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Ending a Campaign: Taking My Own Advice

Posted By Martin Ralya On October 14, 2008 @ 5:39 am In GMing Advice,Tools for GMs | 7 Comments

When I write GMing advice here on the Stew — and previously on Treasure Tables, as well as for freelance projects — one of my goals is to only give advice that a) I have taken myself, b) is based on observing other GMs or games or c) I would take if the opportunity arose.

Almost exactly two years ago, I wrote a series of articles outlining six ways you can end a campaign. Here they are in order: How to End a Campaign… With a Bang, With a Whimper, A Sudden Stop, On Indefinite Hold, Fast Forward and According to Plan. You can also grab a free PDF that collects the whole series: How to End a Campaign: Six Approaches.

Since I wrote that series, I’ve ended a short-lived campaign of my own with a whimper (the worst possible way…), took part in a campaign via email that ended according to plan and watched one of the other GMs in my group end an awesome Stargate campaign according to plan — the absolute best approach, in my opinion. Hell, he even threw us a “wrap party” in keeping with the TV-show theme of our campaign (which totally rocked).

I bring this up because for the past year I’ve been running a Mage: The Awakening chronicle, and it’s about to end — we’ve got two sessions left (most likely). And from the start, I’ve taken my own advice and worked towards ended it according to plan, and at a point where we could resume it at a later date if everyone was interested.

Knowing from the start that I wanted to combine three of the approaches I outlined in that series — ending the game according to plan and with a bang, but also taking the best parts of putting it indefinite hold — has been a huge help to me. Here’s why:

  • With the end always in sight, I’ve been able to focus on packing every session with as much cool stuff as possible — because I know I don’t have forever. I haven’t always succeeded, but it’s been a great motivator.
  • We’re all on the same page. I made it clear from the outset that I’d be following “the Stargate model” and planning a game with a well-defined endpoint, and over the past few months I’ve reminded the guys that the end is nigh.
  • I’ve retained the right amount of flexibility (right for me, that is). When I started the game, I knew roughly what the ending would look like, but not how it would shake out or exactly how my players would handle it — and very little of what came in between. It’s been a ton of fun letting the individuals chapters (sessions) unfold organically, responding to my players’ interests and surprise events as well as random elements that grabbed me (someone bought me an awesome supplement on ghosts…not long after that, ghosts became part of the game in a big way).
  • The whole game feels…better defined. With individual chapter names, story arc titles and overall themes that we talked about before the first session, plus a known endpoint, there will be a lot of handles for us to grab onto looking back on the game years later.
  • When I write each chapter, having a plan helps me stay on track — much like an outline would if I were working on a long freelance project. When in doubt, I can think to myself, “OK, here’s where I know we’re headed — what’s the coolest way to get there?” and then go from there.

It’s nice to know that I wasn’t just babbling when I wrote that article series — it’s actually been a big help to me, and I think it’s sound advice. As of a few years ago, I’d never given much thought to the architecture of my campaigns; I just ran them and let them end whenever they happened to end, which usually wasn’t the best way they could have ended.

If you’re in that boat, snag the How to End a Campaign PDF and give it a read. Hopefully it’ll be as useful to you as it has been to me over the past year.

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.




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7 Comments To "Ending a Campaign: Taking My Own Advice"

#1 Comment By Sarlax On October 14, 2008 @ 11:28 am

First, this has been my favorite campaign, and I hope that it comes back in a new chronicle for our group. I’d hate to see it end for good.

That said, I like the feel of the approaching finale of the chronicle. I haven’t felt like I’ve been rail-roaded into a certain finish, but I do have the sense of a building climax. It ties in very well with the theme of destiny that’s been going on throughout the campaign.

We’ve had an inkling of the “villain’s” plan for quite a while now, but we haven’t been able to stop it. Not only is he very powerful, but we haven’t had a lot of information we would need (we think) to stop him. The coming encounter seems like it’ll be natural and timed appropriately with how the rest of the campaign has flowed, rather than a simple fiat of “You will battle Kafteros at the 20th session!”

I also feel like other elements of the campaign are both wrapping up well while leaving threads to pursue in a future chronicle. While the climactic villain is probably Kafteros, a Gambit member escaped, the Consilium is still hostile (although not actively in our faces), etc. In other words, I don’t feel like there’s a bunch of open lines for us to get frustrated with, but the roads to future campaigns have been laid out.

#2 Comment By Starvosk On October 14, 2008 @ 11:56 am

I find that without a definite “End time” people tend to get lazy and not have endings for their campaigns. DMs feel free to meander and players are more interested in going off unrelated tangents. This might appeal to you, but lacking a definite end point seems to dull the situation a little. Much like world of warcraft, it implies that you can come back and the world will be waiting for you, static. With a campaign finish, you can have a true success or failure.

I mean, one of the tropes of long running TV shows is that bad things always seem to happen for no reason whatsoever, with no rhyme or reason. Do you want that to happen, or do you want a singular cohesive story?

#3 Comment By Swordgleam On October 14, 2008 @ 1:18 pm

I never know what’s going to happen the next session, let alone ahead of that, so I have trouble ending according to plan. I would like to end my current campaign with a bang, whenever that happens. It’s tricky, because I can’t think of what could possibly be a good end-point.

There’s no main villain, and the main goal is “stay alive and make sure the village does, too.” Perhaps, once I feel like we should be approaching an end, I’ll give the players some apprentices, and make it clear that their last ‘quest’ is to train the next generation of heroes, then retire happily. It would be a nice symmetry to how this whole thing started – with the deaths of the old heroes. But that doesn’t seem like much of a ‘bang’ to me. What do you think?

#4 Comment By Sarlax On October 14, 2008 @ 1:53 pm

My only true end goals have been to 1) take the campaign through 20th level and 2) finish with a bang. I didn’t have a specific bang in mind as I developed and ran the game, as so much of the metaplot is actually determined by the PC’s actions. At this point, however, a particular path for the ending is beginning to form in my mind. Many threads have been wrapped up, and the remaining points are rather obvious draws for the PCs.

#5 Comment By Martin Ralya On October 15, 2008 @ 6:37 pm

@Sarlax – That…is one of the best compliments I’ve received in 20 years of GMing. Thank you. I’m really glad you’re enjoying the game!

@Swordgleam – That’s not a bad ending, but it’s not much of a bang — you’re right about that. I assume the village is threatened regularly? If so, why not foreshadow an impending larger threat — even just a session or two before it happens should be enough — and then use that as the bang?

#6 Comment By Omnus On October 15, 2008 @ 11:30 pm

I absolutely loathe the “indefinite hold” ending, even though I did it recently, restarting a campaign that had ended a few years before. It never had the same feel again, the magic was lost. I tried to end the game with a bang, but I left a kernal of hope that one player succeeded with and was the sole survivor. Then the group shocked me and begged me to continue the campaign, that they would start up new characters to replace the fallen. They didn’t get the point that the campaign should have been over, but I’m too soft-hearted, so I capitulated.

I usually like to end a campaign according to plan, thought he plan often evolves. As my campaigns average about two and a half years, this is important, as it allows the players to separate from their beloved characters and get ready for the new campaign. I allow them a denoument to bid farewell and write the happily ever after, then end it. I’ve had my “whimper” endings and hated them too, but those were often forced by circumstance, so my regrets are minimal.

#7 Comment By Swordgleam On October 16, 2008 @ 4:20 pm

@Martin Ralya – Interesting. I can’t think of anything in the world now that would fit the bill, things will keep coming up as I go. The village hasn’t been directly threatened yet by any villain – they’re just chronically short on resources.


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