The end is just a new beginning, right?

When I play an RPG, it’s all about the story. Sure, I enjoy the mechanics and tactical stuff too, but if the narrative of the game is lacking, I’m going to lose interest. If there’s no reason for the PCs to be interacting with each other and the game world, then I figure I may as well be playing a board game. Thankfully, most RPGs give me that story I’m looking for. Thing is, though, while most games give a good beginning and a solid middle, a satisfying ending to the game is often missing.

Let’s face it, running a campaign to its completion is hard. Life often gets in the way and derails things bad enough that the campaign dies an ignoble death or languishes in eternal limbo. Depending on why the campaign ended, you’ll get a lot of players and GMs saying they want to pick it back up and finish it properly, but the chances of that happening are incredibly rare. In my thirty-plus years of gaming, far more campaigns have died on the vine than have completed in any kind of satisfying manner.

It can happen because something changes in a player’s life, forcing them to stop playing. It can happen because the game starts going in a direction the GM didn’t expect and they panic and flake out (been there, done that). It can happen because some shiny new game comes along and everyone wants to try it, so they take a ‘little’ break that becomes permanent. And so on and so on.

One-shots may not face the exact same problem as campaigns, but they’re also not immune from the problem either. I consider myself a bit of a connoisseur of convention games, and I’ve played plenty of them that ended weirdly or badly. Usually it’s because the GM doesn’t know how to manage pacing and runs out of time for the finale they had in mind. Sometimes the players go in a completely different direction and the GM has trouble adapting and coming up with a good ending on the fly. Occasionally it’s because the other players at the table just don’t get it and delay getting to that ending no matter how hard the GM tries. Regardless of why a game ends on a flat note, it can still ruin what otherwise might have been a decent game.

I’m not an expert on this by any stretch of the imagination. In my past, I flaked out on a few campaigns because I panicked as a GM. I’ve had convention games fall flat because I couldn’t give them a decent ending or couldn’t get to the ending. What I have done, though, is work hard to try and keep that ending in mind and work on skills to try and give my players a satisfying conclusion.

So, here’s some of my advice on endings:

  • Understand how stories work. While playing RPGs isn’t the same as writing a novel, understanding how action rises and falls or how stories are put together will help immensely with pacing and knowing when it’s time for a climactic conclusion. You don’t need to be an English major for this. Just study your favorite TV shows or novels and pay attention to how they wrap things up. I find modern serialized TV shows are a great example of how to do this. Think of a one-shot as a single episode of a show or a campaign as a full season. Watch how the show does story arcs and how they end episodes or season finales. You can get some useful tools for GMing in figuring out how stories are put together.
  • Reconcile important dangling plot threads. A game’s ending doesn’t need to resolve every single dangling plot thread the players have ever come in contact with, but if you want your players to be truly satisfied with the ending, you damn well better know which ones are important to them. For campaigns, start working on these as you build up to the game’s finale. Hopefully you’ve got some warning or awareness that the campaign is going to be wrapping up, so you can start seeding these into sessions leading up to the end. When you don’t have time to build up to the ending, figure out which bits are most important to your players and make sure those get addressed in the ending. This one isn’t as crucial for one-shots, but it’s still good practice to be aware of the parts of the plots the players are most invested in and making sure that gets resolved.
  • Timing is everything. This goes hand-in-hand with pacing, but as a GM, you must keep a handle on the amount of time you have left. For a one-shot, you know how long that sessions is supposed to last, so keep an eye on the clock. Staying on top of the pacing will help you make sure there’s enough time for that climactic ending you want to have. Losing track of time and suddenly realizing you have to wrap everything up in 20 minutes sucks hard. Campaigns also have their own timing issues. If you know that you’re going to lose a particular player in the next month and want to wrap up the campaign before they leave, you have to start planning it appropriately. You also need to have a handle on how long your finale is actually going to take. I know when I prep for my Eberron game, I often misjudge how long it’s going to take the players to handle a particular thing and have to stretch stuff between multiple sessions.
  • Let them have an epilogue. In a good campaign, players have invested so much into the characters they’ve played. While the story of the campaign as a whole may wrap up as the big bad gets tossed into the fiery mouth of a volcano, what happens to the characters afterwards? Do they buy a farm and settle down to raise a family? Do they finally go home and take up their rightful place as heir to the throne? Do they eventually get bored and start training new adventurers to go off into the wild and fight against the darkness? Did they die and the town that they saved builds a memorial to them? It may not be crucial to the end of a campaign, but it can be immensely rewarding for your players to take the time to talk about what their characters do with their futures. It’s not always relevant to one-shots, but sometimes an epilogue there is a nice touch to wrap up the game.

That’s all, folks!

As a final word of advice, be realistic about your group’s available time. If you can only get together once a month and even those sessions get interrupted, a grandly epic fantasy campaign may not be the best choice for your group. Ever since my group started rotating GMs every few months, and playing games more like they’re a Netflix or BBC show, we’ve mostly avoided the ignoble death of campaigns. Our games vary between short, self-contained campaigns, to ongoing campaigns that have seasons we rotate between. It has helped avoid GM burnout and prevented that sad feeling of watching a character languish in limbo, never to finish the story of their life.

How have you handled endings for your group? Do you also have a graveyard full of lost campaigns and unfulfilled characters, or were you luckier and got those solid endings more often than not? I’d love to hear your advice on giving games a satisfying conclusion.