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D&D Ideas — Campaign Finales

Welcome once again to the weekly newsletter. This week’s topic is campaign finales, which we discussed in our live chat. We hangout every Monday evening at 8 p.m. EST on Nerdarchy Live to talk about D&D, RPGs, gaming, life and whatever nerdy stuff comes up. Speaking of campaign finales we recently wrapped up season one of Those Bastards! on the channel. The Nerdarchy crew took this week off before we begin a new campaign on Sept. 15. Check out the trailer for Moon Rises, a brand new Cypher System live play game here. We’re also excited to say Out of the Box: Encounters for Fifth Edition hardcover edition shipping began! Thousands of copies arrived at the fulfillment center recently and packages continue to ship regularly. Kickstarter supporters and late backers ship first, followed by preorders placed at Nerdarchy the Store. We made sure to order a hefty print run but they won’t last forever. Check it out and add Out of the Box to your collection of awesome RPG stuff here. You can get the Nerdarchy Newsletter delivered to your inbox each week, along with updates, info on how to game with Nerdarchy and ways to save money on RPG stuff by signing up here.

Nerdy News

Roll your old bones back to the week that was and catch up with missives from the world of necromancy, turtle up to protect allies, get weird with your next campaign and more plus new live chats with creative folks and industry pros and an actual play campaign finale round out this week’s Nerdy News. Check it out here.

Delving Dave’s Dungeon

All good things must come to an end. Dungeons & Dragons campaigns aren’t any different. Before your campaign ends it must first begin. More recently when we begin a new campaign we always define how long the campaign will run at the start. Whether it’s 6, 12 or some other number of sessions it helps to define things. As a Dungeon Master it gives us a set number of sessions to complete the campaign arc. Now if your group is having fun and everyone wants to continue there isn’t anything keeping your group from running another campaign arc using the same method.

This can be a little daunting at first for a DM but it’s super rewarding for everyone involved to end the campaign with a sense of completion. One of my disappointments over the years is all the unresolved campaigns our group has played in. The truth is we never started with a plan for those games to end. So instead of ending these games they would all just fizzle or fall apart in some other way. If the DM knows there are only so many sessions it does a few things.

  • It breaks the campaign into bite sized chunks instead of a never ending beast.
  • It forces you to commit to finishing the game — the second thing I think helps get the game to the end, not just for the DM though but also the players. Everyone knows what they are getting themselves into at the start and are agreeing to it.
  • It helps the DM to come up with a plan. You’ll need a loose timeline, what elements of the characters’ backstory to include in the campaign and a conclusion for the game.

The backbone of the last point is a session zero. This is where as a DM we’ll get those nuggets from the players to formulate the timeline, backstory elements and conclusion in order to make the game personal to the players and their characters.

I know this newsletter topic is campaign finales but you need the other stuff to set up the finale. Our personal experience is game after game falling apart and never getting to the campaign finale. Talking to many other gamers we’ve found they’ve had a similar experience. That is why we think session zero is so important. It gives the players a chance to begin drawing connections between their characters before the game even starts. Some RPGs even include that as part of the character creation process.

Great campaign finales are built off of great beginnings and shared expectations in the group. This will be the fodder of your campaign finale. I also like giving the players some agency at the end of the campaign for the players to be able say where or what their characters end up doing in the aftermath of the campaign. You might want to give your group a heads up and warn them instead of surprising players by having to add to the ending off the cuff.

From Ted’s Head

Reaching a Dungeons & Dragons campaign finale can be a great thing for a Dungeon Master or a player. A lot goes into campaign finales from the DM side. This is the culmination of a possibly long story, perhaps ending a story of the characters played over years. It could be the story ends and you never get to play these particular characters, world or setting again.

It can be a major stressor to make sure every loose end that needs to be taken care of is tied up and every character gets the story ending the player and character sought.

A campaign finale can be a bittersweet moment for a player. On the plus side they have the best gear they could possibly have and all the abilities they will get unlocked. All the time before can possibly pale in comparison to the sheer power unloaded in a final session. At the same time a beloved character that has become a part of them is gone in all but fond memories.

How can people move on from such things? A DM has the power to pull characters and events from previous games into the next campaign allowing us to share in an ever growing story and the tales of our heroes to be more than legends for games to come.

It’s fun for players to attach a backstory to the events of the past campaign be it related to a character, an NPC or even a villain who survived for some reason. In the second fifth edition D&D campaign I ran one player had a half-elf character who was in fact related to the family of his previous character and an NPC who mysteriously disappeared during the later course of the first campaign. The player and I knew what happened but everyone else was clueless in the game. This player is quite classy and he did not try to gain any extra power or items. But tying his new character to the first campaign made me love the character from the first moment.

Let’s honor and celebrate our heroes who have come and gone from the gaming table. Let us share every so often in stories and tales with fellow gamers. I have many stories and characters I will most likely never go back to but those stories live on as long as I am willing to tell them. So I will leave you with one story of a campaign finale I found awesome.

In a world where humans are the low race on the totem pole and wizards are hated for destroying the world, I had to play a wizard. Over the course of the third edition D&D campaign my character played to his Intelligence and manipulated anyone he could. While he wasn’t exactly evil, he was not a good guy. He craved power and probably made some bad choices.

The end of the game put us into an overpowered encounter against our heroes. The power I allied with arrived on flying airships to come in and save the day but it left us with the question of what would happen afterward?

The game ended with my character transformed into some demonic looking creature aboard the airship cackling with laughter. I love Kelarkian Demspawn. He was one of my first wizards I really enjoyed playing and very possibly the first game ever finished to a completed story.

From the Nerditor’s desk

Nerdarchist Dave touched on the relationship between the start and finish of a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign while Nerdarchist Ted celebrates what comes after the adventures end so I’m going to share a few insights on the campaign finale itself.

A finale for any piece of work indicates the last part, building to a dramatic or exciting finish. Whenever I run a game the campaign finale starts to form before the players ever gather to play the first session. Often the finale informs the initial preparation for the whole campaign. This could be anything from a line of dialogue, a dynamic set piece, an impactful choice to make or crescendo of circumstances.

Leading up to a campaign finale I take note whenever characters do or say something related to whatever broad strokes I imagined at the start. Then it becomes a wonderful journey of discovery for me as the Dungeon Master too, because I’m just as curious how things play out during the campaign finale as any of the players.

In other words the players and their characters contribute much more than perhaps they realize to how a campaign turns out. I’ll give you an example from Ingest Quest, the 5E D&D Spelljammer campaign I ran a few years ago. Planning for the game I knew the campaign finale would include the actual Spelljammer ship itself, a campaign finale leaving the door open for the crew to continue their culinary explorations and the following line of dialogue.

“I’m looking for a friend I don’t know who will take me far away. I know where I hope we’ll go, but I won’t know for sure until we get there. But it doesn’t matter, because we’ll be together.”

Yes, I totally swiped this from Inception, one of my favorite films.

By the time we reached our campaign finale those three elements came together in wholly unexpected ways thanks to how the characters touched on those things over the course of 12 sessions. I won’t spoil it in case you go check it out but it’s pertinent right now because the way everything played out was incredibly exciting.

More recently, as a player I just experienced a campaign finale over at Nerdarchy Live when we wrapped up season one of Those Bastards! While I don’t know DM Megan’s methods I feel like we’re on a similar page when it comes to these endings. We began as a party of half-siblings looking for our father and we all shared the same birthmark — that was the entire campaign pitch. By the time we reached our campaign finale the specifics of our quest surprised our DM as much as any of us and the experience was all the better for it.

Basically what I am illustrating is the vital importance of player agency. This can be more tricky when it comes to running published campaigns like Tomb of Annihilation or Curse of Strahd because the campaign finale is sort of baked in there. Tailoring the specifics to the adventuring party can definitely be more challenging.

On the other hand this might be the best way to understand the idea. Adventurers seeking to end the Death Curse undoubtedly wind up in the Temple of the Nine Gods. Along the way their quest challenged them as people and they carry those experiences into the campaign finale. The DM knows “the atropal attacks any creature that threatens it or tries to damage its food source” but beyond this, what happens when characters enter the Cradle of the Death God? This is a dramatic and exciting finish! Incorporating what the campaign finale means to the individuals involved — players and characters alike — provides the context to make your campaign finale different than everyone else who reached this point. That’s important, and maybe the coolest thing about these games we enjoy so much in the first place!

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