A couple of years ago, then Pixar storyboard artist Emily Coats tweeted pieces of advice on making stories that she had picked up from working with Pixar, which were later compiled in several places on the internet, such as this io9 post. Later, Dino Ignacio created image macros of the individual rules which I am using in these posts.
Rule #8: “Finish your story, let go even if it’s not perfect. In an ideal world you have both, but move on. Do better next time.”
This is probably the rule I am least qualified to talk about. I have a terrible habit of letting games peter out unfinished. It would be safe to say I have more unfinished games than completed campaigns under my belt. There are a lot of things I could blame for this tendency, e.g. college, scheduling difficulties, new and exciting sourcebooks, but what it really comes down to is that my enthusiasm for the story does not outlast the time necessary to play through the extended scenario I have in mind. Part of that is a tendency to plan too big, but I think the bigger problem is that, despite how much I enjoy running a game, I am more often a GM by necessity than by choice. When it comes down to it, I’d much rather be playing a character than running the story. All of which leads to this disclaimer before I dispense some advice: We’re in “Do as I say, not as I do,” territory, because my own bad habits get in the way of my best judgment.
What to do when a story is going nowhere or in danger of disbanding, then? My best advice is to skip to the end. It will be rushed. It won’t have the emotional impact you were hoping for. You’ll probably have to railroad your players and manufacture a deus ex machina in order to get all the pieces in place. When all is said and done, however, it’ll be more satisfying to have it over and done with than to leave a half-finished story dangling forever. Trust me, you’re never going to get around to picking that story up again, no matter what you tell yourself.
Then again, if the problem is a lack of interest or enthusiasm (whether on your part or the players) as opposed to half your group moving away, maybe you don’t need to skip all the way to the end. Try just skipping ahead to the next “good bit.” Move up the confrontation with the villain’s lead henchman. Have a breathless runner tell the party that the country’s ruler will arbitrate their dispute right now instead of waiting for the Winter Court like he originally said. If you’ve been drawing out the buildup to the next big event too much, dropping a bombshell in the players’ laps just might wake everyone up. If it doesn’t, you can still skip to the end on the next session.
No story is perfect, and if my experience is at all typical, a lot of them don’t have enough steam to play out slowly. So jump up the schedule and remember to do better next time.