Tuesday 24 December 2013

World's End

I recently wrapped up a twelve-year long D&D campaign. The finale was a marathon weekender with seven players, and thankfully, it ended very well: everyone was on top form, and it was one of those rare games where the dice just landed right.

Today I'd like to share some thoughts on bringing your own campaigns to conclusion. It's a subject that's possibly worth thinking about, especially with 5th Edition on its way and people turning to new pastures.

Too many of our campaigns end up on the scrap heap. People drift apart, systems change, and friends get tied up in work or parenthood.  This one had almost gotten the same way. We'd started way back in 2001, shortly after the release of 3rd Edition. At first it was a perfect storm of gaming: a close-knit group of friends all living and working in the same suburb of London. Then - such is life - we moved apart, and our sessions fell from once a week to once every couple of months, and then to once or twice a year.

We didn't give up easily (one friend famously flying in from India to attend a rare group session), but overall our great story had lost momentum. This summer, I realised things needed to come to an end. We gathered for one final session, and we put our campaign to bed. It felt good too. Ongoing stories are great, but sometimes what they really need is closure.

Here's what I took from the experience of planning and running this monster final session. 

1: Instill a sense of urgency. 
I'd joked I was going to run the session like a military operation: a tight schedule of encounters, no chit-chat, punishment for not looking up spells, limited toilet breaks, etc. Turning this into a running gag actually had the same effect - people were reminded we needed to keep the wheels turning. I just didn't have to actually slap anyone's wrists!

2: Prepare a written campaign summary.
We usually kick off with a quick "previously on", but this time I took it right back to the beginning. I covered the characters' rise from simple nobodies to heroes of the realm, and laid out the campaign's story as simply as I could. Such sermons are usually bad news at the start of a session, but for the finale I think it's different. It shows your players the scale of their journey, and preparing it ahead of time shines a light on all those threads you need to tie together.  

3: Clearly present the campaign's goals.
I laid them out on cards right in the middle of the table. It seems simple, but with so many moving parts I found my players referring back to them a lot ("Hmm, it's 3pm. What have we got left? Ah yes, 'Close the demon gate and save the world!'").

4: Assign character-specific quests to tie up loose ends.
Most players develop their own threads over the course of a campaign, so this is the last chance they'll get for closure. To wrap those stories up in a single session you'll need two things. Firstly, a setting or event that forces everything together (in our case, a capital city under siege from demons), and secondly, a nudge for players to go looking for them in the first place (hence quests). Quest cards also give your players an excuse to focus on these things without causing arguments ("why am I doing this now? Because it's on this little quest card the DM gave me!"). Oh, and my single best piece of advice for actually running them: just give the players what they want. After all, this their final waltz in the spotlight.

5: Block out key scenes ahead of time, and know which scenes are expendable. 
Big fight against the necromancer overlord? Vital. Awesome skyship battle on the way to his castle? Not so much. Know what you can cut, and keep an eye on the clock.

6: PCs live, NPCs die.
It may be controversial to some, but unless your players are *really* awesome they're not going to appreciate the story ending on their beloved character's death. No, they'll want to bow out on a high. Let them! Instead, create situations where beloved NPCs are in jeopardy alongside the PCs. If a character gets into danger, their ally steps in to take the heat instead. (Our final battle had literally dozens of named NPCs whirling around the battlefield. I didn't roll dice for any of them, just pulled them in and out of the narrative as seemed best).

7: Revelations, not dilemmas.
You'll want to avoid anything that creates logjams at the table. It might sound neat to create an epic final choice between factions, but not if it's going to bog the session down in hours of analysis. Really by this stage it should be clear what's going down, who's to blame, and what needs to be done about it. Instead, focus on inserting twists and revelations that provide wonder without changing the game's overall course.

8: Use cutscenes as callbacks.
As the climax of the session approached, I described a few quick "cutscenes" featuring NPCs that the players had encountered over the years. Placing these old faces in danger really showed that the whole world was at risk, and built gravitas for the final scenes.

9: Give each character their own epilogue. 
This is vital, I think. Once the final battle has been won, go around the table one-by-one and roleplay a quick scene with each player: an epilogue for their character. Jump around in time and place: a wedding, a ritual of ascendance, a ride into the sunset. Best of all, give each player a chance to end that scene on a quote. If you're lucky, those words will go down in history for your group. 


  1. A very erudite and succinct insight and account, sir - bravo! I only wish I could have done likewise with our campaign, but sadly it became stuck on pause and never played out to its fruition.

    But, all said, what you did (and managed to do) was brilliant. Kudos to you, and your group - let's be honest here, a DM, no matter how brilliant he or she is, is nothing without a dedicated and committed group of players gathered around the table.

    All is left for me to do is wish you and yours a very Merry Christmas, and may 2014 bring you more of the same, if not better :)

    1. Thanks a lot for the kind words, Mark. All the best to you and your loved ones. Merry Christmas!

  2. Great post - we'll be wrapping up my long-running Parsantium campaign by the end of the year so I've started to think about these things too. Some really useful advice here.


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