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Closure: What Separates an Amazing Campaign from a Great Campaign

Posted By Martin Ralya On August 26, 2009 @ 1:41 am In GMing Advice | 11 Comments

Many GMs don’t think about how their campaigns will end. And for those of us who grew up hearing about epic, decade-long campaigns with rotating casts of characters, why should we?

I mean, campaigns aren’t supposed to end — right?

Wrong.

With the exception of some outliers (who are no doubt having a fantastic time, and more power to them), never-ending campaigns are a myth. Jobs, school, kids, and a host of other responsibilities equate to campaigns that end.

And you know what? Ending campaigns rocks. It’s an amazing feeling, both as a player and as a GM. I can’t imagine running a long-term game without thinking about how it’s going to end.

I’ve run campaigns that, in my mind, were going to carry on until cockroaches took over the world. When I was a kid, they’d last several years; sometimes, they’ve lasted just a handful of sessions.

And when they ended, I felt empty; I’m pretty sure my players felt the same. It’s one thing when games stop abruptly due to something unexpected — someone moves away, starts a new job (or loses one), etc. — and another when a game just…fizzles.

I’ve written quite a bit about this over the years. Here on the Stew, Ending a Campaign: Taking My Own Advice and With a Bang: Ending a Campaign on Purpose (for the first time in 20 years) sum up my first experience with actually pulling this off (and point to a series of articles I wrote a few years back, all about bringing campaigns to a close).

The key is closure. You can run or play a good campaign, even a great campaign, that lacks closure. Some of my favorite gaming experiences have been just a few sessions long — awesome, but also painfully close to sublime.

What makes them sublime, transforming a great campaign into an un-fucking-believably awesometacular one, is closure.

Bring your campaigns to an end. You can leave a door or two open, so the campaign can be picked up again, but make sure to close the important doors in a satisfying way.

If you’re one of those lucky folks who’s somehow still running the same campaign you started 20 years ago, godspeed. For the rest of us, great campaigns end — and they should.

Bring your campaigns to an end. You won’t regret it.

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




11 Comments (Open | Close)

11 Comments To "Closure: What Separates an Amazing Campaign from a Great Campaign"

#1 Comment By Bookkeeper On August 26, 2009 @ 4:32 am

I have always nursed a bitter envy for tales of campaigns that went on for 5, 10, 15 years. As a military brat turned military member, the game table sees too much shuffling for such things.

Learning how to bring a story to a close can not only mean the difference between Amazing and Great campaigns; it can also make a huge difference in how you remember those stories. Will you remember your tremendous final victory or how the bad guy effectively got away because you never got around to dispensing justice?

I’m moving again in a little less than a year and I’m currently running Pathfinder’s AP, Rise of the Runelords. I am not certain we will make it to the end, so I’m beginning to consider now how we can bring closure for the PCs even if they don’t make it to fabled Xin-Shalast.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On August 26, 2009 @ 7:32 am

The Silver Lining: Even if your campaign ends, you’ve still got the world, the NPCs, the organizations, the development that went into it. All that doesn’t necessarily disappear when the campaign ends.

#3 Comment By DNAphil On August 26, 2009 @ 7:43 am

I think that as GM’s we often overlook the ending of campaigns. We spend a lot of time talking about how to get a game started, or how to prep for a session, but we don’t talk much about how to end things.

The truth is, from my experiences, is that the vast majority of campaigns just stop, they don’t end. Interest starts to fade, and rather than constructing a good ending, the game just withers until its replaced by a new shiny game.

I bet campaigns would be much better served, if they were given a dramatic ending, rather than just dropped.

In fact this just happened in the group I play in. Our Star Wars game was getting stale, and the GM (after talking to some of the players…not all) decided to drop the game and switch for a new campaign.

One of the players was put off by the fact that the game did not have an “ending”. It really soured the players gaming experience, and has made him hesitant to get into the next campaign, for fear that campaign will just get dropped as well.

So having an ending to a game, gives that sense of closure. For a campaign that is dying, you don’t need a long drawn out ending, but something that gives the players a sense of completion.

#4 Comment By kenmarable On August 26, 2009 @ 8:15 am

I agree entirely! Plus I didn’t even realize it until after reading this article and thinking back to my campaigns. The two most successful ones I had both had climatic conclusions. In one case, it followed my plans more or less how I imagined.

In the other, a couple was moving away, so I had to drop all of my long term plans and wrap up the storyline in one major adventure. I think that actually made me more creative (having to wrap up a few major plots at once rather than spread over many levels of adventuring), so it was naturally more epic. Ironically enough, despite it being one of our shortest campaigns and having all of the main plots wrapped up, it is the one they still talk about picking up again someday.

#5 Comment By Scott Martin On August 26, 2009 @ 9:38 am

I think you’re right, and it’s something it’s time to start sketching out for my 3e game.

I’m really enjoying the short story game style of my other group, which has been good for trying out lots of games and planned endings at the end of each one. It really increased the percentage of games I’ve played in that reached a conclusion of some kind.

#6 Comment By drow On August 26, 2009 @ 10:45 am

totally agreed. the most memorable campaigns i’ve run were those with a clear ending. usually, this is whatever epic goal i’ve pulled together in the last sessions to unify all the random threads and plotlines which have shown up so far. i tend to do most of my campaign planning that way.

#7 Comment By Patrick Benson On August 26, 2009 @ 11:18 am

Great advice! Closure is definitely needed. It is like a good TV series. Each season wraps up one major plot line, and the next season introduces a new one, but you really want the big season finale (and season premiere) to cap that plot line with.

#8 Comment By Crimson Newb On August 26, 2009 @ 11:20 pm

Good stuff! You forgot one major contributor to the ends of campaigns: GM burnout. I ran a 4th ed campaign that I had planned out a lot longer than it lasted. I wanted to have an ending, so I threw the final boss at the group (leveled down to the party). I think everyone was glad to have things wrapped up, rather than trail off.

#9 Comment By BryanB On August 27, 2009 @ 10:11 am

I’m in agreement with having closure as well. Like Scott, I appreciate the shorter story arcs and more frequent switching of games that goes on in his “other” group. :)

Scott and I designed it that way. When we met in 2007, we were both in a mode where we wanted to experiment with new games, many of which were outside the usual fare of D&D or Shadowrun. Both of us had games that we wanted to try out, instead of having them languish on dusty shelves.

We worked up a plan to have mini-series instead of lengthy campaigns. A GM would plan for a game lasting four to ten sessions. A little less or a little longer wasn’t a problem. The idea was to have a conclusion to the mini series, one that would wrap things up but perhaps leave the game open to a sequel in the future.

It has worked out well. We opened with Star Wars Saga Edition. Primetime Adventures then took us into unfamiliar territory. A short but enjoyable game of Coyote Trail and a Shadowrun 4e one-shot transitioned us back to traditional play. The demand for a Star Wars sequel was heard and answered.

Scheduling issues seemed to crop up a lot during 2008, but we had a successful conclusion to the Star Wars sequel in the end. Now we head into our first D&D 4e series and a chance to fully evaluate the latest incarnation of the grand old game.

Spirit of the Century stands ready to fill in any gaps. REIGN and L5R “consider” making an appearance in the future. Or perhaps Primetime Adventures will see another run with a fresh new “show.”

#10 Comment By brcarl On August 27, 2009 @ 2:07 pm

@Telas: Bingo on the “don’t throw out the setting (baby) with the campaign (bathwater).”

One tabletop campaign I’m in has been going for just over three years, and I’ve been pining for it to conclude for months now, mostly due to boredom with my PC. The DM has run 3 or 4 versions of the same setting over many years and is, I believe, loathe to let go of the environment he is so comfortable in.

The other tabletop game I play in has the DM pushing to wind things up, but we can’t seem to meet often enough to finish it off. Still, he and I are cooking plans for co-DMing the next campaign in a similar but time-shifted setting but with all-new PCs.

Guess which group I have more energy for? ;)

#11 Comment By Martin Ralya On September 14, 2009 @ 7:58 pm

Hey, I wrote this and then got distracted by something and forgot I’d written it, and — ooh, shiny!

;-)

@Patrick Benson – Yep, TV seasons are a great analogy — maps pretty much perfectly to this take on closure in RPGs.

@Crimson Newb – Oh yeah — big time! Avoiding burnout is huge, and I should have mentioned that. Great point!


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