One of the most profound, formative movies I have seen in my life is Apocalypse Now. It’s certainly visually, and to an extent, existentially stunning, but it remains part of the cultural zeitgeist because of the pop culture references contained therein. There is one in particular of which I am frequently reminded: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1b26BD5KjH0
In the context of role-playing games, it’s difficult to talk about the end of a particular game. Obviously, almost every game that has ever started has come to an end at some point, whether that was a story-appropriate finish, a glacially slow increase in the frequency of sessions, the sudden departure or life-change of one or more players, whatever. I think games always start out very strong, usually fueled by a lightning-like stroke of inspiration and a great, resounding wave of enthusiasm. Those of us who have played in many games know that they rarely end this way.
I think there are two separate paths that need to diverge here. One deals with the end of a game/campaign/story/system, while the other deals with the end of a gaming group. I am going to primarily talk about the former, but the second one is probably way more common. People, especially as adults, have lives and, as we’ve mentioned before, tend to value their gaming at different points in their hierarchical organization of their lives. For some of us, gaming is our lifeblood, and for others it’s just a from-time-to-time hobby like bowling or going to the movies. Gaming groups disintegrate all the time, and it’s usually because everyone’s expectations for the game are different. Perhaps we’ll talk more about this in another post.
For now, let’s stick to ending games but sticking with the same group. This is at the forefront of my mind because my group just finished up a campaign (which I was running) earlier this week, and they opted to retire their characters instead of progressing onwards (and frankly, it was the wise choice, since we were playing Call of Cthulhu and a few of them were on death’s or insanity’s door).
I’ve always had great enthusiasm for beginning games. I love the part of the game where all the characters are introduced, they can show off their quirks and flaws and powers and weaknesses, they interact with each other and develop personalities, they investigate and interact with the world, gain faculty with the rules and laws that govern the game, make acquaintances with NPCs and run afoul of evildoers. And it’s this early period which sets the stage and lends an emotional weight to the campaign’s inevitable end.
We become attached to our characters, come to enjoy the world we’ve collaboratively created. We like that familiarity. We like coming up with new ways for our characters to grow and new goals to achieve, we love the prospect of seeing what new challenges await us in undiscovered corners of the world. I imagine that it’s the same feeling that one gets when they read the last few pages of the Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter or any series whose characters and story are powerful and addictive – we’re sad to see it go.
But go it must, eventually. And that’s never easy.
The most important part of the campaign, for me, is the climax of whatever story arc the characters find themselved embroiled in. It’s not my favorite, but coming down from the climax in storytelling usually involves some denouement or wrapping-up. This is the moment when a lot of stories go awry. I think it’s that desire to hold onto things that we love, but if the arc is truly over, we should probably just accept it and decide right then: are we continuing with these characters, this (broader) story, and this situation, or is the campaign effectively over?
If you decide the campaign is over, as a GM I would offer some wrap-up. The fate of the characters, the fate of the world, and so on. Maybe have another hour or so for everyone to talk about their characters’ goals for the future now that this particular story arc is over. Then, collectively decide what is going to happen next: someone else is going to try the reins as gamemaster, we’re going to switch to a new system, we’re going to play future or past versions of ourselves or NPC’s we’ve met in the world, and so on.
If you decide you want to continue,then you ask them how they get out of the white dragon’s lair, what is next for the party after slaying the evil lich before he could destroy the nation, how they really just uncovered the tip of the iceberg, and on, and on.
In general, we tend to frown upon railroading, but I would argue that limp, unsatisfying game endings (and often beginnings) come from our desire to have a true sandbox. Since there is no clearly defined beginning or endpoint, and since characters have a greater tendency to die or drift in and out of games, it becomes much harder to wrap up any particular arc. There’s no sense of closure. Now, is the “closure”, which, admittedly, is a nebulous topic to begin with, necessary to roleplaying? Well, I think to an extent that if we look at roleplaying as collaborative storytelling, then there is indeed a story, and that story should have some kind of beginning, middle, and end. Most sandbox games ultimately are not linear, but are episodic instead, which can offer, in itself, a kind of closure.
And I believe that’s the point – too many roleplaying games end without closure, and even when they do offer some closure, it’s very difficult to land upon an ending in which each player is satisfied. As a player we want to feel like we’ve earned what we have, and as a GM we want the challenges to be, well, challenging and also interesting, and it’s hard to have the denouement be challenging and interesting. Not impossible, but difficult.
I’ve had many awesome campaigns just go out on kind of a ‘meh’ note, and I hate that feeling. We are slaves to the recency effect, so we really hate when the last taste in our mouth is sour or just, well, bland. So do what you can to try and make your games end on a great note – as I said, I think this is mostly timing and just not holding on too long. Handwave your denouement if it’s not interesting, end the session after the boss is killed and move on to the next thing. Give your players something to remember right at the end before you move on to whatever entices you next.
Until next time, happy gaming!
PS: Do you have any thoughts regarding what the best way to end a story arc is? Or even how to put a game on hold when you try something differently?
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