Thursday, April 23, 2009

Chekhov's Gun and a Satisfying Finale

"One must not put a loaded rifle on the stage if no one is thinking of firing it."
- Anton Chekhov

The collected works of Stephen King to the contrary, writing a good ending is not a difficult task.

It's really not. It's easy, and in the context of heroic fantasy it's easier still. The key is this: that you are not merely crafting the ending to a story, but the ending to this story.

It's so easy that even Keep on the Shadowfell almost achieves it.

The principle of Chekhov's Gun suggests that every set-up must have a pay-off. Each dramatic concept introduced in the first two acts must have a part to play in the finale. Every decision the players make, every risk they take, every digression of conscience they choose to undertake will be rewarded or penalised in the story's climax.

Chekhov's Gun suggests that when the players rescue an ageing scholar, his advice will prove invaluable in planning the final assault. Chekov's Gun implies that when the players prevent the villain from acquiring an ancient mirror, they have bought themselves an advantage in the ultimate struggle.

Chekhov's Gun requires that the humble goblin that the players spared will repay the favour in the final hour. Chekhov's Gun calls on the villagers saved from the ravenous undead to buoy their rescuers' spirits when hope seems lost. Chekhov's Gun demands atonement for fallen stalwarts and vengeance for murdered innocents. Chekhov's Gun says that a holy sword bestowed by the ghost of a forgotten hero will always, always strike the decisive blow in the last clash of good and evil.

The final encounter of Keep on the Shadowfell doesn't do any of those things. Not one of the guns the module loads gets fired; instead, a bonus is bestowed on anyone who happens to be carrying one of the dragon statues they can only get from desecrating the altars to Bahamut located in the Skeletal Legion encounter.

The Shadow Rift has another problem, which is Kalarel. By now the DM is quite familiar with Kalarel's particular brand of incompetence, but for the players this is their first encounter with the final villain. It's hard to feel invested in his downfall - they can't hate him; they don't even know him.

seems to know this is a problem, and spends a paragraph exhorting DMs to make him as hate-worthy as possible during this final encounter, apparently entirely by way of some dialogue that the module doesn't see fit to provide. One might be tempted to have him gloat about his evil plan, but that would require having a clear idea of what his evil plan actually is.

Besides, it's a bit late for Kalarel to gloat. This is the players' hero moment. This is their chance to kick ass and chew gum; it's the big musical finale. As DM, you've got approximately six rounds of combat to make your players feel like they well and truly deserve their victory, and any player who doesn't do something heroic is a player who's going to feel cheated when the dust settles.

So what does Keep get right in its last hurrah? The death of the villain.

As I mentioned when I was talking about the mechanics of this fight, when Kalarel hits bloodied HP he teleports to the glowing circle in front of the Shadow Rift. This raises his defences through the roof, but it also puts him only a couple of squares from the Rift itself.

This is the Rift. It's the portal to "Orcus' temple in the Shadowfell" that drove Sir Keegan mad and which Kalarel is attempting to re-open for frustratingly vague reasons. Kalarel has almost completed the re-opening and the portal is now semi-porous. Living beings passing through it will be killed instantly, but that doesn't stop an entity described as "The Thing In The Portal" from reaching its tentacles through to threaten players in the Rift's immediate vicinity.

Keep's been spending the bulk of its mechanical muscle teaching players about positioning through encounter after encounter. They've been pushing enemies down pits, over ledges, into traps and through holes in almost every significant struggle to date, and now at the closing of the day Keep deliberately positions Kalarel only two squares from a guaranteed auto-kill. It's just the right distance to be an achievable push, but just far enough to require your players to co-ordinate to pull it off.

When Kalarel hits the portal, or when players drop him to zero HP, the Thing in the Portal grabs the evil cultist in one of its tentacles and drags him screaming into the Shadowfell to meet his master. It's a great moment, because it's only possible through the combination of Kalarel's arrogance, the madness of his plan, and the prowess and acquired skills of the players. It's a thoroughly satisfying victory and it has the added benefit of having Kalarel conclusively defeated while leaving the door open for his return in later stories.

Wow them in the end, and you've got a hit. For all its wonkiness, for all its typographical errors and misfiring encounters, for all its dead ends and narrative buffoonery, Keep delivers a solid conclusion when the chips are down, and it's almost sad to realise that despite all the idiocy your players are going to walk away from the table considering that they've had a good time.

As DM, it's a bittersweet triumph. The module succeeds despite itself, and though Kalarel might be being tortured in the Shadowfell as we speak, the real villains of the piece are the module writers, who emerge from the debris unscathed and ready to produce more of the same under-developed tripe.


Anonymous said...

And a fine finish for you as well, sir. More of this, please! Other modules perhaps?

Greg Tannahill said...

Definitely doing Thunderspire Labyrinth. I expect I'll complete that in much shorter compass because (a) it's a better module and (b) the encounters are more interdependent so I'll really need to take them in groups.

I'll play it by ear. I imagine at a certain point my criticisms will really start being all the same, and that's probably the point at which it stops being fresh.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the Thing from The Portal. The true gem of this module.

Greg Tannahill said...

It's such a total cliche but here it works perfectly. It seems so right just where it is that we're not even tempted to ask what it is or why Kalarel would want to open a portal directly on top of an entity that clearly has no problem with summarily killing him.

Maelora said...

I would also add that it's important to let the PCs push or throw him or whatever. Just having The Thing kill him is very anti-climatic for the players - White Wolf adventures used to suffer from this all the time.

Maelora said...

Thanks for the analysis Greg. And please keep going as long as you feel you have something to say - 4E is lacking any constructive criticism right now and you're providing a valuable service. How I wish someone with your insight was employed at WotC!

Your final summary sums up how I felt about 'Keep'. Five minutes reading through it tells you it's lousy, but you have neatly explained _why_ it's lousy, and suggested improvements. I had noticed some things, but you have highlighted other things that I had missed, or not realised the extent of.

Your final sentence is the one that makes my heart sink though. I was prepared to forgive 'Keep', as it was the first 4E adventure, and I accepted the introductory offering was going to be a straight dungeon crawl.

However, as far as I can see, all the other WotC efforts offer an identical play experience to Keep. Some are a bit better, some are even worse (Sceptered Tower of Spellgard, for instance... At least 'Keep' has a halfway satisfying finale. 'Tower' just staggers towards the finish line and collapses ten meters out. The writers seemingly forgot to include an actual ending.)

Is it possible for 4E to provide a playing experience that you couldn't get from 'Descent'?

Greg Tannahill said...

I have to confess to not having played Descent. Ironically the entire genre of abstracted RPG boardgames have left me cold ever since I started getting into game design in a serious way.

I'd start off by saying that 4E is a better balanced game than Arkham Horror or Last Night on Earth or Heroquest or any of that ilk that I have personal experience with. I'd say also that by means of mechanics like Epic Destinies it's more inclined towards the generation of memorable and unique experiences than your typical boardgame. It's more customisable and permits of more variety in individual experience.

It also proudly hosts the extensive tradition of D&D, from the classic monsters and races through to the traps and cliches that make D&D so recognisable; that's not something you can get in quite so pure a form anywhere else.

I think really the only way to size it up on that criteria is to sit down with a game of it. Even with a terrible module, 4th Edition is a thoroughly fun experience in short doses; the only question is whether it'll entertain you over longer stretches.

Arkem said...

"I'd say also that by means of mechanics like Epic Destinies it's more inclined towards the generation of memorable and unique experiences than your typical boardgame."

Exactly, Descent is a great boardgame that allows you and some friends to do some dungeon crawling with little effort and I love it for that.

However, Descent really has no roleplaying elements and as such is not really a good vessel for storytelling. I understand that it is possible to run a 4E game that is nothing more than Descent but it would be much more difficult to run a Descent game that lived up to the storytelling potential of roleplaying games.

Maelora said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maelora said...

Interesting you mentioned Arkham Horror. I love Call of Cthulhu, and we frequently play Arkham Horror afterwards, almost as a way to unwind. But I wouldn't be happy if CoC was discontinued, and we were told that we now basically had to play AH to get our Great Old Ones fix. That's how I currently feel about 4E.

And Epic Fail Destinies strike me as one of the worst elements of 4E, because they are so vague. I think they're aiming at something like BECMI's 'paths to immortality', but a character never has to DO anything aside from reach level 21 to attain them. Perhaps a future suppliment, actually incorporating these into character development, might work. But I can't see how that can really happen - at level 21, you're still stuck doing dungeon crawls, only wth bigger numbers. In AD&D and BECMI, the tone and feel of your character's adventures changed when you became high level. So far the higher level 4E adventures I've seen are identical to the lower level ones, only you're crawling through a dead god's body rather than stony caverns.

And finally, 4E seems hell-bent on subverting the classic traditions rather than using them. One of my pet hates of 4E is the way that they use old terminologies to mean something completely different (tieflings, Kord, eladrin, gnomes, dragonborn, Colour Spray etc). I think that's why I like the Deva in PHB2 - they are wholly different from the old 'aasimar' and are named accordingly. It sounds pedantic, but it bugs me.

I'm inclined to agree with you that the game is fun in small doses. But that still leaves it in the Descent/Arkham Horror realm for me. So far, I haven't seen anything that makes me want to adapt it as a main RPG system. The earlier editions need less work for me than this one.

But I'm willing to keep trying and experimenting, and your blog has given me much food for thought in that.

Anonymous said... what about the rift? does it just close? how did you handle that?

DevoDog said...

Yes....there's definitely a problem in the players encountering Kalarel only moments before his "final" fate. I think the problem, though, isn't so much with KOTS but the entire SERIES of modules. Having Kalarel return in a later module would have made more sense to me.

In my reflavored version of KOTS, the party is going to have to rescue some victims of some orc kidnappers. The orcs are supposed to deliver these new slaves to Kalarel. The players should rescue the slaves and then defeat Kalarel (at least, for the first time).

When Kalarel is defeated, the Thing from the Portal is going to grab him and say "Don't think you can gain your freedom that easily, Kalarel." While Kalarel is going to be evil, the Thing is definitely going to be more evil and still has much more work for Kalarel.

Greg Tannahill said...

Oh, the Rift, right.

Yeah, Keep never really answers that question, as-written. In the game I ran, I had Keegan's sword Aecris given the power to close (or for that matter open) the Rift; most of Kalarel's "incompetence" was a deliberate plan to lead the adventurers to Keegan's tomb as he knew his evil servants could never liberate Aecris from the undead knight. The players played into his hands by bringing him Aecris, the element needed to complete the ritual. However, with the aid of Splug and other allies they turned the tables, sent Kalarel to his just desserts and then closed the Rift with the sword. The resultant energies shook the Keep apart; the players escaped but the location that once held the Rift ended buried beneath a half-mile of stone.

Elf said...

This is an excellent and insightful review of the module. I look forward to reading more, now that I have found you via Zubon.

FalconGK81 said...

I came upon your blog well after this post, but I read everything from the start, and while you may never see this comment, I just wanted to say, for posterity's sake, that this post is masterful. You couldn't be more correct about the complete lack of violating Chekov's Gun in this module, and who the true villains are.

Anonymous said...

Apologies for thread necromancy, but I've been reading through your articles, and wanted to mention my own experience of this encounter here.

When our group got to the end, two of us fell off the chains, and took far too much damage. We were also pretty hurt from the previous fight, but weren't allowed to rest first. We didn't figure out what to do about Kalarel until it was too late, and the skeletons kept us far too occupied.

The end result was a TPK, and an unsatisfying experience. We got the impression that we were all rubbish at 4E (despite some veteran 3E players), and that most the designers seemed more interested in designing punishing newbies than entertaining them.

Even a year an a half later, we still have bad memories about this module, and yet even its worst bits seemed better when you described them. I think we just got it all wrong.

Noumenon said...

Keep's been spending the bulk of its mechanical muscle teaching players about positioning through encounter after encounter. They've been pushing enemies down pits, over ledges, into traps and through holes in almost every significant struggle to date

I don't understand how Keep on the Shadowfell can focus so much on positioning when only one of the pregens (the rogue) has any forced movement abilities. Is Bull Rush going to occur to players and be so attractive with no powers?