Dear Readers: This is NOT a review of The Dark Knight Rises, because I haven't seen it yet, though I do plan on seeing it at 10 PM tonight. I just like the picture and theming, and considering that it's opening day for the final Bat-Nolan trilogy, it seems quite fitting. So, then, let me present to you: my thoughts on wrapping up a story with a bang.
Tying Up the Story: the GM's Side
This is, interestingly enough, the side of things that I have more experience with. A lot of the work of making everything come to a close falls on the GM to tie up (though not everything; the players have responsibilities too...there's no such thing as a free ride in gaming ;-) ). It's also interesting to note that you have a slightly different toolset from that of a standard author. The GM, at this point, isn't directing a story; they're amping the tension and letting players conclude plot threads however they wish. Here's a quick list of some things that GMs can do to make a conclusion memorable.
- Break things. While Batman fans will probably get the instance that I'm specifically hinting at here, this applies to a whole lot of things. This is the finale, so let things go. Let things fall. Let things crash and burn. This is the final act, and the last few sessions can easily see cities burning and seemingly ironclad establishments being toppled. If you've already broken some things, break bigger things.
- Pay off plots. You know those plots that've been set up and advanced for a while? Take them somewhere. This is a great way to break things, as above, if you've been building towards that for a while. It's an excuse to kick a plot into overdrive; you don't skip the steps of a plot point's build-up, but rather, you have a reason to accelerate their speed, in many cases.
- Give hard choices. Things aren't easy for the protagonists at this point, and that includes the decisions they have to make. They want to save the princess? They're going to have to take out their loyal but currently misguided ally who's holding her hostage. They want to raise an army? That's going to take precious time that will let the enemy wizards complete a dastardly summoning ritual. Choices may have been hard for the heroes before, but now...hard choices are practically mandatory. There are no more obvious answers.
- Up the ante. Things may have hinged on the characters' actions before. Now, even more things hinge on their actions. Combo this with the hard choices from above, and you get the corollary that these choices should have bigger and bigger impacts, both for better and for worse.
The GM should be doing these things in progressively larger doses as the story goes onward, but especially as the story comes to a close. It should be spiraling to larger and larger milestones.
Kicking Down Doors: the Players' Side
On the players' side, there's the duty of fuel. If the GM arranges things, the players provide the fuel to run the motor of the game. Without player momentum, the whole thing falls flat. A GM may be able to run players through an exciting adventure, but it's not half so interesting if they just pad along to the next destination on the Adventure Tour. Without investment from players, a game is, well...stale. So here's how not to do that as a game comes to a close.
- Follow your heart. Okay, cheesy movie context aside, the last part of the story is really where your character should be letting loose with what they want to do. This is a time for constraints to be shaking off, a time to be reassessing what your character's goals truly are, and maybe a time for your character to step up and really, really want something.
- Make clear goals. Motives can be fuzzy, unclear, or shifting throughout a good portion of the story, but when it comes to the end, motives are crystalline and obvious. If they aren't, they won't get accomplished. The characters know what they want, or at least what they have to choose between. Because that's a possibility too: they have two things they want, and those things are exclusive. When they make their choice, it'll be final.
- Go big or go home. This is really not the time to be doing things halfway. If you're gonna go and topple a kingdom, topple the flippin' kingdom! Raise an army! Infiltrate the evil cult! Find the mythic sword! Bring about the Dark Lord's downfall! This also applies to more personal goals and actions, too. Simply put: wherever your character throws their weight, make them throw it hard.
- Value things. If there's nothing your character is willing to put at stake, the story is far less interesting. If you've already got things that your character has invested in, invest in them more strongly. Put things out there to risk, to lose, to save, to recover. The more stakes there are on the table, the more meaningful the final conflict will be.
Now, a lot of these require strong trust in the GM on the players' part. Why have your character value something if the GM's just going to take it away right off the bat? A lot of players have gotten burned that way. The best way to help this is to communicate with the GM, and make sure that the GM is all about telling the players' story. A GM willing to engage with the players is incredibly valuable. It also helps to remind the GM about your character's aims and needs, and to work with the GM to make sure that those are getting incorporated into the story.
Above All Things
Just have fun. Because that's what this is all about: having a great big wild incredible adventure.