With the announcement of D&D Next, many gaming groups are likely now in the process of forming an exit strategy for their 4th Edition campaigns. It is first worth noting that most D&D campaign do not reach a conclusion. Even DM Extraordinaire, Chris Perkins, recently commented, “A D&D campaign is like a television series; statistically, the odds are high it’ll get cancelled before its time. The first ten years I spent playing D&D, I never completed a single campaign, either as a player or as a DM. My experience up to that point taught me that campaigns only ended when the characters died or when the next campaign began.” This is not a unique phenomenon as veteran DM, Randall Walker from This Is My Game explained, “I’ve been DMing for about 15 years (although I’ve been playing the game for 30 years now) . . . as a DM, I have not had a campaign reach a finishing state.” Campaign conclusions are difficult for gaming groups, and an enormous challenge for DMs.
I humbly request for you to clear your mind and consider the challenges of successfully ending a campaign.
Imagine you are a DM of a campaign that has played out over the course of multiple years. During that time, the DM has introduced his or her players to a variety of railroad and sandbox game experiences with a wide array of characters, storylines and plot points. The DM has managed content to accommodate individual player interests, which have taken shape over the course of the campaign and continue to change to the present day. Also consider the gaming group has not been composed of the same players throughout the life of the campaign; some players have been in the gaming group since Level 1. But other players in the group have only joined recently, and thus their knowledge of the campaign setting and associated characters, storylines and plot points are not the same as those who have been in the group since Level 1. In addition, players who participated in the campaign at Level 1 may no longer be included in the group because they no longer had time to participate and had to leave for other duties. Each time a player leaves the group, a part of the shared experience is lost for everyone since the entire campaign is formed through a collaborative process between the DM and players.
In terms of successfully ending a campaign, the DM faces many obstacles to bring closure to the events in a manner that is acceptable to everyone remaining in the group. Imagine how this DM must feel with the responsibility of concluding a campaign on his or her shoulders. The DM must consider the preferences of each player left in the gaming group, who have all had a very individualized experience during the entire campaign. How does a DM find a way to unite a diverse set of characters, storylines and plot points with players who have experienced those factors in different ways or not at all? Picture that DM as they sit at a desk attempting to develop a clean conclusion to their campaign. Can you see the DM wrestling with the task?
Now imagine the DM is Bioware and the campaign is Mass Effect.
The Mass Effect Ending Controversy
I have thoroughly enjoyed the Mass Effect series, as my thoughts on the greatness of FemShep have been previously detailed. I was eager to launch myself into the third installment of the series and did so a few weeks after it was released. I avoided spoilers but noticed messages slowly trickling down my Twitter feed from people who were very frustrated with the conclusion to the game. I stayed away from reading those posts because I wanted to receive the ending on its own merits before being corrupted from another’s point of view. I eventually beat the game last weekend, and I was stunned at the ending. It was beautiful.
Before one accuses me of being an apologist for Bioware, I have other problems with how the ending is determined and I’ll get to those in a moment. I readily acknowledge that my awareness of the ending controversy made me more likely to enjoy the conclusion (see Reactance), and alerted me to the fact that the multiplayer mode affected the outcome of the single-player experience. Had I not known about the controversy, I likely would have avoided multiplayer instead of playing it enough to get the Galactic Readiness to 100% before completing the game. The fact that players have to engage in multiplayer for quite a few hours to acheive the best ending in a single-player game mode – in a series that has been a strict single-player experience up until the final game in the trilogy – is downright silly and unfair.
Aside from the multiplayer problems, DMs who are currently running a gaming group can learn from this controversy as they prepare to wind down a campaign. From this point forward, I’ll be including MAJOR SPOILERS for the entire Mass Effect series, but I will not rehash a blow-by-blow account of the controversy. Many other talented folks on both sides of the debate have offered their reasons for enjoying the ending, hating it or theorizing why it’s really quite brilliant. After a discussion of my personal experience with Mass Effect, I shift into how DMs can properly prepare to end their campaigns in order to avoid their players crying foul about how their investment in the campaign did not pay off in a meaningful way. If you’d like to skip the Mass Effect Spoilers, scroll down to the section titled, “Here We Are, At The End Of All Things.”
My Mass Effect Experience
I played through the original Mass Effect multiple times with both the male and female Shephard. At the time, I wasn’t playing D&D and it satisfied my roleplaying-game itch. I thought the voice acting for FemShep was significantly more interesting and entertaining, and I like the idea of a no-nonsense Renegade female Commander running the show in the galaxy. My FemShep sacrificed Kaiden (in all fairness, he was incredibly lame compared to Ashley), saved Wrex (perhaps my favorite character in the series) and romanced Liara. At the end, I turned the keys over to Anderson and waited to continue the story for three years. The first installment in the series was brilliant even though driving around in the Mako was not a thrill-a-minute joyride.
In Mass Effect 2, FemShep is brought back to life by a new character, The Illusive Man (aka, Josiah Bartlett), and his intentions remain cloudy for much of the adventure. Meanwhile, FemShep traveled the galaxy far and wide to build up a multicultural crew to take on a new threat to the universe. She attempted to romance Liara once again (but was sadly shut down) but didn’t take refuge in the arms of another. Instead, she did all she could to save everyone’s life during a suicide mission but her favorite shapely Quarian, Tali, didn’t survive. Unlike the original Mass Effect, I never played through the sequel again. The game was sprawling and I just didn’t have as much disposable videogame time in 2010 as I did in 2007. Plus, I mailed the game to a friend so he could play it; he still has the game and I’m not sure if he’s played it yet!
After two years of waiting, Mass Effect 3 and the return of FemShep lit up my console for the better part of March. The entire game felt like a big family reunion with moments of poignant closure peppered throughout gameplay. FemShep found Jack somewhat sane and balanced teaching high schoolers. Femshep was able to finally save the Krogan from extinction, which allowed for powerful moments with both Wrex (my boy!) and Mordin. The final scene of Mordin sacrificing himself to cure the Genophage while singing “I am the very model of a scientist Salarian” was damn-near poetic; I almost cried. FemShep’s cold relationship with Ashley warmed a bit as she advanced to Spectre and they learned to respect one another. Legion sacrificed himself to give the Geth true life, which had the unfortunate side effect of extinction for the Quarian (at least Tali is now surrounded by friends in the Big Flotilla in the Heavens). FemShep was finally able to shoot Udina (she’s been waiting years to take out that trash!) and even gave that dofus, Conrad, a tip of the hat for trying to save her life.
FemShep saved herself for Liara and it was worth the wait, as they reunited in the final installment. Throughout the game, Joker and EDI – now with a striking body – inquire about the plausibility of an organic/synthetic romance and relationship. FemShep advises both of them throughout the game, and these interactions take on new meaning during the ending of the game. The march to the ending is filled with plenty of action and a wonderfully paced stroll through the broken streets of London to the final confrontation with the Reapers. Along the way, FemShep was able to say final words to Garrus, Jack, Wrex (loved seeing him one last time) and Anderson. It set the stage for the final assault on the Reaper-controlled Citadel.
Because I knew about the potential for a “lame ending,” I made sure to do as many side missions as possible and played multiplayer to get full Galactic Readiness, which allowed me to choose a third options otherwise not presented at the finale. It is presented to FemShep that she can destroy the Reapers, control the Reapers or select a third option – stop the cycle of violence between organics and synthetics and combine the best of both into a new paradigm throughout the galaxy. After having this choice presented to me, I contemplated what to do for a good five to ten minutes as the ghostly kid watched me. FemShep walked up the center aisle and the end began.
FemShep’s sacrifice ends the Reaper attacks and merges organic and synthetic life. This plays out through numerous cutscenes that culminate in Joke aboard the Normandy desperately attempting to outrun the powerful waves of energy coursing throughout the galaxy. The Normandy is overtaken. After a fade to black, we see the Normandy on a leafy green planet and Joker – now healed of his illness and partially glowing to represent synthetic life – and EDI get off the Normandy and embrace. The universe has a new Adam and Eve, and they are joined by FemShep’s love interest, Liara. The galaxy is at peace.
And once again, Seth Green gets the girl. Lucky bastard!
That is my experience playing through the Mass Effect campaign, and I imagine it’s quite different from others who played the game and made different choices. The entire game felt like an ending to me. I respectfully disagree with those that state “the ending” is the final six-minute cut scene. In creating an ending that was at times obscure, it allowed me as a player to project my emotions and actions onto the images displayed. As FemShep dives into the beam of energy and disintegrates, images of my pilot, Joker, colleague, Anderson, and love interest, Liara, fade in and out. These were three important characters to me throughout the campaign; I had a unique relationship with all of them. I honestly don’t know if everyone playing Mass Effect 3 sees these three individuals during the ending, but to me it felt extremely personalized. I projected that onto the ending, which I found incredibly satisfying.
Projective Testing: Seeing What We Want To See
Earlier, I asked the reader to imagine a DM who has to conclude a campaign that has featured an array of characters, storylines and plot points with a group of players who have all experienced the campaign in a unique and personalized way. One solution for a DM is to present an abstract endpoint that allows the player to interpret events as they choose. I immediately thought of the assessment method of projective tests in the field of psychology, which the most common being the Thematic Apperception Test and Rorschach Ink Blot Test.
While the ending to Mass Effect 3 is not a projective test by any means, it does allow the player to ascribe her or his thoughts and emotions to the images presented. For me, it seemed like a straightforward ending, FemShep sacrifices herself to save the galaxy, remembers the people she has been closest to for the longest period of time in her final moments, and we get a brief glimpse of the peace she has achieved when Joker and EDI are together. Perhaps this means I’m an optimist that looks on the bright side of life? Perhaps it means I’m easily satisfied in manners such as this and do not expect everything to be answered for me? Perhaps it means I wasn’t invested enough in the campaign to realize possible inconsistencies that are frustrating other players who are now apoplectic about the ending? It would actually be pretty damn fascinating to gauge how people responded to the end of Mass Effect 3 and compare to other measures of personality. I don’t know what you’d find, but I imagine it would be interesting!
I have no inside knowledge whatsoever that Bioware was creating an ending that allowed the player to project their experience onto “the end,” but it by far makes the most sense to me given the herculean task they were faced with when concluding the campaign. How else can you create possible endings to encompass the multitude of possible choice points each player has made over the course of five years and three games? Or those that have only played two of the game? Or those that just started playing Mass Effect 3 and never touched the first two games? It is not a reasonable thing to expect a DM – in this case, Bioware – to do. It is much more reasonable for the DM to create something abstract and obscure that allows the player to imagine how their story ends.
And remember, this is after 25 to 30 hours of playing through a game that is serving up specific details and endings for many characters, storylines and plot points. The game had more climaxes than The Return of The King. I felt like Bioware provided enough specific closure throughout the game for the final ending to be a bit vague.
As DMs consider ending their campaigns, this is a suggestion to keep in mind. The remaining portion of the article is devoted to providing DMs with specific ideas on how to tie a nice ribbon on his or her campaign and provide players with the closure they need to move on to the next adventure.
Here We Are, At The End Of All Things
The controversy surrounding the ending of the Mass Effect trilogy demonstrates how challenging it is for a DM to successful conclude a long-running campaign for players. Being a relatively new DM myself who will have to conclude my current campaign (probably within the next 18 months), I asked others in the industry for advice on how to effectively end a campaign.
I first consulted with Scott Fitzgerald Gray, designer of Tomb of Horrors and author of several works of fiction. In terms of writing a piece of fiction, I assumed the author would have more control over how the reader experiences the narrative journey. With roleplaying games, it would seem to be a bigger challenge for the DM to control the journey since each player is helping to shape the story along the way and it’s a more collaborative process – even if the DM is running a strict railroad experience. Scott dispelled my assumptions about the difference between endings in fiction and roleplaying games, “I think the idea of closure – or what would appropriately be called the endgame within the context of an RPG campaign - is one of the areas where fiction and RPGs actually dovetail more closely than at most other times.”
He continued, “The culmination of a good campaign often lends itself to action and drama that feel downright literary and cinematic. And in my experience, this is most often the case because a good endgame needs to focus on and address that most storyteller aspect of gaming — the characters’ goals. In fiction, there’s a saying that the ending of a story needs to be both surprising and inevitable, and I think that’s good advice for the culmination of a campaign as well.” Scott implies that keeping the campaign focused on the characters’ goals is vital to success, but a DM should also allow for surprises.
In terms of inserting something to catch the players off-guard, he clarified, “Now, surprising your players is relatively easy from an RPG perspective (“Demogorgon?!? What?!?“). And as such – and because the narrative of a campaign necessarily wanders a lot – inevitability in gaming is an even bigger challenge. For me, the best way to create a sense that the ending to a campaign connects to what’s come before is to think about the invisible line that each goal point of a character’s career creates – or what in fictive terms you’d call the character arc. Then look for ways to tie the lines of all the characters together into one kick-ass ubergoal.” As I mentioned above during my review of the Mass Effect series, trying to tie together the experience of multiple players who experienced a campaign through highly individualized paths is a challenge, which Scott readily acknowledges.
“Sometimes this is easy, like when the players and you share a love of deep backstory and you can weave an awesome political narrative that leads to an inevitable showdown with the forces of an ancient evil. Sometimes it’s harder, as with a campaign that’s mostly just hack-and-slash action. But even in the latter case, you can look for patterns in the things the players have done and the goals they’ve set for themselves.” In discussing campaigns that are primarily the hack-and-slash variety, he proposed a remedy for DMs searching for a tidy conclusion for their bloodthirsty players, “One obvious approach is to push a group of skip-the-storytelling-we-just-want-to-kill-things players into a corner of their own making. Having spent their careers simply killing everything in sight, they can find themselves inevitably (because that’s the key concept) targeted for vengeance, or recruited by powerful leaders who want to use them for their own ends. For a group of players whose goals can all be seen in retrospect as just wanting the freedom to let their characters do their own thing, a great endgame can be had in those characters having to take a stand against those who would try to take away that freedom.”
He once again stressed the concept of inevitability and its importance to the endgame. The DM does not need to spend energy creating a new amazing plot to capture the attention of the players. Instead, the DM should spend that energy on figuring out the inevitable conclusion of the players’ decisions along the way. On this note, Scott ended with the following, “One of the reasons I think gaming is such a cool narrative exercise is the following – because all the players are shaping the story, the goals of the characters are inherently interesting to the players even when those goals are mundane. At the end of the day, the best campaign endings create a moment that lets all the players reflect on all the small goals that have pushed the characters forward — what they’ve been through, what they’ve done, what they’ve achieved, and (often most importantly) what they’ve tried to achieve but failed — and then lets them see how all those small goals have led to this final goal.”
The input from Scott Fitzgerald Gray is very insightful, and his advice to DMs to focus on the elements and inevitability and surprise should be helpful for those preparing to end a campaign. I was also curious to learn from others who have a great deal of experience running Epic Tier campaigns about how can a DM can overcome the challenge of achieving closure in a sprawling campaign for multiple players who have had different experiences throughout an adventure. I turned to Mike Shea of SlyFlourish and author of Sly Flourish’s Running Epic Tier D&D Games.
Mike was also kind in providing advice for DMs searching for a way to effectively conclude campaigns, but first acknowledged the challenges DMs face when ending the players’ adventure, “That’s sure an interesting problem and I don’t think there is a great solution. I spoke to Steve Towshend about this on the Critical Hits podcast. The problem with a detailed complicated campaign is that there isn’t really a great way to end it. There are too many threads to tie up and too many sub-plots to cleanly break. There’s a reason why George Martin’s books are starting to suck and it’s the same reason that X-files, Lost, and Battlestar Galactica all seemed to suck near the end. It’s the same reason people are pissed about Mass Effect 3 [Editor's Note: Mike did not know I was couching the challenges of campaign closure on my Mass Effect experience]. There’s too much to close cleanly – so why close it at all? Why not just focus on a single primary event and let the other sub-plots continue to wave around.”
Since Mike does not find it reasonable to resolve every dangling thread left hanging during a multiple-year campaign, he suggests a simpler solution, “I tend to find one big thing, like the death or defeat of a primary antagonist or the ending of a single central story as the end and then leave the rest of it as potential cliff-hangers. You don’t NEED to end every sub-plot.” He continued on the theme of leaving some plot points unresolved and open for interpretation for the players, “I think every campaign and mini-campaign I’ve run in the past 10 years has ended with a new potential beginning. Some will never be returned to but some we might. Nonetheless, these stories live on in our heads. In one campaign I played in, our characters had more interesting stories after the campaign had finished than they did during it.” This advice opens up the notion that a DM does not have to completely leave the world that has been created collaboratively with the players simply because one campaign ends. Perhaps the DM can use the next campaign to pick up 10, 30 or 300 years later in the same world with a new set of adventurers. The decisions made by the players in the first campaign influence how the world is now shaped and the new campaign is focused on resolving whatever conflicts arise from those actions.
I have always been a strong advocate for open communication between the DM and the players. And Mike also spent time to detail the importance of checking in with players when concluding a campaign, “Another potential tip is to simply ask your players what “the end” feels like to them. I did this for my Gloomwrought game and it worked fine when they all said the downfall of Prince Rolan. That was all they really wanted. They didn’t want closure on how they came back to life or whatever happened to that PC vampire who got captured or who those weird Tenebrous Cabal people were. They just wanted the end to focus on Prince Rolan’s defeat. So that was our end. I left it as a cliff-hanger when it turned out the Tenebrous Cabal were vampires who secretly knew why the PCs had been resurrected and were willing to tell them, for a price. Now the story lives on.” He concluded his advice with the following, “Focus on a single main plot hook and end just that one; ask your players what the end feels like to them; leave the story with some loose ends so it lives on in the minds of your players.”
Mike’s description of his Gloomwrought campaign is an excellent example of Scott Fitzgerald Gray’s earlier comments about the balance of surprise and inevitability and my thoughts on players projecting their assumptions onto a conclusion. Mike checked in with the players to learn their primary goal. He then led the player to their inevitable conclusion – the defeat of Prince Rolan – but also introduced an element of surprise – the knowledge of how the party was resurrected to begin the adventure in the first place. The party was left with new questions to ponder and could answer those questions in a personal way from their character’s point of view.
Leaving On A High Note
I believe it is possible to complete a campaign with a compelling conclusion. However, reaching a satisfying end will take the effort of not just a tireless DM, but also a committed group of players. In speaking with DMs and reflecting on my own experience with consuming conclusions, the following themes and suggestions seem useful. Digest them and determine how they can best be applied to the end game.
Stay focused. The DM might feel pressure to introduce a new threat or set of circumstance to raise the stakes at the end of the campaign. While new villains and situations can be interesting, the DM is best served by completing storylines and plot points that have surrounded the characters throughout the campaign. Reflect on each character’s journey and move toward providing a satisfying conclusion for each player at the table.
Get informed. A DM cannot satisfy each player’s needs unless they know what they are in the first place! Instead of trying to read the players’ minds, DMs should ask for this information ahead of time. It does not need to be a stale question the week before the final session, “Hey, how do you want your character’s story to end?” Instead, a DM should start this process well in advance of a campaign’s conclusion. Perhaps during a down time between sessions while the party is resting at an inn, ask each member of the party to describe in detail a dream they have at night. Frame the situation so it is not obvious what you are looking for. For example, send out an email to the players with the following:
The weariness of battle aches deeply in your body. The soft bed envelopes your sorrow and comforts your soul. For the first time in weeks, you feel safe – if only for a little while. Sleep overcomes you quickly and the night is filled with vivid dreams as your past and present flash behind your eyes, but it is the future your mind craves most to explore. Images of your future dance before you during the night and early hours of the morning. You sense your mind is playing the perfect ending to your journey – your hopes and dreams have been achieved and revealed. And the feeling is glorious.
When you wake, you search desperately for ink and paper to detail the wonderful dream. What do you write?
Some players may not buy-in to such an exercise, but the players that do participate will give the DM a glimpse of their “perfect ending.” Do they seek riches, romance, peace, conquest or power? This exercise will give the DM and players a wealth of information to fuel the conclusion of a campaign.
Surprise and inevitability. Take to heart the suggestions of Scott Fitzgerald Gray and Mike Shea. March the players to their ultimate goal, but bring in some element of surprise to leave the players with questions. These questions could even funnel into the creation of a new campaign in the same setting.
Allow players to project. Be aware that players are experiencing the events in the campaign in a unique way. Any one ending will not satisfy the needs of everyone around the table. Search for ways to leave some storylines or plot points open to interpretation. Offering players with an abstract ending will grant them to opportunity to “make it their own.” A specific ending might read, “You storm the tower, defeat the demons and save the princess.” An abstract ending might read, “You storm the tower, defeat the demons and the princess bursts into radiant light and ascends to the heavens above.” What just happened? Perhaps some players will feel they unchained her spirit. Others might think they were used as pawns of a larger game. Either way, each player has to determine what the ending means to them.
Stop worrying. Remember that the vast majority of campaigns fizzle for one reason or another. Life happens, so know that the next DM who sits at their desk or laptop while attempting to conclude a sprawling campaign with no clear exit strategy will not be the first – and he or she will not be the last!
A special thank you to artist, Jamie Snell, who provided the stunning illustration of Iddy the Lich at the top of the article. The art was a commission from earlier in the year and I have been saving it for the right time. If you’d like to see more of his work or speak with him about commissions, contact him through Facebook or Twitter.