Saturday, December 29, 2012

Know When to Hold ‘Em, Know When to Fold ‘Em

Hello readers… my apologies for the long absence. Holidays and other writing commitments have kept me away from Rogue Warden far too long.

"Son, I've made my life out of readin' people's faces..." God bless ya, Kenny.

Having survived the predicted end of the world, this is a perfect time to start talking about how you wrap things up when you’re dealing with a long-term RPG campaign.

Thus, today’s blog post is all about a time of endings – when, how, and why you should pick the right moment to close out your campaign.

Types of Campaigns

First, it is a good idea to define our terms for this discussion. Naturally, these terms are being defined by me using my experiences; if you don’t agree with these descriptions, that’s just fine.

Just ask Robert E. Lee about planning for a long campaign...

These are the types of RPG campaigns based on length:

  • One Shot: A one shot game is typically played only once per year in a single session. One shots are not really a campaign (although some rare campaigns do take place once per year over many years).
  • Short Campaign: A short campaign typically takes place over three to six sessions and usually covers around two to three months of real time.
  • Medium-length Campaign: This kind of campaign usually covers around seven to twelve sessions and usually covers around six months of real time.
  • Long-term Campaign: This campaign is generally my most favored approach, and covers from twelve to thirty (or so) sessions and takes years of real time.
  • Unending Campaigns: Some few RPG campaigns have started and have never yet stopped. If you are a player or GM in one of these groups and your game has been ongoing for more than three years, I am very envious of you!

Old Campaigns I Have Known

I’m tackling a number of campaigns that I’ve played to a satisfying conclusion in chronological order.

The Messian Campaign

First there was the Messian Campaign, ably adminstered by my good friend Joshua Fairfield. This was a heroic fantasy setting for the 3.0 Dungeons and Dragons RPG that was heavily based on old, post-crusade Jerusalem. It was one of the first D&D campaigns I had played in with such a strong geographical focus, and I loved it. We got to know the districts of the city quite well, and I learned several lessons playing in this campaign that would inform my later efforts with Shadows Angelus (see below). Josh was a gifted DM with a talent for setting up interesting and unusual organizations—some as friends, some as enemies, and others we were never quite sure of. Playing these factions off against each other towards our own ends was a ton of fun. 

Yeah, playing in Josh's Messian campaign was kind of like this...

My character for this campaign started out as a young, naive farm girl and ended up as a passionate champion of an adopted faith—a plane-travelling hero who freed slaves all across reality. It was a great experience and completely unforgettable in my mind.

How did it end?

Our group went from 1st level all the way up to around 17th. It was a campaign thick with all the most unique tropes of D&D: there were groups founded upon the tenets of certain alignments; we died and were raised from the dead (everyone, at least once and often more than once); there were psionics and magic and they did not mix.

The campaign reached a point where our group confronted an evil god, cheated an entire evil race out of immortality, and set ourselves up as the caretakers for a newly born goddess of hope. My character’s epilogue was a return to her long-lost farm, serving as a surrogate mother and guardian of the young goddess… and occasionally going out to other planes to take out a slaver’s nest or two before dawn.

I certainly felt like I got my money’s worth from the Messian campaign – the story that was told was a powerful one, and we all felt like we had a lasting and important impact on the setting. It was one of the first times I had actually reached what I felt to be a satisfactory conclusion to a campaign and the first time I truly felt a significant sense of closure.

Shadows Angelus

Next up was Shadows Angelus. As I said earlier, I learned a lot from playing in Josh’s Messian game, and I chose to focus more on Shadows Angelus’ setting (a single city in the dark future) because of it. Shadows Angelus was born from a very long fascination with the idea of mixing magic, psionic powers, and cyberpunk aesthetics with a gothic and lovecraftian horror milieu. Yeah, I know that sounds complicated, but go check out Silent Moebius and you’ll get the idea. To say this setting and campaign are special to me is an understatement! Luckily, I was able to share my passion for this setting with a truly great gaming group of my friends in Maryland, including Hero writer Michael Surbrook (who inspired much of Shadows Angelus with his great Kazei 5 setting).

So I get to blame Michael for pictures like these...

I structured Shadows Angelus into small story arcs that eventually interconnected, and I had planned from the start that the campaign would (or should) run around 24 sessions (or “episodes,” as I liked to call them) in length. This was a bit ambitious for me, but I felt like I had a pretty solid buy-in from the group and it turned out that my faith was rewarded tenfold. The game went for 26 sessions in total, with plenty of in-between session action through blue-booking on an e-mail list.

How did it end?

It is important to note that I had basically scripted an end to this campaign far in advance. I knew that there was a point in the story I wanted to reach, a climax I wanted to share with the players, and then that would be that for the campaign. My players understood that the campaign had a definite end as well, although I think this went over well because there was also a promise of over twenty different sessions—so none of them felt short-changed. It was a planned moment and I was able to give all the player characters some great final moments for the players to build on if they wanted to epilogue (and many of them did) their own stories.

The Captains of Crunch

Just this year, I helped get a gaming group started playing Shadowrun 4th edition. This was very much a “Mohawk” style campaign, with plenty of fun and craziness all around. The name of our Shadowrunner team became known as the “Captains of Crunch,” a moniker related to one of our earliest jobs. The campaign was fast-paced, energetic, and fun. It was also played on a fairly accelerated schedule – we played every weekend for about three months, and each session lasted around 7-8 hours. All this means that we got plenty of gaming going on every Sunday for quite a while…

This is the artwork for the original Shadowrun nintendo game box. It also looks like a Captains of Crunch adventure.

Our adventures were many and varied, and we made quite a habit of surprising the GM with unusual solutions to the various challenges placed in our path. We managed to get ourselves out of some very tight spots and it looked like we were going to keep playing for quite a while…

How did it end?

Typically, a Shadowrunner’s end goal is to make a big score and retire, a goal that few ever really reach. Previously, one of my characters in the online Shadowrun games that I’ve talked about before managed to make a million-nuyen-run and quit the street life for a cabin in the mountains. However, that kind of thing is usually quite rare.

Well, our team hit that big score – unintentionally. We were set up in a deal with a dragon (something you should never ever do in Shadowrun!) and we figured out a way to turn things around. At the end of the day, our little group of Shadowrunners had managed to enact a coup of the nation of Dubai and had taken over rulership of the entire country. I promise I am not making this up. There are going to be some readers who will instantly believe that our GM was off his meds that day or that such a score is – or should be – impossible. Yet, we managed to pull it off.

At the end of the session, we were stunned. We looked at each other, just sort of savoring the moment of our success. But there was something we needed to talk about, so we broached the subject of ending the campaign. The GM hadn’t planned on ending the game this way, but we all agreed that it wouldn’t get any better than this session. It was just the right time to bring things to a close and go out on a high note.

What do you mean, “Stop?”

If someone had asked me about ending an RPG campaign ten years ago, I would’ve responded with confusion. Why would anyone want to stop playing an RPG campaign? Especially a good one?
I like to think I’ve earned some wisdom along with my experience, and what I’ve learned suggests this: when it comes to storytelling, there is sincere value in closure. Not all stories need to end, but many stories benefit strongly by having a definitive ending point. This also applies to roleplaying games – because, at their heart, RPGs are exercises in cooperative storytelling.

Basically, this.

Endings help the Game Master build towards a satisfying conclusion. If the GM knows in advance that the campaign has a definite ending point, it can really help him in designing the sessions that lead up to that ending. Foreshadowing, prophecies, bringing back long-lost loves and old enemies alike are just a few tools that the GM can use to build the action and the emotions of the story as the game approaches the climactic ending.

Sometimes the right time to end the game is when the power of the characters overshadows or interferes with the verisimilitude of the campaign. This is often a problem for games like Dungeons and Dragons, where epic-level characters can change the game’s feel quite far away from the idea of swords & sorcery. When you can cast Wish spells, the paradigm changes considerably! Similarly, an RPG campaign can take characters from humble beginnings to the rulers of an entire realm, or even possibly a world or universe of their own! In these cases, the GM or the players may simply feel that the time is right to move on – the characters’ power level means that typical adventuring just doesn’t make sense.

Choosing to bring a campaign to a close can also provide the impetus to try something new and keep things fresh – this is often more important for groups that meet regularly on a weekly or bi-weekly schedule. There are many gamers like myself who enjoy trying out new games or different spins on existing games, and keeping a rotating schedule of new campaigns is a good way to accomplish that.

It is very important to remember that ending a campaign does not always mean that game is gone forever. You can always come back to the campaign again later if you choose or even reincarnate it with a new group. I’ve done this myself with Shadows Angelus (now on its fourth incarnation), and I’ve seen it happen before. In fact, the Messian campaign mentioned earlier was a campaign that had been played before with a different group!

In Conclusion

Knowing when to draw your campaign to a close can be a valuable lesson. Some campaigns are meant to last and last – as I said above, I’m very envious of those who have managed to keep a game going for long lengths of time! Thinking about it that way, knowing how to continue the game is the real diamond in the rough. Feel free to share your own stories in the comments of either ongoing campaigns or ones that ended – for better or worse!