Campaign endings

edited September 2011 in Story Games
I posted this over on UK gamers, but I'm intrigued to know what story gamer patrons will have to say about it. Apologies to anyone (else) who frequents both forums and feels cheated by the double post!

So, I find it really difficult to end a campaign, and I don't think I'm alone. I cn't think of a single campaign I've played in that had a genuinely satisfactory ending, in the sense of feeling like the ending was a strong, campaign-defining moment that gave a sense of resolution, even if it didn't tie up the threads completely. Most campaigns I have played in ended prematurely (GM lost mojo, players lost interest, group fell apart, not enough time to play, etc). Those that didn't, the ending tended to be relatively unexciting - not a bad session, but nothing that really screams "ending".

Having said that, some of the LRPs i have played and run in have had pretty good endings - but that's partly a product of the fact that many of them were run at university, with a fixed timetable based on academic terms, which makes planning a lot easier. In those the denoument was very much GM-driven, though not necessarily less satisfying as a result. In LRPs I've had ancampaign ending where a major war came to an end and another where the players bring about the apocalypse, good strong endings that brought the campaign to a close properly.

Anyway. It seems to me good campaign endings are hard to come by. What good campaign endings have you been involved with? What made them different from the ones that just fizzled out or ended with a whimper?


  • What works for me…

    …I abandon the idea of 1 ending.

    Instead, the last session has multiple endings. I try to craft scenes that give individual characters opportunities to make a life changing choice, accomplish a life goal, have something they feared come true, reveal a secret that has eluded them, confront a major rival, fulfill an oath or promise, get revenge, and anything else appropriately dramatic.

    The problem I run into is creating a single situation that does this for 3-5 players. I find someone always gets left out or let down. Instead I make the last session a series of climax scenes, customize for each player.

    If I can I will try to make these custom climax scenes overlap as much as possible. Your major rival is someone else's secret master who they have sworn oaths to. Mix and match as is appropriate.

    The second technique that works for me…


    Epilogues makeup for lackluster endings! Have a player disappointed that they couldn't save their friends life in the last fight? Ask them to narrate an epilogue scene. Tell them they can do anything. It can be after the fight, 10 years later… maybe 100 years later! Give the players a lot of freedom to be creative. Don't roll dice. Just let them freely narrate the epilogue. I've had a player upset they couldn't save an NPC only to have one of the most amazing roleplaying moments by holding a funeral for that NPC in an epilogue scene.

    In summary…

    Forget 1 ending. Have multiple endings! And the go crazy with epilogues.
  • Posted By: rabaliasSo, I find it really difficult to end a campaign, and I don't think I'm alone. I cn't think of a single campaign I've played in that had a genuinely satisfactory ending,
    There was a guy who used to GM in our group years ago. He would build up really cool short arcs -- we wouldn't play longer than eight sessions on anything -- and we've get to the penultimate session. We'd finish that one being jazzed about the finale...which never happened. He would delay or cancel until we would just start a new game. Years later, I recognized that this was because he was scared of the ending being flatter than the rest of the game. But still, no ending was even sadder.
    Posted By: rabaliasWhat good campaign endings have you been involved with? What made them different from the ones that just fizzled out or ended with a whimper?
    Both of the Unknown Armies games I ran went out with a bang. And I think part of that was saying up-front, usually a session or two before the end, "hey, so, I'm thinking the story's done in the next (or whenever) session." The players I had bought into that, so we ended up together building to that session, and not trying to end it early by derailing or whatever.

    Both of them had "these are the stakes now", ratcheted up in the last couple sessions. They were invested in the importance of this moment. I fought hard against them, but made sure that it felt like a struggle to me, as well, rather than "ha ha you're on my turf punks."

    They actually lost the struggle in my second campaign, but invented their own deus ex machania to solve the problem as I started narrating the end of the world. They found it to be satisfying, because they came up with the solution, even if it doesn't involve their characters per se. And they got to tell their epilogues. So, good times.

    I can't say for sure what I did in specific that made it work. I'd like to think "ratchet up stakes" and "play hard, but struggle as well" and all that are good pieces of advice, but they really don't tell you how to actually *do* that.

    - Ryan
  • I've had one game end REALLY satisfyingly. It was the only game we ever played to the top of the standard levels(It was 20th lvl of pre-Saga edition Star Wars RPG), and we knew the campaign was going to be done here. We took down the major sith lord in a huge battle that was wildly fun, with all of our characters playing the best they have in a long time. That final encounter wasn't the thing that made it satisfying though. One of our two jedi had been sliding down the path to the Dark Side himself throughout the whole campaign, gradually becoming darker and darker. It was known to us that, after our mission, the Jedi Council was going to come down on him. Near the final encounter, he stepped through a door that vanished behind him, and had a face-himself-in-the-future scene a la Dagobah, and, faced with what he would become on this path, he laid down his arms and turned away the Dark Side. He reappeared with us, cleansed of the evil. Now, he was concerned that he metagamed a little in the decision, but it made for a very satisfying completion to a fantastic character arc. This, plus our epic final battle and a wrap-up speech from the DM, made for a fully completed campaign(as opposed to our fizzles). The rest of our characters also had some cool stuff happening, but not nearly as much as our former sith. This happened to be one of those rare moments of a single situation for all 3 players, as we all had major buy-in to destroying this guy.

    Some games seem to have endings built into them, probably because they're set stories. The ones that come to mind instantly are John Harper's games The Mustang and Lady Blackbird. With The Mustang, I can't imagine a successful ending that isn't the death of the Mustang, though I haven't played the game. Lady Blackbird has more potential for extension, but reaches a very satisfying end with encountering Uriah Flint(positively OR negatively, either way it makes a good ending). On a slightly larger scale of campaign, Gregor Hutton's 3:16 has an ending built into it.
    Games without the plot pre-baked into them are the standard beast though, and they're harder to end.I think the best strategy to go with is to have the ending in mind. If you have an overall idea of how you want it to end eventually, something to keep the scale down so you don't have the characters doing their quest forever, it'll be easier to end. A good example you could steal from a video game is in The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask. The moon is going to have fallen in three days. If time travel is too wonky for your game, say that the moon is falling and will destroy the world in three MONTHS instead, unless the heroes can stop it. This sets a "time limit" on your game. Stopping the fall of the moon would be the place to end it.
    I think an issue that makes ending a campaign hard a lot of the time is that players get attached to their characters. They really like the personalities they're playing, so you keep extending the game so they can enjoy the characters, and suddenly you realize the campaign will never end properly.

    John up there above me is right about the epilogues. That allows each player to put away their character exactly the way they want to.
  • Posted By: jenskotthe last session has multiple endings.
    This works for me too, and my players.
    Posted By: jenskot…epilogues!
    This is really a good way to wrap things up; the players really appreciate the chance to see into the future of their characters, and to tell it as they see it.

    So I'm with John!
  • How apropos,
    I've been running a campaign for a couple of years, and have begun to think about how it should end. I have quite figured that out. Most games have ended as described in the initial post, eithe rdisintegrated because of me or players moving, or lack of interest or whatever.

    I did have one great one. I was going from working 9-5 to grad school in another state. I have about six months to plan the big finale.

    It was 2nd Edition D&D (modified).
    I built this story around the party's favorite NPC a higher level Paladin that was just a really great guy. Not stuck up, not holier than thou (even though he was), just dedicated and really really nice. So I took what always struck me as random D&D stuff, in this case the Clone spell. It had, for game balance purposes the idea that the original and clone could not abide each other, and would have to try to kill the other. In my game I made this a little more dramatic. The Paladin was kidnapped by an evil sorceror (the Witchking, big baddie) and cloned. The clone was enchanted to become effectively his second in command, an agent of pure evil, etc.. etc.. But rather than make him a cliched black knoght Anti-Paladin, he was still the same good guy, just twisted. He saw his mission as just (clensing the scum of the earth, unifying the world under a single albeit cruel tyrant, restoring the great empire). So here is the twist, the good guy doesn't know he was cloned, but shares the dreams of the bad guy, so starts to go kind crazy.
    Meanwhile the party starts to here prophecies about their buddy leading an army across the world with a trail of blood, worshipping a ancient evil god, etc.. They go through the five stages of grief, denial, bargaining, anger, sadness, and acceptance (well not the last one). The hardest thing in the world was holding on to the secret. Only giving them hints an clues. On occasion they would talk to the clone (thinking it their friend), he would be odd, but evil. Then they would talk to the original .He would be feverish and morose. So they thought he might be bipolar or something.
    The numbers starting adding up, and they realized that push come to shove it had to be them to deal with him. They were the most powerful group of independent adventures, they could give him a fair chance, etc..
    Meanwhile as the weeks went on, the players started getting very angry with me. My girlfriend who played at the time refused to speak to me other than to yell. They all felt horribly betrayed that I was going to "make them kill the one NPC they really really liked," They went on a quest that led them into the ancient hold city to metaphorically break the glass labeled "in case of rogue paladin break glass" to get the arrow of paladin slaying. With that they could finish him, once and irrevocably (in a high level game, death is not enough, too many evil clerics willing to raise the dead).
    A few games before the finale, they encountered the witch who first told them the prophecy, through some more riddles and such they discovered the truth. The looks of relief. They could kill the evil clone without remorse. Eventually they did.
    They never really got that he was more tragic than evil, vitually until the end he saw them as close friends, he was perplexed that they couldn't see the wisdom of his actions. Still, when they finally did away with him, it was cause for much celebration. It was destroying the One Ring/Blowing up the Death Star all in one. That was an ending.
    We did have a couple post finale reunion games, but the finale was a fitting end.
    I'd love to manage that again.
  • You're a cruel man, Stevie.
  • A GM has to be cruel to be good. ;-)
  • Every good campaign ending I've ever created or played was a game that had a fixed number of sessions.

    That's why your LRP's work out so well.

    I think I'm going to start another thread about this.
  • One great campaign ending I ran was an Ocean's 11-style series of escalating heists using d20 Modern. As has been noted already, the fixed number of sessions helped structure the campaign and lead it to a more satisfying conclusion.

    Basically, the colourful party of professional thieves finally had to take down a casino owned by their nemesis and former employer, who had been manipulating them the entire time. They're driving away in an armoured truck with the take when a treacherous NPC who had been a de facto party member the whole (played for the final session by a friend in a cameo role to make it more exciting) finally decides to make his move and take the loot for himself (he might have been in league with one of the players, or with the nemesis, I can't remember now exactly what his motive was). There's a struggle inside the armoured truck and it crashes into an ornate fountain. They manage to take out the traitor, but now the police sirens is closing in and the party is tearing apart, so the batty old-lady explosives expert decides to just blow up the truck and be done with it, so the campaign ends with a giant explosion, and the party splitting up and taking off into the night with thousands singed bills of paper money fluttering around them (lifted from Kubrick's The Killing, naturally). To top it all off, I had prepared a snappy end-credits sequence with the Hollywood actors they had chosen to represent their characters, so I played that for them immediately after the scene ended and the camera panned up to the night sky. (You can check it out here if you're interested:

    I really hadn't known exactly what to expect at the end, although I was crossing my fingers for a classic heist-gone-wrong ending, nor did I know exactly when the traitor was going to make his move, because I had my friend playing him. It was fabulous – I was just grinning like a maniac the whole time and the players just sat there stunned but thrilled at how perfect and genre-appropriate the final scene was.

    So yeah, I think the take-away would be: campaigns with a limited arc or scope end well, use genre conventions to create satisfying conclusions, don't be afraid to mess with the players in fun and interesting ways, and don't be afraid to introduce or embrace elements of chaos and unpredictability in the final moments of a campaign. I can't remember if I used epilogues or not, but they do work really well, and as a player I love having the opportunity to conclude your own story.
  • Some really interesting posts here. I think the point about a fixed number of sessions probably is dead on, and certainly game up in the other thread on this subject. And I love the idea of epilogues, which I may well use for my current campaign... eventually. :)
  • Personally, as I couldn't seem to pace things properly if my life depended on it (one running joke among people I play with is that I can take up to 3-4 sessions to run a one-shot, so we have to schedule accordingly), I tend to build campaign around a combination of places and themes rather than characters. Then I use several story arcs, recycling PCs into NPCs along the way till I have exhausted variations on the themes in a way satisfying to players.

    The main problem I think with (classic) character-centered campaigns is that they seem to naturally follow the tropes of soap operas, against which you have to structurally struggle if you ever wish to reach something of an end.
  • Posted By: Emeraude

    The main problem I think with (classic) character-centered campaigns is that they seem to naturally follow the tropes of soap operas, against which you have to structurally struggle if you ever wish to reach something of an end.
    That's a really cool way to look at it. If there is a dial on character-based drama, then it seems like soap operas would have it turned all the way up. And I sure do hate soap operas. But, then I started to think about what I really dislike about soap operas:

    -They don’t have a fixed ending.
    -Because they don’t end, their plots must become more and more absurd.
    -Because they don’t end, they have rotating casts.
    -Because they don’t end, it is difficult for new people to join and know what is up. Their introductions are whitewashed and silly.
    -Because they don’t end, the status quo must always be reset, despite what ridiculousness has just occurred. Actions are meaningless.

    I think all of these problems could be solved with the fixed-number-of-sessions solution. If you told the writers of a new soap opera that they had exactly ten episodes, I feel that an arc would develop almost automatically. There would might even be a climax. I might not hate that soap opera so much.

    So it’s not the intense character relationship tropes that bug me about soap operas. It’s that no actions matter, even in the fiction, because the status quo must be preserved. The root cause of this problem is that soap operas don’t end, not that they are character driven plots.
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