12 May 2013

Ending A Campaign

Ending a campaign is a difficult process. One of my games is coming to a close within a month or so, and I'm actually extremely nervous. This current campaign is the final one of three that have taken three years to come to fruition, and now that the end is nigh, I have to worry about making it truly epic and worth the investment my players have put into it.

Part of the trepidation comes from the inevitability of The Big Reveal, in which a secret that I've hidden clues to throughout the campaign is unleashed, leaving the players hopefully with minds blown. Pretty much the entire game has been leading to this moment from level one all the way to level twenty. How does one reveal a game changing secret without making the players feel betrayed or cheated, and how does one end a campaign three years in the making?

My first campaign ended on a cliffhanger, with the players having unwittingly revived an evil god from the dead, leading to the death of the paladin's god and the players being banished to a realm of eternal war and strife. It was dramatic, intense, epic, and suitably final if the players didn't wish to continue. The second campaign that grew from the first ended almost peacefully, though they did change the very face of Sigil and had an encounter with the Lady of Pain. It was more a self-contained campaign story that held elements of the overarcing plot but the ending didn't expand on it much. I was a tad disappointed in that ending. Now on the third and final campaign of the story, I find myself drawn to the same elements that ended the first one. Overblown set pieces seem to really make good endings, so I hope to include some in mine.

I'm a firm believer in cliffhangers, and I am going to incorporate one into this one, despite it being the end of a three part series. The characters will move on and get their happy endings, but of course, a darker, more powerful enemy lies in the shadows, waiting for the world to lower its guard once again. I don't know if we will ever return to this campaign world, but I want to be able to go somewhere with the plot in case we do. An important part of serial story-telling, which tabletop gaming most definitely is, is not trapping oneself in a corner where the only way out is through ham-fisted deus ex machina mechanics (coughcoughCrisisOnInfiniteEarthscoughcough). Leaving a story element unfinished leaves that strand to be pulled later. Even if it's years later.

As for The Big Reveal, this is what's been giving me an ulcer since it was first conceived years ago. Keeping a secret from the players can be tricky. If you spring it on them with no clues they feel cheated and abused. As DM you are their only window into the world, you control all information, and by not sharing the proper information, one runs the risk of alienating their players. On the other hand, showing too many clues can betray the secret too soon, and the players may come to the realization before the plan can reach its natural epic conclusion. This occurrence is not as big a deal in my mind, because if they do figure it out, it's up to the DM to reward that ingenuity. Besides, enemies can always have contingency plans, or perhaps something even more epic will happen as a result of a ruined plan.

In my case, I have dropped several subtle clues here and there throughout the game, even going so far as to completely misdirect the players in the wrong direction using clues. I'll cover more on those sort of techniques in my entry on using player meta gaming against them. In the end, I plan on referencing all the clues to show the players this did not come out of nowhere. One proven method for my group is the passage of time. The longer apart my clues are, the harder they are to piece together. In a three year game, clues can be months apart. Any questions they ask about past events that they may not remember are immediately answered however. It's not my job to hinder the players in matters that their much more adept characters would know.

In the end, I think I'll probably make the final set piece into a grand encounter against their nemesis who is attempting to rise to godhood mid-fight. He will advance to different levels of deity using the Deities & Demigods rules, eventually advancing into an enemy so mind-bogglingly powerful they will truly despair and feel weak in comparison. The party had used imprison against a llinorm earlier in the adventure, well what if the fight took them to the center of the earth where it was imprisoned in stasis, and the nemesis attempts to bring it back to attack them? What if they rode the llinorm through the core of the planet? What if he teleported the whole party across all the realms of reality? Making them suffer each plane's particular side effects? There's really no reason to hold back now, it's the end of the game!

I'll be writing more regularly now that I'm finished with my short hiatus. Thanks for bearing with me. As for what happens with my campaign I'll let you know in a few weeks when it concludes as epically as I hope. In the mean time, please share with me some awesome campaign endings of your own, or even final encounters that went out in the most grandiose of ways. I love hearing about them. Maybe they'll give me an idea or two for my own game. Thanks for reading!

Relevant Links
Divine Ranks and Powers
Divine Abilities and Feats
B is for Boss
The End is Nigh

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