Campaign Plot Structure: Resolutions

It’s the end of the road for this series (next week I’m going to start working through an adaptation of The Tempest to Pathfinder Second Edition that you won’t want to miss) which means we are talking resolutions.

The resolution in a narrative is the reestablishing of the status quo, and one big thing that impacts the kind of resolution we want is the genre we are working in. For a serialized fantasy game, the resolution might simply introduce the next challenge the player characters have to overcome as they do their heroic things to ultimately triumph over a major antagonist. In The Lord of the Ring films, this is Sam and Frodo having survived their travels and arriving at the edge of Mordor, Aragorn resolving to hunt orcs, and Boromir’s body going over the falls. On the other hand, in horror games the release of something people were not meant to know (either creatures or knowledge) is deferred but the increased experience the player characters have of what’s really going on (perhaps The Lacanian Real) leaves them changed. In Marvel movies (which I love), the post credits scenes typically introduce the next part of an ongoing saga. All of these are kinda of resolutions.

In Pathfinder Second Edition and other role playing games with levels, levelling up is a kind of resolution: through a series of challenges, the player character has struggled, succeeded, and now grows in strength. On a session by session basis, I typically avoid having much explicit narrative resolution. The climactic challenge of a session as represented by combat is in some senses self resolving when the player characters may finally rest and heal. (Quick tip: one way to increase tension is to prevent the party from resting too often; scarcity of resources will increase narrative tension.) But a campaign as a whole should have a resolution: in my last campaign, I gave each player a quick summary of what happened after: one went to hell and rose through the ranks, another fell attempting to fight the Quiet Lich Imprisoned in Paizo’s Campaign Setting, and a third discovered a lost city in the mountains and prevented an ancient wizard from escaping. These were well received, and helped to create a sense of continuity rather than just ending with all the characters dying.

I think we can distinguish, then, between narrative resolution and systematic resolution. Narrative resolution should be reserved for the ending of a plot arc. At this point, The Simpsons might discuss what they’ve learned, while Captain Cisco stares broodingly out into space and expresses his thoughts via voice over. Asking things like “how does CHARACTER feel about this?” could be appropriate, or you might just narrate that particular ride out into the sunset. Systematic resolution, on the other hand, uses game mechanics to reset the status quo. This might be healing and getting spells back, or could be levelling up, spending character points, or some other way the system presents of dealing with the accumulated wear and tear your player characters have experienced. This kind of end of session resolution can also involve dividing up treasure, engaging in downtime activities, or gaining new intelligence.

So, my advice with resolutions is this:

  1. Don’t try to make a narrative resolution every session, using game mechanics is ok too.
  2. Do have a clear resolution at the end of a plot arc.
  3. Try to use resolutions to imply continuity, even if the actual campaign is over.

Happy gaming!

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