A couple years ago I wrote an article  about how, while I consider myself a Gnome-worthy Game Master, I never managed to finish most of my campaigns. Sometimes I couldn’t do anything about it; circumstances ended the campaign. At other times, I was lucky enough to have some time to wrap things up.
Gnome Stew Reader Jason recently asked: A campaign I am running needs to wind down early. The players want closure on the threads hanging in the story. Do I get them together and tell them the end of the story around a campfire (so to speak)? Do I switch to the Microscope RPG to give them that last but of creative control?
As someone who has been approached at the “campfire” (I usually use the phrase “over beers at a picnic”), I can say that it’s fun and cathartic to reveal parts of the mystery that were left unraveled or what the PCs were going to face if they’d walked into the Ice Caves at the Top of the World. Still, a part of me always wishes that I could have made these revelations in play rather than between mouthfuls of hamburger.
When I’ve been forced to end a campaign early, I tend to see it as a gift; an opportunity to at least resolve the major story arcs and subplots. In many ways it’s like TV show writers with a 5-year story arc being told at the start of Season 3 that they may not get Seasons 4 and 5. They have to wrap things up as best they can to give their fans some sense of closure, even if it leaves a few things dangling.
Here are few things to keep in mind:
First and foremost, your players know that you’re ending early. You aren’t planning this in a vacuum; something is causing your campaign to wrap up early and it’s likely that the other players know it. They’re going to expect you to tighten things up so that the campaign can end properly and they’re in a position to help. Ask them what things they’d like to see resolved, where they want their characters to be by the end, or if there was anything they were hoping to explore but haven’t gotten a chance to yet.
Prioritize: There’s a reason why you’re “ending early” and not simply “ending;” you don’t have time to let the campaign unfold naturally. Chances are you aren’t going to be able to wrap everything up and some of the stuff you do plan to wrap up will still fall by the wayside when you realize that you’re in the final two hours of your last session.
Decide what plot elements are truly important to wrap up and focus on those. In an archetypical fantasy campaign you may want to skip ahead to the last dungeon and either downgrade the opposition or upgrade the PCs, perhaps equipping them with the magic items that they were supposed to find in the skipped-over adventures.
In a modern investigative campaign you may have the Big Bad tip her hand early; maybe she arrives to personally take over one of her underling’s operations and comes into contact with the PCs much earlier than planned, making her more vulnerable. Or maybe the Emperor decided to personally oversee the destruction of the Rebel Base at Yavin.
Let dangling threads lie. Maybe at the end of the game players are still scratching their heads over why the pizza guy delivered a pizza with extra pepperoni and a helpful magic scroll taped inside the box top 8 sessions ago. Maybe you planned on that pizza guy being a major NPC, but then the players went left instead of right and in the sessions that followed the pizza guy was relegated to your idea dustbin. Let him stay there. You don’t have time to work him back in (or maybe you do, which leads us to the next point…).
Or maybe you introduced a femme fatale that became a paramour to one of the PCs in order to betray them but you didn’t have time to start implementing her plans. Don’t shoehorn her into a Face Heel Turn; that will just seem out of left field. It’s better to allow her to remain a good supporting character even if it leaves the players wondering why you spent so much time developing her early in the campaign.
When tying elements together, go for art rather than science. As long as your final adventures play well and the elements hold together enough, few players are going to complain when NPC A has a slight personality change or when something said in the first couple sessions of the campaign doesn’t quite fit with the ending. If they do, then just remind them that you had to smooth the rough edges to make it work in the shortened time frame.
Plan for less time than you have. Do you have three sessions to wrap things up? Plan for your campaign to end in two. Things always crop up to slow things down and it’s better to end early then end up not ending at all (or worse, lighting the campfire with 5 minutes left so you can tell everybody what was supposed to happen if only you had two more hours).
In sum, stick with your main themes and end the campaign with a satisfying conclusion. So long as the major goals are achieved, the players will likely stick with you for the ride and, as you have, make the best of it.
Of course, this is just my take. How about you? Are you in the “campfire” or “wrap-up” camp? If you tried to end a campaign early, what lessons did you learn along the way? Did it end up being satisfying or did you still need a campfire moment?