Seven years ago, I started running a D&D campaign with the brand new D&D 3.0 system, called Broken Chains. I wrote a 90,000 word game world, and designed a campaign arc with a beginning, middle, and end. From the very beginning, it was created to be a finite campaign, with a storyline that ran through the entire thing, and an actual, planned ending.
Last night, it ended.
And I think it ended well.
I was worried about how to wrap it up in a satisfying manner for the players, all of whom had devoted years of their lives to playing their characters and contributing to the game. I didn’t want it to just fade away, nor did I want to force it into my vision of what the appropriate ending was. After all this time, I needed it to end in a way that worked for me, and that worked for them. They had to feel that the story was over, and it was okay to walk away from their characters.
I think we’ve all run or played in campaigns that didn’t end the way we wanted them to. Sometimes, that’s fine, if the ending is still satisfying, or if an unsatisfying game just dies under its own weight. The latter situation is far from ideal, but sometimes you just have to shoot a sick dog. I’m willing to bet that a number of us have had campaigns end in ways that are deeply unsatisfying, either because they fade away, or the ending that comes doesn’t work for us.
I really, really didn’t want that for this game. We’d all spent too much time in this world, with this story, to let it end in a way that was unworthy of all the good stuff that had gone before.
I thought about this for a long time. I literally agonized over it. After all the work we’d put in, I wanted the ending to be perfect. And I couldn’t figure out a way to do that.
I knew what the final confrontation was going to be: helping a small group of ancient heroes from the dawn of the current age of the world finally defeat a proto-god that was rising to depose the God and Goddess who had given birth to the world. I had stats for everything worked out, and it was going to be a tough, tough fight. But that’s the way it should be, because this was for all the marbles. And I kept having these horrible visions of dice, and how they can turn on you and betray all the careful story building you’ve done.
Finally, I decided to do the last session narratively, without dice.
This was a huge step for me, because I tend to hate diceless games. I ran an Amber game for a time, and it was a nightmare for me as a GM, though it produced some of the greatest roleplaying I have ever been privileged to be part of.
My main complaint about Amber is that its system pretty much isn’t one. I felt that there just wasn’t enough to the game to support me as GM, to give me the tools to build and adjudicate play sessions well. I know that people with disagree with me, but that’s the way I feel. Maybe one day I’ll devote a post to my philosophy of game system as storytelling toolbox, but not today.
Anyway, I knew that, if I was going to go diceless, I needed to build in some sort of structure. So, here’s what I did:
- I got a piece of graph paper and wrote out a list of possible outcomes, everything from the slaying of the big bad, to the deaths of the heroes, the shattering of the world, the deaths of gods, the destruction of magic, etc. Some were positive, some were negative, and some were simply collateral damage that might occur.
- Beside each of the outcomes, I outlined a number of empty boxes commensurate with how hard I wanted it to be for that outcome to be achieved. So, for the death of the big bad, I outlined 20 boxes, while for the death of each individual PC, I outlined 6 boxes.
- I gave each player 6 poker chips to use as narrative interrupts, and I gave myself 12. By spending a poker chip, a player could forestall and interfere with the narrative of the enemy, or assist an ally. I could do the same with my 12 chips.
- I explained to the players that I would describe a scene, and then go around in a circle to let everyone describe the actions of their characters. When they did something that advanced one of the outcomes on my sheet (which I didn’t show them), I would mark off a box beside that outcome. If it affected multiple outcomes, I would mark a box beside each. When all the boxes beside an outcome were filled in, that outcome was accomplished.
- I told them that they were in the Godtime, and not to be worried about mechanics or what was on their character sheets, but to stay true to their characters, and do the kinds of things they would want to be told for millennia, and written down in holy texts, and discussed by anthropologists, and turned into action movies.
- I also told them that they could, at any time, decide that their character would make an heroic sacrifice, dying to achieve an important end, and that would trump pretty much anything else.
And that’s the way we ran it.
It took a little while for them to get into the spirit of it; it was hard to explain exactly the kind of thing I was looking for without influencing them too much. I needed the encounter to reflect what they wanted, not what I wanted.
They destroyed the big bad in very unexpected ways, first splitting the composite 5-in-1 deity into it’s individual parts, slaying three parts of it, forcing one part to bow to their mastery, and allowing the final part to try to redeem herself.
They almost killed the Father, god of the sky and sun, by calling on too much of his power. They did kill six saints by invoking their power in the battle.
They destroyed magic utterly.
They broke the protective bubble between their world and the multiverse, allowing controlled planar travel for the first time in the history of the world.
They saved the heroes that had held the godling at bay, though just barely and only through sacrifice.
And at the end of things, when they had fulfilled the prophecies of the Weirds and become the Redeemers of the Land, Mother Earth and Father Sky passed their power to the characters to dispose of as they wished.
I wasn’t sure what the characters would do then. They could have elevated some of the surviving saints to godhood, or given it to the near-god hero who had held the 5-in-1 godling in check for 15,000 years, or they could pass the power to others, or they could take it on themselves.
In the end, after some interesting roleplaying debate over the decision, they decided to take on the mantles of gods themselves.
We finished the evening with them ordering their pantheon, describing their focus as gods, deciding on their objectives and values, rebuilding magic and psionics, and establishing their relationship with other beings of power in the world. And then we collectively described the new world a thousand years down the road.
It was a good world. Not perfect, but a good world.
And we closed the curtain on the game.
I think it was a good ending.
My thanks to all the players, past and present, who helped to make this experience one to remember. Chris, Penny, and Clint made it all the way through; Erik left but returned; and Michael and Sandy gave us a good start, but couldn’t stay with us to the end.
It has been a pleasure to share this world and game with you.
Fill to me the parting glass
And drink a health whate’er befall
I gently rise and softly call
Goodnight, and joy be with you all