the Fairgame Archive

2005-11-28: The End of the Game
by Meguey

So, I guess that's that, then. After 6 years, dozens of characters, and countless hours, it looks like the Griffin's Aerie Ars Magica home-brew is officially ending. I won't say over, since we have clearly left the door unlocked for future gaming in that tribunal, but now is the time, as A.A. Milne might say, "In which those characters continue on, and we leave them there."


I've run three Ars Magica games, and each one has petered out unfulfillingly at the end. What makes this feel so different? I think the first thing is, we talked about it really honestly, instead of just failing to schedule time for it, finding excuses not to play it, or playing but not actually showing up energetically for it, thereby sabotaging it. A couple weeks back, we talked about what it would mean to end the game, what we still wanted out of it, what arcs we needed to see complete before we took a break/ended, and etc.

It was not an easy conversation. I've become pretty attached to the world we made, and I really love playing these characters. I also knew some potentially GREAT story arcs that we could be heading toward, and was I willing to give them up? Turns out I am.

Another thing that makes this different is the willingness of Emily to stubbornly insist that we play through to the bit of story resolution she'd been building to. Yay Emily! In two of my other games, if I'd been as insistent, I'd have felt better and gotten a much more fulfilled. Having a satisfying conclusion makes it feel as though we are not just abandoning the game midstream, we are seeing it through to a reasonable stopping place. When I'm reading to the kids, I often find a 'reasonable stopping place' mid-chapter if our time is short. Why had I never thought to do that with a game? Lives don't end after the anecdote, they just become less anecdotal for a while. My main character, Damwild, really wants to just quietly study magic for a while; trying to continue focusing on her story when it's not a Story would be dull, and she wouldn't cooperate. (It's also highly convenient, though not really a deciding factor, that we're expecting our third baby ANY DAY NOW, and we'll have much less time for anything, game related or otherwise, for a while.)

A third thing: we all agree that we want to continue our three-some long-term play gaming, as well as be (even) more intentional about gaming with a broader group. The question is, what now? We talked last night about a stack of games that might work, and I feel confident we'll hit on something. We were clear that the social aspect of our gaming is not to be missed, even if we just hang out and do game development or whatever.

Lastly: we decided that we'd like to have the data we've generated over the years up somewhere, so we'll see if that can happen. This gives me a feeling that I can check back in on these characters if I need/want to.

My question to you, dear reader, is this:

Why are we, as gamers, so timid about ending an on-going campaign? What keeps us plugging away at something that's not exciting us the way it once may have?

2005-11-29 05:49:58 Mo

I've had a couple of big character farewells this last year, both in very long running campaigns. Both were intentional - one by me and one by the group as a whole and both were experiments in endings. Brand posed your question to me some time ago - why do we let games, or characters, go on past their primes? Why do we let them lose their impact by letting them peter - why with a whimper not a bang?

The first was a four-year long campaign of Exalted in a game that is comprised of a perfect circle. I had a character that was in some ways new, and some ways archetypal for me. She was the Rock against which all things must break, she was a priest torn between her love of God and her love of the man God took from her (I could go on and on, but I'll spare you). Suffice to say that I found her very engaging, very powerful, very immersable, and as she came into her strength, very difficult to play in the sort of game we were playing.

The game had a gradual progression in power, much like your Ars Magica game from the sounds of it. As we grew in power, I found more and more that I had to author her out of the dramatic choice to save the dynamic of the group, both in and out of character. This was due to some broken social contract issues, some problems with safety, and some serious style clashes among the players. The Rock against which all things must break was eroding - and not because I was choosing that it happen.

So one particularly difficult game I came home to talk to Brand about it (it has been in play since well before he came to Canada). I was really very frustrated, and he posed the question to me: If it's not as much fun as it used to be, why do you go on doing it? If the not fun of now is starting to take away the fun of then, isn't it best for you and for the group to make a change that will work?

I thought about it good and long, and I didn't really have an answer for it. I've historically had a difficult time ending my characters, either independently or at the end of game, but on close examination of those times it was largely because I had little control or say over the ending of the character. I'd been trained to fear it, because this creation that I was emotionally plugged into was going to be destroyed at the hands of someone else. I feared the end wouldn't do the character, or the story, justice after so much work, thought, and emotional investment had been made.

So I decided to author my death. It was 6 months in the planning between me and the GM. I wanted a big face off with God, I wanted to bring it to this massive choice between being a faithful servant of God, or to be a woman, and love and hate as I chose. I wanted to die having come to terms with the answer to that question. I wanted to show that the character was as capable of being a hero as a woman as she was as the Rock, I wanted to make the ultimate self-sacrifice not for God, but for Love. It was extremely empowering. It was, at times, a mite scripted ??? It was my first time on an endeavor, the GM has a different style of play that needed a bit of negotiation to pull off, and the group tried hard to follow the road that leads to Rome, trying to find a way out for me ??? because naturally I wouldn't want to die, right? All in all, the story ended powerfully, I felt at peace with it, and in later games, it gave a bit of revitalization to one or two others in the game who needed a boost or a change.

So my answer in short? Maybe we're timid about endings because we have a skewed impression about what they do and how we'll feel afterwards. Maybe it's a little because they represent an emotional connection (for many) and the death of that connection can be difficult to mourn through, especially if the character or story came to a bad (read: unsatisfactory) end. Maybe it???s difficult to orchestrate an ending that will do justice to those games that we've worked so hard to make fleshy: they either take too much planning and can despoil the organic quality of play, or they are too unprepared and the end feels shallow after all that work.

I do realize that I promised two stories and only gave one, but I went on and blathered up your blog??? and didn't want to overbear your comments-space. Sorry about that. ;P

2005-11-29 15:23:49 Matt Snyder

What makes people stay in any situation they that's not as exciting as it once was? Is it ok to leave? I'm thinking relationships here, mainly. That college flame. High school chums.

I have found that people have one hell of a hard time leaving something that was dear to them, even though they admit things have changed. I sure have a hard time doing that. Leaving something like that behind takes guts. It's just hard to do. What if it's even WORSE once you leave? What if you never find something so exciting? What if ... what if ...

Fear is awfully persuasive, isn't it?

2005-11-29 17:31:33 Brand Robins

I think both Matt and Mo are on to somethings.

I think there is also another issue, one that is less important than any of the issues they brought up, but that none the less manages to rear its head here and there.

Have you ever been reading a really good novel, been getting close to the end (or have just finished it) and along with all the joy of it had a sense of melancholly because it's over? The book you loved so well and so long is now done, and the adventure is over. Like Odysseus years after returning to Ithica you now sit disconent, this great thing behind you.

Well, for some people this has manifested in an urge to never let the thing end. This is one of the big reasons marketing people find for fantasy fans liking really long series. In fantasy these days the trillogy is often seen as a minimum, and the really popular series are now going into dozens of books. (Yes, some people like it that Jordan keeps hacking out the Wheel of Time, and just look at the number of Star Trek novels out there....) People get into something, and like Bloom's hero want the journey to go on forever. (Remember, in old formalist lit-crit, the point of the hero was not to reach a destination, but to forever stay on endless quest.)

Now, put us with that urge in the drivers seat. Let us take that melancholy and avoidance and leave the inmates in charge of the asylum, and I don't think its surprising that we never want it to end.

2005-11-29 17:41:01 Brand Robins

P.S. Your RSS feed seems to be down

2005-11-29 17:56:49 Emily

Fear, desire, and neglect too!  I think people don't do what Mo & Meg got to do often because there just isn't the vocabulary for it in our gaming repertoire. (well, there wasn't, times are changing)

Losing a character is going to look like losing all your time & effort & investment because in most games what you put in to one character doesn't feed into other parts of the game in a meaningful way.  You may have killed the great bad Hogsburgroth with Raven the Knight, but so what once she's dead?  You literally lose all those resources & your story is dead since you probably only had that one character to author story with and the effect you had in the world is gone *caput* with the character.  But what if we were not just investing in one single character, but in the world too, in a group of characters or what have you—but not just one thread that can be cut.

And to add insult to injury, if you lose a character in the midst of play it likely isn't at a time that's meaningful for you/for the character. Does he die when saving his lover despite her betrayal showing his enduring faithfulness? Does she come to the height of politics & intrigue only to be taken down by a flaw or error made that comes back to haunt her? Or does she die due to a failed defense check in some random skirmish on some random road.

It strikes me that the death of a character says a lot about the meaning of the character in fiction.  Red shirts and grunts die on the away team mission.  They are not protagonists.  If your character dies randomly, suddenly their dramatic potential is cut off, leaving you (probably) wanting more.  Protagonists die when it matters, climactically.  That's what we want, isn't it?

Also, ends don't have to be deaths of course, but that's a whole nother issue.

2005-11-29 18:58:40 C. Edwards

This is tied into the whole fear issue, and probably just a small component of the overall phenomena, but many people seem to be fearful of the period of reflection that inevitably follows an ending. They don't want to examine the feelings and thoughts that can be stirred up.

I think that at the most basic level endings, whether in books, roleplaying, or relationships, make us take a peek at our own mortality. It's no wonder that even those of us that don't mind endings so much still get a little tight-chested when we see an ending looming on the horizon.

2005-11-29 22:10:41 Thomas Robertson

I think another aspect is lack of experience.  We know that we haven't done a lot of endings, and there's this fear that we'll screw things up (or maybe someone else will screw things up for us) and our endings won't do the story justice.

We've all probably read or watched or whatever some story in which there was this great exciting build-up and the characters were awesome and we got to the climax and... it sucked.  The end of the story ruined and tainted everything that came before it.

I think we have that same problem in roleplaying.  We don't really know how to end stories well, and we've got so much invested in the characters that we're more terrified of ending the story badly than of not ending it at all.


2005-11-30 01:39:44 Meguey

The weird thing is, we also all know a whole bunch of perfectly satisfactory endings. We all heard and later read fairytales as kids, we all understand the whole build-up/climax/resoution arc from a *very* young age. Here's a story Elliot wrote a year and a half ago, at age 4:

Hoppity, hop hop.

The rabbit went running down the hill.

Slam! went the door in the wolf's face!

(after a few second's pause: "That's a pretty scary story!")

He gets the whole job done in three sentences!! What's the problem with us that we can't just go with our inner kid knowledge about how stories end??

(Notice the double punctuation - you can tell I really mean it :) )

2005-11-30 02:02:31 Blankshield

I think Matt's got it, for me.  We have a strong investment in the status quo, and changing from "how things are now" always takes more effort than it should, to overcome social inertia.


2005-11-30 03:09:12 Mo

A further thought...

In reflecting this afternoon on the post I wrote above, there's also often some peer complications with choosing to bring on the ending. Different people have different ideas about when it's satisfactory to find an end. Different people acheive closure, catharsis or come to a mourning process in drastically different ways. If the object of the game hasn't been to work towards that ending from the get go, acheiving one will make it compundingly more difficult.

So acheiving a group ending is real hard unless you planned it that way. Acheiving a personal ending outside of the group is difficult too... some things I learned when I ended my character in the story up at the top of the page:

- Bringing about an end to a character while the rest of the group goes on can be seen (despite painstaking communication efforts) as grandstanding, co-opting or stealing the spotlight.

- Social complications may arise on a Player-to-player level because folks might assume (correctly or incorrectly) that you just don't like playing with them any more.

- Social frustration can be incurred because chances are (especially in games with strong niche protection) that you've left a gap, and could be construed as uncaringly undermining the effectiveness of the group.

- Some players are just confounded when confronted with a choice like the one I made. There's an accepted trope in many modes of role-play that when you walk headlong into danger you have an expectation to be rescued by the group where death is imminant.

- Some players are confounded by the idea that you'd want to kill a character that you consider a hero, especially where they have an emotional connection to your character. It can be construed as something mildly murderous and unsavory.

So maybe another reason that we hesitate to find endings is sometimes because there's unexamined social stigmas and pressure against doing so.

2005-11-30 06:35:00 CharlesS

On the social stigma front...

I have to admit that you guys deciding to end the Griffin's Aerie game definitely made my mind leap to Vincent's recent question of why us Ennead folks out here act like doing Forge-y short high intensity gaming is "dangerous." :)

I'm glad you're ending it well and consciously, rather than either letting it drift away or drag on past the end of enjoyment. It also sounds like you are going for a non-over-dramatic ending, which I think is a good idea. It seems to me that there is often a desire to tack on a super-dramatic world-ending ending to games where the players have suddenly decided to end them (I was guilty of doing this to the old known world game). Sometimes they work (particularly if they are given enough time, like what Mo described up-thread about killing off a character she didn't want to play any more in a many month plotline), but often they leave a nasty flavor instead. A "let's wrap up the plot lines that need wrapping up, but otherwise leave the world in place," ending seems like a better one for the sort of game Griffin's Aerie was. I wish we had managed such an ending for Isrillion.

2005-11-30 15:28:20 Emily

Hi Charles-I still hold that the dangerousness is only in the short term.  There are things about the way we played the griffin's aerie game that, at least I, don't & currently can't get out of any other game.  I think we are in the process of creating better understandings of what we (& you do, Chaz) that will make it possible to come back.  Call me optimistic. : )

Looking at Mo's list of what ending a character while others continue with theirs makes me think of how certain games have handled those situations:

Bringing about an end to a character while the rest of the group goes on can be seen (despite painstaking communication efforts) as grandstanding, co-opting or stealing the spotlight.

Matt dealt with this explicitly in PtA.  The story arc mechanics of Screen Presence give everyone equal time & help coordinate everyone's efforts.

- Social complications may arise on a Player-to-player level because folks might assume (correctly or incorrectly) that you just don't like playing with them any more.

This is a can of worms all right.  People have been talking about this in Vincent's response to Curly, which began a return to the discussions from the Infamous 5 threads.

But then, this is a social issue that could be dealt with by rules.  If your expectation from the start is that stories will begin & end for characters, then the other players can not feel that it is personal when it happens and someone bows out of the game.  I mean think about this,  how irrational is it to assume that everyone will have the same time available & the same long-term ability to commit? It's much more functional to build in ways for people to enter & exit in a fulfilling way that doesn't put others out.

- Social frustration can be incurred because chances are (especially in games with strong niche protection) that you've left a gap, and could be construed as uncaringly undermining the effectiveness of the group.

This is the putting others out bit, I think.  It's interesting looking at the set-up that would bring this kind of response: it means that the group is formed together for a given task & is dependent on the parts to be able to accomplish it.  Each cannot stand on it's own.  Check it out, a co-dependent party!

- Some players are just confounded when confronted with a choice like the one I made. There's an accepted trope in many modes of role-play that when you walk headlong into danger you have an expectation to be rescued by the group where death is imminant.

Expectations of script immunity. If that's what the social contract & the rules say, that's what you should get. If not, not.

- Some players are confounded by the idea that you'd want to kill a character that you consider a hero, especially where they have an emotional connection to your character. It can be construed as something mildly murderous and unsavory.

And some people probably would not want to take you up on it even if the proper expectations were present from the get go. But there are lots of ways to end, too. Resolving the character's current dramatic potential is all that's really needed for a satisfying ending.

2005-11-30 18:07:09 Joshua BishopRoby

Why are we, as gamers, so timid about ending an on-going campaign? What keeps us plugging away at something that???s not exciting us the way it once may have?

There have been a lot of insightful and intriguing points already mentioned, but I'd like to add one more to the pile.  We've been trained to think that way.  Published game lines embed the expectation of endless play into their games because that translates (theoretically) to endless book purchases.  Start it off with adventure books from D&D and then meander throught White Wolf's variation of throwing out places to go, people to see, enemies to kill, and stuff to take, and you get gamers who expect their character to explore the infinite setting for an infinite length of time.

This makes sense—for the publishers (and if you're skeptical, pick up some mainstream game books and look at the last page; chances are it's an ad for the next supplement).  I think the contrary model makes sense for gaming as we're coming to know it—we produce a constellation of games that run for finite periods, after which you pick a different game and run that for a finite period.  We're starting to see the tools for this kind of play, too: endgames have already been published, and Tony is feverishly working on a way to control plot-significance of things so they don't turn into dead horses endlessly getting kicked.

2005-11-30 18:36:07 Adam Dray

My impression is that we fear turning off the engine because it was so hard to get the car started in the first place. We spend all this energy replacing parts, fiddling with gears, getting the thing running, and tuning it. When we finally feel like the thing is going—even if all six cylinders aren't firing all the time—we're hesitant to shut it off. Maybe it won't run again then all that work we put into it will be for naught.

2005-11-30 19:25:53 Matt Schlotte

Hmm.. Game ending I am not familiar with in a healthy, lets end this in this sort of way. Okay there was a game of Cyberpunk in highschool that we ended as an answer to the GM's Monster of the game arc. We (the players) were all pretty happy with the way it ended. I don't believe the GM was as much though. Though talking to him a couple years later about it he was pleased in retrospect that it had ended and mostly in the manner that it did.

He had introduced a (now bear with me, this was highschool) shapechanging monster from outer-space (or so we assumed). We, a small group of by this point very rich (in Cyperpunk terms, powerful) characters. The idea of a shapechanger scared us the way nothing else had scared us. We went to painstaking hurdles to track this monster and when the GM would throw up a new plot for us to follow, we would actually sell the job off to another group (NPC) of mercenaries so we could continue tracking the monster. In the end we destroyed a small section of the city, lost one of the PC's in doing so and became wanted fugitives just to get the monster, knowing that this ended our adventuring days. The PCs split, we each had a mini-adventure as we found out what backwoods, unpopulated portion of the world we retired to, not as wealthy ex-mercenaries (our bank accounts were frozen and blackmarket people were afraid to help us so no favors to call in) but as bums who sat on the side of the road selling wares and downgrading their cyberwear to make money to live.

And we PCs were still damn happy. Even the guy who's PC died.

Now this could've been handled different if we were more experienced or open RPers. We could have brought our issues to the GM and did to some extent, we told him that there wasn't going to be another threat we were going to consider until this shapechanger was dealt with. He could have been more understanding, but we were in highschool and were used to the standard playstylings of Cyperpunk, White Wolf, Shadow Run, D&D, etc... It was a gaming environment where PCs could lobby for stuff, but the GM was like stone and would not give out his secrets on how he was planning on challenging the PCs next until after the adventure had run its course. I would still consider it a decent success for all those involved. We moved on and started another game.

This idea though about the sanctity (to take all the wonderful things Mo said and dumb it /way/ down for myself) of a PC baffles me to some extent. In the absurdly long standing and never ending in an organized fashion game that Charles refers to, we have had a number of characters die. However most have been small ancilliary PCs but I think (and correct me if I'm wrong) only one kind of major PC die.

My PC who died was shocking; there was dead silence and nervous looks for half an hour, then a long discussion that was often broken up by "Wows" and nervous laughter, but its what happened and no one questioned whether I should have, or as far as I know didn't think I was grandstanding. There was no question in my mind how he would react in the situation he had been put in and people agreed it made sense.

And that's the thing for me, characters are parts of a story, who have their own stories that you want to see carried through, hopefully to the end, but their stories can lead them, in a dangerous world, like many roleplaying games are, to death or to leave the group. They become shell shocked and leave, they build that boat they've been working their entire lives on and leave, they get old and begin to get infirm so walk into the fey realms and leave. People move and start anew somewhere else, not always of their own choice. Why should characters be immune to that?

I think a proper end to Isrillion would have been very nice now. I think at the time of it happening it would have been quite emotional and I could see how some of us would have been fearful of what an "end" to Isrillion would have meant and potentially the reflective period that comes after it. Also I am fearful now that if such an end had been attempted people (possibly including myself at the time) would have pushed for an overly dramatic ending.

Which if that had been the case we couldn't now in our new game be talking about this blooming Spring covenant of Isrillion that has several mages working hard to make it a nice place, a place where you can hear birds sing, and maidens dance in meadows and bad mages remain isolated in their towers while the locals frollick and throw fancy dress parties.

Anyways I have spent way too long from my studies, so back to the books for me. I apologize for my inability to write in a decent and coherent fashion right now.

2005-12-01 00:08:59 Meguey

Joshua BishopRoby wrote, about not ending game campaigns:

"We've been trained to think that way."

Indeed. Because we've lost our child-like gift of story-telling (see Emily's post) somewhere along the way, and now we have to re-invent it. This reminds me a lot of the fancy boxed $30 board games you can now buy to play 'a wacky game of guess who I'm being!' - A.K.A. charades. Lots of what we'd call parlour or party games (Blind Man's Bluff, Killer, Charades, Who's Got the Button, etc) are now being marketed to us because we have, for the most part, forgotten them. And we've been trained to view the box as the answer to good game-board type fun in the same way we've been trained to view the never-ending, perpetual new modules campaign as the answer to roleplaying.

Here  and here are two good links for great parlour games. Try one tonight!

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