“How does it end?” is an eternal, human question. We crave resolution in our fiction and in our games. The ultimate resolution (well, besides character death) is a campaign finale. This is the final mission that concludes PC’s adventuring careers.
In this article, we’ll look at the positive and negative aspects of using a campaign finale. It’s something you may want to think about. Do you want to give your players one last hurrah, or can the fun go on forever?
A GRAND EXIT
Campaign finales have much to recommend them. They bring resolution to the PC’s stories. Characters will finally get to confront (and perhaps triumph over) the big bad, or solve the major campaign problem. Also, should there be a character death, it will at least be at a dramatically appropriate moment.
On a more peaceful note, these adventures are an appropriate point for PC’s to retire. This brings a sense of realism to the campaign: in the real world, things quiet down as we get older, except for Charlie Sheen. Characters are an extension of their players, so it is comforting to think that they have laid down their sword and now run the local pub or teach at the college of magic.
If your campaign has become bloated with past events or too many NPC’s, this can be a chance to wipe the slate clean. Similarly, it can be difficult to provide effective challenges for high-level characters. Wrapping up and rebooting can put some danger back into your campaign. It can also be the chance to try a differently flavored campaign, or a different genre.
NOT SO GRAND?
No matter how tightly you plan your finale, there will often be loose ends. Perhaps one player wants to see what became of those ents, or another never got to use a special skill or item. Not everyone will be ready to leave the shared world or to abandon their characters. Even if they are, they may not be interested in your next campaign, particularly if it is a different genre or edition.
It can be hard to top a campaign finale. What do you do after throwing the ring into Mount Doom or saving your father from the Dark Side? Resist the urge to go bigger (Starkiller Base, I’m looking at you!). It might be better to run a smaller, more character focused adventure after the big blow-out. Include more roleplaying or problem solving if the finale was big on combat or spell-slinging. If you change things up, players are less likely to compare following sessions to the “Big Game.”
Lastly, you’ll need to consider what to do if some players can’t make the planned final session. Could you run a “filler” session or three until everyone can be there? Could you run the finale earlier if someone is moving away, going to college, or entering the military?
A THIRD WAY
Finales don’t have to be all or nothing. Perhaps your players don’t want the campaign to end, but you need a change of pace. You can always run a wrap-up adventure for a particular storyline, and then take a break with a different game. Stress that you will be returning to the original campaign in short order: you just want to try something different for a few sessions. This provides you with an “out” should the new game not be to everyone’s liking. You might even find yourself pining for the old campaign as well. This way leaves all doors open.
How about you? Do you wrap up campaigns and then move on? Do you just keep one campaign going as long as possible? Let us know your thoughts below.
I prefer to think of campaigns as open-ended affairs. I treat each game pitch much like TV producers would treat a mini-series. The mini-series has a clear beginning and a flexible ending point, but the characters that we’ve enjoyed over the course of the adventure/tale can return again in the future for another installment.
Thanks Bryan! I’ve come around to your way of thinking on my latest campaign. When it is time to move on a bit, I’m hoping to keep the old characters around for the future as you said.
For the last couple of campaigns, I’ve had — at least — a general idea of the overall arc of the game. Where I thought it should go. Sometimes it did, sometimes it didn’t. Some campaigns ended with a grand event, some had that “now, off to our next adventure!” finale.
My most recent big campaign was a five year (ish) Battlestar Galactica game. I knew the end I wanted, I knew the few way points that had to happen to get there, and left the rest for the characters to fill. I was shocked that, despite losing much of our group, have people come and go, we finished very close to where I wanted to be — with a “we’re here and have to start over” ending that led to a coda 500 years later where the same issues come to an apocalyptic event and a group on the run.
I’ve gone the other way with three shorter Star Trek campaigns that all tied together, but were in different eras and with different characters. One had the spectacular finale and a everybody left alive goes on to bigger things (and to show up in the next one as NPCs), another was the “well, off to another adventure, because today ends in Y”, and the last was a political thriller that wound up with a “what’s next?” ending.
It really depends on the flavor of the game — the ending should match the mood/intent of the game. If you were doing a grungy street-level police procedural like “The Wire”, you would want ambiguous endings where the villains might have gotten away with it, or the characters really didn’t have much of an effect, in the grand scheme. If it’s heroic fantasy, the big square-off with the Ultimate Evilâ„¢ and everyone who lives goes off to live happily ever after. Exploration games could end with retirements, or a ride off into the sunset, or a “maybe one more time…” sort of wink and nod, but you end the campaign with them headed off to the next adventure.
Thanks for sharing all the great experiences. If I can follow up with a question: were your Star Trek campaigns face to face or online? I’d love to run Star Trek on a (somewhat) more regular basis, but not sure what the interest level online would be. It would have to be online because of family schedules, et….
Funny you should mention that John, Star Trek is actually having a renewed interest of late thanks to Modiphius Games launching the open play testing of their New Star Trek Adventures game. http://www.modiphius.com/star-trek.html
It might be worth it to drop by Roll 20 (or whatever virtual play space you prefer) and pitch the idea to see how many are interested?
Thanks Silveressa! Something to consider.
May have to give roll20 a try.
Face-to-face. I had a Trekkie in the group, so it was supposed to be a mini-campaign. I’ve always thought of ST as the gaming white elephant — sounds neat, but never really goes well. I found FASA a disaster to run, but liked both LUG and Decipher Trek.
Modiphius has the license now, but the 2d20 system is something of a hot mess — at last based off of the John Carter playtesting we’ve been doing.
Wondering what never goes well? Is it just that Trek doesn’t always lend itself to standard rpgs tropes? I think it is VERY tricky to get right.
IMO, Trek suffers from the chain of command: someone gets to play the Captain, and the rest of the players do not. It also may suffer from a clash of expectations: is this a military campaign, an exploration one, or mystery/monster/planet of the week? I think writing Trek is rather different than creating dungeons, so it is difficult for GMs to prep.
Having said that, I’m 1 session into a Trek game (rules are Far Trek, free-to-download). My players are playing 3 PCs each, in a “troupe-style” crew. Each player has 1 each red, blue, gold shirt (essentially classes in Far Trek), and 1 at each of 3 different rank levels (command/department head, junior officer, general crew).
I’m also using bits and pieces of existing modules from various SF games for setups, and I have something of a campaign end in mind. I planned for 8 sessions, more or less, with a story arc underlying half of the episode setups.
Thanks for the link to Far Trek. Can’t wait to read it.
I used to let campaigns wither on their own, but that was more because of the group fading out than anything else. Usually, I have an end state in mind, especially when I am running from published adventures (I like to use them as frameworks, and expand as needed). I try to get to a satisfying conclusion (showdown with the big boss is traditional, or achievement of a major goal), and play to that. I like to leave things open to revisiting the game later, but that almost never happens.
One of my current campaigns is based on the Kingmaker AP, and there is a definite villain to be vanquished. We are about 3 sessions from the end, and I am stretching that a bit, so that one of the original players (she went to college last fall, but her PC has been played by guests) can make a comeback in the last session.
Thanks for the perspective Lee. Yeah, once players are gone, they are pretty much gone. Wish it were different, as I’d love to play with a number of great players from the past. I wish them well.