As our current campaign is drawing closer to the end I feel I could share some thoughts about the endgame of roleplaying campaigns.
Last year Aki wrote a lengthy post about the story arch of his character in the “last season” of this ongoing megabeast. And he got quite deep into the difficulty of ending one of these seasons as I like to call them.
As this campaign works in various different timelines each separated to different era it is quite difficult to grasp the endgame of a certain season. The grand story behind it all evolves as we play to find out what happens and this makes it a bit difficult to foresee where we are going. But on the other hand you cannot actually have a great story without at least the narrator having some kind of idea about how it will end.
When you are running a pre-written campaign you have the luxury of knowing what the endgame will be. You can quite easily skip bits of the story while playing if you know they are not going to affect the end. But when you are playing a homemade campaign or maybe even a campaign made for the Apocalypse World engine you know there might come the time when it faces some serious problems.
In my own campaigns through my whole gaming career the biggest problem has been the endgame. Campaigns tend to just die out. Maybe there is not enough interest, time, players or what ever but most of the campaigns I have participated did not reach a satisfying end. Now that I think of it I cannot remember a single one that stopped at the right time.
As anyone can guess this is a major issue. If the story dies out you just cannot reach catharsis and are left with an emotional package. Maybe you are glad it ended that way, maybe you could not care less or maybe you are just dreaming of going back to that certain campaign to finish it. I know I have examples of each of those.
Going back to our current campaign I now know that I have to deal with this issue. As all the seasons are linked together and we sometimes “come in” to see them from a different view it is a different kind of beast than in a regular campaign. But the tools to deal with it are actually pretty similar to those in “regular” campaigns and in any form of story.
In an ideal case each player could reach the full potential of their characters. They would finally get the answer to all the burning questions they have had and see wether their actions solve the situation or make it worse; in any case their actions must matter or else the whole campaign has been in vain.
What I am planing to do (and I’m not saying this is the only possible way, or the best) is to write down the characters’ most notable abilities. By extension this means the things their players have wanted the game to resolve.
For example in our previous session the players found a broken submarine in an alien subterranean city. One of the characters was “the driver” and he had marked down talents like grease monkey and repairer (or something like that). He made a joke about fixing the submarine and naturally my first instinct was to deny it – how could a stunt driver possibly know anything about submarines? Then I realized that this was quite likely the most notable time the character could use this ability and I allowed him to try it. He succeeded, with a price, and broke down submarine but managed to move it. Which was pretty remarkable point for the character.
Of course you should not try to force the characters into situations all the time where their special skills come in handy but allowing them to have some screen time and proof their worth is a good way to enhance the endgame.
I also made a checklist of things I want to have in these last few sessions. I noted down some links to our other campaigns (past ones and those for yet to come) as well as tried to make sure that most of the clues the characters have gathered during this campaign actually make sense. This in particular was not an easy task but since we can revisit these events from the point of view of the other characters I know most of them will eventually be answered.
Ending a big campaign should not always be about the boss fight. Though as a player I know that boss fights are actually pretty cool and memorable one should keep in mind that other events that challenge the group can turn out to be as memorable.
Quite likely the key here is lead the characters into an event or a turning point that really changes them. It might be that they are wiped out by a Big Bad but it could as easily be a difficult confrontation that shatters the group dynamic of the party and send them in their own ways. Or maybe they resolve the thing that haunts them and can finally live in piece?
Thinking back I have never reached this point. Or at least if I have I have also had some kind of an idea about how the story continues from there. And in this I think I have made an error. For the story to actually have a satisfying end it really needs an end. Saying it bluntly to the players usually works for the best. “After this we are done with this campaign. So go crazy with your characters as this is the last chance you have for it.”
This is something I might have had trouble to understand if it wasn’t for the oneshots we have played during past few years. Trying out new games is always fun but now I know that when a GM tells me that “I have this one session planed and we’ll see if we’ll carry on from there” it will either suck or be kind of fun. But I cannot gain the same experience from it as with convention games where you just know that this is all you can get for the character.
As a last note for this long and incoherent ramble I would like to guide you to Fall of Magic. I talked about it some time ago but its relevance to my whole understanding of roleplaying has only grown. While playing it we had the map in front of us and could actually see that there was still something ahead of us. We noticed the sidetracks (or possibly even more interesting twists) we had missed. But the strongest feeling in my mind was that I would have been very disappointed if we had not finished it.
In “regular” games where the endgame is not visible it might not be as tangible than in Fall of Magic. But we all know that we love the endgame and endings. Even though they might horrify us (“what is coming after this?”) we need them for closure. As a GM I know think that one of my top priorities should be to guide the story into an ending. Wether it is a bad or a good one is not as important as it is to reach it.