Well, if you’re reading this with a finale on the horizon, first, let me say: Congratulations! I can honestly say that amongst the best DMs I know that the prospect of actually having a campaign reaching a conclusion, rather than dying out, is no greater than 50%… and that’s a generous estimate. Personally, my latest endeavor (online) died after a single adventure due to lack of player availability (sniff, sniff). Even so, the lows of failed campaigns ought to be used to crystallize in your mind the potential awesomeness of a good finale. So, without further adieu, we dive right in!
Goals: Now, beyond the obvious goal of ending the campaign, as a DM you really need to figure out what you want out of this adventure. I’m going to recommend something that goes against most of my advice in general, and that’s planning the finale with yourself in mind, but without compromising the game’s integrity. Now, this statement is a bit of written sleight of hand, because if you are a good DM that ran a good game and reached the point of a finale, your natural DMing instincts are to tell a great story. What that means is that you will naturally want to resolve characters individual’s stories and goals and the overarching plots of the campaign at the same time. What this column is going to do is look at what kind of ending you want whereas next column will look at a few means of reaching that desired satisfactory ending, bearing in mind you can mix and match these, and many others, into a satisfying conclusion.
In General: Design the finale so that every PC has one last chance for a quintessential character moment. If you look at some great movies from The Dark Knight to Return of the Jedi, even if not all characters are important in the ‘game world’, you will notice that during the climax they do have important personal conflicts to overcome. If the PCs have played for a while and the reasonable logical final foe is a bit underpowered, don’t fret and pull a panic monster out to even the odds (but you can if it makes a bit of sense), consider doing the unthinkable… divide the party. It’s normally a no-no, but the ability to shift scenes builds up tension and normally the PCs are nervous enough to be (more) attentive to the scenes they’re not in than usual. There’s no unbreakable rule to it, but the key is to make sure that everyone can walk away from the table happy they got one last chance to be their PC, as they were meant to be played.
Three Cheers for High Fantasy: Basically, good is triumphant, evil is vanquished, and everyone has a big party! The key to making this work for you is to ensure the journey is suitably epic, and dangerous, so that the ending actually seems in doubt. It’s important to give the PCs the limelight, even if there are super powerful NPC stomping around that seemingly could complete the heroic mission easier (a mistake I have been guilty of making at least once). My favorite means of doing this is having a near roll call of NPCs crawl out of the woodwork to hold off hoards of bad guys just long enough so the PCs can finish the critical mission. The other crucial decision to make is character deaths: are you going to cut loose and potentially kill of the party members right at the end (somehow making resurrection impossible, but give them fair warning!) or will everyone survive happy?
Victory, But With Great Cost: If you have ever read Warhammer fluff, this is essentially the way every piece of meta-fiction ends. You are not just passively going to let the PCs die, you’re out to kill them. The final adventure is not ‘unwinnable’, but it certainly is too tough for a normal adventure. One, or more, PCs will probably bite the bullet. The aforementioned NPCs, well, those heroics to help out the PCs will probably leave them dead or crippled. And that big evil thingy you have to take care of, you might not be able to really truly finish it of. This, my friends, is a bit of a downer ending. In a game where it comes out of nowhere, it really can break tone and blindside PCs. However, done right, in a game where PCs die, missions fail, and there is a sense of fantasy realism, the pay off is an adventure where the PCs know they have to do their damned best or they’ll lose. In my experience, it’s very difficult to create this feeling artificially around a gaming table. Watching PCs scheme and scrape for every advantage for all the marbles really gives the players the opportunity for one last chance to show why their characters are so awesome, and forces them to make character decisions that are high-stakes.
Personal Character Resolutions: Your game may be more than just combat and the fate of the world. You’ll also want to wrap up important character relationships. This is the area where my advice is necessarily a bit squishy, because the dynamic of each campaign and each character to NPCs just varies so wildly in my mind that proscribing specific remedies is tough, but with that caveat I’ll give it a shot. Even if your overall ending may not leave everyone happy, strive to make character send-offs satisfying, even if they aren’t ‘happy.’ Bittersweet endings are fine, maybe the love interest isn’t meant to be, but give each PC a moment to shine with an important NPC.
So, there you have it, the guts of what I consider when ending a campaign. Future articles will discuss the best means of achieving the ending you want and what you want for the game world after the finale.
The Pain of Campaigning I: Story and Pre-Game Decisions
The Pain of Campaigning II: Starting the Game
The Pain of Campaigning III: The Plot Thickens
The Pain of Campaigning IV: Put a Little Politics In It
The Pain of Campaigning V: Suitable Villains
The Pain of Campaigning VI: Give Your Villains Some Panache!
Pain of Campaigning VII: The Finale (Part 1: What You Want the Adventure to be)