The End Is The Beginning

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on August 22, 2011

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?

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1 C.J. August 22, 2011 at 11:12 am

I was thinking about something along these lines last week.

Find out the general classes people will be playing before hand, and make lvl 30 pregens with no names for everybody with some decent/awesome stats and items and have them START an adventure at the end. Like maybe even throw them right in the middle of the battle already damaged the beast, and taken damage, some encounter powers used etc.

They may win, they may lose; if they win the final opponent sends them back in time somehow, or it’s all in someone’s dream etc, if they lose some story element NPC (that they haven’t met till now) brings them back from the dead. Or maybe reincarnation by a ritual.

I would probably work in that this is one POSSIBLE future, and allow the players to “reincarnate” as whatever class etc they want after the battle.

2 Kiel Chenier August 22, 2011 at 11:27 am

I’m not as keen on such an ending, as it implies the characters are innately special and pre-destined for greatness. It tastes of anticlimax. Random character death puts a kink into that. It’s just my opinion, but I dislike a game where players feel their characters will be entitled to things.

Still, foreshadowing an ‘endgame’ situation is always fun. Perhaps, instead of an epic battle where the heroes emerge victorious, they instead are privy to the end of the world cataclysm, being destroyed. They now know how the world will end, and perhaps have a chance to stop it.

Plus, if/when they finally do change the outcome of such a disaster, it doesn’t have to mean the end of the game. What if they’ve only postponed the inevitable, or played right into the villain’s hand? This way, once they reach the final epic battle there won’t be any disappointment if it doesn’t live up to how they imagined that first ‘final battle’ was described.

3 Phantasmavore August 22, 2011 at 2:15 pm

I’ve never played in a campaign where the DM took the tact you posit, but upon reading your post I sure wish I had. The narrative trope has bene used to good effect in comic books and tv/film, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be brought into our shared narrative game worlds. Its a surefire way to add a dose of guaranteed epic to a campaign, and I know that playing through or co-creating an endgame scenario at the start of a campaign would definitely help me sink my teeth into my character’s backstory and focus on the possibilities concerning his epic destiny and how to get him there. It’d add a certain flavor a la the protagonists from Dragonlance or Forgotten Realms godwars novels that’d make a home campaign pop off the table, so to speak.

4 Ameron August 22, 2011 at 2:58 pm

Another take on this kind of story-telling device that I’ve seen used before is that the PCs “see” some epic battle and aren’t sure if it’s them or what. It’s usually something that happened in the distant past and these are now the souls of those warriors born again in new bodies getting ready to do battle with the enemy once again. The final battle may not play out anything like the previous one did, but they know how momentous it is (or can be).

Of course, using your suggestion it could be a battle that will happen in the future and these guys are now forced to mature again. The villain hopes that they’ll get killed before the final confrontation so that he’ll win the next time they fight. Making any epic battle a “possible” future (rather than a certainty) keeps the players fearful that their PC could die. If they know that he’ll be there at the end then they might take that knowledge for granted and just be overly reckless.

@Kiel Chenier
I only think it would be anti-climatic if the PCs “see” their future. I for one would not go this route. I’d have the players know what’s coming but the characters themselves are completely unaware. It’s up to the players to keep this in mind when role-paying. Not something that every group could do well, but a more advanced table should find it an interesting challenge.

In the event that the PCs do see their future, maybe the epic battle isn’t resolved on that first day. Maybe the DM intentionally leaves it as a huge cliffhanger. Now the players have to work up from levels 1-30 before they get to see how the final encounter finishes? Do they live? Do they die? We’ll all find out together in 30 levels. Talk about a tease.

I think the real success or failure of this kind of storytelling comes down to the willingness of the players to become involved in the direction of the story. If the players just sit back and let the DM do everything (which is how most games work) then they miss the point.

I’d want the players to take some initiative and lead the story in different directions. The guy playing the Paladin should keep trying to drive the story towards getting that holy avenger. That kind of thing. By putting the end at the beginning it should also serve to keep flaky players interested in getting to epic and not just bail after a few levels in favour of a newer character.

5 Rabbit is wise August 22, 2011 at 6:12 pm

I dont like this idea… As a player I like figuring out how the events of the world around me are going to conspire to bring me to save the world against some unknown enemy…. As a Dm I dont like to box myself in like that.

This whole thing sounds like someone turned on the last 15 minutes of LOTR finds out that Frodo throws the ring into the volcano. NOw go walk around for 8 and a half hours of screen time till you get to the ending. oh lets add a few battles here and there to make things interesting…

No thanks I’d rather not know how the movie ends

6 C.J. August 22, 2011 at 8:07 pm

Well also, just because they fight this beast or end boss or whatever now doesn’t mean it’ll actually even ever happen.

Or you could do a different take. How about like I said pregen lvl 30s, massive battle, you win/lose (doesn’t matter) then the players are flung into the future and forced to be lvl 1 and start from there. Maybe the battle was in the past, like you said, and really has no bearing on the adventure except to change the regular “meet in a tavern” beginning to something a little more extravagant.

7 Sunyaku August 23, 2011 at 12:33 am

This is an interesting idea… I personally prefer to let the ending be open to variation. Set up a web of conflicts, and give the players the option to choose their destiny (at least within the scope of the defined web).

8 Chris August 24, 2011 at 1:56 am

I’ve actually used this once or twice in the past. In both cases, though, it was just one or two of the players I could trust to create and run a truly interesting character and operate within the very broad confines that the conclusion set.

A halfling possessed by the spirits of twelve long dead heroes and a ranger with a destiny were both characters that I worked closely with my players to design, and the other players worked around them to create a LOTR style feel. It was a lot of fun.

9 Zid April 9, 2014 at 2:26 pm

I was just thinking of something like that a few days ago, when i read another article.

The szenario was about the final battle in a war that startet just a few years ago, with nobody on both sides see it coming so fast. The players are merly soldiers in the support track in one of the armies far away from the actual battlefield, but with a good look at it. When the enemy summoned an overhelming evil (i thought about something Tarraske-Level like), the NPC Friend of the PCs get his Hand on a wish-ring and mumbled something like: I wish we would have known earlier!

Well… you know how that worked out. Suddenly the PCs find themselves a few years in the past, still knowing what will happend to the countries in a not so distant future.

After reading the post again, it’s a kind of high-fantasy-terminator mash-up. Duh!

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