We’ve all been there: The game is going gangbusters, but it’s getting late. People have work or school in the morning, and you have to stop soon — even though the adventure isn’t over.
Before my baby daughter Lark was in the picture, I was up for gaming until two or three in the morning on Saturday nights. I could sleep in the next day without any worries, so quitting time didn’t really matter. These days? I need my sleep.
So what do you do when you’re faced with stopping at a less than ideal point in the adventure? You’ve essentially got seven options — some good, some bad; some easy, some a bit trickier to pull off.
1. OK, We’re Done
The simplest option isn’t the best one: You just stop right where you are, regardless of where that is — even mid-combat.
Except in emergencies, there’s almost no value in going this route. Don’t stop cold unless you absolutely have to.
2. Play Until the Bitter End
Just forging ahead until the end of the adventure is another non-starter — it’s just not realistic for a lot of groups. Don’t do this.
Gaming rocks, but real-world obligations — which tend to require sleep — take precedence.
3. Try to Reach the Next Stopping Point
This is the most common approach, and it’s usually the easiest option. Think ahead to what you have planned for the rest of the adventure, and consider whether there’s a potential stopping point ahead — bearing in mind that it won’t be perfect.
As a GM, I generally find my players are OK with this; as a player, I’ll suck it up and push a little past bedtime if it gets us to a better stopping point.
4. Give Your Players Options
If I don’t see a second-choice stopping point on the horizon, I call a quick break and present my players with some options: “We can stop right now, which would sort of suck. You might finish this scene quickly, which would put us at a good stopping point — or we could go for another hour and hit a great break point. What do you think?”
Usually we wind up doing #3 (trying to reach the next stopping point), but sometimes everyone grabs a drink, gets their second wind, and we press on longer to reach a more ideal conclusion.
5. Keeping Playing, But Short-Handed
I’d do this after #4 (giving your players options). If only one person needs to call it a night, you might be able to play to a good stopping point with the rest of your group.
As a rule of thumb, if half or more of your players need to go, call it a night. This is a definitely a compromise, and less than ideal all around — but then again, so are all of these options.
6. Juggle Things On the Fly
If you’re quick on your feet, you can fiddle with things behind the scenes to bring a good stopping point into range — especially in combat. In a game with long, involved battles (like the two most recent editions of D&D), this might be your best option if you find yourself needing to stop mid-combat.
A D&D example: The party is facing several enemies, and you’d estimate that they’re about halfway through a two-hour battle — too long to keep going, but a shitty stopping point. Stop now, and no one will remember where you were next time.
You know how many hit points the monsters have — but your players don’t. Scratch off half of each mob’s HP, and you’ve shaved off some valuable time. Or have several monsters lose morale and make a run for it, thinning the ranks. Or add a vulnerability to an attack the PCs haven’t tried yet, allowing them to blast away most of the opposition with one good shot.
The key is a) not to make it obvious what you did, and b) to make sure the battle is still fun. A hard-fought combat that suddenly becomes a cakewalk is going to leave a bad taste in your players’ mouths.
7. Chop Goes the Weasel
Think about what comes next — can you ditch it without screwing up the whole adventure? And if you do, will you reach a good stopping point? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, do it.
This works best if you plan out your scenes in advance, but don’t have rigid connections between them — and if you use Island Design Theory, so much the better.
You can even do things like folding together two NPCs (the PCs won’t meet the countess now, so her political connections get transferred to the duke who appears in the next scene), or cutting out a scene and re-inserting it at a later point (so you don’t waste your prep work).
Needing to stop before the end of an adventure is never going to be a great option, but it’s a situation nearly every GM will face at some point.
The key to making the best of it is to use an approach that works for your group, and that takes into account everyone’s enjoyment of the game as well as their real-world obligations.
What techniques do you use in this situation?