The value of loose ends.

Hi all, I was just listening to the excellent podcast "team human" episode 49 on the subject of the psychology of awe. BTW: I would recommend this podcast to everyone. Anyway, great discussion about how ambiguity and unresolved questions are powerful aspects of art. They discuss how interactive modes of storytelling are well suited to ambiguity (almost a direct quote of the guest on the podcast). I feel this is so very true of storygames. It made me realize that one of the most engrossing things about the games I play happens when I reflect on the unresolved loose ends that inevitably occur in a story. This might be happening during play, during a post game discussion, or even days later...
This realization has kinda crystallized my appreciation of the unresolved loose ends of storygames as an important aspect of their value and not just as a failure to tie everything up in a pretty little bow.


  • edited August 2017
    I'm definitely listening to this podcast, when I get a chance, and think this is a very ripe area for discussion. I wonder if they qualify what type of loose ends are vaulable? Are they valuable to the story itself, or valuable in other ways in-game in any way, or are they only valuable upon reflection or in other ways out-of-game? I have a playtest of one of my games tomorrow and have to finish up a document for that, because of this I won't be able to comment much today; however, any more specific details you could add, until I get an opportunity to listen to the podcast, would be super appreciated, Davey :smile: We play and are interested in similar types games; I'm the organizer of Story Games SLC and we basically do what Story Games Seattle does with a few caveats; I've found the few comments you've made so far very relevant :smile:. I hope you make more, because I think we could have a very fruitful discussions :smiley:
  • I think this is a valuable and useful line of thought. Loose ends are somewhat of a "spice", in my opinion - there's a very real danger of having too many of them, but a "perfect" story/dish can be bland and unsurprising.

    I like the idea of exploring this in gaming.

    Some examples:

    Vincent Baker's In a Wicked Age... tends to work best when a Chapter resolves after a character's Interests are settled (seriously, it's in the rules, too!). This often leaves the others' stories unresolved, leaving lots of "loose ends" which can then be used to build future Chapters (which sometimes can even "backfill" elided bits of history).

    My own Land of Nodd does this, too - the stories are full of strange coincidences, and, over time, this creates a bit of an illusion of a larger whole, beyond the grasp of the players.

    Lots of films and novels use this to good effect, as well. To some extent leaving "loose ends" allows the player to take the role of audience and fill those "holes" with her imagination, making it greater than it might have been without them.
  • edited August 2017
    When doing a one-shot, in which the full story is told in one sitting, I'm having trouble thinking of times when having loose ends is a preferable aim. It might be fun to try to create a good story that had loose ends as a challenge :smiley:. Perhaps when leaving the mystery is more interesting then narrating a specific outcome or when what the story was about has already been said. An example of the later could be something like us not knowing what happens to the villain at the end of No Country for Old Men—the movie's message has already been made clear: that the world is an arbitrary and an absurd place and it's getting harder and harder to build your house on stone in it—in other words, an uplifting film, haha :smiley:. It seems that leaving loose ends in a one-shot story makes it much more difficult to craft a satisfactory one, and seems much more risky than aiming to tie up the loose ends. Thoughts?
  • edited August 2017
    I don't think "making loose ends" is ever - well, hardly ever - a "preferable aim". For starters, it's not terribly challenging!

    No... we generally want to strive for reincorporation, logic, and consistency. However, sometimes being willing to accept loose ends can make for a better story: perhaps the writers of No Country for Old Men wanted to write a conclusive ending for the villain, but someone was able to say, "No, it's OK. I think it will work nicely if we don't resolve this, because of X, Y, and Z" (e.g. that the movie's message has already been made clear, or whatever other reason).

    The temptation of tying up all loose ends can definitely ruin a good story sometimes, if the only apparent way to tie up the loose ends is sub-par, predictable, or boring. I've played a lot of games where this was the case: someone was able to say, "Hey, no, let it go... let's just leave it at that", and that was very much the right decision to make.

    I'd imagine that if we found a way to quantify "loose ends" versus "tied-up ends", we'd notice that the ratio of tied-up ends to loose ends in our favourite stories approaches the Golden Ratio or some other such mathematical equilibrium. :)
  • As to ambiguity, Greg Stolze made great use of unreliable narrators in his Delta Green scenario The Star Chamber - it's basically the movie Rashomon in the format of a tightly structured traditional rpg scenario.

    I wonder if there are any indie rpgs that explicitly go for unreliable narrators?

    Loose ends come up a lot in Remember Tomorrow, too. When the final exit happens and an episode ends there will usually be some unresolved story arcs. I guess the risk at that point is that you might not have enough story or characterization yet to justify even a loose end.
  • "Loose ends" + "psychology of awe" makes me think of all those novels and movies and shows and comics where the audience is treated to mere snippets of this larger imagined universe. The best example I can think of is Cerebus, whose internal causality is often familiar and mundane... except when it really, really isn't. Apparently there is real magic in the world of Cerebus? But no one who we get to know is really on top of it? And the main characters get caught up by it every once in a while? And the only explanations we ever get sound like they're coming from an alien? If these were one-offs they might seem random, but as part of this ongoing tapestry... yeah, they inspire some serious awe.

    So, the clearest parallel I can think of is the GM who writes their own cosmology but then only reveals the bits of it that the characters interact with.

    I sometimes manage to get moments like that in my game Delve. It's not a game about providing the experience of awe, but it is a game of awesome hidden truths, and every once in a while the players bump into those in just the right way.
  • edited August 2017
    A good story, in my book, lingers after the session is done and makes the players think. I don't think loose ends are as important as good "what ifs", as the main thread of the story should be solved to make the players satisfied (even if they loose). What lead up to the climax and could the results had been different if the players taken other actions? Did the players choose the right path? That's good what ifs.

    Loose ends are bound to happen - a minor antagonist gets away, or some people's agendas didn't come into play - and I think that's good in form of tying stand-alone adventures together to form a coherent campaign. That's how I made campaigns anyway, when I was a more traditional game master.

    But building "end games" that are purely loose ends? Well, did people get tired of Lost?
  • edited October 2017
    When it comes to one-shots, yeah, there's not much point unless you think there's a chance of revisiting that story one day.

    But for campaign play, loose ends are a nearly vital part of the process. Not only is it impossible to fully detail every possible connection in the world, but you actually don't want to, because it is always good to have loose ends you can tie hooks to later on.

    This is a tactic of episodic/serial TV writing as well (who was the shadowy person that destroyed the evidence in episode 4? Maybe we'll find out by episode 13!) Episodes of The X-Files, Rick and Morty or Twin Peaks, as well as the typical soap opera or telenovella, for instance, often leave massive loose ends lying around purposely so the writers can come back later and have something to work with.

    Cliff-hangers are often massive loose ends themselves: in their dash to produce a thrilling chair-gripping climax at the end of a season, writers will often go all out and put their protagonists in positions they have NO IDEA how they'll get out of. Then they go home and pace the floor for 90 days figuring out how to do it! (Rick Sanchez in Galactic Prison, anyone?)

    I've found the same thing is true of campaign play and episodic/serial play. It's just really useful to have a loose end lying around when you need to circle something back.

  • Deliberately leaving loose ends is a pacing tool: unresolved plot threads are a significant component of suspense, audience interest, plot continuity, and other good things; their quantity should be controlled and (usually) remain roughly constant, balancing confusion and boredom.

    There's a great example of loose end maintenance and escalation in China Miéville's The City and the City: at the beginning the first person narrator is clearly placed in an imaginary European city by simple means like an invented language and invented place names; then we start seeing perplexing jargon and objects that, going beyond the invented language, suggest there's something peculiar about the city and its people; then we see even more instances of the city's strange features, with physical descriptions that clarify what most of the jargon means but stress that the city's peculiarity is a very big deal; then a sudden page and a half of explanation about the history of the city provides some partial answers (enough to understand in general terms what's going on but not how or why) and opens a new phase that focuses on the weird political and moral side of the city's special feature. And so on. The stress of ambiguity and comprehension difficulty remains high, but its subject matter evolves gracefully.
  • This subject reminds me of a story about Brian Eno and how he came to conceptualize ambient music. He was stuck in a hospital bed for several months recuperating from a car accident and his radio was turned just loud enough to hear only the loudest parts of the music it played, and it gave the impression of icebergs to Eno. The tip of the iceberg is visible and tangible, but while you're interacting with it you are aware that a whole mountain of content exists below the surface making that tip possible. Loose ends can be great reminders of the sub-surface content that supports your story's universe, and can inspire that feeling of awe and vastness that make certain stories truly memorable and impactful.
  • edited August 2017
    RickDean, that's a great metaphor. One of my games (not currently available in any form, sorry), Land of Nodd, does this. There are all kinds of mysterious coincidence which develop as you play; after a few sessions, the game creates the feeling that there is a larger mystery out there, perhaps someone behind the scenes pulling all the strings.

    It's particularly powerful because none of the players know what it is - it seems entirely outside the scope of the gaming group, which is exciting.

    I think the "iceberg" technique can be really fun when done right!
  • @Paul_T, that sounds really cool. Do you have some kind of mechanical framework for the coincidences, or is it all GM technique?

    - N
  • @paganini,

    Yes, I have a very simple framework of "story elements" which appear in storylines. Over time (a couple of sessions, usually), the sense of some larger undiscovered plot, outside the control of any of the players, develops.

    In terms of "biggest impact for the simplest rule", it's one of my happiest designs.
  • (not currently available in any form, sorry)
    you just used the iceberg technique to illustrate an example of the iceberg technique.
  • Hey! I´ve been just an observer for too long,but not anymore! I think i can add some value here.

    So, first, a warning: Ill talk about the loose ends in game design. Of course there are loose ends in the fiction, and, for me, that's natural in all kind of tabletop RPGs. I agree with the exposed in this topic about the loose ends being one of the most important aspects of a long-term campaign.

    Let's focus on the other side: The concept of loose ends in game design


    When we create a game, we are developing an experience. We are encapsulating the experience with a way to approach it. For me, this is the most important concept about a roleplaying game.

    Where does the loose threads fit in there? They are a way to generate some sort of content that adapts the table.

    For me, it's the logical result of all the discussion about, mostly but not only, social contract in tabletop RPGs. It's also a logical result of all the forgie discussion about story-now games. But let's focus on the former.

    Social contract is the only way to ensure all the gaming table is engaged with the game (the way we play, the pace, the things we should expect, including genre etc..)

    The loose ends has real value, adapting the game for the participants of the table.

    A loose end is a hole carefully designed to add value. It requires mastery and a purpose. Not every loose end is a good loose end. Loose ends are surrounded by inspiring, imaginative words or phrases that makes you work with something. You never start from zero: All content you create is built from the surrounding content.

    A loose end is a non-written prompt, like the prompts, the loaded questions the MC makes for their players to answer. A prompt built for her (The MC) to answer. She can show this "hole" to the players and fill it together, or expose her point of view about it and agree with the other participants the way to handle this.

    When carefully designed, it can be liberating and result in multiple ways of approaching a game.

    OOT: Sorry for my english, im spanish native, trying my best!
  • edited August 2017
    @Edgargso -- I agree that the two things are related, in that both are prompts for creativity, but I would suggest that you're referring more to "fruitful voids".

    The difference being that a "loose end" (as I see it) is something that resides on the character/plot level, whereas a fruitful void can be left anywhere in the gameworld's structure. In fact the whole world can be fruitful void, or just certain portions/regions/aspects of it.

    As I was using it (haven't listened to the podcast), a "loose end" would be a unresolved question regarding something that happened in the gameworld, that is left deliberately unexplained (and maybe not even known) by the GM. The creative part happens later, when you create something and tie it to a loose end, or pick up two loose ends and tie them together (that's especially satisfying!)


  • @paganini Land of Nodd's reincorporation system is simple: after a scene in one character's storyline, write down an object or phenomenon you'd like to see more of. Then, the GM gets a reward for bringing that element back in another character's storyline.

    So, stuff reappearing is from the game design.

    Whether it feels like a larger mystery or whether it feels random or contrived -- that's where the GM technique comes in.

    There's also some skill in picking good elements to write down in the first place.

    Paul's more recent unpublished game Inconceivable also rewards reincorporation, but in that game you write down more elements and give the GM more options to pick from -- in my experience, this raises the odds that something suitable for the moment will be available. On the other hand, more elements means more possibility of an overlap that's too diffuse -- 5 maybe-sorta mysteries instead of 1 or 2 proper mysteries.

    My personal favorite moments of "some unknown larger thing" in these games have generally come about from a GM trying to pursue and partially answer questions already raised, just not to the point of finality.
  • edited August 2017
    @Edgargso I like the points you made! I think they work equally well to describe content loose ends and the fruitful voids @AsIf mentioned. I agree that the loose ends that we don't care about don't add much value -- it's the ones that inspire us to speculate (especially out loud) that really add to the experience. I can imagine how a game design could strive to create such inspiring loose ends/voids either implicitly or explicitly.
  • So many great comments here. Thank you! Fruitful voids, reincorporation, loose ends as prompts, value in campaigns vs one shots. I'm sure I have spaced on some of the good ideas since I looked a week or so ago, then just now and too briefly. I believe however that Every comment here has real value.
    Yesterday I played a game of "follow" with multiple loose ends. I introduced some. As yogi bara apocryphaly quipped "in theory, there's no difference between theory and practice, in practice there is". I felt like some of the loose ends served to create a feeling of expansiveness to the world and story we made. There were things that happened that went unexplained... what happened to Gunnar after he disappeared into the wilds? What happened to Dr Malicott's daughter when she "ran away". These were fruitful voids. Other aspects of the game were more like dead ends than loose ends. They didn't impact our fun much, but they didn't serve to give our world the characteristic of transcending the limits of the story we told either. Things were thrown up that never got reincorporated. What were those purple flashes anyway? For one reason or another we never pursued that. What was up w the asexual guy in extremely padded clothing. People have ideas that don't get fully articulated. As someone above noted, these might have had a roll later in a campaign. This was a one shot. Other seemingly loose ends got reincorporated when it turned out that the disease vector gnats were actually avian spores of the giant birds that may have been the main food source of another colony we had moved in on... but what about that other colony... what and who they were was never much explored.
    My recent experience demonstrates the validity of the comments people made in this string. Loose ends are of more than one kind.
    Thanks again.

  • Ric: off topic but... an experimental composition idea I've had seems related to your excellent Brian eno story: every player receives a track. Say a guitar line. Everyone records their complementary track. Then we could do more iterations of this using some of the resulting tracks sans the original track, or just combine the tracks sans the original. I'm not seeing a storygame analog mechanic here. Just reminded of the above (almost certainly not original) idea.
  • Ric: off topic but... an experimental composition idea I've had seems related to your excellent Brian eno story: every player receives a track. Say a guitar line. Everyone records their complementary track. Then we could do more iterations of this using some of the resulting tracks sans the original track, or just combine the tracks sans the original. I'm not seeing a storygame analog mechanic here. Just reminded of the above (almost certainly not original) idea.
    I love this idea, and would love to hear results from it. Before I began playing/writing story games I studied music composition and wrote many pieces of this type - not specifically using the idea you mention, but creating music with an ensemble by means of verbal instructions rather than sets of musical figures.

    The experience is very similar in the writing and creation of pieces like this and the writing and playing of story games. It's just using a different language and grammar, and the nice thing about playing story games is there isn't as much frustration around not having an audience to play for since the games are more intended to be enjoyed by the group playing than for spectators to view. Many of the ensemble performances would have been more enjoyable if we played them with the purpose of entertaining/enriching each other rather than hoping for approval from the audience.

    It would be interesting to see if any of the experimental techniques for musical composition of this type could transfer into story games - graphical notation, recording and manipulation, sampling, etc. Maybe there's a whole new thread to explore here...
  • Yes! To all of the above.

    (Although the best parallels,
    I find, to gaming are in the techniques used when writing music with the goal of incorporating or guiding improvisation. Something like the techniques used in "conduction" could have interesting implications for gaming, for example.)
  • Well among my half baked story game ideas, I'm playing around with a musical story game. (I just noticed this note as a draft from weeks ago I never sent...).

    Not sure what else I was going to say but I have something else to add as of yesterday:
    I discovered a fun improv theatrical podcast musical called "off book: the improvised musical". I've listened to part of a podcast on a construction volunteer job (making a stage set of course). It's pretty fun!

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