Monday, 22 July 2013

The Third Act Blues

My long-running Victorian vampire slayer game, Sunset Empire, is down to the last episode or two. I'm not sure how to feel about this.

On one hand, it's exhilarating to be playing out some of the big confrontations that have been promised since the beginning of the game, feeding out the last few big reveals, and really getting players to go for broke. I hope that it's satisfying for them. I suspect the final act of a game is always going to be bittersweet for GMs.

Looking back over the span of a long, satisfying campaign with lots of twists and turns makes you nostalgic, and a little sad that the party's finally coming to an end. All the problem moments fade away, and you just remember the good stuff. You think about the journey that these characters have taken with you as both guide and audience, the hard knocks they've taken, and the moments of clarity, truth, and triumph they've fought their way to.

I suspect this is one of the reasons why the traditional mode of running campaign games has no end point. Players and GMs both invest so much time and effort and love, it's hard to let these games go, even if the game is probably better served by ending when it's hit its stride rather than when it's slowly losing its lustre. How many of us would rather George Lucas stopped while he was ahead, in 1983?

We've put a couple of games to bed this summer already -- Rob's Cold City game and Colin's powered-by-PTA Deadlands game. I know Colin in particular was feeling the GM ennui as the game came to a close. It does tear your heart out a little bit to let these things go. As Plutarch would have it, we are all Alexander weeping that there are no more vistas in this game world left to conquer.

This would be the point where I offer some sage advice on how to deal with this stuff, but like I say -- I'm wrestling with it myself at this moment. I may not be the best judge of how to let a game go, right now. I've been trying to figure out a song to close the game with in the last episode for the last few days. It's bugging me. You want to find that perfect end note. A last drop of honey, so that the memory is sweet.

When Cold City ended, part of the process of putting that game to rest was inviting Rob to be on our podcast (which I swear is coming soon), where we were all able to ask questions and share stories about the game. It was helpful to talk it out, remember it together, celebrate the good stuff. I think that's important. Our group has also had special suppers both leading into a final episode and also as a "wake" for a successful game.The function is the same -- provide a space to celebrate, remember, and let go of the game together.

It's also great to have some kind of artifact at the end of the process to remember the game by. Colin and Megan go to great lengths to create summaries of our games, which is probably the best record you could hope for. Having pictures of the characters or a collection of favourite quotes from a game is also a great momento.

For Sunset Empire, I'm also thinking of experimenting with a different kind of ending, if the players are interested in trying it on. Most of the time, I prefer to end games with a bang and not much falling action; that way, if there is a little story left, it lives on in the mind of the players. This time out, I'm thinking of experimenting with an episode to serve as an extended denouement. We would be playing out scenes in a freeform way to explore what happens to the characters, and the world they changed, over the course of many years. Since most of the characters have some degree of immortality, this could extend quite a ways. And if you think I'm stealing Alan Moore's idea of showing how these characters change over the course of 100 years, you're probably right.

Until then... ennui.

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