The Big Wrap-Up: Closing Vignettes
Recently, I finished up an epic campaign, probably the last one of such length I’ll complete in my life. We started playing some iteration of it back in 1997, and finished in March of 2014. I was a lot younger when we started, didn’t have kids but was dating the woman who would become my wife (her tolerance of our gaming shenanigans was an excellent trial by fire). Accordingly, however we gamed at least weekly in the beginning, going to weekly, then monthly, then quarterly before the game finally wrapped. Still, after being separated by about 200 miles, the quarterly journey to common ground was a welcome pilgrimage to see old friends. In many ways, I’m remorseful that we had to call it quits, but we had completed the arc I had redefined in 2004 for the children of the original characters, and the urge to do other things started to make the old game feel like a small burden, which is an excellent sign of it being time for a change.
Point being, how do you wrap up a game that is over a decade in the making? There is perhaps no fully adequate way, so you’ve really got to just hope you can hit as many high points as you can. I’ve never been a fan of exposition or narrative telling you what happened (like at the end of some John Hughes film), but I wanted to indicate where the players were going before we bid them farewell. So after the players believed the final battle was over, I used the tool of the Closing Vignette to give them one more chance to tell their story, and have their old enemy make a final appearance.
[Warning. This is work intensive. To pull this off, I had to make about 36 NPC’s suitable for play by players that had never seen them before, not to mention prepping the usual monsters, plots, dungeons, maps, etc. Fortunately, Paizo’s NPC Codex and Gamemastery Guide were invaluable to making this happen quickly, and the choice use of Lone Wolf’s Herolab saved the day, but it was zero-hour when the printouts came rolling out for the final game.]
The idea behind the closing vignette is similar to the idea we presented several months ago in the Opening Vignettes article. It’s a way to showcase a character, but here we know who they are, just not exactly who they’re going to be. Now, while you or the player could do this on their own and everyone read it and smile and say, “Yep, always knew he’d be the Lord Mayor of Greyhawk” I wanted players to shape it… LIVE.
Just like with Live television, there are lots of opportunities for things to hit the fan, so don’t undertake this lightly. However, with the right planning, you can see that everyone gets their time in the sun. Here’s what you need to do:
1. Identify Major and Minor Plot Issues: This is where you get to attempt to be J. J. Abrams and close all your plot holes, weave together plot threads, and bring in arch rivals, villains, and bit players that delight the characters and players alike. The more you can identify and bring in, the more satisfied your players are going to be with the fullness of the resolutions.
2. Develop Player Expectations: Talk with your players to establish what they want to see happen to their character. This much time invested in a character deserves a consult and some deference. I asked several hypothetical questions to see how the player thought their character would likely react, and built my story and resolutions generally to concur or enhance those plans.
3. Develop Your Story With Subtle Connections: Create a small adventure (estimated 2 hour play time) that is essentially a brief set up, some RP with closure of various issues important to the player and their character, and then an opportunity for the PC to shine – lower level threats stomped into the dirt before a more imposing confrontation with a primary adversary. This isn’t the epic final boss combat, but it’s someone that gives them a visceral reaction, and it should probe their power in a meaningful way. However, somewhere in this story, place a seed that is related to the other vignettes. When each story piece is revealed, the combined stories will lead into and tell the story of the final confrontation.
4. NPC’s NPC’s NPC’s: So here’s the crazy part I mentioned – to focus on each PC individually, I made NPC’s that helped emphasize who each Epic PC was now (or was going to be). NPC’s that were followers, admirers, earned allies or powerful friends (but not as powerful as the PC, of course). These, I doled out at random to the other players. That way the players can participate and be entertained, but aren’t compelled to bring their own PC crashing into the focus character’s.
5. EPIC FINALE: Each thread leads into the final confrontation. Your nemesis awaits. Everyone, playing themselves, plays out the endgame.
In our story, each PC encountered a familiar villain that stood in the way of something they wanted: the now mad hierophant of winter, the political enemies of the party politico, an on arch-enemy demoness seeking to poison the children of the cleric’s orphanage, etc. Each part of that story found a small link (components to a artifact which, if used, could deify the party’s oldest and greatest of enemies, Iuz the Old). They arrive in the nick of time to thwart his plans, but not before the party paladin has to choose to marry the woman he loves or fight his nemesis.
Fun was had by all, and very few stones were left unturned as we wrote everyone’s ‘final page’.
Of course, this isn’t going to work with every campaign. You’re going to run into situations where the final confrontation is it, and then you shut the module and say, what do we play now? But if you have the time to unfold after that and bring a little twist to your conclusion, you can get a very satisfying feeling of closure from the closing vignette. Give it a try next time you wrap a 17 year campaign and let me know what you think.