My current campaign is just about ready to wrap, and so I find myself at the great crossroads of any narrative. How, I ask myself, will I end this story? How much will the players’ actions dictate the conclusion, and how much control am I willing to exert in order to make the ending truly memorable? Since I find this to be quite the conundrum each time I run a campaign, I thought I might give voice to my thoughts on five major types of finales, and share them with you.
1 . The Big Reveal
Holding out against the spirits that encircle the party’s hideout, the assembled players gather around a fallen comrade. His wound could be the death of him should they not survive the night. Desperate, he beckons for one of his friends to lean in close. Just before he loses consciousness, he tells them, “I’ve wanted to tell you for so long, but it was forbidden. Your brother has been with you since you began your journey.” His eyes change to a familiar color as his glamour fades. His sibling embraces him, their tears mixing before dropping onto the floor.
This one requires a little bit of planning and forethought. As early as possible, start planting the seeds of a surprise twist that will keep your players guessing. I recommend watching plenty of Shyamalan films for lessons in both the right (Sixth Sense) and wrong (Signs) way to forge a twist. Your surprise should be exciting and shocking, but also feel natural. If your players are saying, “man, I can’t believe I didn’t discover that sooner,” then you know you’ve succeeded. If you time your reveal correctly and scatter the vague hints well enough, you can find yourself with the perfect “I am your Father” ending that’s sure to surprise and delight!
2 . The Heroic Sacrifice
The party finally sets out to destroy the arch demon. Their supplies are stocked and their spirits are high, when suddenly, the heroes are waylaid by an army of lesser demonic creatures. Your party fights valiantly, but it soon becomes obvious that, even if they prevail, they will most assuredly be finished off by the big boss just up the hill. With a great battle cry, one of your compatriots charges into the center of the army, crushing an alchemical substance that detonates into a flash of holy light. Her skin glows and burns, and she looks back on your group with a proud smile. The army, and the heroes’ valiant friend, vanish forever. With renewed vigor, the party forges a path up the hill, and annihilates the arch demon in the name of their fallen comrade.
Make certain, before you ever work the sacrifice of a player character into your narrative, that you consult first with the player in question. Tell them how the story could play out should they choose to end their character’s story this way, without giving too many hard details away. Should the player accept, you’ll find that your players will be talking about the climax of your campaign for years to come.
3 . The Vile Turncoat
The group of mages stands just before their hated adversaries in a ruined cathedral. Each wears the sigil of their order and has been adorned with great and powerful magics. Their enemies smirk wickedly from across the chamber. One of the party of mages begins working a spell, and his comrades take that cue to do the same. Before any enchantments can be cast, the lead mage turns his attention to his allies. His hands reach up high as bolts of dark lightning strike at his former friends. As they fight for their lives, the party can only ask, “why?”
Similar to the previous style, this ending requires a brief discussion with one of your players. Sometimes, the offer of power in exchange for one’s allegiance or ethics is too tempting. In the event that the player accepts your offer to betray the party, make certain their identity is concealed for as long as possible. This ending proves to be effective only with seasoned players who are no strangers to a little PvP. Be certain to consider the player character’s motives and personality when choosing your turncoat. If it does not make any sense for that particular character to fall to darkness and treachery, then pick another character or another ending. If it is planned and executed correctly, the ending will cause some wonderful intriguing intra-party conflict at the climactic resolution to your campaign.
4 . The Terrible Tragedy
The party travels back from a long journey, defeating a powerful and devious foe. As the crest the hill on the road back to their home, they notice smoke rising into the clouds. A few more steps later, and now they know the foul truth. The city is burning. Sprinting as quickly as possible, the party works their way into their homeland. Some start to put out the fires while others search for survivors. When they realize that all hope is lost, one of the party members hears the weak coughing of the old barkeep. The player runs to his good friend. Shouting madly for a healer, he grips the barkeep’s hand in his. Just before he expires, the man says, “Malgas.” The party holds a funeral for their friends, their town, and their past.
Many great writers and creators know that the most emotionally powerful ending to a story can often be a great tragedy. Shakespeare made special use of this style of ending to drive the point of a story home. Sometimes, the heroes don’t win, love doesn’t find a way, and good people die. Before implementing the tragedy, take the temperature of the table. If it seems like the players would be particularly upset with a conclusion that doesn’t go entirely in their favor, then you may prefer our next entry. If, however, they seem to handle negativity in stride, don’t shy away from injecting a somber event at your climax. This ending works especially well when you plan on revisiting the setting and characters at a later date. Players can then seek sweet vengeance or apply the hard lessons learned to their characters’ personalities.
5 . The Grand Epic
Despite their best efforts, the party could not prevent the summoning. The ancient outer god will arrive on the planet’s surface within the hour. Armored and armed, you and your comrades gather one last time before the fight. You stand and face them; your face as hard as steel, your eyes filled with righteous purpose. You give the greatest speech of your life, which is met by resounding cheers from the assembled heroes. You take up your weapons and lead your friends into a fight for the ages. Choirs of angels echo their songs across the battlefield. Some of your party perish in glorious combat, but those that remain fight all the harder. Finally, and against all odds, you triumph over the adversary, your gleaming sword buried in the skull of the terrible deity.
Several games of high (or even low) fantasy lend themselves well to this style of ending. This last confrontation should be planned well in advance, take place over the course of an entire session (you don’t want to be rushed), and leave the players with a victory they will never forget. It should be dangerous so that those who die will not feel as if their death was in vain, and those that survive enjoy a victory that is all the sweeter. I highly recommend setting up a playlist of powerful tracks that enhance the experience, but that do not override it. Let your players feel like they’re the main characters in fantasy movie or novel. With a well-planned fight, good music, and just a little bit of luck, your players will be recounting the session effusively for hours after the campaign finally ends.
I’m certain I’ve left a few great endings off of the list. Please share them, or your favorite campaign climaxes, with me on Facebook or at my website listed below. For now, I must go to plan the end of my campaign. But which style to choose?
David Horwitz is a gamer and freelance writer with an obsession for exploring new forms of leisure. If you’re looking for an inquisitive mind and a deft hand, or just want to chat about gaming, check him out at www.davidhorwitzwrites.com
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.