One of the great things about role-playing games is that they are a shared story-telling experience. No matter what the DM might have plotted out as a story arc, as soon as the players get their characters into the action things are going to change. This is an expected part of the experience. The outcome is not set (although it’s a pretty good bet that the heroes will be victorious). But what if the players and DM set the end before the game ever begins?
Imagine that five players and a DM get together to begin a new level 1 campaign. Before anyone talks about character concepts or story ideas, the DM begins with the end. He gives a very high-level overview of how he sees that campaign ending at epic level. The players are then encouraged to help shape this final battle. They each get to talk about their character (the ones they’re about to create) and how they see these characters participating.
Before anyone even opens character builder or fills out a character sheet, this final epic battle is described in great detail. The heroes save the world and defeat the evil on the very first night. Now they’re ready to begin.
Knowing where the story will eventually go gives the players something to work towards. The steps along the way are not mapped out or set in stone. It’s likely that the DM doesn’t have a clue how he’s going to get the PCs from level 1 to the battle they’ve just described at level 30, but he knows how it’s going to play out when it eventually happens.
The players know that their actions will have consequences. These PCs are destined for greatness, there’s no denying that. All they have to do now is get there.
By giving the players a glimpse of the story’s ending, and even more importantly by letting them help shape that final battle, they become much more ingrained in the storytelling. They’re less likely to wait for the DM to tell them what the next adventure is going to be. They’ll likely volunteer ideas.
If for example, one of the PCs is a Paladin he might have used his Holy Avenger during a pivotal moment of the epic battle to save the world. Now that player (and the DM) knows that as some point he needs to find a Holy Avenger. Since it’s such a rare item the quest for this weapon could span a full level or two of the camping arc. But it’s necessary in order or the final battle to play out as described on that first night.
In the unlikely circumstance that one of the PCs is killed, the party will have to figure out how to bring their fallen comrade back to life. After all, he’s got to be there at the end to fire the arrow through the red dragon’s eye. The local clergy may raise this PC from the dead, but in exchange for such a powerful blessing the party now has to undertake a dangerous side-quest. This kind of thing gives the DM tremendous flexibility to move the story in all kinds of interesting directions while still moving everything closer and closer to that final epic confrontation.
This also gives the players a good reason to look at the epic destinies now, at level 1, and see which one they think their PC is destined to take. They don’t have to stick to this decision, but even just looking ahead now gives them a reason to behave a certain way or undertake certain actions.
Any gaming group that does try this approach to their next campaign must make a very important decision from the outset – do the PCs know what the players know? Do the PCs have foreknowledge of their level 30 climax? Your answer to this question will definitely change the tone of the campaign.
If the heroes saw themselves saving the world and defeating the vilest creatures imaginable how would that shape their development? Maybe they saw the future in a dream, a prophetic visions or some kind of time travel ritual; it’s not nearly as important to explain how the information was conveyed just that the PCs saw it and believed it. They know that no matter what happens they will have a part to play in these world-shaping events.
This foreknowledge may instill a sense of bravado and overconfidence in some PCs; others might see it as a curse knowing that this responsibility is looming ahead in their future; while others may believe that their future is not set and that their actions can change what they saw (for better or worse). By letting the PCs know the outcome of their epic confrontation you add another level of complexity to the game that doesn’t exist if it’s just the players that know the ending.
The DM and players should also discuss whether or not the epic battle they described at the beginning is absolutely what will happen or is just a really strong possibility? Can the PCs influence the outcome and change things? I guess it’s really a decision for each group to make for themselves. I think that if the epic battle is set in stone and that everyone understands this going in, the game will be better for it. Creating and describing the epic ending was a shared storytelling experience. This should give all the players a sense of ownership. It’s not a matter of the players trying to mess with continuity, it’s the players trying to do their part to make things happen the way they described them.
Have you ever played in a campaign where the end was the beginning? Did the PCs know that this was their fate or was it just something that the players understood? If the players knew the outcome were they able to change things?