During the past five weeks , I have moved out of a house, sold said house, closed down at one job, driven 1,200 miles and started a new job. And that’s the condensed version! One of the more challenging aspects of leaving my former hometown was saying goodbye to cherished friends and acquaintances. Since learning that I would be moving across the country, I have been terminating relationships left and right.
Termination is the somewhat unfortunate psychological term for the final phase of treatment with a client. For example, when a counselor is preparing to end therapy with a client he or she might say, “I’m about to terminate with Mrs. Jones” or “Mr. Jones and I only have three more sessions before termination.” Applied to my situation, I terminated with approximately 100 clients during the past two to three months. Ending a relationship with a client is a crucial portion of therapy, and it presents unique challenges.
I certainly gained a great deal of practice in termination. I have been a terminating machine!
As I prepared to leave town, I also had to terminate an ongoing Dungeons & Dragons 4th Edition campaign, which had been running for over two years. I relied on many of the principles underlying appropriate clinical termination in a therapeutic relationship. Below, I describe how the process of termination can be best utilized to ensure a gaming group can end on the best possible terms.
Followers of my campaign may recall that the party has been clanging around the Shadowfell in search of a doppelgänger who has been causing significant problems in the Kingdom of Cydonia for reasons unknown. When I learned I would be moving away from my gaming group, those reasons needed to be crystalized - rapidly. I took a step back and asked, “How can I conclude these storylines in a logical and fulfilling fashion?” I collapsed many sessions of content into two final sessions with an eye toward making sure the campaign ended on a meaningful note for three parties involved in the campaign:
- The players
- The player characters
DMs should be aware that when ending a campaign, the campaign is ending for him or her, each individual player in the group and each player’s character in the adventure. Many of the important features of clinical termination with a client relate to ending a roleplaying game campaign.
Bring It Up Early. As soon I learned I would be moving away from the area, I informed the players in my gaming group. There are times when saying goodbye is difficult and there can be a tendency to avoid bringing up an upcoming parting of ways. Even before I knew for certain I would be moving, I prepared prior sessions with the knowledge that I might only have three or four sessions to tie up the campaign. The earlier you bring up the notion that a campaign will be ending, the better. It allows you - and the players in the group – to prepare.
Pick a Final Session Date. Communicate with the players to decide on a final session date. Ideally, there will be a date that everyone can agree upon. In our group, I knew I would not be able to logistically run a game the closer the calendar moved to the end of September, so we agreed to conclude the campaign in the middle of the month. I also wanted to ensure that all players could attend the final session; it would have been strange to end the campaign with one of the players missing from the game.
Anticipate a Wide Range of Emotions. Attending gaming sessions for an extended period of time is a major committment. It is understandable that the conclusion of a campaign will bring up a range of emotions for the DM, the players and the player characters. It is entirely possible one or two players will be anxious regarding the disbanding of the group; perhaps they really like their character and want the adventure to continue. Players may be angry or “bummed out” the DM is “giving up” or ending the campaign for what they deem unacceptable reasons. Be aware that their will be mixed emotions when a campaign winds down, including exuberance regarding a new adventure and an opportunity to create new characters. It can be a bit humbling when players are incredibly eager to discuss plans for the next campaign while you are working feverishly to create a compelling campaign conclusion.
Be Open to Feedback. Ask the players how they want to campaign to end. Review the primary goals of each player and his or her character. Who wants to gain power? Who wants to save the world? Who wants to amass a great deal of treasure? Who wants to avenge the death of a loved one? It may be impossible to satisfy every plot point that has been created during a long campaign, but focus efforts to capitalize on the NPCs and plots the players and their characters care about the most.
Offer Closure. Prepare to specially provide closure to each player and each player’s character story. Consider the tendencies of each player around the table and create situations where their character can shine. I was finally able to answer my Dwarf Fighter’s, “Can I roll Dungeoneering?” with an empathic, “Yes, that might just be the perfect thing to do here!” In addition to the mechanical tendencies of each player, spend time thinking how to provide each character with an epilogue during the final session. For example, I executed the following during our last session:
- Morin: Our Dwarven Fighter created an interesting backstory as a scholar/archaeologist. He very much emulated a character like Indiana Jones and was always interested in seeking new lore and artifacts. After the finale with the BBEG, Morin located several tomes that listed the resting place for an array of artifacts.
- SDF-1: The Warforged Barbarian was a relic of ancient wars, repurposed with a new mission – help the party rid the world of enemies of Pelor. During the campaign, his exploits were recognized by members of the Raven Queen. As the party was heading off to confront the BBEG, a prominent NPC, Olevex, who had previously filled in for our missing Cleric requested SDF-1 to return to the Shadowfell to work for the Raven Queen.
- Griffo: Our fun-loving Halfing Rogue was always quick with a joke and even quicker to gobble up gold. His backstory stated that he was once a member of a family trading guild. He moved on in search of greater riches and adventure. In the course of the final session, Griffo uncovered a journal of trade secrets that could be exploited to reap hoards of gold across the kingdom.
- Garrick: The Shifter Ranger remained a mystery to much of the party. His backstory was always vague, but one thing he voiced clearly was his distaste for a specific NPC who owned him as a slaver. The party had to work with the NPC to accomplish a larger goal, and he then slipped away into the kingdom. The doppelgänger villain throughout much of the campaign, Wiklund, offered the party a direct route to the BBEG in exchange for his own freedom. The party accepted and as the party departed the encounter, Wiklund deftly planted a note on Garrick (I slid a closed note to the player at the table) that offered Garrick the opportunity to find his former slaver and other work.
- Brother George: The Human Cleric was certainly a driving force for much of the campaign as the plot often revolved around his religious affiliation with the Chizoba Sect. He expressed a desire to travel the kingdom and teach the words of Pelor and bring peace to the world. He learned his (and the party’s) trusted mentor, Brother Laurence, was killed by the BBEG and set out to led the group on its final mission. After the BBEG was defeated, he found Brother Laurence killing to life and healed him. Laurence spoke with him and told him to take over the Chizoba Sect, “It’s your time now.”
Even though the campaign is now over, the players can imagine Morin traveling around Cydonia digging for lost treasures, SDF-1 obediently (and effectively) cleansing the Shadowfell of undead, Griffo utilizing newfound trade secrets to create a merchant empire, Garrick falling under the wing of Wiklund to settle old scores and engage in any number of questionable activities and Brother George taking over control of the Chizoba and spreading Pelor’s light across the kingdom.
Provide Referral Information. Whenever one campaign ends, it is an opportunity for another campaign to begin. Solicit from the group to learn if anyone else is ready to hop into the DM’s chair to run the campaign. Discuss with the group if they prefer to stay in the same world, use the same gaming system or move to a new setting and system. In my group, one player was already preparing to run a D&D Next campaign and another offered to run a sci-fi setting based off of two or three game systems. The players discussed their preferences for setting and system and were aware that they had more opportunities to play even though our campaign was ending. In reality, my seat was very much still warm while others were jumping in to it to take over. If no player is eager to take on the DM role, assist the group with finding other resources for continued gaming (e.g., online player databases, D&D Encounters, etc.).
Start Termination Early
The above tips can assist with preparing to terminate a campaign. One important point to consider is that termination has the best opportunity to be successful when it starts on Day 1. Termination ideally should be a conversation that is had when the group begins. Speak with the players about their expectations for the duration of the campaign. Do they want to play the same character(s) for six months? A year? Multiple years? Do you as the DM want to run a mega-campaign for a few years or go through a six-month adventure and re-evaluate? Consider these important questions when you’re starting a campaign.