Game Campaigns. Do they End with a bang or do they end with a whimper?

So I needed to take a small break from my 2000 word blog posts, so I thought I would write some quick thoughts on campaign endings.

As a GM it’s important that a campaign, or extended adventure series end satisfactorily. From a design standpoint, some of that can be charted through a multiple act structure, but the open ended nature of gaming (and RM dice!) means that things can go astray. It can be frustrating to have the final act end with the players feeling dissatisfied, the conclusion anti-climactic or the challenge easily met.

On the other hand, it would also be too easy to manipulate dice, events and other factors to force a cinematic ending to a long game session or campaign. Acting completely neutral means that hours of hard work managing a well designed narrative could “end with a whimper”. Uhh…”So that’s it?” the players ask. That can feel very deflating for the GM.

I’ve had both in my years of gaming–some incredible finales and some now real duds. Now, spending much of time writing game hooks, modules and adventures I’m exploring the mechanics behind these conclusions. This has become critical in my “Legends of Shadow World” tourney module. At 50th lvl things better be pretty epic!!!!

  • If at 50th, death has no real meaning due to lifegiving, is their any tension in combat?
  • If a great crit roll can kill the most powerful of entities, then a lengthy combat could last mere seconds, robbing it of impact.
  • What reward provides the payoff to players? There are no new spells, probably not any artifacts they haven’t obtained and not much upside to another level up is there a real payoff?

But looking at those above, I can’t help but think they are not unlike the same questions for lower level characters.

  • “The end” provides a out of game break that can hand wave away any severe injuries. There are no “next room” or “next level” to survive with wounds. So many lower level final acts lose some of that tension as well.
  • Crits are always the wild ace in the RM game.
  • What is a commensurate reward for any level?

The mere fact that it’s the “end” creates new problems the GM has to anticipate. What has been your experience? Is just finishing reward enough?

Here are a few blog articles (of varying usefulness) on the subject. HERE and HERE



6 Replies to “Game Campaigns. Do they End with a bang or do they end with a whimper?”

  1. Lifegiving is no guarantee of survival. A TPK will take out the cleric along with everybody else. At 50th level I think it [TPK] would have to be an extremely unlucky result or the actual intention of the GM to end on a Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid style ending.

    We normally play to what would equate to high teens in level, no one has ever got to 50th and my personal highest level character was 33rd.

    These days I tend to plan a campaign to run like a season of a TV series. It has a beginning, middle and an ideal end. After that ‘end’ I always have the option to bring the same characters back for a second or subsequent season.

    Players then get to create new characters but know that their beloved characters are not dead or binned, they can come back and be played again.

    As a GM you can bring back a favoured villain, roll the calendar on a year and restart.

    One campaign that is intended to play on until it dies of natural causes is probably more likely to suffer all kinds of problems list one of the most influential players moving away, or real life making playing regularly really difficult. These can steal the impetus from a campaign and brings a whimpering death to a game.

    In the last Shadow World game I played in I talked to the GM and intentionally killed my PC because I didn’t want to play him any more. We worked together and arranged his death and how to introduce a new PC to the group. If the GM had refused then I don’t know how long the campaign would have carried on as I was the most regularly attending player and my character was one of the main drivers of the PC party.

  2. I suppose that’s an advantage of Paizo’s adventure paths – they have a definite start and a definite conclusion, even though there may be suggestions for expanding on it afterwards.

  3. My campaigns are like Peter’s. They build to a final encounter with what Joss Wheedon called a Big Bad Evil Guy (BBEG).

    Rolemaster does have criticals as its wild card. And yes, there have been cases where someone drops the BBEG from a lucky critical relatively early (it happened when I did a RM conversion of the original Ravenloft: the party Paladin got a lucky crit and just dropped him). But that is the fun of Rolemaster: you never know what is going to happen. Instead of trying to think of a cheesy way to give him a second life, I allowed the Paladin to feel like a bad ass, and the party to realize that nothing is set in stone: the chips fall where they may, whether that means they drop the BBEG in round 3 or they get their heads bitten off by him in round 2.

  4. In all the years I’ve been gaming and mostly running my own campaign, I’ve only once been in a group where we actually got to a wrap-up. All of the rest (probably half a dozen) campaigns dissolved more or less, as people moved or the group’s schedules gradually desynched to the point the time between sessions became “forever”.
    The one that wrapped up lasted four and a half years (Pathfinder, someone else GMing). We went from 1st to 20th, and the story arc was about reclaiming god-status. There was a BBEG – actually 3. We thought one of them was the real BBEG who we had to defeat, and we scry-and-fried him really easily. The GM had actually built himself a few escapes in case one of our characters died before the final battle, and we wrapped it up with a more narrative “ascension.”

    I have some of the stat sheets from characters people have played in my world in the past. Some of them are now NPCs for the players currently playing in that world. Once in a while I drop a line to the person who played that character years ago, and they get really excited to hear that their character lives on.

    1. You get that same sense of excitement when you treat campaigns like TV seasons. Players love to revisit favourite characters.

  5. We’ve run the full gamut of endings in my groups. More accurately I suppose, I have experienced the full gamut of endings as players and GMs have come and gone over the years. In college, our best GM was graduating and he decided to have one big, farewell, epic campaign. It lasted two semesters with gaming 2-3 times a week, every week we were around. The climax was amazing, fantastical! I was hit in the very first round of battle with a 99 E-Cold crit!!!! (look it up. 🙂 )But at least I got to make one attack at the dragon before he froze me. But regardless of that crit roll, I stayed and watched the entire battle just to see the climax. It was very similar to watching the final episode of your favorite show even though your favorite character was killed off (i.e.: me LOL) The battle was awesome! I didn’t care one bit that I was out of it after several months of gaming because the GM was THAT good, the campaign was that epic, the group of friends I was with was amazing.

    Of course there has to be balance in the universe and I have been on my fair share of “meh” endings. One in particular stands out (this was Vampire: the Masquerade). At the end of the Chronicle, my PC received a tube of sunblock that allowed my vampire to endure the sun for 15 minutes. Eh.

    Apart from those two stand-out moments, I’ve tried to run my campaigns and endings to work with the groups I’ve been with. If I know ahead of time I’m only running a few sessions while a GM takes a break to decompress for a bit, I’ll make a smaller story plot with a decent ending, knowing that the players and PCs probably won’t be returning to game, or maybe they will next summer when the GM wants another break to decompress. I’ll leave it open-ended a bit just in case one or two players want to jump back into the RM world. I’ll have a few plot threads I can work from and start a new storyline that at least has a familiar starting point.

    For the longer running sessions, I simply work a player out of the script temporarily or permanently (In the case of real life graduation, marriage, moving across country for employment). For the players that do return to the session, I simply have them catch up in a town or have their paths cross where they can jump back into the story line.

    All of the coming and going will determine the type of ending I’ll have. I try to make something really big for the long time players and I try to have something really fun and worthwhile for the shorter-term players to keep them invested in the game and wanting to come back again.

    With the longer term players, we never had to kill any off if they were tired of playing the PC or wanted a new one. We just let them roll up a new PC and we found a way to inject him into the campaign and we found some plausible reason to work out the older PC; levelled up and wanted to learn a new spell list with his mentor, needed to transport a grievously wounded NPC/PC back to a temple for life saving, another NPC had an item/clue that was part of the PCs secret “true quest” (tracking down the murderer of the High Monk of Caldera), etc… If that PC ever wanted to come back, we could simply bring him back or let him retire.

    I do keep all of the character sheets of the players as I’m the only one who GMs RM and they have no need of their sheets. This allows me to keep them in play if I have to, but allows me to use them as NPC’s in a pinch, or if I have a new-to-the-game player who wants a pre-made PC.

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