This just came up on Saturday evening, while talking to Dave about how he ended his latest D&D 3.5 adventure. Typically when you’re playing things will run long, whether or not you plan to get through your whole adventure or not, it’s still going to run long. When you’re young, this isn’t so bad and is in fact a part of the fun. However, now that most of us have regular jobs and families, a game running late can really be a pain in the arse! What happened with us is that we realized a few of our players had to get up way too early the next morning, and so before midnight, once we’d finished with the meat of the adventure, Dave wisely wrapped everything up in an instant and we began cleaning up so that people were free to stay or go as they needed to. This got me thinking about how the end of an adventure affects the entire session and indeed, the entire feel of a campaign.
The classic staple of storytelling is to wrap part of a series up in a good old cliffhanger. I love these things- most people do. That’s why they exist, but it is certainly not the only way to go about wrapping up an adventure. The best part of cliffhangers is that they leave the party thirsting for more, and if it is really effective, cause them to clamor for the next adventure. The problem that arises here is that they require you to break off the story at a critical moment, which will run the risk of the players becoming jaded and disinterested in the interim. Also, you must begin the next adventure on a high note that is typically difficult to reach when warming up for the day/evening of gaming. Some effective ways to mitigate these problems are to make sure you write really, really good cliffhangers that will grab and intrigue your players into wanting more and jumping head first back in once they return. Another way to approach it is when you return the next adventure, do not start off with the continuation of the cliffhanger but instead skip to the next day, or the end of the conflict and you can sooner or later go back and narrate the events. This allows you to re-build the tension all over again during the course of play and get back up to the ‘sweet-spot’ of gaming and then pull out the cliffhanger all over again which has been looming in your player’s consciences and hopefully add even more emotion and interest to the whole scenario.
Probably the easiest (and most common?) way to end an adventure is to wrap everything up in a nice, neat little package. This lets the DM progress through build-up, a few minor conflicts or obstacles, the major conflict, denouement, and finally the cooldown and tie-together of everything that needs to be taken care of. This is necessary in most one-shot/stand-alone adventures because there is nothing else to play off of, but this doesn’t mean it should never be seen within your regular campaign. There are almost always filler adventures, whether the players have nagged you ceaselessly to get together off-schedule and whip something together or you just don’t really want to deal with the main plot that day. It can be very invigorating to throw an adventure into the mix that tells a complete story on its own. A mechanism like this can aid your players in feeling like they are more immersed in a part of the world, so that every story does not revolve around their progress in the greater scheme of things. Maybe they’ve stumbled into a small town that seems disconnected from the ongoing political struggles, or a time-forgotten dungeon with only subtle connections (if any) to the outside world! No matter what you do with it, you can’t go wrong with the neat little package method because it comes with everything you need. Just don’t throw it in the middle of the last three adventures when tension is building and plot lines are converging, or it might ruin everything and scatterbrain your players (moreso then they always are).
What we experienced Saturday night was, what I’ll call, the dead stop method of ending an adventure. It is actually something I’ve used a few times, and was used by Dave simply because time and the players drove it in that direction. The dead stop is when the major action of the adventure has just finished, and almost immediately the session is over. This is different from a cliffhanger because all of the goings on have stopped and nothing major is lingering, and it is not a neat little package because the players haven’t had a chance to process what has happened or begin something new. For us it meant not even returning the short way to our small town, instead staying where we were in a kind of post-coitus limbo. You may be thinking this is only done out of necessity or half-assed DMing (hah!), both of which may be true, but it really is a great way of leaving an adventure open ended. Maybe next week he’ll feel like surprising us with something on our way back to the village, or have us come back to our village in flames or completely emptied of inhabitants. These are mostly cliche, yes, but that’s because I don’t want to give Dave any dastardly and devious ideas!
Another reason the dead stop ending has a bad name is because it can be a tell-tale sign that your DM has not planned out the next steps of the game, or more kindly that the players simply took a route the DM wasn’t expecting or involved too many changes for him to continue on. I don’t think either of these was the case with the adventure in question. I’m simply illustrating why I immediately had a bad gut reaction to the idea of it. It did serve, however, to get me thinking about the topic and opened up a whole range of ideas that could stem from the dead stop adventure, so I’m glad it came about and it has definitely got me thinking about the pieces of an adventure and how they are strung together to form a campaign. Please share your ideas for clever or common endings, as I know there’s more to be discussed here!