If only during the course of planning and play our games came with convenient warning signs like this. Sadly, since they don’t, you’ll just have to live vicariously through my own experience that, recently, included experiencing the feeling of impending termination from both sides of the screen. In reality neither of these are the end of the world, but certainly could have been handled better. The consideration of ending a campaign is not necessarily one to be wondered aloud in front of your players.

Behind the Screen

For several months I have had the opportunity to run A Song of Fire and Ice game, somewhere in the neighborhood of about a dozen sessions. The campaign started off strong but due to number of external factors has had to contend with several delays. That has been compounded with a general malaise and frustration with the rules, a new edition that’s filled with errors, and a lack of enthusiasm on my part. There are a number of game ideas in my head right now, none of them related to Westeros.

If you haven’t noticed, I’ve even taken to referring to the campaign in past tense. It isn’t a matter of when the game will end but a matter of how soon can I make it happen and move on. To an extent I’ve have been transparent with the group regarding the campaign length – I’ll bring it to a close when it feels natural – but now, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have done that. The conversation has reached a point that, internally, it feels like I’ve already ended the campaign, so much so that I’m thinking about the next game already.

I’m not sure how we started talking about the end of the campaign but now that we have it feels like the campaign has an expiration sticker attached to it.

But it wasn’t until feeling this experience from the other side of the screen that I had an inkling of how this likely makes my players feel.

The Other Side

Concurrently, during our off weeks we have a Marvel Heroic Roleplaying game that has promise. It started as a small one shot and expanded into a full-sized game, integrated backgrounds, and a metaplot. Perhaps it is my unfettered enthusiasm for super hero games in general, but the amount of effort put into my character sheet alone is the stuff of awesome. (Seriously, it’s a disturbingly fantastic character sheet!)

So after three sessions, when the GM proclaimed that the game had “six or so sessions left,” that went a long way in killing my desire to play. The game had gone from one of thinking about backgrounds, history, character motivation and eagerly looking forward to the next session to a general feeling of “why bother?”

Now that’s vastly simplifying things, but the overarching takeaway and feeling for me was that, as a player, having proclaimed an impending ending had removed my primary motivation as a roleplayer: That character study where you delve into the role and approach the world as your character…but now the world is about to end and there’s nothing to do about it. Major bummer.

It was at this point that I realized that I was now experiencing the same situation that I inadvertently had placed my own players in. The premature discussion of ending a game’s campaign is akin to placing a countdown timer on the corner of the table and asking no one to look at it. After awhile, it’s all you can look at.

What had begun as an open dialog to allow the other players and myself to discuss the next gaming opportunity also had the byproduct of sucking what remaining life existed from the current game. Transposing my own reaction as a player into those in my game, I wouldn’t be surprised to find their reactions similar to my own. Perhaps even exacerbated as I favor character-based campaigns.

The Better Way

Now that’s not to say that you can’t have these discussions but, as with most things, context is important. The first thing I would change is to plot out and write the remaining adventures prior to any end-of-campaign discussion with the group. That way, as closure sets in as the GM I don’t sabotage the creative endeavor.

From the player perspective I’m unsure under what condition knowing the game is going to end would give me closure. Certainly no game runs forever but I think putting a tag on it, such as “six sessions,” feels like an arbitrary restriction and the beginning of the countdown timer. Like your favorite television show being cancelled, the slow, steady death march to the final episodes of its demise. That can also create a sense of pressure and expectations that the game may not live up to in the end.

The compromise may be to involve the players in the discussion. Knowing that the end is coming, solicit feedback as to what questions the players would like answered and ends neatly tied up. Speaking for myself, hearing that a game you enjoy is winding down isn’t palatable, no matter how the subject is approached.

Have you committed any game terminating faux pas yourself? Did it end with a whimper or salvage to a satisfying conclusion? Share with us below!

As for me, I’m going to beg the GM to keep Marvel Heroic running and force myself to spend serious effort to end the Game of Thrones campaign with the same quality it began.

About  Don Mappin

For nearly 30 years RPGs have been a staple of Don’s life — so that means he’s pretty old. Author of a dozen RPG books, Don has worked with companies such as ICE, Last Unicorn Games, Decipher, and AEG. He now spends his time working in IT management, enjoying his family and two children, or gaming.



18 Responses to “Danger: Early Campaign Termination Ahead”

  1. I’ve done the same thing myself: declared to my group that the open-ended campaign we’d been playing was about to come to a conclusion. But I found this to have a positive effect.

    Long campaigns may well eventually flounder due to time constraints and shifting interests. It’s always sad but should be only taken as a sign that now is a healthy time wrap things up for the time being (there can always be sequels). I’ve found that letting the players know the end is nigh is actually the best thing you can do: instead of a miserable countdown to oblivion, it let’s people know that they can pull out all the stops, live their characters’ lives to the fullest. It doesn’t march the game to its grave in a somber procession, but rather inspires one hell of a send-off! After all, what is there to lose?

    Besides, the end of the campaign doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the characters. They are, in fact, a real treat to revisit later on, especially after they have lived through the life-changing events of the campaign’s climax.

    After a Cyberpunk 2020 campaign some of us players decided that we’d like to pursue the relationships between our characters further, so we started playing Shock with our characters as protagonists. The characters still live on, over a year after the demise of the original campaign. And I must say, it’s the best game I’ve ever played!

    The end of a campaign can also be a new beginning: the characters can live on in games that best suit their nature.

  2. Has *anyone* managed to have a campaign-length Game of Thrones game that *didn’t* fall apart with everyone leaving the table disgusted?

    From the different editions with *different* misprints (the word is that the pocket edition is the most error-free and the TV Tie-in edition the most egregiously and unnecessarily bollixed by once-fixed but back-for-another-outing errors) that cause needless angst between GM and players to the rules themselves which require a high level of expertise in order to build a playable character, the game seems banjaxed from the start.

    My own memory is of hours wasted generating a house only to play four sessions of actual game.

    In my opinion the one sane piece of advice in that game is to entertain the notion of each player having multiple characters and choosing which one to play for a given plot line so that the narrative can encompass wide vistas of possibility (like the books do) without engendering player(s) at table sitting around with no obvious role to play in the current action. Naturally, this idea leaves many GMs cold, so we have the ridiculous adventures with adventuring Maesters who cannot fight and high-politicking blacksmiths who have no social standing that don’t “feel” right.

    It seems that Game of Thrones (RPG) is a game that everyone wants to see work but turns out to be not worth the immense effort to achieve that goal.

  3. I’ve been in several campaigns where we sort of knew going in that they had a goal and an ending. In recent memory there was a street-urchin custom 3.5 campaign we did that lasted about five sessions. There was a “expedition to Tonguska” Call of Cthulhu thing we did that lasted maybe 8 or 9.

    But maybe that’s not what you’re talking about. You’re talking about an ongoing campaign that was not set up as “we’re going to do X”, but rather just as “We’re going to play”.

    My daughter is running us in a Star Wars campaign. We finished one arc, and she’s now calling that Season One. We did some other stuff, and now we have a new player and we’re doing Season Two. She understands what Season Two is about, and is up for it, and so are we. There’s never an open-ended commitment to the thing, which I think is good.

    • Toldain, no not quite. Ending a campaign is another topic entirely; this is more about inadvertently ending a campaign through miscommunication.

      Anyone else a fan of the 1992 movie “Sneakers?” Remember the part where they discuss “perception” becoming “reality?” If you talk about ending a game enough times, even though you intend to do it properly, the game will, unsurprisingly come to an end. People’s interest will die out and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. That’s what happened here, twice.

      The game, mechanics, or duration had nothing to do with it, it was the way the GMs approached it (in this case, one of them was me) that had everything to do with undermining the game, unintentionally.

      • My DC Adventures game was designed to be long, but have an endpoint. When we were getting close to the end, I reiterated that the game would have a definite terminus to it.

        I had said this enough times that the players actually started looking for the end point. They rescued the missing Justice League (pretty much the first plot thread of the campaign), and assumed that the campaign was over.

        I still had a short story arc where the PCs would save the world after the Justice League showed up, essentially to show that they weren’t just heroes because the JLA was gone, but they had become A listers themselves.

        Those sessions had very little energy to them, because everyone was already assuming the campaign had served its purpose and they were ready to move on. I wanted to have Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman patting them on the back and telling they belonged in the DC pantheon, and instead, it was kind of a perfunctory, “let’s do this one last time and get it over with.”

  4. The thing about ASoIaF is that, like the LotR, it’s hard to run a campaign in the same time frame as the books because your PCs usually end up altering events so nothing ends up the way it should. I meant if they kill Jamie Lanister in Whispering Woods, what then? “He died…but he got better.” It would be better to start a campaign before the books started, say during the events leading up to Robert’s rebellion.

    Hmmmm, that gives me an idea…

  5. We have a GM in our society who’s notorious for giving up on campaigns early. The kicker is he never drops it when people are bored, or even before they commit. he seems to wait until everyone is getting right into it, with more thought going into back stories, more risks taken to move the plot along, and then – out of the blue – he will just announce that he’s happy ending the game, and that will be the last session…

  6. Thanks for the warning. A month or so ago, I asked my group where they’d like to go next. I did make sure to add that the current campaign is going strong, and that I had a powerful arc in the works, but the mere discussion of it (and a few missed sessions) have already created some doldrums.

    I’m admittedly not a fan of SoIaF, but I can’t see a game surviving in the same time/place as the story. The plot is just tied too strongly to the setting, similarly to how it would be difficult to run LotR as a game. A few years before, or an earlier/later repeat of the same cycle might work. But I can’t imagine a GM good/insane enough to track how all the Houses and factions are behaving, and still allow the PCs to influence the world.

    • It’s a pity that talking about the future can have a negative impact on enthusiasm for the current campaign. I’ve experienced this in a similar situation – talking about “the next campaign”, and also with spare characters.

      We play a lot of Cyberpunk 2020, whose lethality encourages you to prepare for character death at any moment. Combined with my gaming group’s enthusiasm for generating thorough backgrounds, getting a replacement for a character-cum-spare parts can be slow – unless you have it ready to go in advance, which most of us do. This often leads to players becoming more interested in playing their shiny new characters than the patinated old ones – sometimes enough that their old characters start leaning toward the suicidal in their actions. Self-destructiveness and renewal admittedly are fitting themes for the cyberpunk genre, but somehow I find it unfair toward the old character to be so distracted by a newcomer.

      Coming up with ideas for a shiny new campaign can be similarly distracting – I know it is for me. I’ve noticed that I can invest unreasonable amounts of time dreaming about a new campaign, whether my own or someone else’s; so much so that I no longer concentrate properly on the campaign at hand.

      That’s why I prefer not to discuss “the next campaign” very much. Rarely does a campaign deserve to be shoved aside for something younger and prettier.

  7. I have found that as a GM my mood for different genres changes rather often. If the players are actively engaged in the campaign I can stay on game indefinitely, but if they are more passive, I have a tendency to get GM ADD. It is frustrating as a GN and player when the GM runs out of interest before the players do.

    As mentioned above, there are ideas for other future campaigns. For the most part I have found that just making notes is good enough. Sometimes an idea really crashes forth and just begs to be played sooner than later,

    What do you guys do? I an really tenoted to have it be a dumension hopping game so that the PCs can hop around as my adventure ideas flow.

    • Dimension hopping might not be a bad idea. I suspect one reason I managed to maintain interest consistently in my Dark Heresy campaign for three years was the WH40k setting that allows the GM great leeway in terms of milieu. Just about any sort of world I happened to dream up during that time fit in fairly painlessly with the rest of the setting. Exploration-oriented campaigns modelled after Star Trek, Stargate, Doctor Who or Narnia would work just as well, I imagine, as long as your players are happy with exploring new worlds on a regular basis!

      Damn, now I wish I got to play in something like that…

  8. Set expectations even before the campaign begins.

    In my group, we tend to favor short campaign arcs of 6-8 sessions. Between the arcs we run one-shots or other games. A campaign might last many arcs, or just one or two.

    This helps prevent GM and player burn-out. It also allows campaigns to stop gracefully instead of abruptly — each arc is somewhat self-contained so if the campaign ends, there is still some closure.

  9. The weird thing is, while I completely agree with the problem surrounding expectations and killing the momentum of a campaign and all of that, one of the things that excited me about 13th Age is that it’s built around the idea that you advance on a schedule that the GM makes up.

    I immediately started thinking about plotting a campaign where the PCs remained at their current level for two sessions, and then advanced.

    I’m not sure if it would avoid the natural enthusiasm stall inherent in knowing when the campaign will end, however.

  10. I think it depends on the situation. There was a point back in 2005 when I realized my long running campaign was reaching the end of its natural life, and I checked with the players and confirmed that they agreed. We moved to wrap up mode, where it wasn’t so much a matter of X sessions as wanting to wrap it by X day (which boiled down to “before the GM goes off to Glasgow for WorldCon”, which turned into “Glasgow for WorldCon, Burmingham for Tolkien 2005, and Indianapolis for GenCon”). Once we were all on the same page, we could focus on wrapping up loose ends, and as this was a natural development, I’d say I was right about the campaign reaching the end of its life.

    I’m currently trying to wrap a play by email game that I’ve been running since 2006. In theory, I could keep running it, but there are various reasons I want to wrap it. And, yes, telling the players, “I’m going to wrap the game as soon as we’ve tied up the loose ends” does have a marked effect on play. People are less interested in smaller things that wouldn’t take that long to tie up. After all, the game is ending, so they don’t feel like they matter as much.

    But, I think it was the right call to say that I was ending the game. I still want to end the game, and it’s important that the players know I’m moving to end game. I don’t have a set time frame in mind.

    I have been sending periodic emails saying, “Okay, here’s where we are on the various plot arcs. Let me know if there’s anything else you want resolved. Let me know if any of the arcs I think need resolving really don’t.”

    What I’m finding is that I have to pull teeth to get players to admit that, yes, there’s this bit over here they’d really like to get resolved. That is frustrating because it can totally get resolved — once I know that this is important to the players. But, I’m also balancing the desire for a satisfactory resolution with the desire for a resolution sometime in the foreseeable future and with real life matters that take priority for the players.

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