No, I’m not being prophetic. Every campaign, no matter how good, reaches a point where it’s time to wind things up and move on to something else. So how do we know when to end a campaign and how do we end it? This question has been raised many times in the forums and I can’t conveniently count how many times I’ve had this conversation with gm’s and players. The purpose of this JiB on GM’ing article is to explore the topic of recognizing when to end a campaign and how to go about it.
This really comes down to three salient points:
- Recognizing the signs
- Winding things up
- Preparing for tomorrow
Before we get into those points though I’m going to make a recommendation. Please dear reader note that this is a recommendation and it is based on my gaming experience. Yours may vary and this recommendation may not work for you for any number of reasons. That said, when you as a gm wind up a campaign take the opportunity to let someone else gm and take a seat as a player for a little bit For me I find it helps me regain perspective and take a more relaxed approach to gaming for a while. I use this time to learn new game systems and learn new things about game systems I already know. In essence I unplug and let my creative juices percolate a bit without putting on myself the pressure or deadlines to have a game read to play every week.
Recognizing the Signs of a Campaign that is Winding Up
Recognizing the signs of a campaign that is winding up is a very personal thing. Some campaigns have programmed endings that make a very clear stopping point. Some campaigns just dwindle away. Some suffer death throws before they finally die. The reasons why campaigns end are as varied as the gms who run them and the players who play in them.
- Lack of player interest – If the players are showing a lack of interest in what’s going on in the game it’s a pretty good indicator that it’s time to wind things up, or at the very least make some significant changes to reignite the group. I’ve never had much success with reigniting a game I usually wind the game up even if I hang onto it for later use.
- Lack of gm interest – If you as the gm look on game prep for your weekly session as a chore that you HAVE to do and you put off until the last minute because you just don’t want to do it, it’s very good indicator that it’s time to wind things up. Even if your players haven’t started to show signs of disinterest you can guarantee that they will feel the gm’s lack of interest and it will spread.
- Canceling sessions (particularly at the last minute) – Ok, life happens and having to cancel a session is one of the casualties of when life happens, but if it becomes habitual or more common to cancel than to run it’s time to wind things up.
- If players don’t show or start having other things to do – Same as for the gm. If it’s one player it may just be something with that player. At which point I suggest talking to the player and if necessary give them an out and leave the welcome mat out for them to come back later if things clear up or even if the game just becomes more important to them.
- Players arguing at the table or about the game – Disagreements are going to happen, but when they become chronic it’s a strong indicator that there’s something wrong and usually the best answer is to wind the game up and do something else for a while.
There are other symptoms of the impending end of a game, but most of them fall under one of these headings. Most of these things also happen from time to time, so don’t start to panic because one player is disinterested for one night, or because an argument breaks out between players, or because from time to time you don’t want to do game prep. It’s when these symptoms become chronic that they indicate a problem and that it may well be time for a game to end. (There’s a major caveat to all of this coming up so keep reading.)
Winding a Game Up
Ok, you’ve decided that it’s time to wind things up and you don’t have a programmed ending for the game or you’re not ready for it yet, what do you do? There are a million possible answers to this question and all of them are equally valid. I’m going to give you my three top ways of shutting down a game.
- Graceful ending – In a graceful ending you quickly find something that feels like an ending and plug it into your game. An example of a graceful ending could be news reaching the group that things have changed and they don’t have to go to the ends of the earth anymore. For example a messenger appears on a horse near dead from hard riding to tell the player characters that the king has died and they have been summoned home to help defend the kingdom, but we’re not going to play that right now we’re going to do something else for a little bit while I get that ready. The downside to this ending is that it doesn’t feel much like an ending and it may leave the players with no sense of closure.
- The OOC ending – In this scenario you just lay it on the line, and tell the players what the problems are and that we’re going to stop this campaign for the time being and do something else with a fresh viewpoint for a while. The downside to this ending is that there may be players with hard feelings or guilt particularly if they feel like they’re the one who brought about the problems that lead to the campaign ending.
- Cliff hanger ending – With a cliff hanger ending you quickly build up tension and then just as it reaches a fever pitch you leave it hanging and move on to something else. The downside to this should be obvious, it isn’t really an ending at all and it will definitely leave the players going, “wha? Waitaminnit???” The upside is that they will leave it with a good feeling about the campaign.
One thing that all three of these endings have in common is that they leave the door open to restart the campaign at a later date. Just because a campaign isn’t working now doesn’t mean it won’t work later. If at all possible try to keep the door open to restart the campaign again later. Also I suggest that every effort be made to avoid recriminations. Does it matter who did what or who’s fault anything is at this point? Just let that part fall by the wayside and move on.
Preparing for Tomorrow
Yes there will be a tomorrow and there will be another campaign. There will be another game. I like to take this opportunity to take some time off from gm’ing and play. Just pour myself into a character and focus on that. This is also an opportunity to do research and explore new game systems. However, that assumes that you have someone else to gm. I’m fortunate in that basically all of my regular players are also gms so we can pass it around. You may not be so fortunate. For many years I was not. Whether you’re going to be the next gm or not don’t put this part off until you’ve already wound up the game you’re running.
Different gm’s have different ways of keeping their ideas. Sir Guido keeps stacks of notebooks full of ideas and thoughts. I keep a multitude of files under the heading gm_notes and I always keep a word processor open to jot down my thoughts. It doesn’t really matter how you keep your notes but do keep them. Every idea is worth writing down.
If you’re not going to be the gm talk with the next gm and let them know what you are planning for your schedule so they have time to prepare.
In any case don’t panic and don’t stress over it, games end sometimes just because it’s time for a change it doesn’t mean anything beyond that.