This week I wrapped up my first homebrewed campaign in a world of my making. This came a bit more suddenly than I had originally anticipated and brought to mind a subject I had never really put much thought into: writing conclusions to adventures.
Importance of Conclusions
Every story comes to an end, even stories that have been going on for decades. What makes a work shine is how it is concluded. How often have you gone to a movie just to have the ending completely destroy the hour leading up to it?
Conclusions are important because they give closure to the story they are concluding. This doesn't mean that the character's story is over, just the adventure they were on. The conclusion allows you to move on from the story that you just lived to one that is on the horizon. Writing a satisfying conclusion will make a campaign stick in your players minds for years to come.
Reasons Campaigns End
Before jumping into how to conclude a campaign lets get into a few reason why campaigns end. Identifying them can help you determine the best way to write a conclusion should one be needed.
Story Comes to a Close
One of the more satisfying ways for a campaign to end is for the story to naturally come to a close. For this you can follow any way that you believe feels natural for the story. It is the least restrictive ending.
Sometimes you just get bored with a story. If your players are also bored, this spells doom for the campaign. At this point it is best for you to end the campaign earlier than anticipated. Move up the ending and bring everything to a close. This can be hard if you are the only one enjoying it, but its better to move onto other things.
TPK (Total Party Kill)
Sadly this ends far too many games. Rocks fall, everyone dies. This happened in one of my earlier games that I GMed. We got up from the table and walked away. That story never got it's ending. In this way, if no one is interested in continuing, write up a short description of events that occur after the player's death of what happens without them. Hopefully you are able to play around the TPK as I talk about in a past article.
We've all been here when you try to schedule anything with a group of friends. Joe is available these days, but Julie cant make every third Wednesday, while the GM is only available for an hour on Thursdays. Point being, sometimes you can't get together to play or to finish a game, so as a group you conclude to end the game. Similar to the TPK you can write up a quick description of how the story ends.
Losing a GM
I have never experienced this as usually I am the one who is the perpetual GM. However I have heard this can happen, where a GM just leaves a group either to have someone else try and GM or for the party to fall apart. As a group of players you can still get together before choosing to disband and have a session discussing how your characters choose to part ways. Without the GM this leaves the players up to telling their own stories before moving on.
Types of Conclusions
It is important for us to outline several different ways to wrap up a story. This is where having a broad knowledge of movies, games, television shows really comes in handy. The list I am compiling is by no means a definitive list, by all means comment to me other conclusions and you can combine ones I have listed here. I love the feedback.
Happily Ever After
This is the phrase we hear at the end of most children stories and nursery rhymes. Our heroes defeat the villain, save the princess, and returns to normal life to live out their days in retirement. Your characters fulfill their dreams after their adventuring days with nothing to stand in their way.
Some individuals really like this ending, it gives a satisfying conclusion to their characters story and lets them live a fantasy of being happy. I am not one of those people, not because I don't like being happy but because I think its a boring way to end things.
Horribly Ever After
The heroes fail. Evil triumphs. The world goes dark. In end of the world scenarios this is The End, emphasis on the capitalization. This can also be how an evil campaign ends, which would make this a good ending?
This can be the result of a lazy reaction to TPKs. This ending can leave a group of players in horror or dissatisfaction. Depending on the group this can be an awesome ending with players thinking "oh man did we f&$% that up". The horror module I wrote "Heirloom of Darkness" is an example of that module usually ends.
How can I talk about conclusions without talking about the cliffhanger. If you haven't consumed a series of stories ever (books, tv shows, movies, etc), a cliffhanger is when a story ends but leaves the consumer (listener, reader, etc.) asking questions, often with more to the story that they will have to wait for more to come out if that ever happens. It can be a great way to open up thoughts as to what comes after, having people yearn for more story.
My favorite execution of this type of conclusion comes from Dark Souls. At the end you get two choices (some miss the second choice) which either breaths fire back into the world or lets the fire die out. In either scenario they show a quick scene of the immediate result of your actions which show nothing about its impact on the world. It is far more thought provoking than the other two conclusions and gives the freedom to continue the story.
A variation of the cliffhanger that I do not consider a conclusion are loose ends. Something or someone connected to the plot of the story you are concluding is left in question. A cultist recovers his late master's staff. A powerful being choosing a new champion. These types of endings are more story hooks to continue an adventure rather than draw a conclusion. I consider this more of a way to tie in new arcs to an existing campaign, although this technique is used quite frequently in fantasy novels.
Genie back in the Bottle
While similar to Happily Ever After this is a twist where the threat has not been eliminated but contained. For the rest of the characters lives they live knowing that its possible for the Genie to escape from the bottle again. Maybe a new party will eventually have to deal with a similar scenario. The Disney movie Aladdin literally trapped their villain, even if it was a lamp.
This type of ending can be great for establishing reoccurring villains that are powerful entities without having to find a way for your heroes to murder their way through the issue. This is better than the cliffhanger because there is some closure for at least the characters, because they may not live to see the villain rise again either out of revenge or old age.
No Turning Back
At times to defeat your foes you have to make a choice that you cannot go back on. Maybe you travel to a place you cannot return or have to sacrifice your own mind. You may even need to trap yourself to keep the evil contained. You may defeat the antagonist but at a great cost to the party, yourself, or the world.
As you are planning your campaign/story it is important to note how you think it will end. Think of various ways the plot can be resolved even part way through the story. What events lead up to the conclusion.
Knowing how to end a story early as a GM will allow you to make adjustments based on player engagement. Like the campaign I only just ended, it was obvious that player engagement was dwindling because of how long things had been dragged on. Because I had ideas on the conclusion I was able to push up some events just enough to resolve the game. While its not as elegant as I would have wanted sometimes you have to settle for what is put in front of you.
This is a practice of flexibility since your players may come up with even more ingenious ways of reaching your conclusion. Keeping things open ended enough to allow numerous ways to reach will save you some sanity and time.
After the campaign has been wrapped up for some endings you leave things up to the players as to what their characters do now that the story is done. This could be to the extent of their character's retirement/death or for the short term. When their fate hasn't been sealed (sometimes literally) it is nice to allow them to discuss how they move forward. Give the players relative freedom telling them fruits of their labors and playing out (briefly) major things that occur in their lives.
I hope this article helped in bringing ideas of closure together. Its an important topic that should be kept in mind when running your games. You should put as much effort into your conclusion as you should the rest of your game.
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