As we geared up to finish our most recent campaign, Road Trip Remix, I’ve been planning the finale. The act of planning an ending to a campaign is an important step since a final sour note can frustrate or even potentially ruin the experience. Planning out how you want or need your story to end, where your players want to leave their characters, and how to get there makes it much more likely you'll achieve an enjoyable ending.
The first thing to plan is the structure. Here, the campaign genre is an important factor to consider. For systems where fighting is an important theme or component, this should involve a final boss fight, preferably using a character you’ve had planned from the beginning, and a character that has been active in the story itself. The boss needs to be the toughest fight possible, but so overpowered as to be impossible. For Legal Tender, this meant Vectors with the DCA and highly trained enemies in the Governor’s forces. On the other hand, if you’re playing Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green, meeting Cthulhu would be less an exercise in defeating the Great Old One and more an exercise in trying to make it out of the encounter alive. Thus, the ending needs to fit the system. If combat is possible, a fight makes sense, but an escape or an intense negotiation can also make for a lively ending.
Perhaps more important than what you do is how the ending goes down with the players. After inhabiting the campaign world and their characters for so many sessions, ending the campaign with an out-of-character moment can be a massive disappointment. Reflect on how the players have been using their characters, how they’ve grown over the campaign, and what story beats would be worth poking in the finale. For MonsterHearts, J.J., Catrin, and Neko all had moments to shine and moments that helped highlight their characters — J.J.’s and Catrin’s fight with the boss, and Catrin and Neko’s dialogue.
Lastly comes the ending itself. Weak or on an incomplete ending can also be a disappointment. If there is a finite ending, make it a firm ending. If the story calls for ambiguity, then include ambiguity but certainly point at the ending. If this is a campaign that everyone might want to come back to in the future, leave seeds for future stories in the ‘adventure continues sense, while resolving the campaign problem. Going back to MonsterHearts, our heroes were able to resolve the immediate threat , and Aaron left some seeds we can expand on in a future campaign.
With the ends of campaigns, planning is key. What is there for the players to solve, to defeat, to realize? What will satisfy everyone at the table? What do you need to do to create those conditions? If you can ask and answer all these questions, you should have a finale that will be beloved and memorable. Are there any lessons you’ve learned in ending a campaign? Any stories of ends that went right -- or wrong? Talk about it in the comments.