The final scene is, obviously, the climax of the scenario, the denouement of the plot, the big epic fight with the villian. It’s also the hardest scene to plan. You’ll find that unless you keep a very tight grip on the possible actions of the player characters, the final scene ends up being an awful lot of if… thens and maybes.
Let’s say there are three scenes leading up to the finale, and the player characters can do A or B in each of these scenes. That means that there are 2x2x2=8 possible ‘states’ the group can be in as they enter the final scene. Did they pick up the magic sword, or leave it behind? Did the guards alert the evil wizard that the PCs are coming? Did they solve the riddle that gives them a clue on how to defeat the wizard’s spells? And that’s not including all the creative ways players can screw up – there’s every chance that one or more PCs are missing, dead, out of spells or have decided that actually, the evil wizard’s a nice guy and they should help him instead of thwarting him.
By the time the players reach the finale of your adventure, then, your control of the game as a writer is much more limited. Your task here is to help the GM to bring the game to a satisfying conclusion, not dictate events.
The finale needs to:
- Draw the players to the finale
- Give the players enough information to act
- Pose a challenge or question for the players to resolve
- Provide a dramatic conclusion to the whole plot
- Give scope to resolve player subplots
DRAW THE PLAYERS TO THE FINALE
A con game has to fit into a three-hour slot, so you have to be able to jump to the final scene quickly if the players are being too slow. Either have optional encounters that can be dropped, so the GM can rush onto the finale, or else allow the GM to start the finale at any time. For example, a game where the players are racing to stop the invasion of a city could have the invading army showing up as the final scene. Another option is to have some way of informing the characters where they should go. (Non-specific psychic powers are a GM’s best friend.)
GIVE THE PLAYERS ENOUGH INFORMATION TO ACT
The finale should give the players a brief recap of the adventure thus far, restating what’s going on and why. This can be anything from the supervillian giving the classing ‘Before I Kill You, Mr. Bond’ monologue to a bit of boxed text, but it can also be more subtle. Just bringing in elements from previous scenes can be enough to remind the players of past events and plot elements.
The players may need to understand what’s at stake in the finale, if it’s not immediately obvious. They need to be able to make a meaningful, informed decision. This doesn’t mean they need to know everything, but there should be enough clues in the finale alone to tell them what the basic situation is.
For example, in one Legend of the Five Rings scenario, the final scene revolves around a young samurai and the players deciding whether or not he should commit seppuku. There’s lots of plot and background which the players may or may not discover over the course of the game, but for that final scene to work, the players only need to know:
- The samurai shamed his family, and can only atone by dying
- After his shameful act, he fled into the forest and became a heroic outlaw fighting against an evil lord.
POSE A CHALLENGE OR QUESTION FOR THE PLAYERS TO RESOLVE
This can be anything from ‘a big fight scene’ to ‘the players decide whether or not to press the big red button’. Whatever this final challenge is, the players must have agency in its resolution. It should be up to them what finally happens in the scenario, not non-player characters or the whim of the GM.
This doesn’t mean that the whole plot has to turn on the decisions of the characters, but their ultimate fates should be influenced by their decisions. Consider an Aliens-style sci-fi game; the finale is a desperate escape from the planet as the subterranean monsters overrun the colony. The player characters may not be able to stop the aliens, but the final fate of the characters should be in their hands. Maybe they escape, maybe they don’t. Maybe some characters heroically hold off the horde to let the rest escape. Whatever the final confrontation is, the players have spent three hours of play to get this far – make sure their actions mean something.
Don’t feel obliged to provide a clear ‘right’ answer to the challenge. Definitely avoid writing games where a single, rather unintuitive action is the only way to succeed. For example, one scenario has the players confronting the ghost of a murdered woman. The scenario states that the only way to defeat the ghost is to get her to focus her attention on the murder weapon, so that her hatred of her killer consumes her. The problem with this overly specific ending is that the players can come up with loads of equally compelling variations on putting the ghost to rest. As written, the scenario is the roleplaying equivalent of an obstinate text adventure, and the players are reduced to shouting ideas until they hit upon the one that works. A good scenario should be flexible; let the GM run with whatever good plan the characters come up with.
(Two caveats. Firstly, this doesn’t mean scenarios should have a wishy-washy ‘anything the players come up with works’ ending. It just means that you shouldn’t script the ending so tightly that there’s no wiggle room. Secondly, it’s ok to have a tightly scripted, inflexible ending if the whole point of the scenario is to uncover that ending. Dread Cthulhu can only be banished if the players find all the clues leading to the correct version of the Ritual of Buggeroff, so the only way to succeed is to find and enact that ritual. In this case, the final confrontation is putting all the clues together to perform the ritual before Cthulhu eats them.)
PROVIDE A DRAMATIC CONCLUSION TO THE WHOLE PLOT
The finale is where you throw everything at the players. Everything’s coming to an end, so you don’t need to worry about consequences. Set the world on fire. Often, you’ll find yourself returning to the situation in the opening scene. The characters come full circle, returning to where they started, only now everything has changed.
Read back over the opening scene, where you stated the initial situation and gave the player characters their task. Read back over the other significant scenes and encounters. Have all the plots raised in those scenes come to a head? Is everything important brought together in the finale?
Make the finale as memorable as possible. It should be as intense and dramatic as any of the preceding scenes, if not more so.
GIVE SCOPE TO RESOLVE PLAYER SUBPLOTS
While you’re off blowing up the planet in the main plot, don’t forget all those juicy player subplots you set up when you wrote the characters. If Bob is secretly in love with Alice, then try to include some element in the finale that will encourage Bob to confess his true feelings. Something like ‘if we marry Alice off to the King of the Moon People, that’ll stop the Moon War’ works perfectly well. If one character’s whole gimmick is that they’re out to make money, then there should be some opportunity for the character to profit in the finale; if money plays no part in the finale, then that character may be left with nothing to do.
You don’t need to integrate the player subplots into the main plot, but you should keep them in mind. Don’t forget to give players a chance to resolve whatever they’ve been doing for the whole game – if one character’s main plot is that he wants to be court wizard, and has spent the last three hours talking about his ambition to be the new Court Wizard, then address this either in the final confrontation or else in an epilogue.
NEXT – A MISCELLANY OF TIPS AND TRICKS