Who Ends the Game?

At a certain point game sessions become a puzzle that everyone is trying to solve, players and GM both.

Having created these problems, having put our heroes and other innocents in dire straits, having set up the villains and terrible hazards, how do we resolve everything in a way that is both dramatic and satisfactory to everyone? Victory alone is not the goal, since too easy a victory will not be appreciated.

It's four in the morning and tunnel vision sets in. Plans have already gone awry and there are more loose threads than solutions. How can the heroes exonerate the framed prince and overthrow his treacherous uncle when their only shred of evidence just got burned to a crisp? Or save the eastern seaboard from the death ray when they're already shrunken down and trapped in test tubes in the villain's lab? The urge to end the game in a way that makes sense starts to compete with the urge to just go home. Deus ex machina starts to look good.

So who steers the game to a satisfactorily conclusion, the players or the GM? It seems it should be the players, given that the concept is that the GM creates the problems and the players solve them. But often it is the GM who leaves a window open, or sees a place where a window must be to prevent the situation from becoming a stalemate, an impossible scenario, or one where the most likely solution is bad, dull or just unattractive. Or (sadly) the GM has scripted in that single solution, the only solution that will resolve the conflict, but that's a design flaw.

The real answer is that whoever is the best at forging a resolution will be the one to do it, regardless of what seat they're in. If a player is better at it, that player will do it. If the GM is better at it, the GM will do it. It can be a conscious or unconscious process, a subtle case of leading by example or a blatant vote to decide how to wrap things up. Other players (and the GM) will go along if the solution works for them.

    Ben Robbins | January 25th, 2006 | | hide comments
  1. #3 Craig Payne says:

    I’m personally in favour of the cliffhanger ending in such situations. The players’ only evidence to exonerate the prince just went up in flames? Well, it really sucks that his uncle has just announced his imminent execution… The heroes are trapped in testtubes after being miniaturised? Then the villains pet cat leaps up on the lab bench, eyeing the unattended testtubes hungrily…

    It does present problems with shifting playgroup composition, although if the next session sees minimal changes, the cliffhanger could present posibilities for character changes when the new players character rushes in to rescue his friends.

  2. #2 Benny Boy says:

    Despite my own title, it isn’t necessarily about ending the game per se, so much as resolving the conflict or challenge. That could even be in the middle of a game. The question is a social dynamics one — who finds a graceful solution to the problem the characters are in?

    The “retreat and regroup” option of ending the session and picking it up later is a good one, but unless it’s a regular group schedule there’s also the urge not to leave another game incomplete, requiring this exact same group of people to get together to wrap up. If we only played one more hour, we could finish!

  3. #1 Scholz says:

    What are the parameters of this scenario. I ask because in the context of an obgoing campaign it seems reasonable to find a lull in the action and break to meet again next time.
    The GM might introduce a new element to get the juices of the players thinking — “As you survey your surroundings you notice the Spriff, the Evil Doctor’s pet monkey, is still in the lab licking some of the goo in the sick.”
    But a break in the action gives the GM time to think about what could be added to make the situation seem not to dire, and have some solution. The vilains puts the characters in a new death trap, an ally (or enemy) calls the heroes with new information that might save them, etc..
    Likewise, if you think there is adequate information and resources to solve the dilemma, you can give the addled players some time and sleep to think about it. Maybe a directed email to one or more of them might spark some ideas.
    If this is a one shot, or the finale, or something with time constraints, and it is 4 am….. I am with you. Any landing you can walk away from is a good one.

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