With Game of Thrones wrapping up its eight-season series in the coming months, Marvel finishing their decade-long slew of movies and TV shows with Avengers: Endgame later this week, and Lucasfilm ending their most recent trilogy of Star Wars movies at the end of this year, it seems a good time to reflect on the old adage: “All good things must come to an end.” Your tabletop RPG campaign is no different, and one way or another, the stories that you’ve crafted and played through will reach a conclusion. The challenge for GMs is bringing their campaigns to a memorable end that feels epic, well-paced, and satisfactory to their players.
Many, many campaigns end before they get to a great conclusion, whether it’s because of boredom or players dropping out due to personal matters. If you’re one of the very few GMs with a dedicated group of players and have somehow managed to keep a coherent game going all the way to the end, 1) consider yourself very lucky, and 2) you better make sure that you go out on a high note! Here are some tips and tricks for wrapping up in a way that leaves everybody feeling fulfilled.
Don’t Wait till the Last Minute to Write Your Conclusion
It’s all to easy to put off writing your campaign’s ending until you’re a couple of sessions away from the final encounters. Do not fall into this trap! Go into every campaign with some ending in mind, whether it be saving a kingdom from an outside invading force, returning a mystical artifact to its proper owner, or stopping the resurrection of an evil deity. If you hold off on planning your ending for too long, then suddenly, you’re struggling to cram your most important sessions with way too much information. Everything will be rushed and trust me, your players will notice and your game will suffer for it in the long run. If you’ve got a Big Bad Evil Guy that is going to be the final encounter of your game, he should have appeared (or at the very least, teased) earlier on than the last couple of sessions. It’s unsatisfactory for your players to have no concept of what they’re going to be fighting in the end, and by throwing your endgame at the party early on, you will make the combat more personal and the consequences of failure even more dire.
Tie Up All of the Loose Threads and Arcs
All of your player characters have been through many trials and tribulations, gotten the best gear they can get their hands on, upgraded all of their stats, and learned all of the spells that they need to face their final foe. However, no character is simply a collection of numbers and text; they’re living, breathing people (albeit fictional) that have goals, desires, and personal interests at stake. Take the time to evaluate all of your players’ character motivations and dedicate two or three sessions specifically towards individual ambitions. These may or may not have tangible benefits like stat boosts or magical items, but that isn’t the point. Maybe the paladin goes on a quest to clear his family’s name of a crime that they didn’t commit, or the rogue gains vengeance on a rival that wronged him, or the wizard reconnects with his long-lost mentor. What you’re doing by writing in these short character arcs is giving your players a sense of real personal accomplishment. No matter the outcome of the final battle, they can have some measure of satisfaction in knowing that they completed the story arc that pertained to their character. On the flip side of the coin, however, make sure that you don’t have TOO many side quests and plot arcs going on at once or you’ll be scrambling to resolve them as the clock ticks down to the final battle. Have a log of all the loose threads that you have going on throughout your campaign, and write in ways to bring them to a conclusion before you get too close to the story’s end.
Reintroduce Familiar NPCs
Any campaign that continues for a significant amount of time is going to have a plethora of noteworthy NPCs. Some of them may have had plot relevance, others may have just been interesting characters that your players latched on to, but whatever the case, you should highly consider bringing them into your campaign’s final episodes for one last hurrah. This is a common trope that we experienced in TV shows like Full Metal Alchemist, Game of Thrones, and Avatar: The Last Airbender, as well as movies like Return of the Jedi and Avengers: Infinity War. Let your players’ favorite characters from throughout your campaign shine one last time before final victory (or defeat). The blacksmith that your players frequented back in their early adventuring days who crafted masterwork weapons for them? Bring him back before the showdown to outfit the party with one more round of weapons and armor. The village elders from that one town the party saved months ago? Have them come back at the head of a small peasant army at the players’ disposal. The one morally grey roguelike character that the players have fought with and against over the years? Have her show up and put aside her personal safety to serve as a powerful ally. These callbacks to previous sessions will make your world feel more real and personal…and all the more heartbreaking when you inevitably kill a few of them off near the end.
Bring Your Characters Down to Their Lowest Point…
It may be tempting to let your heroes always triumph and for all of their favorite NPCs to survive and for all of their plans to be executed properly, but let’s be real: that’s going to get really boring, really quickly. Your final encounters need to have serious stakes involved. Never let your players feel safe for a second as your approach the climax. This is another common trope we see all of the time in film, television, and literature: a character or group of characters getting absolutely crushed and beaten down before the third act and then needing to grow and get better to finally face off against their ultimate foe. Would Return of the Jedi have been as satisfying of an ending to the original Star Wars trilogy if Luke Skywalker had emerged from Empire Strikes Back with Han Solo safe and sound, his limbs intact, and Darth Vader defeated? Would any of us really be looking forward to Avengers: Endgame if our group of heroes had successfully prevented Thanos from snapping away half the universe in Infinity War? It would have cheapened the villains and shown that even when your players aren’t at full power, they can’t even really be challenged. You need to let your players use the full extent of their powers and abilities early on and get soundly defeated. They’ll recover and get better in time, but let that initial defeat really sting. No one should be walking into the final encounter without feeling like total loss is a distinct possibility.
…And Then Make Their Final Encounter Absolutely Epic
When you finally start that final battle, it had better be the best session you’ve ever run. It needs to be bigger, badder, and more gut-punching than anything else you’ve ever thrown at the party. Your bad guys should be using each and every possible advantage to gain the upper hand, including their high level spells, their armies of minions, surprise attacks, magical weapons and equipment, all of it. Don’t let up for even a second! All of your months (or even years) of play have led to this one encounter, and it is your privilege and responsibility to make it EPIC! Encourage your players to roll faster and more often, have them give you awesome descriptions of the actions they take in combat, have your villains and allies give grandiose speeches and one-liners, describe every fight blow by blow, and make sure no one leaves the table without their blood pumping.
Have an Epilogue After All is Said And Done…
The villain is defeated and your party stands victorious. You have finally completed your campaign, and all the blood and sweat and tears that you’ve poured into it have all been worth it. However, this isn’t quite the end. You and all your players need to have more closure than, “the big bad falls dead and you have won! What are we playing next?” A good way to grant that closure is to close with some type of ceremony, be it triumphant or somber. Remember at the end of a New Hope where Han Solo and Luke Skywalker were granted medals for saving the Rebel Alliance? How about the ending to Return of the King where Aragorn finally accepted the throne of Gondor and the crowds bowed down to the remaining members of the Fellowship? That’s a fantastic way to put a cap on your campaign, with your surviving PCs being granted rewards for their victory. Alternatively, you could end with a funeral for a beloved player character or even a noteworthy NPC. Let your players reflect on their lost comrade and the sacrifices each of them has made over the course of the story, but still take a measure of satisfaction in knowing that at the end of it all, they snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. Read off a couple of paragraphs about what happens to the game world now that the threats to its existence have been removed, and use this opportunity to have your players tell you what their characters do now that the battles have all been won. Maybe they will want to retire from adventuring entirely and find some peace on an isolated farmstead for the rest of their days. Perhaps they fade into the sunset in search of the next big adventure. Some PCs might even get married and live out the rest of their days raising a family. Every player at your table probably has some idea of what their character is going to do for the rest of their lives, and they should each get their chance to tell everyone else what those plans are.
…But Leave A Couple of Seeds Behind, Just in Case
Alright, I know I told you earlier to wrap up all your loose threads and side quests before moving on to the final battle, but I’m going to add a caveat to wrap this article up. Save one, and only one, plot thread from your log of arcs and leave it unresolved. Obviously, don’t make it something that is a huge deal with world-shattering consequences; pick something that is seemingly insignificant. In your final epilogue, tease that last little adventure seed as you wrap up the session. Maybe your players fought a wizard at some point and through that they had killed him, but you as the GM know that he managed to escape. That magical sword that you hinted at over the course of the campaign, but your PCs never took the time to go find? You guessed it; that sword is still out there somewhere waiting for someone to grab it. The reason for this is to give you a jumping-off point if your players ever want to jump back into this campaign world. Maybe they don’t come back as their original characters (who are all lords and kings and grandmasters at this point), and they may not even come back in the same time frame, but instead you start a whole new game at first level with your first groups’ unresolved plot hook as the catalyst for a whole new story. Starting a new game in the same setting that your group is familiar with can be a lot of fun, especially if the new characters get to see the changes made to the world by their original characters!
Have you ever seen a campaign all the way to its conclusion? How did it end, and do you feel like all of the work you put in was worth it? Let us know in the comments!