Foreshadowing and Storytelling – Going Epic – 4 of 4
So now, we’ve got all the pieces in play: We’ve got well-rounded characters and well-rounded villains; we’ve got a series of goals for villains and players alike that intersect at all appropriate points while incorporating other PC’s; we’ve got these coming together in a story arc that melts seamlessly into a series of diverse adventures that take the party members from peons to legends; finally, along the way, we’ve made sure that the villain and his lieutenants will have survived long enough and been sufficiently nasty to warrant true and epic hatred. A few tips for laying out the path and coming to a close, and we’ll have built a game that can be truly called epic. It comes down to Storytelling (which is the subtle art of distributing information in a way that is pleasing to others, by my definition).
Perhaps one of the biggest temptations for myself in telling my epic campaign story was to tip my hand. Many of you may have players that seem to bull’s-eye your plot twists and turns before they’re even out of your mouth. Other players might require neon signs and a leaflet to figure out what’s going on in your campaign… in the end, I offer:
CAST A SHADOW
(but don’t be afraid of the dark)
This is what your 9th grade English teacher was talking about when she was talking about foreshadowing. Leaving appropriate hints as to what’s going on is necessary for your player’s enjoyment of the game. While you don’t want to spoil any major plot twists, you’ll find that a sudden about-face or surprise ending is only effective if it is consistent with character (per Part 2 and Part 3 of these articles) and something that the players at least had a chance of guessing at.
No one reads a mystery novel that doesn’t at least give some clues as to who done it, even if those are all red herrings. Trickling these out over time allows the characters to feel like they’re making progress, and that the story is evolving around them. Dump too much info on them at once (often at the end) and you may find they don’t understand or even care what you’re trying to tell them about.
You may be blessed with players who are so invested in your story as to predict any plot twist you throw at them. Planting minor seeds that may seem meaningless at the time due to their context will allow you as a GM to gloat a bit, but also act as a reference point to your players that your clever conclusion was long time in the coming. In the end, I say “Don’t be afraid of the dark,” because sometimes with clever players or a very simple plot, you may need to throw in a few red herrings or limit a little more information to keep the mystery alive. Players are good at blurting out suspicions, but if you can keep your poker face, they’ll doubt themselves enough to remain in suspense. Make ample use of the phrases like “Interesting theory” “You think so?” and “Uh… what are you talking about?”
Shake your head and smirk. They hate that.
I’ll admit, that sometimes your players will think up ideas that will blow you away. Their story is so much better than yours, and is so much more compelling you wish you had thought of it. My advice is steal it and claim it as your own. They’ll feel so great about figuring it all out, they’ll never notice your frantic scribbling. Careful though, if you’ve built your game properly, there may be too much reconciliation to achieve to maintain logical consistency. Steal plots with extreme caution.
WHEN YOU GET TO THE END, STOP.
When that well nurtured final villain falls at the hand of the heroes, describe their death throes and the general awesomeness of the characters, perhaps throw in an epilogue, and then stop. Copy or print final versions of all the characters, put them in a binder with your notes, and put it on the shelf. The following week, play a board game or try a different system, and let the story rest. Then, if your players just won’t leave you alone, ponder at your leisure whether a mini-arc would be justified to take the characters out of retirement. Such a mini-arc would have all the principles above, but would consist of a short and sweet adventure with new separate closure. While not an epic victory, it does keep goals set for both player and GM, and gives you a definite end point to shelve the campaign again. Come back as often as you need to, but maintain closure as a goal and a satisfying victory as a reward for a game well played.
These tips are far from rocket surgery, but represent lessons I’ve learned from games I ran when I was a kid to games I run now. More than anything, however, remember that while sometimes an ending can mean saying goodbye to a loved character or dynamic, a story without an ending isn’t much of a story, and there is always that next story just waiting to be told, right around the corner.
I hope you enjoyed our series on the elements of building a truly epic campaign. We’ll put this one on the shelf for now, but we may bring it out of retirement if need be. Here are the links to the previous installments: