Campaign Master: Finish Existing Campaigns

In a previous article, I discussed running long term campaigns. A lot of interesting discussion was generated. What I want to focus on in this article is what got me started in running a long term campaign: the willingness to finish existing campaigns.

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay

I used to suffer from what one of my players called shiny object syndrome. The new RPG hotness would come out and I’d want to stop a campaign, sometimes right in the middle of an adventure, and start this new thing.

This annoys players. They work hard on developing their player character. I’ve also found that many players want to spend way less on RPGs than most GMs. A new RPG costs money and takes shelf or pixel space. And it is hard to continue to hone your skills as a GM if you constantly derail your own work.

First Step: Find Something Besides Shiny Objects

If you tend to bounce from RPG to RPG I’d advise spending that energy on another hobby that interests you. For me this turned out to be writing.

My first step, and this works for me but not for everyone, was to start freelance writing about RPGs and for RPGs. Now I write about the new interesting RPG and occasionally create something for RPGs. This allows me to exercise my creativity without putting undue stress on my fellow gamers.

Second Step: Keep a Small Commitment

When I ran Age of Sigmar - Soulbound, I committed to a campaign focused on the city of Brightspear. I explained that the campaign might expand to another city after the campaign ended, but I was only committing to this first arc. We played that campaign and I found what I was looking for just in that first arc and wrapped the campaign after finishing the arc.

However, I finished the arc. I didn’t get distracted or give up. I had a rough plan ahead of time and had options to work in whatever schemes the players came up with.

Third Step: Keep Another Small Commitment

Next up was our Alien campaign. This one was complex, with agree upon options for betrayal by fellow PCs being a real possibility. Again I mentioned that we’d play one arc with others being an option. Keeping this one going was easy and fun sometimes and a bit grueling at other times due to everything going on. But I was committed and I stuck with it. In this case, we finished with a terrible battle against inhuman opponents and with a PC betrayal. It was intense and the majority of the group wanted a break. We might come back for a second arc at some point however.

Fourth Step: More Commitment and Try a Second Arc

After that was our current The One Ring campaign. I knew right away this one was different and special. The inclusion of landmarks, small self-contained mini-locations, allowed me to run a variety of encounters in one geographic area. Once we finished exploring Lake Evendim, I had the idea of running a full-fledged adventure which involved a type of travel to the First Age. And the second arc was kicked off. This arc is all about the three wizards in western Middle-earth. And I already know of a third and fourth arc that could possibly follow.

Ongoing Steps: Keep Going and Finish Campaigns

If you can force yourself to break the cycle of stopping a campaign only to start up a new one, you can keep this momentum going. Start small, with an arc of only six adventures even. But finish it and let the players tie up the loose ends for their characters.

There are other complexities I don’t have time to cover here. There is player turnover which I may cover in another article. There is the skill of having GM generated content to keep things going but being willing and able to combine that with PC driven adventures. Having a set game night and sticking to it. And more. I’d love to hear your experiences and some of the things you’d like to talk about when running campaigns as a GM.
 

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Charles Dunwoody

Charles Dunwoody


delericho

Legend
These days I try really hard not to just abandon a campaign - they'll either go out in a TPK or they'll come to an end. That's not necessarily the end we might have foreseen back at the start (which may well include an expected top level) - if I feel the campaign is flagging then I may start to look for a 'clean' way to bring it to a conclusion.

My general view is that a calendar year is "about right" for a campaign, almost independent of session length or how often the group meet. Which therefore might mean 5 levels, or 10, or more. (And having said that, I've just brought both my campaigns to their ends, one as planned and one not, after 2 and 3 years.)
 

Yora

Legend
I had a campaign going in D&D 5th edition that I originally planned to open up into exploring a giant island, but I wasn't really having fun with the system, and so I made the enemy commander in the first big base close to the beach the leader of the enemy faction. Defeating him accomplished the goal and was victory for the players, without them learning of various other strongholds all over the island and the original big boss and his lair.

This was the only campaign I've ever been involved with that actually had any kind of conclusion.
 

This was the only campaign I've ever been involved with that actually had any kind of conclusion.

You point out something interesting about many RPGs. Quite a few don't explain how the game ends. Several have directions on how to start a campaign (but not all) but the majority I've read don't cover ending the game. Which is actually a bit weird, for a game.
 


Sir Brennen

Legend
I definitely have the New Shiny Object problem, but also hate the feeling of leaving something incomplete. The challenge then becomes finishing the campaign I'm GMing when my own interest it has flagged somewhat.

This is especially true when the campaign is from published material, where the ending is pretty much laid out, and it's difficult to find a stopping point shy of the written one or allow the players to resolve things in another way. Probably my most satisfying ending of a campaign within the last 10 years was one which I developed the campaign myself, but I still tend to gravitate to published adventures as a time saving measure, as adulting limits homebrew time.

My compromise for the near term, after closing out a 2 1/2-year campaign just this past weekend, is to run rules-lite games for a while as one shots, as sort of a palate cleanser for myself and the rest of the group. Then let the players decide if they want to turn any of the one-shots into a short campaign, or pick up one of the two previous campaigns we've played.

One of those campaigns was the one that came to a satisfying conclusion, but definitely could have a new arc or "season" with existing characters. The other is 5E Princes of the Apocalypse setting, which we took a break from because the true dungeon-slog of the latter half of the adventure was becoming apparent, despite everyone having fun with their characters and some really memorable moments earlier in the game.

I also think going forward, should the players pick any option besides PotA, is to make the game more sandbox-y, with a combination of published short adventures and my own material, to allow story arcs to evolve a little more naturally (I love turning player musings/conspiracy theories into actual plot, adding twists as needed).
 

I do both: 1) test out shiny objects, while 2) keeping the campaign going.

I test out different rules systems (5e, Heroes & Monsters, and my own Freeform LARP, & Sixfold Unity systems), yet I keep it all in the same setting—I place all the adventures somewhere on our ever expanding Shared Lands campaign map. And folks are welcome to freely convert their characters back and forth between the systems.

Granted, we haven’t done straight Middle-earth or Alien; but we did have an Isle of Dread / Star Trek crossover.

Still, I do sense that some of the players hold some hesitancy about switching around systems, despite the stable continuity.
 

Mezuka

Hero
In 41 years of rpgs I finished only one campaign properly. At level 10, after they killed the BBEG they had known about since level 1, I declared the auguries said realm would be safe for 100 years. The PCs were retired.

The other few campaigns that didn't end catastrophically (TPK or group implosion), stopped with an open ending. We could resume if players wanted it. But it never happened.
 

The other few campaigns that didn't end catastrophically (TPK or group implosion), stopped with an open ending. We could resume if players wanted it. But it never happened.

That has been my experience as well.

Of course, a lot of this ending campaigns seems to fall almost completely on the GM's shoulders. Which makes no sense since the campaign itself is driven forward by player choice and action.

Just as there are mechanics for character improvement there seems there should be mechanics for the group ending a campaign. I know some RPGs have this (Shadow of the Demon Lord for example) but I don't think the majority do.

Lots to think about further here.
 

Mezuka

Hero
That has been my experience as well.

Of course, a lot of this ending campaigns seems to fall almost completely on the GM's shoulders. Which makes no sense since the campaign itself is driven forward by player choice and action.

Just as there are mechanics for character improvement there seems there should be mechanics for the group ending a campaign. I know some RPGs have this (Shadow of the Demon Lord for example) but I don't think the majority do.

Lots to think about further here.
Once we had an AD&D campaign end because our character's action completely foiled the preparation our DM had worked on for levels 12 and beyond. He had over-prepared and was mentally broken down when he understood what he had done to himself. We, the players, wanted to continue. He never picked up the game again.
 

Mezuka

Hero
A final thought. Most of non-D&D campaigns were planned with an ending after 'x' games or at the end of the scenario in agreement between the GM and the players. The preferred game was always D&D. Players wanted to play other systems but wanted the assurance they would return to continue the D&D campaign.
 

Eyes of Nine

Everything's Fine
Good call - commit small. Can always go bigger.
I'm suffering a bit of this in one of my D&D campaigns. I had an idea for how it started, and how it ended (at 20th level). But I wasn't very interested in the in-between parts. But here we are at 7-8th level; and I've got 12 levels left to play through. sigh

I asked my players if we could just skip to the end; but they weren't very interested in that :-/
 


I have the same "shiny new object" syndrome. But I think, I have it under control. Without consciously aiming for it, I did what the author described: finishing campaigns. Oddly, I learned that on G+. It was there that I learned to commit to smaller campaigns with 6-13 sessions, and then really finish the campaign. Then, I applied that to my offline gaming. Finally, I finished a D&D campaign. Over the decades, I had started many that were abandoned for various reasons - but never finished. After having finished a D&D campaign, everything else was easy, and I stopped my habit of abandoning games. This is a skill I picked up rather late.
 


Can anyone offer advice on how to aim to wrap up a campaign in a set number of sessions?

Great question. That sounds like a good topic for my next article. I think it would take a bit more explanation than a forum post has room for.

I do think you can't know until the campaign starts an exact number. But you can have a rough idea.

For example, I ran Soulbound and had six adventures set in the same city I could pull from. So I told the group the goal was to establish a secure trade route and it would take about six sessions. If things went well we would decide what to do next after that.

I also like D&D like games with less than 20 levels. Old-School Essentials and Castles & Crusades go up to around 13th level. Any D&D past that has really diminishing returns for me.

I'll tackle something less stream of conscious to follow up and try to answer your question more directly.
 

pogre

Legend
For 5e, I always design my campaigns to wrap up with a final arc when the PCs are level 18+. I use the same campaign world and these PCs are major players in the campaign world by the end. Occasionally, like once or twice a year, I run an epic level adventure and players can choose their favorite retired PC to play.

The PCs in the current campaign are usually not connected directly with previous PCs, but in the current campaign the PCs are working for a monster hunting guild that had been set-up by a previous retired PC. Naturally, they are disposable cogs in the guild and the retired PC never directly interacts with their adventures. However, having a little connection like that to previous campaigns has been a lot of fun.

For other games, Traveller, Call of Cthulhu, Runequest (the last 3 non-D&D games I have run) - I use small finite arcs just as the OP - Charles Dunwoody describes.

I have had only one TPK in 5e and it was during playtest. I am getting soft in my old age!
 

delericho

Legend
Can anyone offer advice on how to aim to wrap up a campaign in a set number of sessions?
I would start by considering how many sessions you have, how likely they are to actually happen, and how flexible that number is - what you need to do for "6 sessions exactly" is different from "6 but we can go to 8 if needed", or "6, but probably only 4".

Also work out the minimum set of things that must happen to get you to a satisfactory end point, and a second list of things that would be nice to have. For instance, you probably 'need' to have a big showdown with the latest BBEG, and you may well have a pet NPC that the party loves dealing with and you'd like one last meeting.

Then it's a matter of dividing things up: try to block out a bunch of material for each of your remaining sessions, with an intended start point, likely events, and expected end point. Each session you get further into the future, you need to get more vague about things, because you just have less control. Also, try to slot the "nice to haves" as late in the sequence as possible, so you have things to drop.

Then watch as your players happily trash your carefully-laid plans. :)

And that's more or less it. A few other pieces of advice:
  • Make very sure you have less "must have" material than you think the time allows for. If you have too much, you really need to drop some.
  • Conversely, make sure you have more "nice to have" material than you think you need to fill any gaps. Bear in mind that this is stuff that may happen, but by definition it's nice to have. So if two sessions from the end you happen to be running ahead, it's good to have some stuff to slot in.
  • Drop everything that isn't essential to what you're doing. It's absolutely fine to announce "six months later...", or skip over the minutiae of a largely uneventful journey, omit a shopping scene, or whatever else. The players probably won't even notice, and they certainly won't remember. (I don't necessarily advise doing that in 'normal' play, since sometimes it has a place. But when time is short, cut mercilessly.)
 

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