Should you forewarn your players of campaign endings or should you keep them a surprise?
It’s never occurred to me not to forewarn my players when the end of a campaign is imminent, even if it’s just a quick announcement at the beginning of the session. I’d always felt that it gave the characters a chance to pull out all the stops for a glorious finale and give the players a chance to wrap up dangling threads or accomplish something they’d wanted to do before the campaign ended. It just seemed like a good plan.
Still, there are times when I wonder if it wouldn’t be fun to keep the players in the dark until the curtain fell. Why should they approach the final conflict any differently than the previous ones? Why should a PC suddenly feel the urge to sacrifice herself for her friends in the final battle, when she never would have if she knew further adventures awaited? Why should a player have foreknowledge of the end when spending the last of his XP?
The answer is obvious; most of the time we’re looking for a dramatic finale, and things like heroic sacrifice and throwing everything one has at a final enemy makes for a thrilling conclusion. One can make the argument that, on a meta level, knowing that the campaign is marching forward encourages players to make conservative decisions and a finale frees them to play their characters as they should have been all along.
That said one can also make an argument in the other direction. If the characters have been playing a certain way all along then it’s ‘in character’ to expect them to do so for the final encounter. Keeping the ending secret preserves that play style; they win or lose based on how they’ve been playing all along.
As with most things, there’s also a ‘third way,’ and that’s to let the players know up front when a campaign is expected to end. Players tend to make different choices when they know a campaign is going to end after six adventures rather than ‘play until we tire of it.’ Even in this case, however, one can make the argument that foreknowledge won’t stop a character from behaving differently in Adventure #2 than in Adventure #6.
As I said from the outset, this is purely theoretical to me, so I’d be very interested to hear from you! Have you ever run a campaign where you didn’t tell the players that it was ending after a particular encounter? How did they react? Would you do it again? If you normally tell your players about endings, would you ever consider a ‘stealth’ ending? Would the campaign/genre matter?
Movies doesn’t tell us when a movie ends, but we can understand when the movie is about to end due to the dramatic curve. I believe something similar happens in roleplaying games as well. So even if you don’t tell the players that it’s nearing the end, they will feel it. If not, then perhaps the game master failed at creating a decent dramatic curve?
I’m for saying the ending. I can say how long the players have proceed in an adventure after a session – if they just scratched the surface or if they are halfway. Sure, I could do that in-game – through using a strong dramatic curve or give a notion that there is much more to come – but I believe in clear communication. It’s that unspoken communication that made people not realize what they are actually doing. Be frank, and you will learn more about your hobby.
The payoff for not saying could be a better (character) immersive experience but, as I said before, you will most likely convey this information anyway through escalation (=establishing dramatic curve). The players will adopt to it and make more dramatic decisions towards the end. That’s the payoff of telling the progress.
I’m in favor of telling players when you are ending a campaign if for no other reason than scheduling. We’re all adults with outside responsibilities and missing a game is generally no big deal. Missing a finale, however, can be a real disappointment. I just recently had a player shift his schedule to make sure he didn’t miss our big finish (which was awesome, btw).
I think this point is really important. With scheduling difficulties and competing priorities, letting players know allows them the best experience.
I was going to make this same point. Assuming you and your group of players aren’t twelve, you’re probably making some level of sacrifice to schedule around gaming in advance. Having that next game suddenly disappear because tonight was the finale when you had already scheduled around it smacks of rudeness to the players.
You make a good point, Bishop. I generally separate “group” from “campaign” so in my circles the absent player wouldn’t find the session disappear, she’d just walk into a new campaign beginning.
I’d also presume that the GM would make her own judgment call on whether to end the campaign if one or more players can’t make it. We all have our stalling tactics! 🙂
I prefer telling them when the game is ending, and if possible doing it from the start. Somewhat selfishly, it means I’m not the only one concerned with pacing. It also helps set the scenario; is it a long, plodding campaign or a short, concise one? To an extent it tells the players whether they have time to hang around and work on small character things, like learning an instrument, pursuing a quest to find a lost mentor, or struggling with their family history. All that can happen in a shorter game too, but it typically comes in quick bursts of revelation, rather than drawn out endeavors and character arcs.
There are some really good points in this article and in the comments, however, I would like to make a different point: keeping the mystery. When my family and I, particularly my mother, watch a mystery show, the kind where the protagonists have to figure out who the killer is the week, we always know when it is not the killer they have apprehended. The reason? The show still have a half-hour to go and if they wrapped it up now, they’d have another 25 minutes to kill and no mystery left to kill it with.
Telling your players up front when/how the campaign is going to end could be convenient, but it takes away from some of the mystery, the fear of the unknown, and the anticipation of possibilities not yet discovered.
I’m not saying it’s wrong to tell when the end is nigh, but you do sacrifice some of that mystery.
Nice topic. I will definitely be talking to my group about this to see what they prefer, perhaps leaving the ending unknown has been what was wrong with campaigns all these years… but I do love that mystery…
In my group, the others joke that a campaign’s death knell is when the next one is decided. Additionally we have 7 members in the group and getting everyone together is difficult.
This leaves me torn. I think ending a game when it happens is more natural and allows the GM to surprise the players and characters. While I’d love to say there is no need to surprise characters, we are kind of bad at player/character separation; how many times has the party’s scout rolled poorly for perception and suddenly even the blind bard is rolling.
However, players can make extra efforts or shift schedules to ensure their attendance for a finale of a campaign. So letting the group know “we’ll wrap this up in three weeks” is likely necessary.