How-To End a DnD Campaign
This is it! The time has come for your party to accomplish their Dungeons and Dragons final task! Defeat the big-bad, save the kingdom, rescue their loved ones, and set the world right! Or maybe they will defeat the forces of good once and for all, bring their enemies to heel, and claim the land and its treasures as their own. Whatever the final hurdle may be for your party of adventurers, the moment for them to stand victorious or reap what they have sown is upon them. As a Dungeon Master (DM), the finale of your adventure should be a culmination of plot hooks, character decisions, and final tests of the skills they have learned along the way, both as players and as characters. There is a lot of pressure to make your conclusion everything that your players, and yourself, have been looking forward to. So how do you approach such a daunting task?
Have a Plan for Your DnD Campaign
Firstly, how do you want your story to end? Does the climactic battle or challenge make sense for the adventure? There is something to be said for pulling out all the stops to make it as memorable as possible, but you do not want to mix it up to the point that players are left feeling confused, or worse, cheated. If the party has been chasing the evil sorcerer, foiling their plots, and dealing with the consequences of any failures, they have obviously built-up animosity for the villain. They have thought about, discussed, and planned what they would do when they finally confronted their foe, and it is the Dungeon Masters job to give them that satisfaction. Give them the fight they have been looking forward to and use the encounter to test everything they have learned about their adversary. They have witnessed the sorcerers powerful mind-control magic. How have they planned to overcome such a daunting obstacle? Perhaps the cult leader has captured a favored NPC and it becomes not only a battle to the death, but a challenge of keeping others safe while earth shattering spells and attacks tear the landscape apart. Throw in the occasional wrench, but do not deprive your players of the ending they were hoping for, even if there is an unexpected twist. Ideally you should have an entire library of past adventures and obstacles to inspire you that are thematic to your foe and your setting.
Balance the DnD Encounter
Despite what level your players are when they reach this point, balancing the encounter is paramount to add to the drama of tension of the moment. If you have been paying attention, you should be aware of what your players are capable of, and what tricks they may pull out of their hats. Speed running the final events a time or two by yourself just to get a feel for how it could potentially play out can be a huge boon in these situations. It is also wise to bear in mind that some of your players may have been saving up a few tricks that they have been keeping hidden away for this moment. This may call on you to adapt your strategy and put your dungeon mastering skills to the test, but make sure that the player still feels rewarded for this bit of cleverness. Chances are that your villain is no fool either and has a few tricks of their own to surprise your players.
Putting a Bow On It
Once the dust settles and, hopefully, the big bad lays defeated at the feet of your exhausted but victorious players, it is time to decide what happens next. While the conclusion of your adventures may vary depending on whether the adventurers succeeded in their goals, each individual loss or success should also have an impact on the world around them. Did the party’s fighter perish in the battle? What happens to his goals of reclaiming his lost throne from his uncle now? Was the cleric turned saint by the people of the kingdom for his altruistic actions slain by a powerful spell? How will the people of the lands take the loss of someone so important to the common people? While the party has adventured as a group it is important to remember that each character is a part of their respective player. While they will surely be invested in the actions and futures of each other, what happens to their own personal character is at the forefront of their minds. After all, it is the one entity in the game they have invested the most time, energy, and emotion into. Do your best to show each of your players how their actions have changed in the fictional world around them. Many times, these ‘epilogues’ can lead to entire new campaigns with new groups of adventures, so it is advised to put some time into their crafting. On the other hand, maybe your players were a group of ‘murder-hobos’, and their entire conclusion is that they all just carry-on slaying anything that gets in their way on their quest for ever more adventure and loot. Sounds like the perfect group of villains for a follow up campaign, no?
Give Them What They Want
Ideally your story will be coming to an end narratively and naturally, but real-world events can often bring a group to an abrupt end. While this may cause a situation in which you have to wrap things up very quickly, and sometimes with some loose ends floating around, there are few things you can do no matter which way it draws to a close to make everyone feel satisfied. Listen to your players and pay attention to their character’s goals. Be clever. Draw inspiration from television shows, books, or completely other game systems and mechanics. You are the Dungeon Master, who’s going to stop you?! Most importantly though, just have fun. This is key for not only for your players, but you as well.
Adventures and campaigns can be run in countless ways, from the dark and serious to the outright ridiculous, and so there is no single template to guide a dungeon master to writing a perfect ending. No matter how well you plan, there will always be something that catches you off guard, but that is the why we play these games. You do not have to have all the answers, and sometimes the players not finding out an answer just adds to the mystery. What ever happened to that cloaked figure? How did the big bad learn to cast that Time Stop spell when he had never done it before? Your players may take it as a sign there was a greater game afoot, while you just forgot or needed something to fill out a spell book. Just smile, shrug, and say “who knows?” If everyone is having fun and making memories, you’re doing an awesome job!