RPG Special Sauce: The Humble Epilogue

It’s not hip…
It’s not sexy…
It’s not cool…

But few things I’ve added to my GMing toolkit have brought my players more at the table satisfaction than the humble epilogue.

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… not an epilogue …

Epilogue vs. Denouement

As most of you know, an epilogue is a section at the end of a story that serves as a comment on what has happened. For our purposes think of the epilogue as a place to explore a character’s legacy after the action of a session has played out.

Denouement is another term we’ll need for this discussion that you might be less familiar with. A denouement is the part of a story in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and resolved. When we talk about the denouement think about it as the “wrapping up” part of a session; it’s the scene in Star Wars where Luke and Han get their medals on Yavin 4. It’s what you need after the Death Star blows up to give the story a proper shape.

So, in role-playing games, the denouement is the wrapping up of a session, and the epilogue is a satisfying coda after the main body of the session is done.

When Epilogues Work Best

As useful as epilogues can be, it isn’t a tool for every job. It gives a high gloss sheen to convention games and one-offs, but using it for an ongoing game would get tiresome. After all we are going to see those characters again in a week or two.

The big exception, of course, is when you complete a campaign. You’ll really want a nice bow on top of things if you’ve spent months (or years) playing session after session with your friends. Even if everybody dies in the end! Maybe, especially, if everyone dies.

Using Epilogues at the Table

After the characters have taken out the Big Bad, and after you’ve tied up any loose threads in the denouement, take a beat or two to let everything settle. Then look around at the folks at the table and say, “Okay, what’s the legacy for your character, how is your life forever altered by this?” If they’ve died you can say, “How are you remembered… who mourns and celebrates you?”

If nobody jumps right in, turn to the player you think has most confidence and ask them to start. Don’t force anybody to do it, of course, but I think you’ll find that once one person goes, then everyone will take a turn. (Deep down we all want our fair share of the spotlight, right?)

I discovered the contagious nature of the epilogue when I was running Tales from the Loop at a convention. It had been a fantastic session, but our time was up so I was trying to speed things along. It occurred to me that I could wrap thing up nicely by giving the character the game revolved around an epilogue. But after that player was done, everyone’s hand shot up, people literally saying, “Do me, do me next!!!”

Every session is different, so if people aren’t jumping at the chance to speak, at the very least check in with each player to see if they’re interested. If someone really wants to pass, let them.

Some Examples from Actual Play

You will often be amazed at what people come up with when you give them some room. Even very young players instinctively get this kind of story structure. I was recently at DunDraCon running my Introduction to Humblewood game for a group of teenagers. I’ve built it to be a splashy show piece, so there’s a big damn ending where the characters have to stop a fire creature from burning down their town. When we got to the epilogues I asked the youngest player to start. This boy, 10 or 12 at most, thought for a moment and said, “A year later we gather outside of town at sunset where we’ve built a wooden replica of the monster. We watch it burn in silence to remember those that died.”

What! I just thought it was so fantastic that I gave the young man a slow nod of approval and a well-deserved attaboy.

That’s one of my favorite things about the epilogue. It’s outside the scope of the regular game so:
a. we’re in pure story-telling mode… if you’re playing a traditional game, savor this moment away from the rules, and,
b. the session is effectively over from a plot standpoint, so you can give everyone as much control as they want.

A great example of that last point happened recently with my own regular group. We were playing a fill-in session of Cthulhu Dark, which is practically made for killer one-offs. It’s Mythos gaming, but everyone had made it through the session more or less physically intact… except for Zach. His character had too directly interfered in the plans of the Big Bad, so he’d been transformed into a creature egg and placed with thousands of others on the bottom of a river. The idea was that he’d only be reborn again “when the stars were right.”

It’s worth noting that Cthulhu Dark has the epilogue built right into its story structure. It’s meant to be a short scene about how you try to make sense out of what you’ve seen, or how those you leave behind cope with your loss. But Zach took it further, way further. I let him go last, because I could tell he had something special brewing.

Here’s what he said…
“The world gets too hot… and then it gets too cold… and then there’s an Ice Age… the world begins to thaw again and we focus in on a little band of survivors… it looks like maybe they have a chance… and then in the river nearby, one slimy head breaks the surface, and then another, and then mine does… and now we know, those poor survivors never had a chance at all.”

By telescoping out the time scale he was able to hit that Lovecraftian note of cosmic horror we rarely, if ever, see at the game table.

How to Build Anticipation with Epilogues

It took my a long time to realize this, but if it’s a really hot table, there’s one last technique you can use to squeeze a little more juice out of the session.

Often a game will have a character that the story organically forms around, somehow everything ties back to them. Maybe it’s because they’re a strong player and others naturally want to create the narrative around them, but usually it’s something that happens by the will of the table.

Have that character do their epilogue last.

If they start to jump in say something like, “Oh, we’ll get to you.” But I’ve never had to do that. Not once. People can sense when their story should sum things up.

After that last player goes, if you have a killer final image for your session, something so great it might elicit a gasp or two, then add your epilogue, too. But play it by ear. If your moment isn’t as great as what the players have already done, then save it for next time.

Just let the players have the last word.

It was all about them anyway.

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