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Ending Campaigns


So you're about to move away, or your school or job responsibilities require more attention, or you're just tired of an old campaign and ready to start something new. How do you, as GM, end your long-term campaign? Of course, you can always just stop running in mid-adventure, but that's never completely satisfactory. The real trick is to close down a long-running campaign in a way that will make everyone happy.
The first step to ending a campaign with panache is to know how many games you have to do it in. If you have a close deadline, then you'll need to work quickly. Otherwise, you have a little more freedom to map out your story arc over a few months' worth of games. Estimate how many games you have left and let that estimate guide you as you go through the next steps.
The second step is to decide how you want to end the campaign, preferably taking into account what will please the players the most. Some groups might be willing to end the campaign in an all-out hero slaughter, but most players would like to have a happier closure. Assuming that you would like to end your campaign on an upbeat note, here are some elements to consider:

What story arcs need to be wrapped up? Do the characters have major villains who need to be faced? Is there a background war that needs to be ended? Try to tie up the campaign's loose ends. You probably can't wrap up everything, but give your players a chance to see the major subplots resolved.

What will happen to the characters after you end your campaign? Are the players likely to retire the characters, or are they likely to take the characters to a new game run by another GM? If the characters are going to be retired, you can feel comfortable giving the characters positions of power, special abilities, and so forth that would reasonably lead to their smooth transition to non-adventuring life. You're never going to deal with the characters again, so why not make the players happy? But if the characters are going to be played elsewhere, you should try to avoid giving another GM a headache. Reward the characters but don't make them too powerful; leave them playable and hungry for more.

What does each character want? What has been each character's goal throughout the game? Money? Power? Love? Whatever it is, think about how you can either grant it to the character or set the character on a path that promises to deliver the goal in time. Thus, a money-hungry character might be greatly rewarded at the end of the campaign or might be made part owner of a company that promises to bring in great wealth. The power-hungry character might be granted a position of power, either extremely high in its own right (e.g., queen) or fairly high with promises of advancement (e.g., member of the inner council). The love-smitten character might get to marry his beloved, or might just go out on that first date at last. Try to resolve each character's story arc along with the larger campaign story arcs.

What does each player want? This is slightly more subtle. Most players want for their characters the same things the characters want for themselves, but how they get it is another question. For example, some players thrive on melodrama, in which case you might want to arrange a scenario granting that player one last chance to wax soap-operatic. Some players thrive on intrigue, in which case you might want to give them a chance to backstab or be backstabbed. Some players thrive on violence, in which case a rousing final combat seems called for. If you can combine them all, so much the better ... for example, intrigue is uncovered, combat results, and everything wraps up with a melodramatic finale.
Some GMs may prefer to run campaign-closing games with the whole gaming group; others may prefer to run one-on-one sessions with individual players. One-on-one sessions provide more intense roleplaying possibilities and make completing a character-specific story arc easier, but they should only be run if the GM and player are comfortable with one-on-one roleplaying. Players may have different attitudes toward one-on-one sessions, and GMs should be sensitive to their players' preferences.


The third step is to try to weave all of these elements together with your main plot. Because you're working under a time constraint, you may need to truncate the original adventure by getting the characters into the final battle more quickly than you'd expected, ignoring subplots and red herrings that you'd originally intended to use. Most of the time players will never notice, especially if you're picking up the overall pace to hurtle them into the campaign's closure.
However, even if you're rushing to end the game on deadline, try not to close all of the campaign-wide and character-specific story arcs at once. Space them out over the last few games. One character might get promoted in one game, another character might get married in the next, and so forth. Handing out all the rewards at once is easier, but it's also less satisfying from a storytelling point of view.
The fourth step is to actually run the campaign to closure. With luck you've planned on the right number of games and you've managed to pace the adventure so that it ends on or before your final scheduled game (for more on actually ending individual adventures, see Ending a Successful Adventure). At the end of a successful campaign, players should feel happy about the game and satisfied with what's happened to their characters (even if it's just that the character died a heroic death saving the universe). Be certain that every player is content; nobody should walk out of the game dissatisfied.
Ending a long-term campaign is always a little sad; players have seen their characters grow in power and maturity and feel a special bond with them. However, a thoughtful GM should be able to end a campaign in a way that ensures that it will be discussed with affection for years to come.

originally written June 28, 1999

 

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