Killing Your Campaign

As covers go, that’s pretty apocalyptic…

in 2004, White Wolf did what many gamers (and publishers) thought was a crazy move – they killed the worlds of their acclaimed World of Darkness game lines. To be honest, this didn’t come as much in the way of a surprise to me – White Wolf had previously done something similar to Wraith back in 1999 with “Ends of Empire”. Plus, since the release of “Vampire: the Masquerade” back in 1991, the World of Darkness had pretty much been at five minutes to midnight with Gehenna / the Apocalypse / the Sixth Age / <insert game line’s copywritten eschatological End Times’ name> lurking malevolently on the horizon.

Say it in the epic movie trailer guy voice and it sounds pretty cool.

As the years went by and the “Year of the Reckoning” came about, the hand ticked round to one minute to midnight. White Wolf introduced events into their metaplot that – like that concept or hate it – were truly world shaking. Personally, I enjoyed the metaplot, and I always looked forward to any books that advanced it, but these titles were definitely the exception rather than the rule.

As a result, as the years ticked by, they released supplement after supplement hinting at “Oh don’t look now – you won’t believe what is waiting around the corner. Golly gosh, you can’t see it right now but it’s going to be bad!” but, after a while, it was beginning to feel slightly disingenuous. You can only be on the edge of “utter and total annihilation like you’d never believe!” for so long before each apocalyptic omen is treated with a shrug of the shoulders and the sort of contempt normally reserved for internet conspiracy theorists who harp on about the End Times, rather than with the anticipated wide-eyed awe.

“Look! It’s an incontrovertible sign of the last judgement!”

“Nah – don’t sweat it, we had five of those come to pass two years ago and nothing really happened.”

Therefore, rather than a ridiculous, financially-suicidal, let’s-burn-everything-we-love-to-the-ground sort of affair, the announcement of the Time of Judgement actually seemed like a pretty logical conclusion to a series of games that had been hinting at the fact that “THE END IS NIGH!” since their first game clawed its way out of it’s coffin back in 1991.

It didn’t hurt that the end of the World of Darkness coincided with the 13th year of the it’s history. That was pretty stylistically cool.

Same “epic movie trailer voice” caveat applies here.

Personally, I enjoyed the whole Time of Judgement run. I made a point of getting all the books for it and, aside from a couple of duff scenarios, enjoyed the majority of what White Wolf produced. Most interesting for me though, were the various sections describing running an End of Days chronicle, mainly because I think that this was the first time I had come across, in any roleplaying supplement, really decent information on running a campaign that was categorically going to end.

I’ve played in many RPG campaigns over the years and, if you’re reading this blog, chances are you have too. When I think back to them, I struggle to think of many that ended in a truly memorable way.

My players loved the nonsense I slung together off the back of this…

were the various games I played as a kid that all seemed to just shudder to a halt when one of my group found a cool new game to run. I remember at third year in secondary school running and playing in “Heroes Unlimited”, “Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay”, “Dark Conspiracy”, “Paranoia”, “MERP”, “Aliens Adventure Game”, “Call of Cthulhu” and some homebrew Warhammer Realms of Chaos thing which my friends seemed to absolutely love all in the space of about half a year… None of them, apart from the weird Realms of Chaos thing, actually ended in any meaningful way. They were just dumped as we moved from one game to the next.

Likewise at University. There were “campaigns” that were run at the university games’ society, but they were campaigns in the sense that they ran from the beginning of a term to the end to take into account student turnover. I don’t recall any of them ending in any particular fashion other than “see you guys next year!” and I know that the “Call of Cthulhu” games that I ran restarted at the beginning of the next year with a completely new set of players.

Maybe my previous players were just too polite to tell me over the course of a year that my game sucked…

Man, this little book ate up so much of my time in the late 90s / early 2000s…

Since then, I’ve seen the same pattern of behaviour. A long time “Vampire” LARP that I used to play in ended with a complete whimper. Once a game that could boast almost forty players, it finished one weekend when one of the refs announced to the handful of players who turned up “Ok – we’re not getting enough players so we’re ending things.”

It’s a very odd behaviour, especially when you consider that most roleplayers are very creative and invested in their characters, and nearly all GMs take a lot of pride in preparing their game world and making it interesting for their players. When so much energy goes into getting a campaign off the ground, why is the same sort of energy not invested in closing it out memorably?

The most obvious answer is, I think, that players and GMs alike don’t like – on the whole – to kill off their creations. I’ve seen players get visibly upset when much loved characters are killed or inconvenienced, and I know of several GMs who love the world they’ve crafted to such a degree that they can’t tolerate the thought of ending it. Players love improving their characters and seeing them becoming more powerful, and GMs love seeing players interact with the setting they’ve created and the stories that this interaction spawns.

This is a “losing steam” joke

, what do you do when that momentum starts to slow down, or worse begins to stall?

Now, it’s very simple to say that every campaign – like every good story – should have a beginning, middle and an end, but that’s not as easy to realise in the context of a roleplaying game as it is in fiction. With a novel, a decent writer will plot out what they want to have happen along the way, and how they will want it to end. With an RPG, unless you’re simply treating players as marionettes with zero agency, you can’t really do this as player decisions will ultimately impact what happens.

Also known as “playing the good guys”.

That being said, that doesn’t mean that you can’t plan what you envisage happening, and build settings to explore that possibility. Myself and some friends used to run a “Vampire” Sabbat LARP many moons ago. Right from the beginning we had a pretty good idea of how things were going to end, but the two and a half year journey to that end certainly didn’t take the form we expected. However, it did allow us to give our players a memorable send of, and one which provided closure to everything that they’d spent the last few years doing, and stories that people still talk about to this day.

Was it perfect? Absolutely not – I’m pretty sure there was stuff that we came up with that was never resolved – but it did provide a conclusion to the epic stories that our PCs characters had been involved in for almost three years.

Likewise, a “Hunter: the Reckoning” game that I ran (again, many moons ago!) had what I felt was one of the most satisfactory conclusions to any campaign I had ever conceived. Everything that happened in the final game was players concluding stories that they had been building themselves for the previous coupe of years. Sure, there was the apocalyptic backdrop that I had been slowly ramping up, but this was merely the window dressing – the setting. The important part – the stories that had emerged through play – that was something that the players concluded. From the tearful reunion between two characters that had formed a close relationship, to the game-ending revelation that one of their number had been corrupted by the very forces they had been fighting, this campaign concluded in a way that was hugely satisfying, and made the stories that the characters had told all that more worthwhile.

So, what is the point of all this rambling? Simply put, campaigns should have an end. It doesn’t have to be an immediate thing – most campaigns run for years – but one that just drags on and on and on will increasingly start to lose its appeal.

The first scenario is this – as characters become more and more powerful, they require greater and greater challenges, which means that the campaign either starts to take on a more ridiculous shape (“What gods shall we fight today?”) or it becomes an increasing burden on the GM who is forced to come up with these outlandish scenarios to keep things interesting. This will definitely lead to burn out and the game will eventually come to a crashing halt.

A “going out with a bang” visualisation

On the other hand, if things just mosey on as they’ve always done the game will eventually just lose steam. Like the LARP I mentioned that just ended with a whimper, players will start to turn up, not because they want to play, but simply because they’ve always turned up on the second Tuesday of every month, and they don’t want to upset the GM with the revelation that they’ve completely lost interest in the game.

Plan an end to your campaign, and then enjoy the ride as your players make their way towards it. Oh, and if they don’t seem to be heading in that direction, that’s fine – plan a different end. By doing this – by closing out the campaign in a satisfactory manner – you give the players something that they’ll be talking about in years to come.

IMPORTANT CAVEAT: this article is written by the man who loves games like Paranoia and Alien that encourage violent one-shot scenarios where ultimately everyone dies. This may or may not colour his thinking on other games…


2 responses to “Killing Your Campaign”

  1. I completely agree, which I imagine is no surprise at all.

    When I ran a pirate LARP, I rolled past one possible game-ending event because I had other unresolved plots I wanted to complete, but ended it at the next such juncture. A bunch of player characters used the last game as an opportunity to finally murder that other pc that had really aggravated them (probably a complete surprise to him) but whom they’d refrained from offing as it was more a game of crew rivalry than actual internecine violence. Between that and the conclusion of plots, it made for a good end.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. […] Killing Your Campaign @ Roll to Save – This makes for an interesting read. I remember the Time of Judgement, and I agree with the writer that with the World of Darkness teetering on the edge of apocalypse for so long, something did have to happen. I like how the post then pivots into a more group-level discussion on ending campaigns. […]


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