Ending a campaign is a curious problem. First you have to consider at what point is the right time to bring things to a close. Once that is decided you need to deal with the fallout of the decision with the players of the game. Many campaigns end just by petering interest, or real life stepping in and causing an issue and that is not the ending of the campaign that I will be talking to. The end to a campaign that I am talking of is where you are at the point where the campaign is done. Solidly done and anything further would just be new material that would detract from the original.
It will come to you as no surprise that I write to this topic as a GM. I largely run nearly every game I play in as the GM, so my mind goes to that viewpoint automatically. It is interesting to note there is a completely different subset of topics to this issue as a player that I will write to in the future.
In my experience though, this decision is always made by the GM, though I have heard of collaborative efforts between a player and a GM to reach a certain point in a game and call it quits as that is the game material that they wanted to explore. For example, a cool looking module comes out for 8th Circle adepts in Earthdawn and your players are already 10th circle, you might run the module over a few weeks with fresh characters, or do a flashback and pretend the actual characters did it. This may not really constitute a campaign but say it was a few linked modules.
I am an explorer as a GM. I like to run games that each have something different to offer. I will detail the games I am running at the moment and the reasons I run them:
I’ll start with the non fantasy and hope Jeffrey doesn’t throw anything at me. Traveller. I run this game as an exploration of sandbox environments and also to get that space feel in a game once again.
The quasi-could be fantasy FATE Demolished Ones is a game I run as it is a perfect mind blowing style adventure. Think of any movie you have seen with a twist at the end. This game is that movie but the twists happen once or twice a session. Running a game like this is an effort in preparation and delivery which I revel in.
I run Reign of Winter the Pathfinder adventure path as it occurs in extremes. Extreme cold, later on extreme extra planetary regions in a fantasy setting. Also it is populated by witches which is a class up until now that I was not all that familiar with so it gives me an opportunity to explore that class thoroughly.
Finally there is the Skull and Shackles adventure path for Pathfinder that I run in person. It is my only in-person game and I run this game because the modules work in a very encouraging way. I have not played a game where each module offers truly tangible rewards to characters at the end for the struggle they have been through. In my opinion I think all game rewards should be run this way as the payoff at the end make the characters think it has all been worthwhile.
I give you the above to illustrate the point that I have something that I want from each game. Sure, they are all role playing and part of it is that I enjoy it but I would not be comfortable running four parallel games of the same adventure path with different groups. The monotony would drive me insane.
For each of those games though I have to consider an end point though. Some of you will snort and giggle at this point and say that three of the above (the last three) are a no brainer as it is pre-made adventures and have a natural end. Well, it is not that clear in all actuality. I will grant you that I intend that the Reign of Winter game will end at the conclusion of the sixth module The Witch Queen’s Revenge will be the conclusion of the campaign. Thankfully for my players that is a long way off yet.
But other campaigns take on a different life. The players become invested in their characters and if there is a sniff of adventure left in the game they will be keen to continue on with the game. I had run the Serpent’s Skull adventure path and it leaves things quite wide open at the end of the final module. I had bought the adventure path in the hopes of showing off a complete campaign cycle. Because of the open ending though I am left a little disappointed as it did not meet what I was looking for (a complete story) and the players are keen to finish it as they invested the time. When we closed (not ended) the play in that game for a while it was always with a mind to come back to it after I had designed some material which I am doing at the moment.
I think the time to consider ending a campaign is actually at the start of the campaign. Perhaps at the first session you should discuss with the players what it is you want to see happen with the campaign. I have told each of the Reign of Winter players that the end of the game is the end of the final module. The Skull and Shackles actually only goes to about 14th level so there is plenty of scope for the players to continue on their pirating ways after. Of course they will have some serious clout by that time in the Shackles and they may be happy to call it a day.
Being up front with the players allows them to be ready for the end of the campaign as well. They may be ready to turn it all in and retire or have something for their characters to move in that is a satisfactory finish for them. Of course players can get sentimental about their characters (and rightfully so) as they spend game after game inhabiting the one role and you have to take this factor into consideration when you think about when to end the campaign.
Remind the players of the decision often as well. Make them aware that when the big Demon boss has been defeated and the holy grenade of Antioch is back in the vault of the Thanes (or whatever the end point may be) that the campaign will end and it will be time to try something new, or perhaps someone new in the GM chair. Perhaps even a new game system!
Campaigns do die out naturally and the ability to end a campaign can be a weird time for the GM. From the details above it would seem that you have to have a good plan set up from the outset to do this, or use pre printed materials. This is not the case of course. If it is a homebrew campaign you of course will not have everything planned out to their 19th level final battle! Having a game at a time prepared can be a challenge so you don’t want that kind of pressure hanging over you. What you do want to do is a have a think of where you want to complete it. If it is not a sandbox then you probably have a seed of an idea in you that you want to explore and also an idea of where it will go. Talk to the players and say that they will face a big threat in this campaign and that the campaign and adventures for this game will end when the threat is defeated. Negotiate with the players because this is also a good time to get out of them what they are considering for the game and their characters.
It pays to think ahead. RPG’s are often described as open ended games in which no one wins or loses, but it is important to consider what the end point will be. In a sandbox game, there need not be one but when you are investigating a specific topic or campaign then it pays to be prepared for it to end. Of course it can be great to bring the characters out of retirement for a one off bash every now and again, but know the days of playing the same roles time and again are over. This is a disappointing and exciting time. Disappointing because you say goodbye to an old friend but exciting because you say hello to new ones and new stories to fire your imagination with. Have a great week and keep rolling!
Mark Knights is 39 year old guy living in a small rural town called Elliott in Tasmania, Australia. I have been role playing since I was 11 years old playing the original versions of Dungeons and Dragons, MERP, Elric, Dragon Warriors and the like amongst other genre games. I played D&D 2nd Edition through the 90′s but I ran Earthdawn for my fantasy setting and loved it as a GM. When 3rd Edition came out for D&D I tried it but found it too heavy on rules. I ignored the 3.5 edition of DnD in favour of Earthdawn (big mistake) as I thought it was just a money spinner. When 4th Edition DnD came on my players and I gave it a red hot go but hated what it had dumbed the game down to be. On a trip to Melbourne to buy some 4E stuff from a hobby store an old mate of mine pointed me at Pathfinder and in a Fantasy setting I have never looked back.