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With a Bang: Ending a Campaign on Purpose (for the first time in 20 years)

This past Saturday night, my group played the final chapter in a year-long, 18-session Mage: The Awakening chronicle. It was one of the best campaigns I’ve ever run, and, in 20 years or so of GMing it was the first campaign I’ve ever ended according to plan.

Planned for the Very First Time

Up until a couple years ago, I’d never even been involved in a non-one-shot that had a planned ending. Every game I’d ever run or played in been done on the “Just keep going” model, and had ended for organic reasons: lack of interest, scheduling conflicts and the like.

Then I got to be a player in an excellent Stargate campaign that our GM had structured just like the TV show: each session was an episode (following the three-act model), the episodes strung together in story arcs — and the season had a defined endpoint, prepared for in advance. That was the first time I’d experienced that campaign model, and I loved it; I decided to do the same thing with my Mage game.

I’ve talked quite a bit about this particular game on the Stew, including covering the logistics of ending it: Ending a Campaign: Taking My Own Advice [1]. Before that, it was the test case for my four-article series on running a roleplaying-intensive game (which kicked off with So You Want to GM a Roleplaying-Intensive Game, Part 1 [2]).

This time around, I’ll focus more on little stuff, and on how it felt overall.

For starters, I knew I wanted to do something special for the guys as a way of saying thank you for playing for the past year. And I had a great model to follow: Don’s Stargate game ended with a “wrap party” [3] — complete with custom hats, a Stargate cake and framed certificates for each of us. The whole thing was great, but it was the certificate that stood out for me. I still display it proudly on one of my gaming shelves.

I created these certificates in Photoshop, use a free Mage wallpaper from White Wolf’s site for the background and then adding the text. I picked up frames that I thought fit the tone of the game — the party’s HQ is the Venetian Hotel.

My PS skills are pretty shameful, but I thought the overall look was good. Each one features one of the PCs (Don’s character, Saiph, in this one).

I broke the campaign into three story arcs, each with several named chapters; that’s what’s listed from the middle down.

We make the most of the awesome whiteboard in Don’s game room. I always put up the chapter title for each session, and it was weird writing “Finale” under this one.

Prepping the session was weird, too — like I said, in 20 years of GMing I’ve never planned the ending of a campaign before. After using waypoints to plan out the last three sessions [4], this one was pretty straightforward.

We opened with a roleplaying scene — the continuation of an impassioned intra-party argument about what to do with a disturbingly powerful artifact the cabal found itself owning — and then rolled right into the climactic battle.

From the very beginning of the game, when I sat down to prep before the first session, I knew I wanted to lead up to a big, dramatic choice for the PCs to make — a choice with two obvious outcomes, neither entirely good or bad. I settled on the PCs being in a position to decide whether or not a magically-enhanced nuclear weapon — one capable of turning thousands of normal people into mages, and killing thousands more, maybe millions — was set off just outside Las Vegas.

As the campaign evolved, I actually didn’t do a very good job presenting both sides of the equation. But even though I think I over-emphasized the “stop the bomb” option, I genuinely left both options open until the final moments of the entire game. By the last session, it was pretty clear they were going to stop the bomb instead of letting it go off, but I wrote material for both options in my final adventure notes.

When game time arrived, I was nervous, excited and slightly relieved. This was a time-intensive game for me: we usually play for about seven hours per session, and it takes me 6-8 hours to prep each time. I was sorry to see the game end, glad we were leaving it (probably!) at a point where we could pick it up again if we wanted to, relieved to get a break from GMing and excited to see what happened, all at once.

They stopped the bomb — sent it to the Abyss, actually, destroying a powerful Abyssal entity in the process. I hope they had as much fun with it as I did.

Plenty of loose ends were left open for the next game, and I wound up really happy with how it all turned out. A year was just about right for me: long enough to scratch my GMing itch, and to get in a solid number of sessions, but not so long that I burned out. I’m ready to go back to just playing for a little while, and we’re all excited about the prospect of trying something new.

It’s definitely not going to be for everyone, but based on this experience I highly recommend GMing a planned campaign like this at least once.

Left to right: Don (Saiph), Sam (Polaris), Daniel (Marginus) and Jaben (Ursa), collectively the members of the in-game cabal Ortus, and four great friends. Thanks, guys.

And thanks for reading — I hope this was at least somewhat useful to other GMs!

10 Comments (Open | Close)

10 Comments To "With a Bang: Ending a Campaign on Purpose (for the first time in 20 years)"

#1 Comment By PaPeRoTTo On October 30, 2008 @ 5:53 am

eheheheh i’ve done something similar when i finished my 2 years long campaign.. something like a poster of a film.. and then something special for anyone of them..

a letter from a person to 1 PC.. 1 “pact of the alliance” for the members of the alliance.. something like this..

ah.. and everyone’s got everything they did playing.. let’s say that 1 pc was the map drawer.. he’s got every single map he drawed.. or anyway everyone’s got what everything he has sketched during the games 🙂

veeeeeeery very funny 😀

p.s. wonderful PS paper anyway!! 😀

#2 Comment By Patrick Benson On October 30, 2008 @ 8:51 am

Glad to hear it went well for you Martin! I’ve planned endings for my campaigns before, but only for the game and not something to address the actual players. Now that I think about it, that usually results in “So what are you going to run next for these PCs?” and I have to explain that when I said that this was the last game of the campaign it really is the last game of the campaign.

I think that the extra work to do something like a certificate would really make a finale more memorable. It also would make it clear that the campaign is over. We aren’t playing these PCs anymore. Time to move on!

#3 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On October 30, 2008 @ 10:18 am


I remember reading a WotC study that claimed most campaigns go for about 18 months, which is why they paced character advancement the way they did. Since you and I both reside on the upper edge of the age bell curve (me farther along than you), it makes really good sense to aim for a year.

Thanks for the report; I think I’ll start planning to run my next game for about one year’s duration.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On October 30, 2008 @ 10:40 am

I like the time and effort you took with the props– I never really do props, but it’s easy to see how cool they can be. It looks like you had a great finale… and there’s always the chance of a sequel.

#5 Comment By BryanB On October 30, 2008 @ 4:13 pm

Congratulations Martin, on a successful conclusion to your campaign.

Sequels can be a lot of fun. 😀

#6 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 30, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

One of my goals from the start was to leave off at a point that was both a satisfying finale in its own right and a logical jumping off point for a second chronicle.

That happened organically throughout the game, as the PCs naturally left intriguing loose ends unfollowed in favor of pressing threats, but also explicitly as I planned in stuff I knew we couldn’t possibly get to in this chronicle. That kind of organic/planned balance really works for me as a GM — it just seems right.

[5] – Yep, the year seems like a great sweet spot for us old farts. 12-18 months = good stuff.

#7 Comment By Lee Hanna On October 31, 2008 @ 10:31 am

Glad to hear it went well. I’m starting to sketch for a game, planned for next year. I’m aiming for half-a-year, to see if that works better for us. One year worked OK before, and I’m in a game that looks like it’s heading for six years, which is too much.

I like the “awards” you printed up. I once tried for custom-made Order of the Stick-style character illustrations two campaigns ago, but I couldn’t get the artist to finish them in time, and forgot about it until now.

#8 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 31, 2008 @ 8:45 pm

[6] – Thanks, Lee. 🙂

Re: the certificates, I accepted my limitations early on and went for quality frames to make up for them. 😉 I’d say don’t stress too much, and definitely don’t let some big plan stop you from implementing a smaller plan — as a player, I’m thrilled to get any memento of a campaign.

#9 Comment By Millsy On November 2, 2008 @ 12:38 pm

It sounds like a great campaign. I’d love to hear more about your prep (if it’s not revealing too much for the follow-up chronicle!)

Specifically, how much prep did you do before the players created their characters? Did you match the PCs to the plot, or the plot to the PCs?

AND, how did you keep it episodic? It’s been on the backburners for some time with me, and I’ve been kinda inspired by your report to try a finite-length, episodic, TV-series-style game next time I run.

I realise the answers to these questions may be bigger than a comments thread, but I thought I’d ask ’em here anyway, since I guess a few people reading this might’ve been inspired by that campaign report 😉

#10 Comment By Martin Ralya On November 5, 2008 @ 11:29 pm

[7] – Pre-campaign, I did several hours of prep. I read enough of the core rulebook to get a feel for nWoD Mage and jotted down ideas about what grabbed me. Since my players had picked Las Vegas as the setting, I immediately thought of nukes (a subject that’s fascinated me for years).

I snagged a Vegas guidebook and a map, as well as a copy of Weird Las Vegas and Nevada to use for ideas. Then I wrote up a mini-bible for the campaign, outlining the power structure and unique aspects of Awakened Vegas, including notes on themes (again helped by my players, who picked the overall theme), NPCs, locations and oddities.

One problem I have is that I tend to introduce new stuff that sounds cool when I’ve already got cool ideas in the can, so I used the bible to get around that. When I wasn’t sure what direction to go, I referred back to it before doing anything else.

In terms of making things episodic, I took what I’d learned as a player in our Stargate game (where the GM, Don, had made nearly every session a three-act episode — it was awesome) and combined it with what I knew of the group and some trial and error. I nearly always overplanned for each session, but I got it right occasionally. 😉

I basically just thought of 2-4 scenes, usually in order (this was a pretty linear game in a lot of respects), that had lots of options for resolution — or, often, that I hadn’t thought of a specific way to resolve, but that seemed option-rich. Naming each chapter/session helped, too.

From the outside, I don’t think this would look like a coherent episodic game, but from the inside the structure seemed to be there. 😉 I hope this helps!