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I am planning the next campaign while the current one comes to a close. Our group favours sandbox play and I facilitate that with Icar's event driven system. While writing down the list of events needed to fill the campaign with interesting plot hooks and set pieces, I was wondering if it is wise to plan a big finale.

I want to avoid fizzling out and at the same time I don't want to railroad the players - they won't like it. Should I have an inkling of the end before we start?

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5 Answers 5

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You can have an ending in mind, but remember that even writers are advised:

Kill your darlings.

And we GMs are not even solo writers, though we share many of the same skills. As soon as making that ending happen and the actual game that's being played with your fellow players part ways, kill your darling ending with fire.

An ending that organically follows from the events of play will be infinitely more satisfying for everyone else than the ending that you had in mind. As the original writing advice explains (paraphrasing), "A bit of writing that you love is probably worse than you think because you can't be objective about it." Kill your ending as soon as it no longer serves a purpose and threatens to become a millstone around you and your players' necks.

What is a pre-written ending's purpose in a sandboxy game, then? It's something to aim for, direct your imagination, and breed hooks that make the beginning go well. It's a framework around which you can build an initial situation that will drive your end of the game, just as their character concepts drive the players' end of the game yet are subject to change and development. Once the game is off the ground and humming along, a pre-planned ending's purpose rapidly diminishes. It has given birth to its plot-hook children, and must gracefully step out of the way so that its children can inherit the game and pursue their own destinies, without parental meddling from the pre-planned ending.

Having an ending is, ironically, only really useful (in the sort of game you're talking about) for creating beginnings, and is a terrible way to create an actual played ending. For ways to create a good ending before a game fizzles out, you actually want to think more about putting a time limit on the campaign itself to focus it and give yourself a deadline for pacing purposes, and the players a deadline for accomplishing their goals. A campaign with an indefinite timeline almost always fizzles out rather than concludes, but a timeline with an ending that everyone is apprised of sharpens everyone's attention on giving stories a proper arc and bringing loose ends to a more-or-less tidy conclusion.

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For a good example of this read these campaign notes: darthsanddroids.net/episodes/0206.html Then go back to the first page of the comic and read up to those campaign notes. –  Zibbobz Aug 20 at 14:03

For starters, I will tell you one thing that I learned from Murphy: No plot is player-proof.

There have been several games where the bare bones plot dictated certain events happening in a certain order, and no matter how hard I tried to plan for the chaos factor known as the party, they always seemed to find a way around my staunchest and meticulous designs. Evolving my style, I do take a somewhat Whovian stance on how to GM: There are fixed points in time that need to happen, but everything around those - the other 98% - are completely malleable to the players' will. Yes, the allied count will be assassinated; however the players have built a stronger allied network so the blow to morale is less severe. No, the battle will not be a victory overall, but with the overwhelming victory that the players accomplished from their leg of the fight, they get plot point Z a full (in game) month in advance (and of course the lack of party death).

Edit 1: To address the question of if one should make locked points, it's all a matter of the party in general. Some players call BS when their efforts are in vain, and other love rolling with the punches as long as they get their character development. If you're looking for permission to do it, then I grant it because it's something I do more often than not with more success than not. However, if you do make set plot points, don't forget the PCs. When you make the players feel like they matter, they are the most agreeable.

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Unless the game tells you otherwise (and some do), having a possible ending can be a valuable planning tool for the GM. You could even share it with your players, potentially, as part of the pitch.

This game is about

  • the fall of a once-great nation.
  • Cthulhu devouring the planet.
  • suicidal revenge of a dying race.
  • hope after an apocalypse.

The danger, however, for you as the GM is holding onto your initial ending too closely and railroading the players to get there. The story from your game may not play out as planned when the presumed hero gets murdered by an angry mob or falls off a cliff. For a sandbox game, often it's more important to consider what the players want out of the game, and your job is more about finding ways to respond and challenge them. It may not be all that useful to plan far ahead.

Personally, I like to plot out "This is what will happen if the PCs aren't there to stop it."

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+1 for the if-the-players-do-nothing planning method. –  GMJoe Sep 6 '12 at 3:54

Predict your ending, but don't plan it. You know what the themes in the games are. You know who the agents will be. You should be able to figure it out with some degree of accuracy, without having to decree that it be set in stone.

I like to try and figure out the grand finale as the game progresses. While I'm not a fan of preparing material more than one session in advance, the grand finale is the exception I make. There's nothing worse than a game that falls flat because the GM ran out of steam, so having an ending you can queue up when you're sick of writing is a nice safety net.

Anyway, I've been GMing for 10 years now and have lost count of how many games I've run. It may look like my last two paragraphs were contrary, but they're not. Ever since I learned what GM fatigue was in my first game, I've been preparing predicted endings. While I'm always willing to ditch the prepped ending, I've never had to. The closest I've come is expanding an ending - the grand finale became the boss fight the players saw coming, everything after that was a twist. The point is, you can (and should!) prepare for the end of your game, but this doesn't mean you're setting anything in stone. Worst case is you have to rewrite a few sessions.

Finally, it's okay if the players surprise you. If they never did that, GMing would be boring. Maybe my predicted ending success rate is due to a statistically abnormal number of players deciding to play nice and go with the flow rather than making me squirm. Whatever. Players get satisfaction out of bending the story around their characters. If they do something that takes away the Hollywood ending you had planned and you can't improvise around it, congratulate them. Having that kind of impact on a game makes the players feel awesome. It's a hell of a lot more memorable to creatively weasel your way out of a final encounter than to just go with the flow.

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Holistically, I think the best approach is a somewhat hybrid between "railroading" and "sandboxing". Let them figure out their own way of doing things, but realize that whatever the players do, the bad guys (or good guys if your group is like mine some days) will react to what PCs do.

You should know your players and the style of characters they play. Therefore, you should know if they are heroic (I must save the world because it needs saving!), or more mercenary(I'll save the world, but only if the payday is right), and can tune your main plot-line accordingly.

For example, I recently ran an adventure where the players would end a war, they did not know it but a mysterious group was encouraging the war to continue. I knew the handful of plot-elements they needed to solve the mystery, and they knew who they needed to get that information to, but whether they got the info they needed in town a or town b was somewhat irrelevant. It could be considered that I railroaded the group with the main-plotline, but it can also be argued that the game was sandbox because the plot did not require them to learn plot-point A in town B and not at crossroad C.

Personally, I visualize the plot as a funnel towards the final show-down. In the first few sessions, the PCs should only know what the big-bad is because they were hired/recruited/drafted/conned into doing it. As the campaign progresses the events should gradually narrow scope until the finale is all the players can think/act about. But at the same time, if the group is pitched that they should save the world and their response is "meh, let it burn", be prepared with another plot-line or adventure hook.

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Exactly this. 'Sandbox' doesn't have to mean that the PCs are the only ones whose actions matter; the villains have plans and they'll lead to certain events unless the players actively change that. –  Tynam Sep 5 '12 at 23:23
    
+1 for the idea of a hybrid approach. –  Rob Lang Sep 7 '12 at 12:17

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