Maintaining the Horror Campaign: Chapter 6
Maintaining the Horror Campaign is a series of articles intended to not only make your players afraid of the dark, but to keep them in a state of fear through the length of a campaign. The Introduction , Chapter 1 , Chapter 2, Chapter 3, Chapter 4 and Chapter 5 can be read at their respective links. In today’s article, we’ll be discussing the precarious plot device of cliffhangers, and how to jump off of them.
Deep Throat: Mister Mulder, why are those like yourself, who believe in the existence of extraterrestrial life on this Earth, not dissuaded by all the evidence to the contrary?
Mulder: Because, all the evidence to the contrary is not entirely dissuasive.
– from The X-Files episode, ‘Deep Throat’
“Oh, no. No thank you. My game doesn’t use Cliffhangers. They may be appropriate for Television, say, but not for my game. When my players are done, it is time to pass out the loot and calculate the experience points. Any time I try to end the game on a cliffhanger it feels contrived. Anyhow, the end of the night is when everyone is tired ready to head off to bed. Who wants to listen to the Game Master ramble on about such and such a plot thread that’s going to happen next week, when we’re going to do it next week?”
That is a fair assessment. Cliffhangers are challenging to get right, and fight against the desires of your players. What is on the forefront of most player’s minds at the end of the game are the questions “Did we win?”, “Did I tidy up any loose ends?” and “I wonder if there’s any cheesecake left in the fridge, or if Gary swallowed the other half?”
Meanwhile, there are a number of very good reasons why you should deny your players the satisfaction of a perfect ending. They are:
1). It’s boring. Ending your game week after week with “…and the bad guy falls to the ground dead. You gain N+(4/N) experience points, where N is equal to the number of experience points you got last week…” can make the game predictable. And when the game is predictable, players don’t need to do it anymore, because they know what will happen already.
2). It doesn’t encourage them to think of the game when they are not playing the game. And if your player’s aren’t thinking about the game when they are not playing, they are less invested in their characters. We talked about player investment in Chapter 3. One of the take-aways was that you can’t get good horror without your players caring about their characters.
3). It makes players feel like they can enter and leave the game when they want to. There’s no incentive to come back next week. Sure, there’s another leg of the adventure, but players will assume they can skip a week or two, that whatever they missed will be wrapped up, and they can jump back in the game later as if nothing happened. As Game Masters, we do want to encourage our players to jump in the game at any time. But if players leave and re-enter the game on a regular basis, the result is destructive.
4). It gives you, the Game Master, nothing to work with. A proper cliffhanger can set yourself up with something to wonder about between games. Good cliffhangers can work like writing prompts, giving you a leaping point for you to build your adventure around. Every time you walk away from the table without a lead-in to your next story, you are starting your adventure off from scratch. Again.
5). It tells you nothing about how your players will respond to the next adventure. When you throw in a cliffhanger, you can gauge your player’s expectations. Let’s say at the end of a fight at a necromancer’s graveyard, you described that, as the players walk away, one last hand pushes through the dirt. You’re players might be curious, or apprehensive. They may chatter among themselves. They may scoff at the idea, or call foul. They may not care at all. All of this is important information about your game, and what is coming up. If the idea sounds great to the players, then you know you’re doing something right. If the players aren’t interested, or they are insulted by the idea, then you have time before the next game to tinker with it and make it work, or find some way to jump past it fast and get back to the game you want to play.
The problem with cliffhangers isn’t that they aren’t appropriate, or don’t help you establish your game and embellish your world. The problem is that cliffhangers can be so damned daunting to sneak into your game. They ask you to cut from the flow of the game, jump into the future, see where you are going, show a glimpse of it, then stop, pack up and say goodbye to your players while they, hopefully, are stranded with a number of questions that you are unwilling to answer. That requires a combination of separation, foresight and discipline. The sort of qualities that even the best of leaders can struggle with. What chance do you have to employ those qualities in your Saturday Night GURPS game?
It doesn’t have to be that hard. There are many ways to launch into a cliffhanger at the end of your adventure. And if you’re aware of your options, slipping into one should be as natural as deciding which shirt you should wear today.
Imagine that when you are playing the game, your players are watching the events through the lens of a camera. The Cutaway is when, at the end of a game, the camera pulls away from the heros (your players) and focuses on something that will influence the next episode. This may often be what the bad guys are doing behind the scenes. Or perhaps the scene involves a tense discussion with the heroes benefactors. Or maybe it’s a quick establishing shot of character the players haven’t seen for a long time walking into town.
This is what a lot of game masters assume they need to do when giving their player’s a cliffhanger. That’s probably because it happens so often in television shows and at the end of episodic movies, that it feels like a natural way to tie your games together. If you’re a great actor and/or storyteller this is an excellent way to hook your players into the next game. Of course it is one of many…
The Continuing Mystery
For some inspiration for this article, I went to The X-Files for some help. At first blush, watching the first six episodes of the X-Files doesn’t sound like a good lesson in how to use a cliffhanger. After all, wasn’t the first season of The X-Files more episodic, and less to do with an ongoing story? That’s true, but The X-Files employed many devices to keep their audiences watching. One of them was “The Continuing Mystery”.
In The X-Files Universe, there’s an evil government conspiracy to hide some terrible truth from the general public. But what is that mystery? Is it that there are aliens among us, and that our government is trying to protect us from knowing to much about them? Or is the government using alien technology from downed U.F.O.s to make ultimate weapons? Or is all of the weirdness in the X-Files a smoke screen for more sinister activities, dragging conspiracy theorists through a different set of hoops than the right ones. The audience is never given a complete answer. Whenever the show opens a door, and offers an explanation, another door is slammed and locked, leaving the viewers further entrenched in mystery.
The Continuing Mystery Cliffhanger doesn’t need to be an obvious cut scene. It can just be a gentle reminder that while they have been making progress, they have yet to solve the crisis. Folded up letters at the end of an adventure, a disturbing mark on the skin of a tribe of mercenaries, or just an off comment from an NPC can be enough to stop the players from giving each other high fives, and get thinking about what they need to do stop this cycle.
Instead of dwelling on plot details, you can give your players food for thought. This can be as simple as having a non-player character wonder out loud who the main villain might be, or as elaborate as a hand out which contains a series of puzzles giving hints to where a secret door may be located.
Another cliffhanger that is not a cliffhanger. If you spent the evening hunting a pack of werewolves, and they took you and your party down, only to run away when the town guard arrived, what would you look forward to doing next week?
For some players, success incentives them to be more successful. But a lot of players, nothing gets them ready to jump back in the game than a single failure. Game masters need to be careful about how they use this cliffhanger. If the party keeps failing, they’ll eventually give up.
Interrupting the Action
The players have been embroiled in a tactical encounter for over an hour. What you thought would be a quick sortie became a dragged out fight. Even worse, it is getting close to 10pm, and people have to head home and going to bed. What do you do?
Make it worse. If you can’t wrap up the fight now, make it obvious. If the players appear to be doing well, have the opposition get a stable of new reinforcements. If the players are pinned down, give them some back up from the local militia, or have them “accidentally” uncover a crate full of healing potions. If both sides are matched, spill another conflict in the middle of it, like a flash flood that both sides have to respond to. Switch gears, change the nature of the fight, then call it a night. This trick can work wonders, turning an exhausting encounter into something exciting to think about on the way home.
Got a sticky problem with the plot? Do you not know how to resolve it? Present it to the players, then end the game. If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around it, then it should send the players into loops as well. This has the advantage of giving yourself time to think it over, but also a deadline to resolve the issue. If you’re attentive, you may overhear your players argue out a solution to your problem in their out of game conversations. Feel free to take advantage of their banter, and pretend their solution was the correct answer all along.
This isn’t so much a cliffhanger, as it is a way to be better prepared to include more cliffhangers. Many game masters map out there adventure, outlining where they want their players to go, and what possible outcomes they believe the players may encounter. You could plan for your adventure to end on a scene, with a cliffhanger provided for next week, but sometimes reality isn’t that simple. What if the game runs short and the prepared game master is still in the middle of his notes before he breaks for the night? What if it runs long and he;s been pushing through future material?
One way you can deal with this is to have a few back-up cliffhangers ready in your notes. Like pre-planned random encounters, these cliffhangers can either be tailored to your adventure, ready to set off at any time (such as a ranger who had been trailing the party, and has just caught up now), or an independent mini-adventure that you don’t mind beginning with next week (such as a goblin raiding party wrecking a nearby caravan). With a bit of depth, you can add a vivid sense of realism to your world, and keep it tucked away in your notepad for emergencies.