For those truly exciting moments in your game, a healthy dose of tension is required. That racing heart, sweaty palms and holding your breath tension as you send your d20 skidding across the table hoping for that magical roll to save your character's life.
And when the d20 stops and the groans or the cheers rise up from the table, the DMs job is not done.The end is near. So very near. But how you tackle the end is as important as everything else you've done so far.
In part 1, I equated an encounter with healthy tension to the game Jenga - a constant build up of tension with increasing difficulty until CRASH, the entire structure comes tumbling down. Graphically, it looks something like this:
While there are some encounters that come out this way in your typical dungeon crawl, most of them end up with quite a different look:
This is your standard encounter. Your party runs into a band of orcs in the middle of a heated argument over whether Pikachu could beat up Han Solo. When the players pipe in that Miss Piggy would take them both out, the gloves come off and the fight is on! At first, the orcs look pretty tough, but after a few rounds, one of them goes down. And then another. And another. And another. And I keep saying "and another" until all the orcs are dead and the players can claim their justly won treasure of bootleg Sailor Moon DVDs.
If the first graph represents a game of Jenga, the second graph is hangman. At the start you have no idea what phrase is sitting before you. You take a few guesses, get some wrong, but then one letter brings the whole game into focus and all you need to do now is list off the rest of the letters one by one, over and over, until the entire puzzle lays before you.
Some genius named Merv Griffin decided hangman was pretty awesome and turned it into a TV show. Add in a hot model to write the letters out and suddenly hangman becomes Wheel of Fortune. The only difference was that there was only so long the audience could stand watching a contestant list all the letters in "Supercalafragilisticexpialadocious" when it was obvious that was the word after the third letter was revealed. Thus, we have the "out", where the contestant can just solve the puzzle and save poor Vanna from running marathons across the stage to turn letters. Or touch them. I haven't watched Wheel of Fortune in a while. I assume by now, Vanna is off to the side in a rocking chair with a Wiimote in hand to shake the letters she wants to reveal.
While hangman can drag on and on, Wheel of Fortune can move from one solved puzzle to the next exciting letter turning adventure in the blink of an eye. Except it takes more than just a blink of the eye and that's why it works so well.
A Short Drop and a Sudden Stop
Since we're talking about hangman, we'll include Commander Norrington's witty quip about a hangman's noose since it also describes how to handle end of combat tension. The whole point about building up tension is to let it all out in a sudden burst that doesn't last long. That's why Texas Hold 'Em allows the "All-In" option. That's why so many villains meet their end in huge explosions or unorthodox decapitations at the end of the movie. It's sudden, it's brutal and it spells their end in a final, satisfying discharge. (the movie ending, not necessarily the poker players)
If you build up tension just to slowly release it like a leaky tire, the effect of the tension is wasted. It's part of the Peak/End rule. To quickly summarize, the peak/end rule says an experience (such as an encounter) is quantified in a person's mind from two main factors: the feeling at the high point of the experience and the feeling at the end of it. So in addition to building up tension to create a high point, we need to have a great ending to go along with it.
On Wheel of Fortune, the audience doesn't know the contestants from the average person on the street, but after each puzzle solved, Pat takes the time to go over, congratulate the winner and tell them how much money they've won. When the final puzzle is solved, everyone wants to see the winner jump around screaming, tackle Pat to the ground and then hop in their new convertible with their family and do doughnuts on the set. It just wouldn't be the same without it.
Adventures as a whole generally have this part down. After you beat the final bad guy, the adventure is over. The characters get a festive welcome by the grateful townsfolk, they collect some extra treasure to drool over and the DM closes out the session on a high. It takes about 5 minutes. Encounters on the other hand, usually go out with a whimper, waiting for the last enemy to fall and then taking a short rest where everyone counts up healing surges. If you're lucky, you might find some treasure, but otherwise the DM continues toward the next event.
When to End
Besides having a good ending, the Peak/End rule tells us one more thing. That after our encounter has reached its high point, everything else from that point on should be working towards the satisfying ending. If we're not working towards our ending and we don't hit a new high, we're only stalling the game and letting the tension leak out. Usually we do this because we don't have a plan on how to end the encounter. We go back and forth in our heads on how much longer to keep the encounter going because maybe one of the last orcs will get a lucky hit in and make the players use an extra healing surge when they take their short rest. There should be a more compelling reason to continue with combat than "Gee, I hope that orc gets lucky enough to do something completely inconsequential!"
Once you've hit the peak of your encounter, you need to keep your eye our for a good time to end the encounter. You don't have to end the battle immediately. Give it a round or two for the players to really turn the tide of the combat in their favor. After all, something else might happen or give you an idea to provide an even higher peak for the encounter.
You also don't want to end the battle because things are getting boring. If that happens, you've waited too long and the feeling at the end of the battle will not be as high as it should be. Instead, you want to look for the opportunity to end the encounter with a bang. Look for a high damage roll or critical. A fireball that consumes half of the remaining monsters. Even an intimidation check. Let that attack be extremely effective and use it as a catalyst for the encounter to draw to a close.
Planning For Success
We know our encounters should have a satisfactory end after the climax. What's lacking in most games is planning that ending out beforehand. It's all a DM can do to put together an encounter, let alone plan out an end to it. Especially because players will try their utmost to disrupt any plans you may have put in place. But if you have a plan in place about a possible climax and ending, or at least a few options in your head, you're that much closer to having that dream encounter. Here are some possible ways to close out your encounter quickly, efficiently and satisfactorily.
- I'm calling it. Time of death is 3:00.This is a popular method of avoiding drawn out, predetermined combats. Just say the combat is over, maybe dock an extra healing surge off of the remaining characters, and move on. This is what we do when the rest of the combat is going to be too boring to bother with. It also leads to players cycling through all their encounter powers, maybe a daily or two, and then telling the DM that they're done, let's just skip the rest. While it's better than slogging through another half hour of meaningless rolls, we can do better. To make this method work, a good narrative is required so that the combat can end in a gratifying manner. Take the time to highlight one or two fantastic moves the players pulled off in the last moments of combat, how the trolls got driven back into the lava pit screaming curses at the players, how the bandits tried to break out of the party's trap, but the knight held his ground and boxed them in, etc.
- Charge ... Backwards! Despite years of playing experience telling us otherwise, most monsters can fight smarter than "to the death". Fleeing is always an option. A great way to do this is to overpower the encounter, knowing that the monsters will flee when sufficiently threatened. By overpowering the encounter, the tension is ratcheted up immediately, but it will only drain as many resources as a normal encounter since the creatures will flee part way through. There are a few points to consider with fleeing monsters.
- Wounded monsters can regroup. Wounded monsters will run to somewhere. They will heal and possibly regroup or join forces with the monsters from another encounter. This is not a bad thing, far from it. Just make sure you take it into account when planning your adventures.
- Make sure they can flee. If they can't and the party is in a take no prisoners mood, the monsters may be forced to fight to the death and that could make the encounter much more difficult for the party then you intended.
- Players don't like unfinished business. They may want to finish wiping out the monsters, or maybe they're worried about what happens if any of the monsters get away. Chasing the monsters down can be just as monotonous as sitting around and waiting for them to drop. Quite often, it's a question of how many bow shots can I take before they're out of range. Instead, a chase should be handled in a few ways.
- The DM turns it into a whole new encounter. This can build on all the tension you've already built. A chase scene can be an exciting way to track down the monster carrying the macguffin, a henchman who's reporting to his master or just someone the characters want to destroy. Alternatively, reinforcements, traps or an ambush might have been just around the corner waiting and pushed the players into something they didn't want.
- Most get away. The monsters may drop a portcullis behind them or close a barred door. They may scatter in different directions. Or simply disappear. Whatever the case, the monsters have a way of making good on their escape besides sprinting and hoping for the best. In these cases though, it's not often that all the monsters escape. A few kobolds caught on the wrong side of the closing portcullis and facing the party with a panicked look on their faces will let the grinning barbarian and the pyromaniac wizard have a last bit of payback before things come to a close.
- Where do you think you're going? Smart characters might be able to cut off all avenues of escape, like closing that portcullis the kobolds wanted to run through before they got a chance. Which leads us to:
- Surrender! A tried and true resort to any hopeless situation. Make sure a good amount of grovelling and pleading is included. The act of surrendering and rounding up the prisoners should be the focus here. As some of the monsters start to throw down their weapons, one of them might make a desperate charge at the characters. He is brutally put down by the characters and that's enough for to send all the swords clattering on the ground. Keep the ensuing interrogation of prisoners until after the commercial break. (see below)
- Parley. More than any other option, you need to do this before the end of combat grind occurs. If the players are in a hugely dominant position, they are more interested in having the opponents surrender than to bargain with them. Monsters should bargain when they are in a losing position, but still have enough power to cause damage to the party and make them at least consider talking this out in order to save their strength for future combats. Also, they need to offer something extremely tempting for the players to even consider this as a good option. The offer of a juicy morsel will put a new tension in the party as the fight against their own desire to bring justice to their enemies.
- Wonder Minion Powers ... Activate! Want to draw your combats to a quick close without the slog? Minionize your monsters on the fly. Start having them drop like flies. You'll see comic book action handle events all the time. A supervillain group rarely gets dropped one by one. They always seem to put up a good fight then get taken down nearly simultaneously. This will not only put a quick end to combat, but it can be done without letting the party know you've actually changed anything. Of all the methods, this is the one to use when the battle has begun to drag on too long. A sudden blood bath is just the remedy needed for the late combat blahs to get everyone excited again! Whether you decide on a 1 stage or 2 stage minion is irrelevant. It's a way to get it going.
- The Out. Sometimes, you can provide a way to end combat that is totally unrelated to directly killing the bad guys. Stopping the ritual, destroying a macguffin or surviving for four rounds may bring about the end of the combat and utilize any of the options above. It also directly relates the players' activities to a sudden end of combat.
One last lesson we can learn from Wheel of Fortune is when to take a commercial break. It is always, always, always after the jumping and screaming when a puzzle is solved. It's not in the middle of a puzzle. It's not right after they find out that Mary from Boston holds the world record for longest time spent flossing her teeth. It's after the puzzle is finished. In fact, idle chit chat, the somewhat necessary, but low point of the show, is always immediately after the commercial break.
Consider making a clean break after each encounter. Treat each encounter like an adventure. Focus on the rewards of victory and what they party gets to look forward to next. You don't end an adventure worrying about restocking your supplies and finding a good inn for the night. Don't end an encounter worrying about healing surges and 5 minute rests. Do a treasure search, tease them with a juicy tidbit from one of the survivors and then force a commercial break on the players. Refresh drinks, hit the bathroom and then pick it up afterward. If they're excited enough, the break will be short, even if it's only 30 seconds and you're back into the groove. (credit where it's due, Angry DM hinted at this idea here)
With these tools, you can now end an encounter with as much fun as you had running it. At the very least, we've now changed our standard encounter model to this. We'll work on fixing it even more next time.