RPG Rants: The Art of a Good Ending

Mass Effect 3 might have ripped the Internet in half.I’ve been morbidly fascinated by the train wreck that is the ending of Mass Effect 3. Even though I haven’t played a single Mass Effect game as of yet, I’m familiar with the franchise through my general habit of keeping tabs on what games Bioware makes and the fact that one of my friends has been inundating me with talk about the franchise lately. Since I haven’t played the games, I don’t really have much to say about the lackluster ending, but the shockwaves it has sent through the Internet have fascinated me and started me thinking about endings for RPGs in general, be they video games or tabletop games.

In the case of Mass Effect 3, the big problem with the ending seems to stem from the writers trying too hard to create a “deep” ending that would get people talking. In the process, they bypassed the typical peer review process and left a lot of diehard fans of the franchise feeling betrayed. A franchise that had done unprecedented work at making the players feel like they were actually making meaningful decisions ended with the only decision being what color explosion you wanted. In retrospect, they probably shouldn’t have tried so hard. Without such a flop for an ending, Mass Effect might have been the unquestioned king of western computer RPGs. It already would have been memorable due to its successes over the course of three games. Even with the ending as-is, it will still be hailed as a greatly successful franchise, but a lot of fans are left with a bad taste in their mouth. A terrible ending hurts a franchise more than a spectacular ending helps.

There’s a tendency in a lot of media to want to end with a bang. Endings are what form impressions in the audience’s minds. The Usual Suspects is a decent but relatively forgettable thriller up until the end, where it turns into a movie that you either absolutely love or totally loathe. In a one-off movie, book, or game, a solid ending is easier to achieve. Over the course of a long franchise, it gets harder and harder to manage. The desire to wrap up every loose end and bring back every character for a swan song is hard to ignore. An ending to a large franchise is almost like the creator’s love letter to an ongoing story they will miss dearly. The pressure to deliver something huge and memorable that defines the entire franchise is immense. In the case of Mass Effect 3, it was apparently too much.

When it comes to computer role-playing games, I usually stick to the Bioware and Obsidian D&D franchises, Baldur’s Gate and Neverwinter Nights. (I’ve started Dragon Age: Origins recently – we’ll see how that goes.) Both of those franchises have strong points and weak points to their endings.

Baldur’s Gate is an old series, and thus more simplistic than what came later. The first game gives you only one possible ending – you kill the bad guy and save the day. That wouldn’t fly by today’s standards, but it was fine at the time. The second game also gives you only one possible ending, but it’s the buildup to that ending that is satisfying. Baldur’s Gate II had a huge amount of character interaction, so by the end you felt like the NPCs were actually people in a way. The customization of the ending is largely based on a few snippets of dialogue as your group rallies around you, but it was really cool at the time.

The expansion pack, Throne of Bhaal, did give you a small handful of endings, in that you got to either become a god or continue the adventure at the end. The choice only impacted what video played at the end, but it was still pretty cool at the time. It was also a purely role-playing choice – your decision didn’t matter in-game, but let you decide how you wanted your story to culminate. Finally, Throne of Bhaal brought in epilogues for the characters in your party, so you got a tidbit about how they wound up after the adventure concluded.

As a series, I think Baldur’s Gate concluded really well. It was very simplistic compared to something like Mass Effect (or at least what people thought Mass Effect should have been at the end), but it showed you how your decisions had effected the characters around you and let you decide how you wanted to go out. Even though there are only three or four possible end movies, you didn’t feel like the choice had been taken out of your hands.

Neverwinter Nights has had much more problems with its endings. The first game featured only one possible ending, and it left a few big loose ends untied. Specifically, it left the fate of Aribeth de Tylmarande, who may have been dead or may have been imprisoned, completely up in the air. The campaign as a whole also ignored the possibility of you not wanting to save Neverwinter – even if you were the biggest bastard in the world, a paladin and her associates still put all their faith in you. The first expansion pack, Shadows of Undrentide, was a little better in that it left you banished in the Shadow Plane. It wasn’t great by any means, but it did drive players to the game’s intended use, which was developing user-created modules to decide what happened next.

Hordes of the Underdark, the second expansion set, was the best to date in the category of endings. First, it gave you a variety of choices as to how you could win the game from the stupidly naïve (make the archdevil go away and trust that he just won’t come back) to the insanely evil (conquer the eighth ring of Hell, make the archdevil your butler, and wage war against the Forgotten Realms). It allowed you to end things with an epic battle or to literally talk the enemy to death. Then the epilogue allowed you to see how your choices affected every major player in the game, including your allies and enemies. This had all the elements you look for in an RPG ending: player control, a sense of finality, and the ability to pretend that your character had long-lasting impact beyond the scope of the story being told.

Neverwinter Nights 2 was a mixed bag. On the one hand, it did have a Hordes of the Underdark-style epilogue. On the other hand, due to time constraints, said epilogue was terribly done in terms of quality. Moreover, it threw in a lame attempt at a cliffhanger with a “rocks fall, everybody dies” scenario that was probably a stab at attempting to throw in a heroic sacrifice but instead felt cheap because there wasn’t any buildup to the sacrifice. The expansion, Mask of the Betrayer, was much better in this regard and gave you multiple options as to how you resolved your quest. The second expansion, Storm of Zehir, also repeated the Hordes of the Underdark example, although that game is lackluster in terms of storytelling so it’s hard to really care what happens to everybody in the epilogue.

Based on that breakdown, there are a few key things players seem to want in an RPG epilogue: player choice, a lack of loose ends, and a feeling that the adventure didn’t happen in a vacuum, even if the series itself is over and the setting won’t be used again. Mass Effect 3 is raising quite a furor because it didn’t really touch on any of these. A game that included a historic level of player choice completely took it away at the end, failed to tie up all the loose ends (though admittedly, doing that is probably impossible considering the scope of the games), and left everybody wondering what happened next. Without even a satisfactory explanation as to what happened in the final cut scene, nobody knows how the player’s actions altered the setting beyond that.

Overall, ending a campaign is another area where a tabletop game is much, much easier than a computer game can ever manage. Provided that the GM doesn’t railroad things, the players can choose virtually any path they want to complete the game. If they deviate from the plot, that alone can drive other plots. Imagine Neverwinter Nights if instead of fighting the Luskan threat when they attacked Neverwinter, the hero instead evacuated the city, fell back to Waterdeep, and prepared a massive army to take on Morag and her horde. That’s not in the programming for Neverwinter Nights, but it is possible in a tabletop game.

As in computer games, loose ends in a tabletop game can sometimes become too much to wrap up entirely. Luckily, because a tabletop game isn’t being played by hundreds of thousands of players, the GM can gauge player interest and base decisions on that. If players don’t about a subplot, it can be quietly dropped while the parts they do care about become increasingly emphasized.

The one area where tabletop games don’t really match up well with computer RPGs is when it comes to an epilogue. Sure, a GM can state what happens to each ally and enemy for about half an hour, but that becomes boring quickly. A computer game can play a cut scene and wrap things up much more effectively, using graphics to speed things along.

I’ve never done an epilogue in one of my tabletop games, but I do have a way to emphasize that players still feel like they have affected the world: I run future campaigns in the same setting. Over the past fifteen years or so, my setting has seen multiple PCs become goddesses and one PC has stepped down as a goddess to resume her adventuring career. An unspeakable evil was released which led to the destruction of multiple realms. A magic school has been founded, churches have been built, and leaders have risen and fallen. Because each subsequent campaign picks up after the last one has been completed, NPCs get brought back repeatedly and the strongholds the PCs built remain a part of the landscape. This is similar to what some computer RPGs manage when they move to a new hero in the same setting (for example, Hordes of the Underdark refers to the hero from the Neverwinter Nights original campaign), but it can be made more explicit because you don’t have to worry about the thousands of players who didn’t get that ending.

Even in a tabletop game, doing a good ending is hard. It’s tough to keep the same level of excitement about a campaign a few years in as there was when it first began. Computer games can make a stab at that feeling, but remain limited due to their very nature. From the sounds of it, Mass Effect is the closest anyone has come to really catching the scope and breadth of options a good tabletop RPG can have, but even that franchise didn’t manage to hit on all cylinders at the end, as the scope of what they were trying to do seems to have been too big for the designers to handle.

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