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Thread: Ask a GM [12/1/08]: Ending a Campaign

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    Ask a GM [12/1/08]: Ending a Campaign

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    TAROT asks, "How do you end a campaign?"

    I was reading a gaming book recently, and it was talking about meta-genres and how tragedy was unfit for roleplaying.

    Later on, the GM section on campaigning basically amounted to "mix it up." But I realized that the assumption was that the game was to progress indefinitely. There was no guidance for ending a campaign. There's always a section on plotting a single adventure, but bringing a campaign to a satisfying conclusion is a very different beast and as far as I can tell, is never even considered a possibility (Promethean: the Created being the exception).

    In my experience, campaigns tend to meander along until:
    • The game just runs out of steam/People want to try something else that is new and shiny.
    • "Is there anyone still alive who was there when this quest was handed out?"
    • System is cracking. "Let's start over at level one."
    • Even making it to the Big Boss with the fully assembled MacGuffin doesn't guarantee a satisfying conclusion.

    How do you bring a long-running game to a good finish?
    How do you go about planning a campaign to last a specific number of sessions, tying up personal and group stories satisfactorily (if not necessarily victoriously)?
    Robert A. Howard
    Pen & Paper Games
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    How to end a campaign?

    Itís a great question and one too often overlooked in GM advice. A great ending is often what makes a campaign most memorable!

    First, as the end nears make a list of all open plot points. A satisfying ending wraps all (or at least most) of them up. A dropped plot point is likely to frustrate players. Plan ahead and avoid that pitfall. You donít have to come up with this list entirely on your own. Ask your players a session or two before (if you can). What do they really want to resolve? If there is a plot point no one mentions that you think is important, well Ö maybe itís not.

    Second, consider is there anything the PCs donít know about the villain or the plot that you wish them to know Ė this is your last chance to hand out information! Remember, villains love to gloat.

    Third, the ending should be unique and special. If the PCs have been fighting in cavern after cavern Ö consider the ending scene being out in the woods. Shake things up. Throw in a gigantic battle scene. Shake the pillars of heaven! If you can't go all out at the end of the story, when can you?

    Fourth, good endings are often surprising. If the PCs think just because they have the magical MacGuffin they need to slay the Dragon that all is going to go smoothly, well, think again. What about a twist? What if the dragon is already slain by a more powerful foe who needs the MacGuffin for his own twisted purposes? ďYouíve done me a great favor by bring it here. Now hand it over and you donít have to die like all your pitiful friends!Ē A twist at the end is not essential but it is can be a very potent option and one you should consider.

    Five, endings have consequences. Alas, after the ending, things will never be the same. Whether for good or ill, the ending of your campaign should change the world in some way.

    Six, steal steal steal. Remember that movie or that novel with that ending you really loved? Steal it. Adapt it Ė sure. Put your own spin on it. But steal it. Why reinvent the wheel? The world of fiction is full of great endings. And donít restrict your stealing to fantasy and sci-fi. Read some Louis Líamour novels. They are quick, delightful western adventure tales (mostly) and that man really knew how to write a powerful ending. Some of the best endings are actually adaptions taken from another genre.

    Seven, the next time you put together a campaign Ö why not think about the ending first? Think about what would make a really powerful, interesting, compelling ending and make a campaign that works toward it. Employ literary devices like foreshadowing. Have one of the characters be haunted by visions of some terrible calamity that looks like the end of the world but maybe just maybe really isnít.

    Ending well is no easy feat. Just ask all the movie makers and writers who have failed to accomplish it. But when it works ... it's magic.

    "The end of a melody is not its goal: but nonetheless, had the melody not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable."
    ó Nietzche

    Gary

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    As Gary suggested, I usually begin with an end in mind. I don't plan for a specific number of sessions though, and neither do I plan everything that will happen from beginning to end. Rather, I know where I want the main story to being and I have an idea of what the most likely conclusion is should the characters succeed and if they fail. The campaign "ends," when the characters reach that conclusion or forge their own. Usually, these campaigns end up being between one and two years long (playing bi-weekly).

    Within the campaign, I also have individual story-arches which for whatever magical reason gravitate towards being about six sessions in length. These are smaller stories within the main campaign that each have their own conclusion. These smaller stories within the stories, or quests if you prefer, yield their own rewards and advance the story that much further. I tend towards a bit of mystery in my games, so the satisfaction my players get is from figuring out what is really going on, figuring out what their part is in it all, and outwitting the bad guy.

    Does it necessarily end there at that final scene? It doesn't have to, but I have run into the dangers of continuing the campaign ad infinitum. By the end of the campaign, the characters are probably significantly more powerful than they were at the start. Therefore, the next challenge has to be that more grand, more epic. Eventually, saving the world isn't enough and the whole thing can become a bit hollow. That has been my experience anyway. If you reach that satisfying conclusion you were looking for, take it as a blessing and think carefully before you plod on ahead into the next one with the same characters.
    Robert A. Howard
    Pen & Paper Games
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    I usually like open-ended type endings. I know sometimes a player or 2 I have will say after a campaign "ended" a while ago will ask to pick up where they left off. I tend to get the players "finish" what they were doing up 'til then or tie up most of the loose ends by the time the campaign ends. Usually I'll work out something where some of or all of the players will be called to different areas, such as their hometown (if any) or guild/group they're affilated with and they would have to go there for a said amount of time (like several months). The characters can then set up a time to come back and meet.

    It is really disapointing and frustrating (as a player, at least), when the DM can't decide what to do at the end, so s/he kills off all the characters or sends them to a plane they are stuck in, forever.

    I've always wanted to see a cliffhanger type ending happen, but I'm sure it'll only propel the campaign further, as they players may want to know what happened to the characters. (Such as having the characters somehow captured-in a net, or something similar-then hung over a volcano, as a sacrifice to the dragon/volcano god/whatever. Do they escape to tell the tale or no? I'm evil aren't I?)
    There's nothing to fear except fear itself and, of course, the boogeyman.

    Co-Organizer of NEPA D&D and Stroudsburg Geeks. Member of Stroudsburg Area Gaming Association.

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    Primarily I like to have the main plot of the campaign be finished. If you are running a stand alone module, you could just have the characters go their separate ways since they achieved their goal. If you are running you own homemade world, then basically I would not really think that there would ever really be an actual ending. The party would finish that particular task, but there would almost always be something more that they could do. Especially since you are writting the whole thing yourself.

    Now myself, even though I have usually started with an actual premade module of some sort, I like to have some type of a twist at the end that will allow for the party to continue on after they have completed the original task. Then there is also the opportunity of while they were working on the original task, there could be any number of ways to put in encounters that can lead to another task that they might be asked to undertake.

    Without giving to much away, I have several things in the works for the current game that I am running that will actually give the group a new task to deal with once they have completed the current one they have been sent on. I find that it works much better to be thinking of these things as the game is going on, rather than trying to come up with something right when the party accomplishes it goal.

    I do have to agree with Anaesthesia in that I don't like when a GM/DM just kills off the whole party or zaps them to the purple haze plane never to be seen again. Now this isn't to say that at the end of a particular campaign, there can't be some type of an epic battle in which the outcome could be that some of the party members might not make it. If you are not planning on continuing with the current set of characters, it would be nice to have a reason for what each character goes to do as the party disbands. This way it will give a sense of closure to the party's campaign.

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    First it is nice to see groups actually get to an ending. Several that I have been involved with ended differently.

    One really didn't end. The characters retired out of adventuring. They would later appear when a DM would create a quick high level adventure specifically for the characters.

    Another ended at completion of the "story". In that one, the leader of the group died sacrificing himself in battle to complete the story. The players felt that it was a good end.

    Finally, the others ended when it was somebodies elses turn to DM. The campaign comes to an end and everybody starts at first level.


    Honestly, as a DM, I always want have a story in hand. Where I want to go with the group leaving room for where they want to go with there characters. This seams to me the most successful way to conclude.

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    Looking at the posts, I'm not totally sure everyone here's using the same definition of "campaign". Does a campaign have more to do with the story or the actors?

    Would a campaign be all the adventures/quests/modules a particular group of heros has together, until they all decide to start over? Or is it more like one really long story arc comprising a lot of individual stories/modules?

    Basically if, after spending about 20 sessions on a story, they finally kill the final boss, and the following week the same characters start a new story, is that a new campaign?

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    I can't speak for the rest, but when the party either achieves their goal or is defeated, then that particular campaign is over. Usually every campaign has an actual mission to be completed, provided things go well for the party. Now, depending on what that DM/GM does, this same group of characters could continue on with a new mission. As I have previously mentioned, there is always the potential to have a new task arise out of something that took place during the campaign that was just done. Especially if the players are happy with their current characters that they have been using.

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    The last campaign I ran, I asked the players what the characters wanted to do with their lives. Then I wove opportunities for those goals into the story, so that once accomplished, that part of the story was complete. Of course, along the way, I added in new plots that the PCs turned into goals, but most of them were embroiled in the final goals.

    The beginning was kind of like a session with my highschool guidance counsellor, but the end result was very good. It would have been better if real life did not end the campaign prematurely.

    John E

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    This is one thing that I really enjoyed when running games like Buffy or Serenity. Each adventure is an episode and each episode is part of a series that leads to a big finale. Having the end goal in mind before you start is key. I was listening to Fresh Air a while back and Terri was interviewing an author who likes to picture the writing process like this. She needs to sail a boat across the sea. She knows where she needs to go but not how to get there and everything is foggy. But the more she goes on and the closer she gets things become more clear.

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    a campaign without an ending is similar to a song without those last few notes which resolve it. you always wonder if it ends the way you think. in those cases, i simply write the endings myself. although i'm always careful to distinguish between the actual adventure or campaign and my own creations. creative copyright (respect) and all, you know.
    nijineko the gm: AG16, CoS. nijineko the player: AtG, RttToH; . The Journal of Tala'elowar Kiyiik! .
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    I think this is a great question and gdmcbride has a solid progression of things to do to help you get to an ending if you don't have a plan in mind. It's definitely not something covered well in most rulebooks on GM'ing.

    For me, 1958Fury's question, "Does a campaign have more to do with the story or the actors?" is a real important one. Is your campaign a story in which the characters are figures in the progression of the telling, or are the characters the campaign and their stories the details in the telling of their lives?

    It's a great way to look at it and has no wrong answer; but knowing the answer makes things easier up front.

    Most of my games, for instance, are definitely about the characters. When I'm running in a setting of my own design, I put things into motion, insert characters, and see what they do. The campaign itself is about those characters finding the things that are important to them and seeing them through. Ending the campaign is closing down those important things to conclusions and the resulting retirement or death in some cases. Its the telling of the lives of those characters.

    I think that 4th Edition D&D lends itself well to this character driven campaign idea; with paragon paths and heroic destinies the rules and suggestions lean toward the idea that a game is about the characters growing into the powers that be, and then passing off into the realms of legends.

    One thing I would really like to try is serial campaigns, where micro-stories are told and the characters are agents within a larger, but limited plotline. It would be a nice shift for me, and running under a set number of sessions per serial leg would be an interesting crucible to be creative within.
    --
    Grimwell

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    Quote Originally Posted by 1958Fury View Post
    Basically if, after spending about 20 sessions on a story, they finally kill the final boss, and the following week the same characters start a new story, is that a new campaign?
    For the purposes of this question, no. That would be a change in the group story of the campaign. IME there are usually open character/personal stories going on, and the group might take a couple of sessions to focus on some of these before starting up the next group story.

    By "ending a campaign," I am talking about resolving the boss fight and Alfred reunites with his long lost brother (in the boss' dungeon) and takes him home; Betty takes the boss' Boots of Butt-Kicking, returns to Valeton and takes over the guild; Carla dies heroically in the fight; and Dave spends the rest of his days drowning his sorrows in cheap booze because he never told Carla how he felt. The adventurers are dead, retired, promoted or on indefinite administrative leave. To further define:

    Session - One continuous block of time around the table. (aka Chapter)
    Story - A series of events, with a beginning, middle and end, detailing the resolution of a situation, composed of one or more Sessions. (aka Tale, Adventure, Scenario)
    (A particularly long Story, with multiple break points, might be referred to as a Season, as in TV.)
    Campaign - All of the connected Stories. (aka Chronicle, Saga)

    Now, the connective element for the campaign can be people ("the party"), a location or an object.

    For example, you could run a series of stories that follows an artifact through time. Either something like Dead Man's Gun, or along these lines: In the first story, the characters are Incan and creating an artifact to make the crops grow; The second story, English privateers loot Campeche, where the artifact has sat in the Governor's house since the days of Pizarro; and so on until modern times where you're stealing it from a museum to make the crops grow. This is, I think, the easiest sort of campaign to bring to a good close, as, in the Incan campaign, there would be less emphasis on personal stories, and Dead Man's Gun would be a series of personal stories without a group conflict.

    The game Ars Magica is centred around the covenant (the place where all the wizards live with their associates). Two consecutive stories in the campaign might have no characters in common. Bringing a campaign to an end here is complicated by the fact that each player has two major and often a few favoured minor characters, and the covenant itself has status as a shared character. Which all combines to more than double the number of active storylines in comparison to a game centred around the more traditional "adventuring party."

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    I had a DM a while ago who would end almost every campaign by killing all but one character, so that one character could walk off into the sunset and be the cool guy.

    We didn't like that, since it guaranteed zero reward for the other 7 of us.

    I like to wind down with a session of epilogue-style roleplay with no dice. My players like the concept since it gives closure.

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    As a DM, I try to end campaigns when I can.

    Star Wars (well really any genre, now that I think about it) is often the easiest, just have a big climactic battle, after a long political-infused story arc.

    It's not necessary that a PC die, but often seems to happen (via a self sacrifice / hold the line / suicide mission to save the rest) as the characters are brought to the absolute wall of endurance.

    Additionally, I'm wondering what book this was, that said that "tragedy is unfit for roleplaying" since I most often run campaigns with tragic / norse heroic elements.

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