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Reach Satisfying Campaign Conclusions

by Mike on 17 October 2022

K. Ivan R., a Patreon of Sly Flourish, asked:

Most of the games I've run and played did not have a satisfying conclusion. This jives with what I've heard talking to every gamer I've brought this up with, and received wisdom I've heard from people online: Maybe once in your life will you get a campaign that goes every week for multiple years, only a handful of times in your life will a campaign come to a satisfying end, and for every campaign that ends, five or more will fizzle out before anything major happens. And yet, you run campaign after campaign, straight bangers - two campaigns a week and every man jack (??) of them ends properly. How do you do it?

I wasn't sure I agreed with Ivan's assessment of the situation so I ran a YouTube poll and the results astounded me:

Question: This is a poll for D&D players and dungeon masters. How often do you reach a satisfying conclusion to your D&D campaign?

YouTube poll posted 25 August 2022, 2,600 respondents.

Response% of total
Almost Never26%
Almost Always7%

About half of polled players and DMs rarely or almost never have a satisfying campaign conclusion. That's appalling.

I had lots of thoughts about how more groups might reach satisfying conclusions but I wanted to get a better gauge on why this is the case. So I hit up Twitter, asking why people didn't reach satisfying conclusions. You can read the Twitter thread here.

Scheduling was, by far, the number one reason. There were others, though, including:

I've managed to run two dozen successful campaigns since 2014 and a good handful of campaigns before I started counting. I've rarely had a campaign fizzle out before a solid conclusion, but it has happened.

It's clear survivorship bias to assume the the things I do in my game more likely lead to a successful campaign. Having read peoples' experiences, however, I do believe the following things helped me run as many successful campaigns as I've run. So I humbly share my ideas for reaching satisfying campaign conclusions:

Run Six Full-Time Players and Two On Call

Finding and maintaining a D&D group is the hardest part of D&D. One way to manage a group once you've put it together is by keeping an on-call list. Try to have six regular players who can make it most of the time and have two "on call" players who know that, when available, they're standing in for one of the open seats if someone can't make it. Then be ready to run even if you only have four players. This way it takes five people cancelling before you can't run a game. Ensure you bring in new players should anyone step away from the group. If one of the regulars steps out, ask the on-call players if they want to step in. If on-call players tend not to be able to make it, extend your list of on-call players.

Run Shorter Sessions Weekly at a Regular Day and Time

I run regular games on Wednesday nights from 7pm to 10pm and Sunday's from noon to 3pm. The Wednesday game has gone on for about fifteen years. The Sunday game for about eight. We don't schedule these games — that's when they happen. When games happen at a regular time they become part of people's weekly rituals. Their lives get scheduled around the game, not the other way around.

Run Short, Focused, and Flexible Campaigns

The longer a campaign goes, the more likely it is to fall apart for any number of reasons. Shorter campaigns are more likely to reach a clear conclusion. I tend to run campaigns of roughly 12 to 14 months — about 50 three-hour sessions. These are good meaty campaigns but have a clear ending. This solves a few problems I saw from those who described why their campaigns fell apart. It's easier to stay interested and still move on to the new cool thing if your campaign is short enough to accommodate this.

A focused campaign keeps you and the players engaged. You all know there's an ending and you know where things are generally going. This doesn't mean railroading but just knowing there's a single focused goal.

Keep these campaigns flexible. Avoid focusing on one character only to have the player of that character leave. Do your best to incorporate the stories of the characters into the game but ensure the campaign, or even a specific session, isn't so wrapped around one character that it can't go on if that player is there.

And what do you do if that character's missing? Just let them fade into the background. Everyone knows why the character isn't there.

Each session ask the players who attended the last session to summarize what's happened so players just coming back to the table can catch up.

Ask For "One Year Later" Character Conclusions

It's really easy to blow a good conclusion by trying to turn the story on its head. Instead, give players what they want in the conclusion. Let them fight the big bad. Let them enjoy a tremendous victory. Let them tie up their loose ends.

How do you ensure each character gets the ending their player wants? Let them narrate that ending. I call this the One Year Later montage. Warn your players before your final session that you're going to ask them to talk about where their character ends up one year after the end of the campaign. Then, when the campaign closes, ask each player to talk about where their character ends up one year after the final conclusion of the game. I've done this for dozens of campaigns and every time the stories delight me. It's my favorite part of the campaign and it ensures the players get what they want out of their characters arc. It's one of my favorite lazy tools for awesome campaign conclusions.

Run Games Online

I love in-person games but having spent the past two years learning how to play D&D online, it's clearly made attendance at my games more consistent. Online games fit easier into peoples' lives. They don't have to travel anywhere. They can keep an eye on the kids. It's just plain easier.

Playing online also opens up your potential pool of players by many orders of magnitude. Instead of only those who can make it to your gaming space, you can recruit players from, literally, all over the world. You can seek players who best fit your style and can commit to the times, leading to more consistent games.

Nothing beats the fun of playing in person but solid and reliable online games are better than inconsistent in-person games.

Send a Reminder Email

Even though we've played for more than a decade, I still send out a weekly reminder email two or three days before our game. This gives players a weekly reminder to get their affairs in order and make it to the table — or let you know they can't make it with enough time to do something about it. I schedule a reminder to myself every week to send reminder emails to my friends for our upcoming games.

Continual Efforts

Keeping games going takes continual effort. Game scheduling and attendance doesn't happen on its own. Getting people to your table and keeping them coming week after week takes regular work.

Building and maintaining a solid D&D group is the hardest part of this hobby. Hopefully this gives you a few ideas to keep your own group going and let you finish more awesome campaigns.

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