the gameworld. Sure, some of these consequences will be trivial, but others will affect the world and its inhabitants in such a meaningful way that the players will (hopefully) really get into the game. And that’s what it’s all about isn’t it? Why we play games– Entertainment, fulfillment and satisfaction…

I love the example scene notes you offered here– It’s a great way to breakdown the core elements of a scene whilst keeping it open-ended, thus letting the PCs make decisions and take actions that will spawn consequences and affect the future of the story.

I’m still very new to GMing and have a lot to learn (and practice!). I’ve always been a fan of the open-ended approach, but I began in a much more improvisational way: In the first (short) campaign I ran, the group consisted of only myself and one other player; so the story had a single protagonist (which I think gave it different dynamics to campaigns with more PCs).

Before each session I had a few ideas as to what was happening in the gameworld at the time, and not much more than that. (Hmm.. true improv GMing I guess!)
However as the session tally crept higher, I began prepping a bit more before sessions.
I began the entire campaign by setting the very first scene, dropping an NPC in there and allowing the PC to interact with his environment. This worked (IMO) reasonably well; mainly because the PC’s player was so enthusiastic about roleplaying the character.
I did find myself flailing through parts of each session, stalling all too frequently to allow myself to think of things on the spot.

After the first scene however, I began doing some prep between sessions– mainly looking through session notes to find all of the current loose ends, and brainstorm possible explanations, NPC motivations, etc.
After the final session, I was pretty happy with how it all turned out, and the feedback I received from the player was positive, but I now feel that the campaign could have been richer if I’d put a bit more thought into potential scenes before-hand.

(Wow, long post– sorry!)

#11 Comment By Old Prof. Otter On May 15, 2010 @ 5:25 pm

I am an old improv GM. This whole thing is fascinating. Structure? Who knew?
The game I am involved in has one of the oldest and likely the most experienced GMs around (since 1976?). We only get about 3 or 4 hrs a month these days though. Too many adult conficts, too little time.
Well, we have goals in some of her games. And what we do is strictly up to us. She runs several campaigns, depending on who shows up. (I love the LoA magic system.) But she does hand us choices, and consequences. I do not feel railroaded, nor is any choice all too likely.
Example of flavor:
In the viking campaign my troll character is going back with a load of wood (and some of the vikings) to Iceland, my Otter char is feeling a bit blue with meeting his raft/clan and still being banished, so he will continue to work with the vikings when they build a summer home for Hel. That was a goal of the campaign, as well as the multiple session diversion of getting wood from Newfoundland area. I have to build a mythology for the Otters, as they were not a race that was originally placed in her game. As a consequence, we met and fought some ‘bad’ otters, and I had to endure great pain (never again!) to win that battle. I have worked with some nasty magic users that the vikings picked up, and now have an increasing dislike of them and their magic. They are thralls of my friend the raven shape changing witch — another thing that was not in the original campaign. So there has been some flexibility as to what can be done (almost anything, with consequences), and yet the campaign has goals, and we have to fulfill them. Getting Hel mad at us is just not going to happen, as that would make ‘bad karma’ seem too small a word.

Ok that shows some of the favor/flexibility/goal oriented behavior. Lee does some prep between sessions, she stopped one so that she could look up a vocabulary in the languages of the tribes that we would likely meet. She is not totally improv, there is a campaign goal. But the characters (with her NPCs have the run of the campaign area.

I hope this is relevant to this discussion.

#12 Comment By Old Prof. Otter On May 15, 2010 @ 5:31 pm

A huge amount of this can apply to writing. Some writers meander their way through a story, some outline every detail before the story is written. The first can write themselves into a corner, the second can stifle innovation and creativity.
(see recent comment by Ursula Vernon in her webcomic Digger for both the planned, the corner, and the escape from that writing trap: [8])

#13 Comment By Old Prof. Otter On May 15, 2010 @ 5:33 pm

Sorry for all the post scripts.
Much of this is an update on an old discussion: