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So You Want To Play An RPG?: Ending the Campaign

November 5, 2013

Last time, we talked about different ways of telling stories and running a campaign. I concluded by briefly touching on the importance of endings. Endings can be one of those things that are just hard to get right. Especially since, in general, it can sometimes be hard to resist revisiting beloved characters and settings.

This is something that’s difficult to deal with even when you’re writing something on your own. Adding more people and their own strong emotions regarding the characters (players are, for obvious reasons, very invested in their characters), the story, and the setting, only makes that strong pull that much harder to resist. After all, how much fan fiction out there is just an attempt at continuing a character’s adventures? And how many authors do eventually revisit books/films/etc from earlier in their careers?

However, the more story you actually inject into your campaigns, the more that story will eventually need to have an end. With big grand campaigns or shorter story arcs, they do have distinct endings (normally the goals of the characters and the like). Games that focus on a variety of interlinked story arcs sometimes loose ends will exist but there’s always a satisfying ending at the completion of an arc. Even games that are more episodic can always end with a slightly more interesting adventure that allows the players to reflect on all that they’ve achieved and done.

The thing is, that unlike writing a book or shooting a movie, you don’t always have control over when a game is going to end. I often compare running games to television shows because it’s often the best analogy. The story is told in digestible chunks that are spread out on some kind of a schedule. Characters can come and go due to players leaving, or characters dying, or even because the player has come to realize that they want to retire the character. Finally, it’s all collaborative story telling.

Much like television shows, games can be ‘canceled’ by things outside of your control. For example, plenty of games have ended because two players that were dating broke up. In a more positive sense, people can develop new responsibilities that cause them to leave or the game to break up (someone gets a new job or a couple your gaming with has a baby). One of the worst ways but one that can definitely happen is that you might find that a few sessions in that the game just isn’t working whether it’s the players, or you, or whatever it may be, sometimes it’s just not meant to be.

In all of these situations, things have to be brought to a conclusion and it can be hard to produce one that is satisfying. The worst thing you can actually do is assume that you’ll be able to bring things together at a later date. Once again, look to every television show you ever enjoyed that didn’t get the chance to finish and ended on a random episode or a cliffhanger. No one wants to participate in that or always wonder what might have happened if they had been able to finish the game.

Plus, if you’ve ever tried to recapture a feeling from years earlier, you know that it just can’t be done. People get older, and mature or change in small subtle ways. More importantly, our fantasies develop over time. By the time you can all get together to finish the game, all of the things that you have imagined in its place are far more interesting than what is ever going to actually happen. Once the game is over, it’s no longer collaborative and rests solely in your mind and the memories of your friends, which might diverge greatly from reality. Especially a reality years later.

So how does one make a satisfying ending? How do you have one that is at the ready for everyone to enjoy?

Once again, I feel like the concept of an episodic journey can be more beneficial when it comes to having that ‘bolt hole’ ready. An ending that will satisfy the players in all of the ways it needs to. Largely because an episodic game can end in a way that allows the players to imagine what their characters go on to do without ruining it with some kind of reality. I’m reminded of the last episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation, which is just this one really fun adventure involving time travel and Q and all sorts of really nice stuff. At the end of it, Picard and the crew just warp off into the galaxy. The same thing happens at the end of the sixth original Star Trek movie.

In my Pirate Fantasy Game, which had a mixture of episodic sessions and larger story arcs, I brought the game to a conclusion after a big story arc involving a war that absorbed the world’s major powers and NPCs the PCs had come to know. The war came to a conclusion with a massive clash of naval power following a spell that summoned a great storm to disorient the various factions. The PCs were all given a chance to shine in their own combat encounters before they came together for one triumphant moment against some of their most hated rivals. The official end of the game is that they muster out of the military and take their ships off in search of adventure while their first mate retires waving at them from the dock.

There are some important elements that we can tease out of this and other satisfying endings.

The first is that the ending allows the players to feel triumphant, like they have achieved something. In a game with a direct goal, they basically have to overcome the main villain and achieve that goal. If the game has to be wrapped up quickly this can make it feel abrupt and create another type of dissatisfaction but the point is that the chance for feeling accomplished is obviously there. The point is that the ending allows them to use their skills and be the heroes, even if it’s as part of a larger conflict that they may be only playing a small part in.

Endings need to have something that evokes a sense of the game actually ending. In the case of the game I mentioned above, it was the retiring of their first mate Rowkar and his decision to return to his family. He was easily the PCs’ favorite NPC in that game and knowing that he wasn’t joining them in their continued adventures marked a clear ending of the game. You can see this in the ending of NYPD Blue, when Bales turns his office over to Sipowicz. The story goes on but the story as we know it has come to an end.

Which I think is the final component of a great ending, the allure of imagining something more but not knowing what it is. Granted, this is what creates that tug we must resist but it’s also what makes it so satisfying. Compare the end of the Lord of the Rings for Sam and Frodo to the end for Legolas and Gimli. Frodo joins the Elves and Gandalf as they leave for the unknown, while Sam must remain behind to inherit Middle Earth. It’s intense, touching, and brings the age to a close in a very particular way. Meanwhile, as DM of the Rings points out, Gimli and Legolas just get shafted, becoming glorified servants for King Aragorn. We know what happens to them but Sam and Frodo are ultimately a mystery, and we can imagine great things for them.

These endings can be the epic conclusions to big grand stories or they can be a quiet celebration of everything you’ve built. The trickiest part is that you need to understand that you have to have that bolt hole. Don’t embrace a plan and refuse to change it because then your endings will feel abrupt and dissatisfying if something just comes up. As I discussed before, as a GM, you have to be fluid and malleable when writing adventures. The same goes for larger campaign arcs.

The last time I ran a game where everything crashed around us, I did have several break points planned. Of course, sadly, we had just made it past one of them and were starting a larger story arc when things came to an end. I still think about that game, and I regret not being able to bring it to a successful conclusion. However, the important thing is that I had those possible endings planned, and the PCs had just completed a big resounding triumphant adventure.

You have to be ready for the end because drawing a story to a close is part of telling it. When you have the chance to tell a really definitive ending, it can be really great, especially if you can touch on each player and give their character a satisfying send off (I’m reminded of the last ten minutes of Deep Space Nine and surprisingly the final scenes of Animal House). Sometimes though, it’s really satisfying to just imply there are further adventures and not get into them.

While it might make sense in some television series or films, I highly suggest not cutting to black with no explanation.

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