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I’m drafting a one-shot D&D/Pathfinder concept and the more time I spend writing it, the more I feel like the prospect of a downer ending is inevitable.

The story concept revolves around someone who created an artefact in defiance of the gods, which the players are tasked with obtaining. During the adventure the artefact changes hands several times, as each previous owner is killed off.

I currently have two potential endings in mind;

One, the item is destroyed; Two, the players acquire the artefact

…but in both, they wind up stranded, with no (or limited) chance for escape. It feeds into the concept of divine retribution being inescapable, and with ruin coming to everyone who pursued the item.

As a player, would you feel cheated by either of those outcomes? I don’t want them to feel the experience was pointless, or that they’ve burned characters they’ve invested in. In-universe, this is arguably a justifiable punishment for their blasphemous hubris, but from a meta perspective is it fair to punish the characters for participating in the adventure I’ve prepared for them (especially if I’ve railroaded them to an unwinnable situation)?

If you would be bothered by this outcome, how would you suggest resolving it? Would destroying the artefact but creating an escape method soften the blow at all? Or do I need to let them fully succeed? (as a one-shot there’s no game balance concern for this, but it runs counter to the theme of the story).

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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it’s attempting to surveying site members, and additionally asking for idea generation. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Aug 6 '19 at 14:58
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    \$\begingroup\$ I do think this question can be made on-topic by focusing on whether a happy ending is mandatory on a one-shot and the consequences of having a forced bad ending (essentially dropping the survey and suggestion parts) \$\endgroup\$ – Sdjz Aug 6 '19 at 16:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ I see two parts to this question: 1) your satisfaction as a storyteller is at risk by sugarcoating the ending, as you would be unsatisfied by the result and 2) the player's expectations are at risk because you think/know/or are assuming they want to "win", right? In other words, I would break up the question by distilling those two points, and what your real concerns are. \$\endgroup\$ – user52772 Aug 6 '19 at 20:01
  • \$\begingroup\$ Welcome to RPG.SE! Take the tour if you haven't already, and check out the help center for more guidance. As mentioned above, this is more of a discussion prompt than an answerable question right now. That said, it might be editable to be an answerable question, depending on what your primary goal is. \$\endgroup\$ – V2Blast Aug 7 '19 at 0:29
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From my experience, happy ending or bad ending can be satisfying. I have been in parties that succeeded, and in ones that failed spectacularly and it was really fun and memorable experience.

The only two games me and most of that party did not enjoy, was the one railroaded to the point when our actions hardly changed the outcome. At some sessions we failed despite our best efforts. On last session we lived thorough really hard encounter that by all means should get us killed. One time we, as a prisoners, couldn't even change the order of questioning, not to mention real outcome. And there was no satisfaction in either. That was two games where most of the players simply walked away.

What you described as most favorable outcome looks like a Pyrrhic Victory, something so bad it makes further failure unavoidable. This is a good story, if it comes to it, but like simple failure or success, I can't imagine having real satisfaction from it being forced on me and mines, with nothing my party could do about it.

Players' agency matters

Good ending or bad ending, it should be their accomplishment, not something scripted and unavoidable. Being in an unwinnable position should only be possible due to their mistakes.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ @KorvinStarmast Pyrrhic victory is yet again something that should occur due to player actions, no more, no less. Looks like a good idea to mention it, but does not change my main idea :) \$\endgroup\$ – Mołot Aug 6 '19 at 13:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ OK, nicely folded in. :) I'll drop that comment. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Aug 6 '19 at 13:59
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Yes, I would feel cheated by a D&D oneshot where following the intended plot led to the group getting killed. In my experience, oneshot adventures are supposed to be heroic stories where the group eventually triumphs (or at least has a chance to triumph).

You've told us that the theme of your oneshot is that divine retribution and ruin are inevitable. I think that's not a good theme for a oneshot adventure. You should choose a better theme.

What I do sometimes is I offer an ambiguous ending instead. I say: "...and, if this were a campaign, the next session would be about you guys finding a way to get out of this mess. This is just a one-shot, though, so we'll have to imagine how it all turns out."

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It varies by players, but I suspect most will prefer either a happy ending or a heroic sacrifice.

Different people have different tastes so it is impossible to provide a universal answer. However, for me personally, I very strongly prefer that my character receives either a happy ending or gets a chance to provide a heroic sacrifice that makes a difference.

In my experience as a GM, most players seem to prefer that their character ends in some sort of position that can be called a "win". What that means varies by person, but for most people it means either a happy ending or a heroic sacrifice.

Even among people that can happily accept a "bad" ending, I suspect the threshold to qualify it as a good game is higher when the ending is bad. In other words, in my experience, many people might accept a tragic ending if the journey to get there is equivalent to Hamlet, but accept a happy ending readily even if the plot consists of go forth and hunt the creature of the week.

Agency matters.

First, railroad-v-sandbox is more of a spectrum than an either/or. Also, different players have different preferences along that spectrum (though currently the general trend seems to be closer to sandbox).

With that said, I think most players will accept a tragic ending far more easily if it comes from their own decisions than if they are railroaded into it. I think that applies even to people that are willing to accept more rails.

Personally, I don't mind a certain amount of rails. As a GM I find it much easier to develop well rounded NPCs and an in-depth plot if I can impose some constraints on the players. I don't try to railroad everything, but if I spent time developing plans for say Menzoberranzen and the players try to head to Thay I will subtly or even not-so-subtly steer them back to Menzoberranzen for instance. As a player, I prefer in-depth plots and I'm willing to accept a certain amount of rails if it makes it easier for my GM. But, if I accept rails I expect that to bring me to a good destination with interesting scenery along the way. If the destination at the end of the rails is miserable, I will probably not be happy and I will (pointing at the rails, even if only in my own mind) think that it is directly because of the GM.

On the other hand, if it is a sandbox style game and I wind up in a bad position because the world reacted logically to my choices than I may not be happy, but I won't think it is directly because of the GM. Similarly, if my character dies in battle because I made strategic mistakes or I just get unlucky with the dice, I again won't be happy, but I won't think it is because of the GM.

Player expectation matters

Player expectations also matter a lot. If I go in expecting a horror story, I won't be surprised if the ending is darker than if I go in expecting an adventure story. Personally, I will still prefer a happy ending, but how I define that may be...lower. A happy ending in a horror story may involve my character getting out alive or dying saving just one other person, while with an adventure story I expect my character to either be remembered as a hero of a region, retire in wealth, or even both.

In other words, if you, as the GM, expect a tragic ending ahead of time, you may get a better response if you telegraph that heavily or even say it bluntly ahead of time. The setting is one way, though not the only, to telegraph expectations. If the story is in Forgotten Realms, I probably expect an adventure story unless you tell me otherwise ahead of time. If the story is in Ravenloft or CofD, I probably expect horror.

Your specific situation

In my opinion, the plot you laid out does not make for a good game. It might make for a good story. Stories about the results of hubris are one of the classic tragic archetypes.

But a game is different. Most players will want some agency, and a story about hubris is particularly difficult in a game. Your players may not show any hubris or, as you lay it out, will show hubris only because you strongly railroaded them into it which won't feel like hubris to them. It won't feel like their characters are being punished for hubris, it will feel like their characters are being punished because the DM felt like they should be. That combination will probably be annoying even to players that in general are happy to accept rails and tragic endings.

Nota bene: I am well aware that the effects of hubris are an integral part of some systems such as Mage: The Awakening. However, that is a horror game with different expectations than D&D and it also has systems with dice rolls to reflect the impact of hubris to allow the Storyteller to push off much of the responsibility for adjudicating hubris specifically. Personally, even in Mage: The Awakening I strongly prefer a "happy" ending, its just that what qualifies as a happy ending may be darker and with more collateral damage than the way I would define it in D&D.

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