This is the fourth post in our charmingly random How to End a Campaign series. Each post covers one approach to ending a long-running game, including pros and cons.
Ending a campaign is rarely going to be easy, and it’s something a lot of GMs struggle with. In fact, it was one of the two most common answers to the question “What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do as a GM?,” which was asked as part of our GMing profiles thread.
Cue the hold music, because that’s what today’s approach involves: Ending the game, but not permanently.
Putting your game on indefinite hold is a bit different from ending it with a whimper. Going the whimper route is more of a non-approach: the campaign just sort of peters out.
When you put your game on hold, however, there’s planning involved — and you make an active decision to leave the campaign at a good stopping point. (If you just put on the brakes, that’s a sudden stop, not indefinite hold.) Common reasons to put a campaign on hold include: real life concerns, GM burnout, an absent player or simply needing a change of pace.
You and your players know that you might or might not pick up the game again, but the option remains open, and that’s the element that really sets this approach apart from the others.
As long as it’s not just an excuse for avoiding saying “I don’t want to run this game anymore,” putting your campaign on indefinite hold is an excellent approach. Unlike a sudden stop, you have a bit of advance notice — and that lets you plan for the “final” session.
You can wind up loose plot threads, give your players a chance to accomplish some of their short-term goals, work up a really kickass climactic battle and leave the party at a good stopping point — either a stable downtime situation (between adventures) or a cliffhanger.
Even if you don’t ever start the game up again (which, based on my own experience, is pretty common), it’s somehow nice to know that you could, if you wanted to. And you never know what will happen — a few months or a year down the line, everyone might be in exactly the right mood to revisit the game.
The only real downside to this approach is that some players (and GMs) prefer closure — solid, definitive closure, not the semi-closure you get when you put your campaign on hold. Those folks might be better served by ending the game with a world-altering bang, or planning out an actual ending (which will be covered in a later post).
As I mentioned above, if you have no desire to play the game again, putting it on hold — instead of actually ending it — is unfair to your players. You’re dangling a tantalizing possibility in front of them, but have no plans to deliver on it. If you want to end the game and never speak of it again, don’t take this approach!
There’s a reason that putting your game on indefinite hold appears in the middle of the list (see below): It’s a solid, middle-of-the-road approach. It lacks some of the advantages of fast forwarding or planning to end the game for good, but it has none of the disadvantages of letting your game die or calling a halt. It’s also a lot less drastic that ending things with a bang, and is likely to ruffle fewer feathers.
The rest of this series looks at different approaches to ending an ongoing campaign.
- With a Bang
- With a Whimper
- A Sudden Stop
- (On Indefinite Hold)
- Fast Forward
- According to Plan
Have you put a campaign on hold before? Did you start it up again? And do you agree that it’s a solid approach with very few downsides?
Good points, all of them, but I would disagree with using a cliffhanger as an indefinite hold ending. It is better to encapsulate the campaign somehow with a shift in power that is realted to the core struggle at the heart of the campaign.
I’ll use the Star Wars Trilogy as an example. In Star Wars the story is put on hold at a point where the Rebels have won a major victory. The Empire hasn’t been defeated, but we know that there has been a shift in the ‘good versus evil’ theme at the core of the film.
Then in The Empire Strikes Back the Empire, umm, strikes back. The plot is moved forward for the trilogy, our characters have been changed, and again there is a shift in power with the Empire showing those Rebel scum who’s boss. It isn’t a cliff hanger ending, because the story has reached a point where even though the protagonists haven’t faced the ultimate challenge they have been changed and we recognize that as an audience. Even Han Solo being frozen in carbonite isn’t a cliff hanger ending because we are told that he is still alive and more or less unharmed.
Then in the finale of Return of the Jedi the power shifts once and for all in favor of the Rebels (as far as the films are concerned). The campaign is over, the Jedi have won, the Empperor is kaput, and we all get an Ewok of our very own . . .
Now the reason this trilogy of films is so great is because each piece can stand on its own. You can see just the second part of the trilogy and get a complete story. All the characters are re-introduced in the beginning of Empire, and it ends with a sense of closure even though there is still a bigger battle on the horizon.
Now take a film like The Matrix Reloaded. Neo is suddenly struck down unexpectedly, a killer is brought on board unbeknownst to anyone, and the last human city is about to be attacked in the very near and immediate future. A typical cliff hanger ending. Great if you know you are going to see the next film, terrible if you may not.
Putting a campaign on indefinite hold should be done at a point where all of the issues aren’t resolved, but where your PCs recognize that there has been a turning point in the campaign. Maybe for the worse, maybe for the better, but if the PCs were to end the game right then and there they could still say something like “And it ended with the sealing of the gateway used by the invading demon hordes. The Grand Evil Poobah of Xanadu was still on the loose, but a serious blow had been struck for the mighty Fez Wearers of Justice!”. You just don’t get that kind of encapsualtion with a cliff hanger ending, and since this campaign is being put on indefinite hold you have to plan for the campaign never being picked up again.
I placed my Oriental Adventures campaign from last Fall on indefinite hold for several reasons. The two biggest issues were too many people wanting to play (this is with a University-sponsored gaming group) and my growing dissatisfaction with the 3.5 rules.
I took care of the first challenge (ever expanding number of players) by starting up a “generic” D&D campaign in January. I developed it in a way to handle new people coming in mid-game and I started to mentor several would-be GMs to take over. After eight months we now have two on-going groups.
The second challenge (finding better rules) was accomplished when True20 came out this Spring. Its similarity to D20 means a short learning curve for the players and we can continue to use all the D&D books we own as inspiration.
While I have lost several of the key players from the first OA session, the good news is after finishing a recent True20 one-shot, most of the players jumped at the chance for the restarted OA.
We’re re-launching it a week from this Friday.
We’ve put things on hold for a while, but it’s pretty rare to pick back up after any real delay– I don’t think a game on hold from 6 months or more has ever restarted for us.
Though Zack was talking eagerly about playing 3.5e versions of our old 2e characters in the Skellwoods…
Excellent point, W_GM. I’ve always tended to end campaigns with a sort of cliffhanging whimper, always intending to run more once I recovered from burnout, but it never happened. It’s the concrete examples that you use that really sell what you’re saying.