May has rolled around, and I am finally catching up with the travelling RPG Blog Carnival.
This month, the host is Rodney Sloan at Rising Phoenix Games.
Rodney chose the topic At World’s End, looking at assorted end of the world scenarios. The blog offers a few more ideas for the subject:
The topic for May’s RPG blog carnival is “At World’s End”, and the best and brightest RPG bloggers will be sharing links to related posts, right here, in the comments below.
Anything is fair game; cataclysmic events, stats for planet crushing monsters, rules for the Apocalypse, or perhaps a hero’s survival guide to the End Times. We’re not playing games anymore, now we’re playing for keeps, winner takes all!
My ongoing Tales of the Hero Wars campaign has seen four sets of Heroes have their time on stage, and then pass into memory. This means four endings to a story. However, these endings have not always been the grand climaxes I wanted when I began the story with the Players.
In this essay I explore the first two of these mini-campaign finales. These were the cycles which ended badly for us, one way or another. Next week, I will explore my successes. I am sure you can learn from all my examples of what went right and what went wrong. I hope I can avoid these pitfalls in the Fortress of Crows campaign we have just begun.
The four previous cycles, in order, were:
- Eastern Isles
- Eternal Lizards
- Sigil PD
Ptolus: Heroic Failure
Chronologically, the first of these mini-campaigns was set in a version of Ptolus, and began the whole Tales of the Hero Wars. This is a wonderful city setting, and received an honourable mention in last week’s overview of my favourite RPG settings.
After a few weeks exploring the city, I began running the Heroes through the Night of Dissolution scenario, also by Monte Cook. This progressed well, but was a little dungeon-heavy for our narrative rules system. Essentially, the Heroes reached the climax of the scenario, where they fought against the doomsday chaos cult.
The large, set-piece battle began, and simply the Heroes lost. Perhaps they were reckless, they certainly chose not to use all the resources at their disposal. Numerous allies and followers were forgotten. There could have been some unlucky rolls along the way. The Heroes lost the battle, failed to stop the chaos ritual, and doomsday was nigh.
Okay, not quite. I saved my campaign setting with the equivalent of divine intervention, but the whole city of Ptolus, and the surrounding island, was claimed by the sea.
How to End Your World Better
Ending a campaign with a total party kill is certainly dramatic, but it lacked closure. The Players were shocked, and a little disappointed. Reviewing the end of the Ptolus campaign, I can see two main lessons: one each for GMs and Players.
For the GM. The GM lesson is to manage expectations. My beloved HeroQuest 2 has two categories of contest: rising and climactic. Most of the contests are part of the rising action, where I am generally supporting the Heroes. I want to present a challenge for the Players, especially to evoke their creativity. However, the danger levels here are relatively low.
When we reach a climactic encounter, however, the situation changes. Consequences are more severe, and my attitude as the GM is less forgiving. In hindsight, this distinction was not clear enough to the Players. I understood how outcomes, and my attitude, varied in these two situations, but the Players did not. This distinction arose as I learnt more about running HQ2. Ptolus was my first HQ2 campaign, and there were some teething troubles.
For the Players. The lesson here is to have a better understanding of the threat facing you. The Heroes cannot always win every fight, regardless of past experiences. Sometimes it really is wise to run away, to fight again, or find a better tactic than yet another frontal assault. This seems a hard lesson for some Players to learn.
Eastern Isles: Social Collapse
After the sudden end of the Ptolus campaign, we shifted focus to a pirate-themed Eastern Isles campaign. Here the Heroes had more flexible morals, and sailed around in their ship confronting the Ghost Fleet. This mini-campaign also came to a sudden halt, but for different reasons.
Here simmering personal tensions between the Players erupted into argument and accusations. This was enough to fracture the friendship group, and heavily reduce the size of my gaming group.
How to End Your World Better
Personal conflicts are a lot harder to resolve than in-game expectations. I suspect part of the problem was still about Player expectations, but on a wider level. There were still disconnects over the style of our narrative game.
For the GM. My solution was to draw up a social contract, and this still seems a great way of addressing many of the issues which plagued our first two campaigns. These early campaigns were my first serious GM experience for about twenty years. My gaming goals had matured, and it took time for me to update my methods to communicate these aims clearly. Early communication about the game is always helpful, and the more formal discussion around a social contract facilitates this process.
- Here is my Blog Carnival article on the Social Contract, written shortly after this campaign imploded.
- I returned to the topic again recently.
For the Players. My advice for Players is firstly to understand the style of game the GM is running. Fighting too hard against this will only lead to frustration on both sides. Honestly, not every game is for all Players. If what is on offer gives you no joy, then it might be time to look for another group.
For those Players of a narrative game, be prepared to accept ups and downs in your personal story. Look for ways to drive the story to interesting places, share the spotlight and have fun. My current Players are very open to this style of gaming, and we have so much fun every week.
This concludes my exploration of the early campaigns where the endings were not planned conclusions to the story. My focus shifts next week, when I discuss the two mini-campaigns where I ended the story in a controlled manner. There were important lessons for me in my first two campaigns, and I am sure the later campaigns have benefited from my earlier errors.
What errors have you made when ending a campaign? Have you had a game end with a TPK? What lessons have your drawn from unsatisfying endings? Share your thoughts with your fellow GMs in the comments below.
- Read all the current entries to the May Carnival at Rising Phoenix Games.
- The RPG Blog Carnival is under the stewardship of Johnn Four, at his Roleplaying Tips website.
- The host for the April event was Stephanie Bryant at Mortaine’s Blog, where the topic was weather in games.
- Do you need more Tales?
If you enjoyed this article, then please share it, or the associated quotations. You may also be interested in the following links:
- Something for the Weekend last week: Top Four RPG Settings
- Something for the Weekend next week: Campaign Finales, Part 2, the Successes