December 12, 2010

Hook, Line, and Sinker Part 4: The Climax

You set the hook by appealing to what drives the characters. You kept them on the line by putting that hook at the end of a series of smaller, more focused challenges. You designed those challenges with a series of smaller hooks and choices. Now, at the end of the game, you need the climactic final confrontation, you need to sink it and bring them back for your next adventure or campaign.

The climax is one of the most important parts of a story, and when it’s missing, people can tell.  In games, players often make their own climaxes, remembering the most iconic moments that present themselves during the game. The problem is that’s the relying on luck method, and this series is all about planning out awesome games.

When it comes to design, every adventure and campaign needs its own climactic encounter. That encounter, in order to give it prime memory real estate, needs to be the last challenge of the night. Beyond that, it needs a handful of things to improve its chances of success.

The climactic encounter should have the highest stakes of the entire adventure or campaign. One set of stakes that’s perfect for the climax is of course the life, or at least story importance, of the player characters. Lethality of some sort should always be in the game, but during the climax, life and death become a genuinely interesting set of stakes due to the fact that failure by being removed from the campaign can have far reaching effects on the shared narrative. Another perfect stake in the climax is the hook itself: the ownership of the McGuffin, the secret, the revenge, or the glory. Finally, bring in the fates of non-player characters, allies and enemies known and unknown.

Tension is a difficult thing to generate, but by raising the stakes, you’re halfway there. The next step is to make losing a real possibility, or even a probable outcome. Some of this is making it challenging via the statistics built into the game, the enemies in the climax should be the most powerful of the adventure, but other ways are from your style as a DM. Don’t pull blows, fight dirty. Make the players feel like they have to work for it. That said, don’t make it impossible. If the heroes can’t win, it kills tension just as much as if they’re sure to win.

If the climax is a combat encounter, it should have the most interesting terrain features. If it’s a social encounter, public locations are best, especially if they have a lot of people involved. These types of locations make it interesting on a fundamental level. A combat with a dragon is interesting; a combat with a dragon on a stone bridge over a lake of lava with minions flowing from both sides with the McGuffin resting on a pedestal on the far side is climactic. An argument with a Vampire Prince is interesting; an argument with the Prince at Elysium is climactic.

The Unexpected
The last thing a climax need is a shift. The climax is where hidden allies throw their hand in with the heroes, where traitors turn on their ‘friends,’ where hidden plots come out, and nothing ever seems to go right. Besides the story implications that are usable in any type of conflict, combat encounters should have some major turning points, more so than a standard encounter. Take a page out of a video game’s book, make the ‘boss’ monster go through changes in tactics, or changes in forms. Have minions appear halfway through. Change the battlefield mid combat.

When it comes to ideas for a climactic conflict, the best place to look is your favorite movies. There’s only a handful of ways to successfully climax a story, and they’re all closely related.

So, readers, what do you think, did I miss any critical elements of a good game climax?

So I’ve reached the end of Hook, Line, and Sinker. I hope everyone has enjoyed it, I know I did! From the things I spoke on, I have a few more ideas for GM based articles coming, so expect this to become a regular fixture for the blog. I also have a few things I’ll be discussing next week regarding the blog itself and since the school semester is finally over, I’m going to buckle down and do some serious design work on ExoSquad, and a new project I’ll be announcing soon.


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