If only during the course of planning and play our games came with convenient warning signs like this. Sadly, since they don’t, you’ll just have to live vicariously through my own experience that, recently, included experiencing the feeling of impending termination from both sides of the screen. In reality neither of these are the end of the world, but certainly could have been handled better. The consideration of ending a campaign is not necessarily one to be wondered aloud in front of your players.
Behind the Screen
For several months I have had the opportunity to run A Song of Fire and Ice game, somewhere in the neighborhood of about a dozen sessions. The campaign started off strong but due to number of external factors has had to contend with several delays. That has been compounded with a general malaise and frustration with the rules, a new edition that’s filled with errors, and a lack of enthusiasm on my part. There are a number of game ideas in my head right now, none of them related to Westeros.
If you haven’t noticed, I’ve even taken to referring to the campaign in past tense. It isn’t a matter of when the game will end but a matter of how soon can I make it happen and move on. To an extent I’ve have been transparent with the group regarding the campaign length – I’ll bring it to a close when it feels natural – but now, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have done that. The conversation has reached a point that, internally, it feels like I’ve already ended the campaign, so much so that I’m thinking about the next game already.
I’m not sure how we started talking about the end of the campaign but now that we have it feels like the campaign has an expiration sticker attached to it.
But it wasn’t until feeling this experience from the other side of the screen that I had an inkling of how this likely makes my players feel.
The Other Side
Concurrently, during our off weeks we have a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game that has promise. It started as a small one shot and expanded into a full-sized game, integrated backgrounds, and a metaplot. Perhaps it is my unfettered enthusiasm for super hero games in general, but the amount of effort put into my character sheet alone is the stuff of awesome. (Seriously, it’s a disturbingly fantastic character sheet!)
So after three sessions, when the GM proclaimed that the game had “six or so sessions left,” that went a long way in killing my desire to play. The game had gone from one of thinking about backgrounds, history, character motivation and eagerly looking forward to the next session to a general feeling of “why bother?”
Now that’s vastly simplifying things, but the overarching takeaway and feeling for me was that, as a player, having proclaimed an impending ending had removed my primary motivation as a roleplayer: That character study where you delve into the role and approach the world as your character…but now the world is about to end and there’s nothing to do about it. Major bummer.
It was at this point that I realized that I was now experiencing the same situation that I inadvertently had placed my own players in. The premature discussion of ending a game’s campaign is akin to placing a countdown timer on the corner of the table and asking no one to look at it. After awhile, it’s all you can look at.
What had begun as an open dialog to allow the other players and myself to discuss the next gaming opportunity also had the byproduct of sucking what remaining life existed from the current game. Transposing my own reaction as a player into those in my game, I wouldn’t be surprised to find their reactions similar to my own. Perhaps even exacerbated as I favor character-based campaigns.
The Better Way
Now that’s not to say that you can’t have these discussions but, as with most things, context is important. The first thing I would change is to plot out and write the remaining adventures prior to any end-of-campaign discussion with the group. That way, as closure sets in as the GM I don’t sabotage the creative endeavor.
From the player perspective I’m unsure under what condition knowing the game is going to end would give me closure. Certainly no game runs forever but I think putting a tag on it, such as “six sessions,” feels like an arbitrary restriction and the beginning of the countdown timer. Like your favorite television show being cancelled, the slow, steady death march to the final episodes of its demise. That can also create a sense of pressure and expectations that the game may not live up to in the end.
The compromise may be to involve the players in the discussion. Knowing that the end is coming, solicit feedback as to what questions the players would like answered and ends neatly tied up. Speaking for myself, hearing that a game you enjoy is winding down isn’t palatable, no matter how the subject is approached.
Have you committed any game terminating faux pas yourself? Did it end with a whimper or salvage to a satisfying conclusion? Share with us below!
As for me, I’m going to beg the GM to keep Marvel Heroic running and force myself to spend serious effort to end the Game of Thrones campaign with the same quality it began.