Going Out with a Bang: Crafting an Epic End to Your Campaign

Sir Bedivere throws Excalibur into the Lake and finds King Arthur has sailed to Avalon. Luke Skywalker blows up the Death Star. Robin Hood fires an arrow to show where he should be buried. The Ring is cast into Mt. Doom. Ripley jettisons the Alien out an air lock.

Good stories…truly good stories…have fantastic endings. Without the promise of the Battle of Camlann, the Battle of Yavin, or Frodo’s Passion on Mt. Doom, the epic tales they end would not have the full emotional impact.

Role-playing games campaigns…truly good campaigns…have an ending. That ending may have the promise of future adventures or stories, especially if the GM is just bringing the story to an end for now and plans to pick it up later, but an ending will definitely cement a campaign in your players’ minds as a great one.

Now, you may disagree with me. My friend Jon is still running a campaign that he started over 20 years ago, and he has no plans to close it. I can’t imagine the idea of running a game like that. I love my campaigns, but I end up with so many ideas that no one story or setting would ever satisfy them all. I couldn’t run my Seven Kingdoms game in the setting of my Swords of the Amanar game, and my University of Wallachia Mage game wouldn’t work if I tried to run it in it the Forgotten Realms. Ending a story brings a conclusion and frees you up to try something totally new, whether it be a system , a setting, or even just a different character you want to try.

Make It Feel Right for the Campaign

The feel and themes of your campaign should drive the feel and theme of your ending. Has your campaign been swashbuckling, heroic, and over-the-top? Then a quiet ending would be utterly inappropriate. Has your game been very bittersweet and tragic? Then a goofy ending would be ridiculous, while a bittersweet ending will bring the game to a satisfying close.

For example, my Star Wars campaign is coming to a close. The game has been incredibly free-wheeling, with swashbuckling action, bantering dialogue, and exciting twists and turns.  So what’s the ending? Well, it’s the Battle of Endor, and the party is split into three groups: The Armored Bounty Hunter is about to try and infiltrate an AT-AT on a landing platform in order to destroy a squad of TIE Fighters that could spell doom for Han, Leia, and Chewie; the Jedi is about to duel a Dark Jedi he’s faced before, while the Gunfighter and the Scout help him and fight Dark Side Infected Creatures; and the Pilot and his Wookiee companion are trying to rescue the Pilot’s fiancée from the Death Star II, racing against the station’s destruction to get safely out. The players all know what’s happening in the next session (the Endgame) and are stoked to have this crazy three-way action happening.

The Changeling game I remember so fondly had a lot of action, but it also had a lot of sweet, sad moments in it. The story ended with our victory over some rivals in a competition, the death of a friend (although his faerie soul survives inside a magic book of Grimm’s Tales), and our families all moving away from each other, forcing us to split up and say goodbye. The characters have all vowed to seek each other out again once they’re grown, but the sadness of parting was very deep for all of us. If the Storyteller never returns to that game, we’ll all be satisfied with the way it ended, but if he does, it’ll feel like a natural extension of where we left off. Time will have passed, and our characters will get back together as teenagers, perhaps, instead of the children we were.

Go Big…Then Go Home

It’s the end of the campaign. Make sure your players know it. They will act differently, and they will play like you’ve never seen them play before. No one wants to get to the end of a 5 year campaign only to have it blow up in a Total Party Kill. So your players will pull out all the stops, even letting their characters get killed, if it means making sure
the party wins.

The end of my 9 year long D&D 3rd Edition game, Swords of the Amanar, saw two PCs get killed by the Elder Brain Lich ripping their brains out.  Another one died when he broke his Staff of the Magi inside a Force Bubble with the Lich, wounding it horribly. Although those who died were raised, their companion with the staff is gone forever, and they will remember his sacrifice always. It’s a year later, and we often smile and talk about the game and its ending.

The battles my Star Wars group have engaged in to get to where they are have been epic, often with 30-40 combatants. The lead-up to the Death Star rescue sequence in particular sticks out in my mind (maybe because I ran it mere hours ago ;) ). Every round, I was putting more TIE Fighters on the Space Battle Mat. After a few rounds, the players realized that this wasn’t about winning…it was about lasting until they could do something other than fight. And when the players realized that they needed to rescue Lady Juros from the Death Star, they quickly broke away from the main
battle to engage this surprising direction that the story was taking. After the game was over, I could overhear the Pilot’s player saying “Can you believe this? How crazy is it to land on the Death Star, knowing it’s blowing up any minute? This is crazy!” The note of glee in his voice told me just what I wanted to hear: that player is having the time of his life, taking on a larger-than-life scenario and rocking it to the fullest.

Don’t Forget the Denouement

Once the epic ending is over, you should save room for dessert. Err…denouement! As I’m sure you’ll remember from High School Lit, the denouement is the part of the story following the climax. It’s the wrap-up of the story, the sequence where you find out where things go from here. In The Lord of the Rings (the movie version), the climax comes when Frodo and Sam destroy the Ring, Sauron’s armies rout, and the Eagles rescue our heroes before they fall prey to rising lava. The denouement (and there’s a lot of it) is Frodo waking up to realize he’s not dead, the coronation of Aragon and his reunion with Arwen, the Hobbits returning to the Shire, and Frodo’s decision to depart for the Grey Havens.

It’s good to leave time for some denouement, possibly even one or more sessions. In D&D 4E, there’s a built in bit of denouement, at least if you play through Epic Level. The fulfillment of the PCs Destinies and the stories of how they achieve their Immortality, make for excellent denouement. Does one of the PCs marry a character they’ve been
romantically linked with? Does one of them retire to become a grand-master of swordsmanship? Does one of them ascend to Godhood? All good fodder for a denouement sequence.

In my Amanar game, the denouement came after the PCs returned home from the Underdark to deliver news that the Elder Brain Lich was dead. There was mourning for their fallen friend and celebration of their victory. Then I read my players a little section that suggested how things had ultimately ended for their characters, or what their legacies were, even showing far in the future, where pieces of their iconic gear and a battle-standard they’d designed inspired heroes of future generations.

Not With a Whimper…At Least Not Always

In Highlander, the Kurgen makes the observation that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. Of course, Neil Young said that, too, but still… In terms of gaming, it’s better, generally, to go out with a big, exciting ending than to let the campaign slowly fall apart, eroding all the memorable parts of the game. When that happens, all anyone will really remember is that the campaign stopped. Maybe they’ll be glad of it, or maybe they’ll be bummed and wish the campaign had kept going. But if you just let the game trail off to nothing, it’s extremely unlikely to make anyone’s Top Ten Games of All Time lists.

Now, I’d advocated in other articles that it’s sometimes better to let a game go gently into that good night, and I stand by that. If you’re not having fun, it’s often better to save your creative energies for better use later on. But better still, assuming you care about the story, characters, setting, or anything else, is to bring the campaign to a conclusion of some sort before closing the book on it. For example, I mentioned a Deadlands game I was running in my article “Rigging the Dice in Your Favor.”  I had utterly stopped having fun with the game, and I decided to end it. After some thought, I decided that my dislike of what was happening in the game, in terms of some of the out-of-game weirdness between a few of the players, out-weighed my desire to bring the game to even a perfunctory ending. So I just let it end. At that point, I didn’t much care as to how people would think of the campaign in the future. We’d only played a handful of sessions, I and a number of the players were uncomfortable, and I just let the game stop rather than push things into a potentially even more awkward and un-enjoyable situation.

By contrast, the furry 1st edition D&D game I mentioned in the same article was an enjoyable game, but many of the original players were gone, and I wasn’t enjoying the direction the story had taken. I brought the story to a logical conclusion – the PCs were sailing off to a distant land to help one of them return home – and then said we’d go on hiatus for a while. It wasn’t an epic ending, but it brought closure to the game, and I still have fond memories of it.

In Closing, Closure

One of the main reasons to end a game is to bring closure to the story, the players, and yourself. By the time Amanar ended, 4E was out, and I was chomping at the bit to run it. We’d all been invested n the Amanar story for so long, however, that I wanted to see that story conclude, and so did my players. I knew that, until I finished it, I wouldn’t want to start another huge campaign. And so, even though I had other things I wanted to run and/or play, I followed the story to its end. I feel that doing so brought me closure. I often have clear ideas about the ending of a campaign when I start, and I want to see those scenes play out as I’ve been imagining for years. I had seen so many elements of the game’s ending in my mind’s eye since I’d started working on the campaign in 2000…the army of Githzerai teleporting into the Mind Flayer city…the revelation of the Mind Flayers as being from the future, returned to conquer a younger, more vital world…the revelation of the origins of the Drow as the true race of elves…the battle with the Elder Brain Lich… If I’d abandoned the campaign before the end, I wouldn’t have felt the satisfaction that Amanar’s ending brought me. I’d always be wondering if I’d squandered a great story just to go on to something else.

Instead, I finished reading the campaign closing, then shut the lid on my campaign binder. I looked up, smiled at my players, and said “The End”.

They burst into applause. Literally.

Now that’s an ending.

I’m Done; It’s Your Turn

Have you ever brought a campaign to a particularly satisfying conclusion? Do you prefer to have a game continue with no planned ending? Let us know about it.

About GGG

Andy/GGG is a gay geek guy for sure. He's been playing D&D since he was 10, and he equates reading Tolkien with religion to some degree. He's a writer/developer for a Live Action RPG called The Isles, and he writes a comic called Circles, a gay, furry slice-of-life piece that comes out way too infrequently.

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