Thursday, November 3, 2016

RPG Endings: Crossing the Finish Line

Endings. Not just campaign endings, but endings for scenes, for sessions, for arcs. When I see them coming and can steer into them- as a player or GM- a good ending crystallizes everything. But sometimes I over-correct and go off the road; sometimes I miss my turn and suddenly we're miles past my exit and the passengers have fallen asleep. 

This week Play on Target talks about RPG endings. Once more we're joined by Sherri Stewart in my not so subtle plan to get her on every episode. We talk about endings that have gone askew, techniques for making finishers satisfying, and advice for reading the road map of your campaign. As always, I have a few scattered thoughts I've added below. 

1. FILE AWAY ANOTHER CS: Barry ran many games for our group. Many, many games. But I don’t remember him ever actually finishing one. We played several Cyberpunk 2020 campaigns, a Night’s Edge CP game, a Mars-based CP game, Cybergeneration, Fading Suns, Champions in space, street-level Champions, Kult, a gnostic supers game, and probably more I've forgotten. We all knew it would happen, that the campaign would most likely die. But we’d press on to see just how far we could get. You could spot the death spiral: cancellations, absolute lack of prep, shutting down plots, talking about other games. Barry closed down based on player reactions. It all came from his own fragmented focus and artistic dissatisfaction. Still I love and miss him. I'd play in another incomplete campaign of his again any day. 

2. HYPOCRISY: I point fingers, I did the same thing for a long, long time; especially in high school/college/early twenties, I left many campaigns unfinished. But in my mid to late twenties I decided I didn’t want to do that anymore. I can't point to a catalyst. I made it a goal: finish each campaign. Bring some kind of resolution to the story. But even after deciding that I had plenty die on the vine. More often that came from player changes rather than my own dissatisfaction, but that’s no real comfort.

3. SALVAGE RITES: What can we do with that material? If you’re running online and changing groups, it can still be useful. Steal and reuse those concepts. If you have a steady f2f group (as I have) it’s harder. Mostly likely you’ll have someone who played in the original game. However there’s another factor. I’ve never really reused old, dead campaign material for two reasons. Campaigns come from players and often what I've done in one game won’t work with another. The tone, backdrop, goals, or a hundred other details interferes. More importantly once I’ve had a campaign die, I tend not to revisit. It hurts to see that material and the “might have been.” Instead I move on.

4. UNFAIR: Endings make or break a game. No pressure. I hate to say that. But this realization comes from the player side of things. I’ve had mediocre games become last-minute-awesome through a solid ending: spectacle, choice, a chance to wrap our characters. That stays with me and I mostly forget the other part. But I’ve also had games futz out. The last session just…ends. Or the GM undercuts my character at the last minute. Goodwill vanishes. Ironically games which die early don’t usually have this problem. I look back at those untold stories through rose-colored glasses. (There are exceptions, games where it’s a relief to have it finally die off.)

5. REPORTING LINE: Check in with your players. Take their temperature. Give them a sense of your expectations for length (set number of sessions, rw time frame, open-ended). I’ve been in games that dragged on past their expiration date. And it’s hard to ask the GM “when’s this going to end?” That sounds like a judgement rather than a query. You have to be politic about that. But this burden of information should rest on the GM’s side. You’re the project manager for the table. Keep your eyes and ears open.

6. LIKE TEARS IN THE SHOWER: Let’s put aside the question of RPGs as art. I believe they are a media. They’re an entertainment form like a symphony, TV show, video game, etc. They’re an experience. But because of their interactivity and play they’re incredibly ephemeral. That final session will never be  replicated. It has to live on in your players’ minds. It’s like an improv show, not to be repeated.

7. EXCEPTION: MODULES: Modules offer a script. You could compare those the performance of an opera or a theatrical production. Each night’s performance will have its own quality and difference. But even with modules the interpretations can be so wild and different. Your Death on the Reik may end with a pulp action showdown in the castle while others might make a slow slog through horror corruption. "That's what happened? Then you weren't really playing Masks of Nyarlathotep..."

8. MOTIVES: Why did I avoid player “epilogues” for so long? Many reasons, all of them BS. A sense that ending episodes capped things completely and perfectly. Not wanting the players to notice and point out unresolved threads. Keeping players from imposing on the future of setting and cutting off my options if I decided to run there again. The idea that players might use it as a wedge to keep playing things out. Fear that we’d have to resolve conflicts between different players’ visions of the future. Bottom line: mostly really about control and authorship for me. Dumb.

9. FAT LADDIE SINGS: In the episode we ask, how do you know when to end a game? We talk about some signs and tools, but sometimes you flail about. You try to find a good hook. I have a concrete example. I ran a series of three M&M 2e campaigns for my Wednesday online group. Each came in at about 15-16 sessions, with a beginning, middle, and an end. I’m running M&M 3e for the same group- a sequel campaign with new characters. We just did session eleven this week. And I’m not sure where we are in the campaign: still early days? somewhere in the middle? cresting toward the end? In this case I can point to at least one specific issue: the PCs. We have a weird mix of levels and emphasis: cosmic, global, mystical, supernatural street level, and just street level. I want to give each of them something to fit their interests and somehow manage to tie that together. Who knows how long that will take. 

What's your campaign ending story? What's worked for you? Have you tried something that really wrapped up the game with a bow?

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