How to DM the end of a long running TTRPG campaign
Not all Dungeon Masters will have the problem of having to wrap up a long-running campaign in a satisfying way. Some RPG campaigns don’t last very long — I’ve seen numbers bandied about that campaigns last on average six sessions, although I can’t really speak to that either way. But the most recent Blizzard Watch Riatan game was the end of a campaign that we’ve been playing since before April of 2019, and as we approached the end of the campaign I know I wanted to wrap it up as well as I possibly could — to bring back characters that had been a part of the game, provide closure for the players and give them an epic showdown with the malevolent chain devil that stole Wilyur Rustspark’s life and experimented on all of them.
That’s not the only way to end a campaign, though. Obviously you can just call it quits in the middle and not play it again, but that’s not really something I think an article would help you with. Plus, “how to walk away and leave your campaign unresolved,” is a bit of a downer, no?
So instead I’m going to talk about how I approached planning for the end, the steps I took along the way, and how the players helped — even if they didn’t always know they were helping — in setting all the dominos in place for the end.
In coming up with an ending, think back to the beginning
Our Riatan campaign started off as a one-shot. That means I didn’t actually have any sort of plan for it — the players were supposed to wake up in a mysterious mountain, fight their way out of a weird lab, and make their way to escaping the dungeon. Simple enough. There were guards and hazards to be dealt with and a final fight with a suitably terrifying antagonist for a relatively low level party, and not a lot else besides that.
Then the players insisted on doing another session and I suddenly needed an overarching plot, so I did what I always do — I panicked. I’m a relatively stressful person. So because I was panicking, I went full-on throw mysteries at the party and see which ones they decide to follow, and before I knew it, the party was on the outer planes. Specifically, the Outlands, also sometimes known as the Plane of Concordant Opposition in old-school D&D. From there, I started to piece together a plot, based around watching the players, and their goals and aspirations as they tried to get back home.
I bring this up because in many ways, it was that first few adventures that set the tone, and the choices the players made that told me what kind of campaign this was going to be. I realized I could go buck wild, throwing any wild elements I wanted at this party because they were down for it — The Hand and Eye of Vecna? Sure! Floating necromantic spelljammer pirate ships run by Warlock cousins of the party Cleric? Absolutely! Literal gods showing up as exposition dumps, a party of duplicates of the players who escaped the control of the tyrannical evil Wizard Wilyur Rustspark, who turned out to be a chain devil wearing Wilyur’s body like an ill-fitting suit? All these things and more.
I had literally none of this in mind when I started the campaign. It was a one shot!
Where do we go in the middle?
As the stakes got wilder and we lost and gained players (Dan O’Halloran’s Druid character was only in it for the one shot, and Andrew Powers’ Arison Cinnamon joined half way through the campaign) I started to think about the potential end-game of this whole deal. We decided I’d take a break for a few months and I deliberately ended the last session before the break on a cliffhanger — the chain devil had stolen Malachi the Dwarf Warlock’s pirate ship and the party fought to reclaim it, only to see it shift through the planes and crash land on the invitingly named Infinite Battlefield of Acheron.
Then I let myself think about it.
My greatest ally in setting up the end of the campaign was the party itself. Joe Perez’s Wilyur wanted revenge for having his life stolen by a devil. Anne Stickney’s Mischief had a whole complicated family backstory happening, some of which we never got to see but the big deal of Who is Mischief’s mom ended up paying off. Andrew wanted to be free of his infernal pact, which he succeeded at when Arison made a deal with Ionan, the Bard of the Afterlife, god of Death. Mediel just wanted to be confident enough to tell her father off and follow her own life, and she accomplished that when she told her own goddess she was too tired to listen to the backstory. Zellan, well, Zellan got a magic axe, and it talked to him. That came in handy later. Liz Harper’s Kainahe was just very much sick of this whole being hunted by a chain devil thing and wanted it over and done with. And Mitch’s Fizzl… well, he brought the chaos, which is always an excuse for a DM to play around.
All I had to do was dangle some plot elements in front of each of them and let them decide where to go from there. Sometimes they amazed me and shocked me into a whole new direction — the planned fight at a temple in Acheron became a video game montage of a small Kenku Bard making friends with the god of Destruction and using said god as a means to clear the entire battlefield in front of said temple with breath weapons that casually did 200d12 damage. The final session I’d intended, episode 18, ended up ending on a cliffhanger and Mischief picked up a gigantic machine gun that did 4d20 Force damage on a hit.
Literally all of this was dictated by earlier party choices and actions. They made friends with a Githyanki, and so the Githyanki and his Red Dragon showed up at the end to help clear the way for the party, as did a party of adventurers (including two of Mischief’s three moms, who in the last session undid the Wish that had split them into three people so that they could fight to defend their daughter) and even Dan’s Druid from the first game of the campaign. And because the party had refused to enter the magical city of Piador and confront the chain devil all the way back in Episode 10, I decided to move the final fight from the temple in Acheron to Piador itself, just so I could finally make the party go to the magical city I designed for them to go to all those months ago.
Ultimately that’s my best advice for you — let your players and their interests decide how the ride is going to end. In the end, I hope they had fun. I know I did.
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