The End of the Campaign
The D&D campaign that I’ve been playing in has come to an end. It was the first D&D game (2-3 one-shots at conventions aside) that I’ve played in in about 26 years. It is the first actual D&D campaign I’ve played in, and it contained a considerable number of new experiences. For instance, did you know that if you’re playing, you have to make choices when your character levels up? And you only have one character? And that sometimes you’ll have an idea of things you want your character to do, and they don’t happen? Man. Different world.
So apart from anything else, I am now officially looking for a game to play in. Saturday mornings, GMT, would be ideal. I can probably get you two or three other interested players. D&D would be ideal, but I’ll contemplate any moderately crunchy fantasy or space opera game. If you’re itching to try out Burning Wheel or something, sign me up. I do have an upcoming game for weekday evenings, though, so this is a touch less urgent; my household will not have to deal with me grumping around the place nearly as much.
But I also want to think-by-writing about ending campaigns. Endings are universally acknowledged to be difficult. There are plenty of examples from popular media (Battlestar Galactica and Lost, for example) where the ending was completely fluffed, and others like Babylon 5 where it was less than ideal due to studio interference. And plenty of TV series just don’t get proper endings because they’re cut off by non-renewal or the like. Some novel series, too, just don’t get finished, and it’s not always because the author is prevented. Sometimes, like Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, they do get finished, and then are forced to re-start anyway.
I’ve run about six full-size fantasy campaigns, I think. Three or four of them finished out properly, as in there was a defined end point. I gave up a very long time ago on the concept of finishing out all the plotlines in any given game; it’s not possible. Some get wiped out by events behind the scenes, some are eliminated by player actions in completely different areas, some just aren’t interesting to the players, and some just plain get forgotten. That’s ok; game worlds are more alive than novel- or TV worlds, which is to say that there’s live improvisational input from multiple people, and there’s no editing.
(I feel this actually makes it hard for me to write conventional linear narratives, by now. When I don’t have the protagonists actually making decisions without my input, I have to do all the thinking, and that’s hard work.)
So, of the campaigns I’ve run that have defined endings, how well did they work? Ehhhh. Endings are hard. Each of them wrapped up the main plotline, at least. Answered the question, had the final battle, etc. Some of them did not have a final battle with a Big Boss, which seems to be unusual, but that’s how some of my games have run. It does seem, though, that the vast majority of D&D campaigns out there in the wider world fizzle out like cancelled TV series, rather than get to proper endings. I’m trying to avoid that, as much as I can.
I guess that short campaigns might be easier to end than long ones. To be blunt, I wouldn’t know; I don’t see much point to short campaigns. All the joy of serial play for me is in long continuity, in really getting to know a character and a setting.
In the present campaigns, though, I’m taking slightly different approaches. In Heliomar, because it’s designed to allow people to drop in and drop out (which, weirdly, seems to produce a more stable group of players), there’ll be an ending sometime at or after 20th level when a plotline (not the plotline, because there isn’t a singular one) wraps up, and it looks solid. It’s been running since November 2020, so a bit over a year, and the most advanced characters are at level 10. Progress has been slowing gradually - partly because that’s how the game is structured, and partly because I like it that way - so it’ll probably be another two years or so before anyone reaches level 20. I already have a spin-off dungeon crawl in the works, so we’ll at least be playing in that world for a while longer.
In Utterbaum, I’m running - or trying to run - the game in seasons. Season 1 ran from when the game started in September 2020 to May 2021. Season 2 went a little off track from my original plan, but it’s in progress. Point being, though, that the campaign can end at the end of a season, and there won’t be too much flailing, because a major plotline will end there, several other major plotlines will already have ended at the end of other seasons, and the minor ones will mostly have resolved, or be long forgotten in previous seasons.
There’s a degree to which endings are hard because the game gives you no tools for them. D&D is open-ended to a startling degree, really; there is no win condition, and the nature of the game is quite completely toward having one more session with one more thing to investigate, or at least to kill and loot. I suppose you could kind of argue that getting to 20th level is an end point, at which stage you’re done, but there are actual rules in the books for ways to reward players when they’re done with levels. I have access to at least one set of published third party rules for post-level-20 play, too, and previous editions of the game had the Epic Level rules (which I loved, I have to say).
So by and large, endings are a matter of narrative, not of game. That makes them simpler in some ways (there’s no actually wrong way to do it) but mostly harder really (there’s no guidance at all). I’m gradually evolving some theory on how to do it, but here’s the thing: you get very little practice. Due to the fizzle-out thing, you inevitably properly-end fewer campaigns than you begin. You can be fantastic at running games - because you’ve run hundreds or thousands of sessions - but in that space of time you’ve ended maybe ten. You just don’t get the practice in.
But broadly: you need the players to finish a thing. Ideally, it should be a thing which has existed for a good while (not necessarily the whole campaign long) - but at least one arc or season or whatever you want to call it. You need to not have any huge open questions left hanging, so if you’ve been poking at who Muffle the Orc’s parents really were for a while, that needs to come out too. Each player needs to feel that their character progressed in some way (for some, levelling up is fine for this; others want their character to have changed, or at the very least, had the opportunity). You might, if you’re feeling fancy, leave one session or so for the denouement, in which a few hanging bits are addressed, and you have some indication of what people are doing after “the thing” is finished.
That’s it. You now have an ending. Whether it’s a good ending or a bad ending, or whatever is something that’s going to take me a lot longer to work out. I’m not even very clear on how you assess that, so far. But hopefully playing in a few games and seeing other people’s handling of things will help.
Very interesting read. I'm currently running a game for a team of level 16/17 characters who have beaten Rise of Tiamat and are now in a "3 years later" follow up campaign I'm viewing in my head as a kind of epic level epilogue. I'm hoping to get them to level 20, play with the level 20 powers for a few sessions and then start a new campaign in a fully home brew world. I'm hitting some of the things you allude to here trying to make sure something satisfactory happens for each character before the inevitable ending.