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A big principle of group practices (facilitation, meeting management, etc) is Opening and Closing. Opening is creating a comforting environment where people feel invited and welcome. Closing is about bringing things to a conclusion (in facilitation is all about moving from a thinking mode into a doing mode).

The idea is if you open something you have to close it, or risk losing the energy of the group. During a session you actually do lots of open and closings. The nest into each other.

I think that this concept (like most concepts from group facilitation/storming/etc) is highly relevant to gaming. We open the session, we open and close scenes/encounters, we close the session.

I feel I’m pretty good about opening sessions. I feel like I’m good at opening and closing scenes/encounters. What I don’t feel like I do so well is closing sessions. Often I end at the end of a scene and don’t tie back to the larger session. This is especially true in a tactical heavy game like D&D but I think I do similar in everything else.

So, my question is, what tools and techniques do you use to close a session?

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6 Answers 6

The goal of the "close" is to bring the game to an end and prepare them for next week. This is a reflective period.

I have had success using these techniques:

In Game

  • Signal that this segment of the story is ending. "You've cleared the villains out of the warehouse. No more enemies remain."

  • Get the characters to a safe place. Look to the Hero's Journey for explicit story structure that does this. Basically, you need them to return to a safe home to reflect on their heroic deeds. If the characters are still in the middle of something dangerous, it's harder to let go and shut down.

  • Allow the characters to reflect on their deeds. Reflection usually means talking with each other or with NPCs. If there are NPCs present, allow them to voice their opinions about what the characters did. They don't have to be impressed, but keep the focus on what the characters did, not future deeds and certainly not the NPCs' issues.

  • Emphasize how the characters have changed. In the Hero's Journey, the hero returns home to find out that nothing has changed--but everything has. The hero has changed and "home" will never be the same again.

Out of Game

  • Explicitly close the game. "Okay, guys, that's it for this week." But don't let people pack up or leave yet. We're not done and I need their attention.

  • Recap what they just did, highlighting key accomplishments. "Excellent game! You stormed the villains' warehouse and defeated most of the thugs. It's too bad the boss escaped though!"

  • Ask them what they'll do next time, or tell them if it's that kind of game. "Next week, do you want to chase down the boss?"

  • Ask for feedback. Ask each person in turn, "What did you like the most? What didn't you like?" At first, they'll be shy with their criticism, but over time, they'll learn that it's okay to give you honest feedback. Tell them what you'll do differently going forward to show that you're listening and incorporating their advice.

  • Thank them for playing. This is not only polite, but it's a social tool that everyone recognizes as "time to clean up and go now." Now everyone can pack up.

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I like most of your points, but I would offer a counter to your point about a safe place. I find that a great cliffhanger is as good, or sometimes better, than leaving characters in a "happy" place. It's good to often leave them wanting more and looking forward to the next session, next module, next adventure. Leave them needing to find out what's going to happen to their characters. Not all the time, but it should be as often as you leave them in a safe place. –  BBlake Nov 3 '10 at 17:19
    
@BBlake I used to agree with you (and I still do, mostly), but one of the players in my current campaign can't bear to let go when there's a cliffhanger: He'll keep asking questions about what happens, and when that doesn't work he'll ask questions about the situation so he can make plans for the next session, and if I limit the information he can get 'because he doesn't have time to look around' he starts speculating... I still close with cliffhangers occasionally, but for his sake (and my own sanity) I have them less often. –  GMJoe Feb 21 '12 at 4:02
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I too felt like I had a hard time closing out my sessions for a long time. My biggest problem was using the climax (as the ending to the session and to the story (the villain is defeated, story's over right?), which definitely leaves the players hungry for resolution. The thing that helped me the most was forcing myself list out the consequences (good or bad) of the climax of the adventure, and force myself to leave enough time to play out those consequences during the session.

For example, in a fantasy setting the players might defeat an evil wizard terrorizing the town and country side. Some obvious consequences are:

  • The town is grateful and throws a festival to celebrate the PCs achievement
  • Word of the deed spreads to nearby towns, and they send a messenger to plead the PCs for help
  • The organization that the wizard belongs to takes notice of the PCs involvement and starts plotting revenge or a counter strike

Letting the players bask in a task completed helps the players feel like their deeds had some effect on the world and helps them feel accomplished, leading to that feeling of closing your looking for. Obviously, some of these consequences won't have an immediate effect, but you can certainly hint at their coming to help build intrigue and suspense for later adventures. In this example, perhaps the PCs notice a dark figure on a hill overlooking the festival ride off after being spotted, as the dark figure rides to notify his masters of the fall of the evil wizard and the foiling of the plan.

In a nut shell, don't end on the climax of the adventure and save yourself time to explore the aftermath of the scenario before ending the session for the night.

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One tool you can use is to frame the gameplay as a "story within a story". Open the session as if you're telling the story of a group of heroes, and then shift into the "doing" mode of play. When the session is done (regardless of what just happened in the game), close the "doing" mode with the enclosing story's bookend.

You see the opening part of this often in serial dramas or adventure shows: "When last we left our heroes, they were…" says the voice-over in a deep, dramatic tone. Or "Last time on Dexter…" and then there is an action recap. I've used that to good effect to get everyone's attention and to get them thinking about what "just" happened in the game (last session) so they're ready to move forward.

A ritual-phrase closing that's similar is probably going to feel somewhat more forced or artificial until you get comfortable doing it, but it does become integrated with the game session after you get the feel for its delivery. Something like, "And so ends this chapter of our heroes' story." Or something with a bit of a capstone built-in: "And so we leave our heroes, [in desperate straights against Evil Skull the Undoer/discussing their plans to attack the Citadel of Bone/enjoying their well-deserved rest in the King's Rest Inn/having finally sighted the fabled towers of Amaris beyond the last rise]…"

You can pull this closer out at any time, and before long the players will recognise the shift of tone and narrative voice and that'd just be how the session ends.

Another way to signal a closing is to explicitly redirect the efforts of the group from the middle doing phase (since RPGs are thinking-doing-thinking, unlike meetings which are doing-thinking-doing) to the end thinking phase.

You can do this by making a bit of time for discussion of what happened, or what the players plan to do next: "Okay, that was a good session. Knowing what they know now, what are you going to have the PCs do next session?" or something similar. You can also ask someone to recap the session, or to go around the circle and have everyone tell you what their highlight for the session was. You can get some very useful feedback very quickly in this time.

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Personally, I tend to end sessions on a high note or a cliff hanger. It does drive my players crazy and they hate it. Still, they keep talking about the game outside the sessions, during works, and at social events... I must be doing something right.

TV and movies are full of good, bad, and terrible examples. Pretty much any two (or more) parters of series end in a cliff hanger and almost all season finally do so. Sometimes, it makes it a little forced.

I use a theme tune for all my games which I play as the opening when I remind everyone what is going on. At closing time, I use the same track (on repeat) and sum up their current situation. Then leave the track running till everyone clears the room -- I pack sound last if I am not at home.

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Here's a simple tip I've always used: At 15 minutes before scheduled ending time (or last thing if a combat runs over):

I grant the session's XP, which has three phases:

  1. The XP as calculated for any encounters.
  2. XP Bonuses Promised - During a session I'll say "Write this down - Bonus for [something awesome they did] and we'll resolve it at the end
  3. XP Bonuses Petitioned - "If any of you think you [or someone else] in the party deserves a bonus that I missed, tell me why now. You get one sentence to remind me, and my judgment is final."

Then calculates their new XP totals and immediately rolls/resolves any increases in hit points, etc. immediately. Those who leveled now have a reason to keep thinking about how to optimize their character (skills, feats, etc.) till next week. :-)

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I'm sure it depends in part on what your players like. We play tactical heavy D&D 4e, and usually the climax is the final battle. Normally what happens is that I let the final blow of the axe be the climax and the start of the next session usually includes the recap and fallout from the previous session.

The exception is for sessions like the last one I ran which was a mystery, so the resolution was essentially a closing narrative, similar to what was mentioned in other answers (such as SevenSidedDie's answer). If the story requires a wrap up, I try and keep it brief so that the players have time to recover from the tension of the fight, but still stop before they've cooled off too much.

Usually, in my game, most stories lead to a fight. "Resolving" the bad guys is its own reward.

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