Handy Haversack: The Importance of Loose Ends (For PCs & GMs)
The more I invest in Third Party Pathfinder, the most I’ve been itching to run a homebrew campaign. And yet after a few years of Society Play, I’m beginning to see how many of my GM skills have helped me play more fulfilling characters. And the more time I’m spending analyzing my past successes and failures, the more I’m learning to appreciate all the loose-ends I was so afraid of earlier in my career. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
A loose end is defined as: “a story-element that hasn’t been fully explained”. Now for the sake of future article material I’m going to append this definition with: “…but could be“. While traditionally also viable loose ends, I’m going to categorize the intentionally vague as mythos. These are the bigger-than-life stories in your campaign that can never have a resolution as satisfying as leaving them unanswered. But I’m going to leave that topic for another day. (Or will I?!)
The application of a good series of loose-ends should be obvious for most gamemasters. After all, most adventures are stories that players want to resolve. But nothing will make a group lose their enthusiasm for a game than tying up your one and only loose end. And just having one additional hook will make players lose their sense of agency, as though the campaign were “on the rails”. But an adequately prepared GM doesn’t need to catch a player like that. Rather, they should have enough loose ends that the players are given the illusion of choice. With enough loose ends, the fish won’t see the hook.
Planning enough tantalizing loose ends allows a GM to prepare potential encounters that don’t feel forced. Planned a bandit ambush on the way to the next town? It’s not a big adjustment to their tactics if the players decide they want to explore the mountain cave some NPC in your last tavern mentioned. And hey, maybe the guy from the tavern was actually working for the bandits to bait the adventurers! Why I bet the next town even has a reward for the players if they bring him back alive!
Now each group requires a different balance of preparation and improvisation to properly handle interconnected loose ends, both as a GM and a player. When most people think of players having loose ends, they might cringe remembering a friend’s bestiary thick binder full of characters relevant only to their convoluted backstory. But before you start setting word count requirements on your player’s backstories, consider instead discussing with them the value of leaving things vague. A GM is much more likely to include story elements from your backstory if they are allowed space to use them to help tie-together an unrelated loose end. You don’t need to name your sensei at the monastery. Heck, don’t even stress about where it is on the map. The more freedom the GM has, the more likely you’ll visit there between dungeon crawls. And, hey, maybe you’ll get to visit before its waylaid by that dragon you were supposed to slay.
There is no perfect formula when it comes to foreshadowing and loose-ends. You just have to learn what works for you and your group(s) through trial and error. But, after several years, I’ve learned a few tricks:
- Take Notes: If your the GM, try to keep track of the loose ends that catch your player’s interests. If your a player, make sure the GM knows your loose-ends in advance so they can take note.
- Take Note: …of each other. Read your players and try to figure out what is catching their interests and what themes will satisfy them. Likewise, make sure your GM understands your comfort level when it comes to using your character.
- Be Flexible: If your the GM, be prepared to sacrifice your plans to satisfy your players. If your a player, be prepared to have your story element used against you.
- Be Insatiable: Don’t rely on your backstory or timeskips for all your loose ends. Leave a cryptic note for the GM and explain that you don’t know what it means, but your character does.
- Be Unreliable: There is nothing wrong with an unreliable narrator. NPCs don’t always know what they are talking about. Even the research mechanic is limited to whatever was written in the books the PCs are reading. Just make sure there is plausible deniability beyond “they were dumb”.
- Be Fair: Make sure each player has the opportunity to show-off. Make a note of how many times you let each individual player’s hair-brained theory turn into a plot point, and try to use elements from everyone’s backstories. If a player is taking over the RP, feel free to throw them a red-herring.
- Keep on Rolling: Not everything will, can or should be resolved. Some resolutions will be unsatisfying. Enjoying collaborate storywriting means enjoying the suffering of your characters, themes and plots. Especially when dice are involved.