The Big Story

My D&D campaign is at an awkward place. We haven’t played in at least a month, a couple of my players may be moving away at some point in the near future, and (by my reckoning) we’re about midway through what I’m loosely calling “the main story”. I’ve rather enjoyed this campaign. I’d rather not see it cancelled mid-season. But how do I give it a shot in the arm it needs?

It’ll Rot Your Brain

I’ve been giving a lot of thought lately to “big stories” — that is, long story arcs that encompass smaller ones. In this particular instance, I’m looking at episodic stories that repeatedly dip their story-toes into the same water throughout the season with the occasional deeper dive and a really totally SCUBA diver-suit metaphor for the finale.

If this sounds like how a lot of TV shows work to you, then it sounds like that to me too. That’s how my campaign is set up right now, too. The PCs are after something specific every adventure, but there’s a common thread linking each adventure. The problem is, of course, resolving this bigger story in a way that’s satisfying. I’ve seen a lot of popular TV shows handle this in ways that drive me crazy. Sometimes I feel like the writers wrote themselves into a corner and are forced into dropping the deus ex machina bomb. Sometimes the buildup to the climax is so amazing that the climax just feels empty. Sometimes the climax is stupid and I never want to watch the show ever again. Looking at you, Heroes season 1 finale.

Part of me thinks arriving at a good resolution to this campaign is an exercise in managing expectations. By that, I don’t mean that I should somehow try to keep the adventures leading up to my campaign’s climax from being more awesome than the finish. That would be silly.

Too Big, Too Fail

To be perfectly honest, when I say “managing expectations”, I’m not sure whose expectations I’m talking about. In a TV show, unless it’s a daily soap or something, generally the whole story is written well in advance and the audience can experience it and try to guess where it’s going. My players will have theories about where the story is going and hopes for where it will go, and so will I — except I have a greater degree of control over that, and my actions can then shape their expectations. Unless they don’t. And nobody knows anything for sure until it’s over. Tabletop roleplaying is weird, and I don’t know how we’re not all insane. Regardless, if there’s one thing I’ve seen go really wrong with both static and dynamic stories, it’s scope. Everybody wants everything to be epic. Pretty much every fantasy setting ever created has a cataclysmic event of some sort that Changes Everything (sometimes twice), and so many stories are about saving the world or the universe or the multiverse or multiple multiverses or….. <sigh> you get the picture.

I set my campaign up for something like this. I can still have it go there. I just really don’t want to. I’m not sure at what point in my life that turning up the volume, making the special effects crazier, and raising the stakes through the roof got boring for me, but it totally happened. I’m far more interested in seeing if a character can redeem herself in the eyes of her family, or if those two get together against all odds, or what happens to the town since that new mayor got elected. A big event for me is a good backdrop for these little ones, but the little ones are the crown jewels.

The other problem I’m having with a big event is that, though the PCs are getting more powerful and they have some cool items that do stuff, they are still relatively modestly powered. Don’t get me wrong, I like that. I like watching them struggling with and eventually overcoming what I throw at them. But having them square off against Tiamat in front of City Hall seems like it simply wouldn’t fit the campaign very well. I want the climax to fit. I want it to feel like the rest of the campaign, but more. Of course, the stakes will have to get raised eventually if I plan to bring the story to a climax. I can’t just have them stumbling upon the Big Bad in his lair in the middle of him brushing his teeth or something and having a mediocre fight everybody forgets. I want to make them freak out a little bit. I want to make them carewhat’s happening. Hopefully, I can do that without having to threaten the very fabric of space and time.

The Coming End

As I said before, I don’t know how many sessions I’m going to have to finish this story, so I think a game plan is in order. I need to figure out how the endgame is supposed to work — at least, how it would work if the PC’s didn’t get involved. I need to solidify who the pieces in this game are, and the win conditions. I also need to start laying out a more defined road toward that endgame for the players. Things need to start happening. Probably bad things. I think I’m going to try to work this climax-centric stuff into 3 sessions. That seems like enough time that a decent story could get told, and it could get done in a short enough time frame that my soon-to-be leaving friends could take part. If it turns out I have more time, I can flesh things out a little. When it’s over, I don’t necessarily think I want this campaign remembered for the monsters I threw at them or the narrow escapes. I want it remembered for the camaraderie and the teamwork and the creativity this group wields every single week. It’s already there for me, but it can be more.

It deserves a stylish, quality endcap that fits well. Time to make my Profession(Haberdashery) roll.

Photo Credit


  1. This has happened to us all as DMs, and I completely sympathize. You want the players to remember the story as a complete story, and not as that campaign that broke up mid-plotline. Numerous TV shows have suffered the same fate as your campaign arc – Babylon 5 leaps to mind – where the writer had to wrap up his story arc quickly at the will of the producers. You have the right idea: get serious about the endgame! Plot it out and script it to fit in the remaining sessions, and edit it down to clear out any loose ends. It might not be the epic you once envisioned, but it will be a much more satisfying end to your campaign than a dangling plotline.

  2. Peter H. Coffin says:

    I suspect that you give TV shows way too much credit for planning. Even the huge narrative ones don’t generally plan a lot beforehand. There’s a paragraph of treatment to set the basic premise that’s used to fund a pilot. Once the pilot’s written, then that and a couple of scripts sell the series for some number of shows, based on the need to fill time rather than by how much story there is. And the creator can’t scope the story to the number of episodes contracted for, or there’s nothing to sell for renewal time.

    So the entire arc needs to be open-ended, so that sometime during the shooting of the last quarter, things can be written to tie up the season alone, or to tie up the whole series, ’cause, damn, NBC/Universal decided that your show costs too much, even though it’s beating everything except “America’s Got Talent” on your night. And, you can’t even keep a consistent group of characters through a season, because when that guy you’re bringing in, who’s the key to some big reveal that’s introducing the next mini-arc doesn’t test well, he’s got to go because he doesn’t test well and audiences don’t like him. That’s how TV writers end up in corners — stuff that’s utterly unrelated to the narrative comes up and forces changes on what minimal planning is actually worth doing and it’s just plain foolish to commit to more than that regarding storyline.

  3. I think your problem is you came up with an interesting idea for an episodic type campaign but didn’t think even remotely about the endgame until NOW.

    When I dream up a campaign I go in this order:

    1) Where it’s going to take place

    2) What major players are going to be in place

    3) HOW IT WILL END (in a perfect world which never happens, but it gives me a good idea)

    4) Where the players will begin and how I will get them “hooked”

    Only then do I even start to think about all the bits between the beginning and end. And sometimes I just wing it with a lot of that middle-stuff.

    Of course this sounds like everything is on rails. And if you want a large campaign with any semblance of a “season finale” like you are describing, then yes. It definitely is in some ways. However, the middle-bits; the season episodes as you might put it; are where you let the players run wild and free off the rails. You just have to learn to gently steer in the direction of the finale. Usually the players will go along with you, often not even realizing they are doing so.

  4. A couple of your players? I lost a couple of players just before a big semifinale of the Heroic tier. Half of the group, to be precise. And yet we’re going on with all the schemes still intact. Well. Most of them.

    Now, I was hoping they’d come back someday, so I just found excuses for their characters to be elsewhere. If I expected them to leave-leave, I would have them take up some dramatic quest that would result in 1) a great play experience, 2) resolving a significant piece of the main plotline, and 3) replacing the lost players.

    Yes. Even with fewer players, I wouldn’t force-end the campaign. It’s unfair to the ones who keep playing, and to me, because I want my story to be epic, and sorry, I won’t give that up as long as there are people ready and willing to take it further.

  5. This also reminds me of the show “Lost,” another example of how the series finale failed to sustain the mystery and buildup leading up to it.

    This is a difficult situation that I struggle with myself. The players need to attain a certain level of power before the epic finale comes into play, but who can guarantee that the game will ever get that far? In the end, I try to keep my campaign arc roughly tied to the episodic nature of the individual game sessions without getting too locked in to my final endgame. Easier said than done.

  6. Some random ideas, albeit over the top ideas …

    1) despite your sentence specifically saying that you did not want to, go ahead and BEND the fabric of space and time… maybe on their next adventure they get transported into the future by a year, or two, or ten, or a hundred. This will allow the plot to advance without PC intervention and make the ‘end plot’ that much closer to being achievable

    2) let the PCs accomplish some thing major here at the midpoint, and as a result, the gods or whomever take notice and let them quest for some mystic stone artifact or something that when they find it will advance them to (some higher level, whatever level you want them to be closer to for the end game). of course, that throws a lot of levels at the players at once, so there will need to be some time and adentures to let them get used to all the new stuff before you put them at the end game scenario.

    3) reduce what you planned on being the end game. either replace the villain to something lower or simply depower the villain to something slightly achievable by the party

    4) don’t just reduce the end game (as suggested in #3) but completely change what you were planning/hoping to do

    5) let the pcs get some item/items that will let them stand a little longer against the end game (maybe the item gives them one immediate resurrection when killed; maybe it gives them a boost to defenses; or a boost to attack; maybe it’s several different types of things and thus the party can decide who gets which boost)

    6) let the ‘end game’ be a 2nd in command and draws conclusion to the major arcs you had going on. BUT leave an opening/cliff hanger that leads tot he 2nd in command’s boss. Thus you could pick it up as a continuation in the future if people get together again, or pick it up with whomever you have left in your group after some of them move away.

    7) change how the end game plays out where it is not a combat thing but rather a skill type thing where if the PCs can get the enemy in to some sort of binding symbol/prison through means that are currently attainable by the PCs (rather than relying on stuff that they would get from leveling up later)

    anyway, just a bunch of random thoughts. i know, most (all?) of them are kind of corny and may/may not work depending on the mentality of your group. but something might spark a better idea in there for you…

    Good luck! and hope it turns out fun for everyone, including yourself. 🙂

  7. I have a similar problem at the moment. Coupled with a lot of what you mentioned in your last post about lost momentum. So I kinda came here looking some advice.

    I’ve got a large group (up to 7 – down from 8 when one moved overseas) with a couple of them moving overseas soon. While this may not entirely end the game, I want to give the leaving players some resolution to the Cataclysmic Event they are currently trying to stop (also, my own fault for cranking it up to 11 from level 2…)

    The campaign’s been on hiatus for about 6 months and there’s a lot of pressure to bring it back and resolve it.

    The issue is that I’ve backed myself into a corner a little bit by dropping the players into the Shadowfell a session or two before we stopped. And there’s no way, with the few sessions we’ve got left to easily resolve the players being thrown into the Shadowfell and stop the cataclysmic world event without the whole thing feeling rushed. This is leading to some paralysis over the anxiety of a) disappointing my players with a rushed conclusion and b) not delivering something good for the departing players (one of whom is family).

    I guess the tl;dr version is, in your experience, will the players care if I retcon a few things and fudge the story a lot to help set things up for a satisfying climax? Does planning out the sessions, with the definite deadline of when and where you are likely to end, help alleviate DM performance anxiety or does it make it worse?

  8. One good idea I’ve heard (and tried to some success) is to skip the campaign forward a few years. This lets you have a huge amount of control over what’s been happening and where things are now, it lets the players become more powerful or not, as you see fit, and if you include the players it gives them say over what they’ve been doing, how they’ve been growing. Then for the last couple sessions you can explore where each of the characters have been going, and set things up for a big confrontation. Or maybe the big confrontation, then explore how each character retires.

  9. I hope you post what you came up with and the outcome of your endgame sessions once it’s all over.


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