This article was jointly written by Senda Linaugh and Wen Reischl.
It’s a story we all know. The Popular Girl with a wellspring of opportunity before her (Stacie) meets the Troublemaker with the heart of gold (Harrison). He’s already head over heels in love with her when the story begins, but we play to find out will they or won’t they. Over two seasons and a decade of their lives they are almost irrevocably torn apart. He leaves, and we rejoin their story on the eve of Stacie’s wedding to someone else. The second season ended, after the final battle, with Harrison putting a ring on Stacie’s finger and asking if they could finally give their relationship a try.
As players it left us knowing what Harrison’s outcome would be, with a corrupting alien force holding his body together and knowing he would never let himself slip to the point he could hurt the people he loved. We knew he wouldn’t live a full life. But we had hope that he would make good use of the time he had left. There was one final question to answer, what would Harrison and Stacie’s lives look like while they were together? The lure of finality and closure meant we couldn’t let Stacie and Harrison go quite yet. Last Thursday, we went back to these characters and found their ending.
It’s not often that I walk into a game expecting (wanting, almost? Certainly that’s what we sat down for) a character to die. There are many conversations about agency and managing character death out there, how to avoid it, talking agency in allowing or disallowing it, table policies, etc. Walking into a story that is specifically about the death of characters requires a high degree of emotional investment and a willingness to participate at the table. It’s something I’m familiar with but not something I approach lightly — I am a fan of Catherine Ramen’s Red Carnations on a Black Grave, for example, but it’s not a game I’ll play with just anyone, or pull out for light entertainment.
Character death, when given weight and meaning, is a rare opportunity to find a tragic, cathartic, human story that can give us poignant hope because of their sacrifice.
For the three of us who sat down to play last Thursday, we knew that this story — the story culminating in Stacie saying goodbye to Harrison — was the only story we were telling. In many instances a character death may be part of a longer running campaign, or happen within the context of a greater, ongoing story. These points were all important to our single session of ending, but depending on your circumstances you will want to choose what you apply as it makes sense to your game. So how do we accomplish character death or permanent removal as closure and finality at the table?
- Get everyone’s investment before playing. If you know that the game is going to be about the end of a player character, don’t spring it on anyone as a surprise (GM or player). Give everyone the opportunity to opt in or out ahead of time, not just at the table as things are about to kick off.
- Negotiate the game at a meta level. Before you start, you should all be on the same page about the generalities of this story line. That means that at a meta level, we discussed our different ideas about how Harrison and Stacie got to this final point before we ever started the game. We talked about how long it would take in game and what we wanted to see along the way. And, very important for a game with a lot of emotional intensity, we had a very detailed safety negotiation about what themes could and couldn’t come up (for example, there were no children in their relationship so there was no parental death). We also knew that something would happen that pushed Harrison from stable to slipping into the grasp of the darkness he was carrying inside him, and that would be our tilt in to the final descent.
- Managing the mechanics to favor the story. This is one time when you really really don’t want a botched roll to ruin your story. Everyone at the table is heavily invested in the story following the planned arc, so drastically changing the ending by allowing the dice to negate that social contract would frankly suck. If Tony Stark, instead of dying, suddenly decided that with all that power at his control he could rule the galaxy (having succeeded at the save to maintain his frail mortal form), well…that would be a very different and much less satisfying end to End Game. Choose your game system/framework carefully so that you don’t have to dodge the mechanics to make the story you’ve negotiated happen, and remember that although you’ve discussed the end point, you don’t know how you’re going to get there. Play to find the path to the end.
- Give yourselves breaks. If you, like we did, are playing specifically through the story of a character death, it’s very possible to create a downward spiral with no emotional breaks. For Stacie and Harrison, we used flashback scenes from simpler times to lighten the intensity and remind us of the good times that made the loss even more poignant. These moments of light hearted childhood infatuation broke up scenes of adult drama and the slow end of Harrison inhabiting his own body, both giving us moments to breathe and even more reasons to care about our characters. If flashbacks don’t work for your particular story or game, consider some other kind of breaks between intense moments along the path: a side story, someone else’s relationship, or even just five minutes to chat or get up from the table.
- You may need to process the experience after. Leave yourselves time in and out of the game to wrap up the pieces and process through them. We had a glimpse of the funeral, and ended on a flashback of Harrison, sitting on the trunk of his car blowing bubbles with his gum like Stacie taught him. We ended on the eternal image of him in his youth, a mix of child like innocence, too many responsibilities far too young, and love. Leave yourselves some time to emotionally debrief after the game as well – share your favorite moments, or if you have bleed that’s occurring; eulogize, support each other if you are experiencing grief for that closure. One tool we leveraged was to make a playlist (inspired by the direction in the Tales from the Loop character creation to choose a character theme song).
Senda: As a character, Stacie started as the stereotype of a popular girl to me. It was fun to lean into that as an experience I hadn’t had growing up. As I played her through two campaigns, she went from the girl who had it all to the girl with nothing, and then built her way back up, somehow maintaining a lot of her innocence despite watching her world crumble around her at 13 years old. Stacie allowed me (three times!) to play out different sad, but not abusive, relationship ends — to practice how these difficult moments in my life could look without some of the real baggage that I carry with me. She gave me the opportunity to be in three different types of young love — the middle school crush, the college engagement, and the adult return to a childhood love; with a letter break up, a “this isn’t going to work because you scare me” conversation, and having to end her husband’s suffering. She was a safe space for me to experience and practice so many emotions, and I needed to leave her in a place where she wasn’t in limbo; where I knew there was hope for her, that her resilience would pull her through.
I love that our games can go on forever, but I love even more that we can accomplish closure for our stories. To paraphrase Good Omens, if you want to imagine the future, imagine a boy and his bubble gum and his car. And a summer that never ends.
Wen: Over these last 2 years, Harrison has meant more to me than I can describe. In all I’ve written over 200 pages about this character whom I played perhaps a dozen times. I love him dearly. I needed Harrison, in a very real way. But I’ve also moved beyond what I needed Harrison for. He represented change, the end of book one and start of book two in the trilogy of my life. Harrison deserved a story arc befitting his place in my life. His end in the arms of the woman he loved was his reward, and also mine. I needed to know he had lived a good life, one that wasn’t just struggle, and to send him off into the beyond knowing that he had and protected the family he always wanted.
This session concluded with one last image, a bittersweet vignette that recalled one of the happiest moments of season 1, when Stacie taught Harrison how to blow bubbles with bubblegum (her iconic item). Whether it was a flash in the moment of his death or a scene from beyond I’m not sure. But we see him one last time a boy sitting on the trunk of the car blowing bubbles.
In my grief I’m left wanting more and expressly satisfied to know that there never will be more.
“Sweet, so would I:
Yet I should kill thee with much cherishing.
Good night, good night! Parting is such sweet sorrow.”
– Juliet, Romeo and Juliet
Have you given a final ending to a character you adored? Have you helped another player bring a satisfying conclusion to a character they were playing? How did you prepare? When did you decide when and how to end a character’s story?