Having been delayed 8 hours by a massive spam attack last night (650+ spam in 6 hours – but the effectiveness of my response is clear, only 17 spam made it through my protections while writing this article), it’s back to business. The fact that this is appearing rather less than 8 hours after it was due is the result of three factors: (1) I had most of the article fairly well mapped out in my head already; (2) I always try to leave myself margin when working out how much I can get done – about 4 hours worth of margin, in fact; and (3) I’ve cut a few corners – hopefully in places where they won’t show!

Ask the gamemasters

This article is intended to wrap up a comprehensive answer to the questions, both direct and implied, by Jesse Joseph. In part one, I reiterated the basic advice I would offer to anyone in his situation, and looked at ways to make low-level undead more respectable opponents. In part two, I looked at the broader issues implied by the very existence of undead in a campaign. This time I look at Jesse’s question in its most general form, and then wrap things up with a few links to related articles here at Campaign Mastery. Just to refresh recollections, let’s start by reminding readers of the question.

Jesse wrote,

“Hey, I’m running an undead campaign of sorts and I need a strong end point villain. I know the obvious like a powerful vampire or Orcus, but I’m hitting a bit of a wall in finalizing it all. I know its a bit of a simple question but I would like some advice from another DM.

So far I’ve introduced vampires as a sort of higher evil in the game, also the characters released a powerful necromancer into the already polluted world.”

In its broadest possible form, this question could be rephrased, “My campaign is coming to an end and I need to figure out an ending. I don’t even know who the major villain is going to be.”

So, that’s today’s agenda.

End-game ingredient list

Let’s assume that you have a list of the unresolved questions that have emerged in the course of the campaign and all the unsatisfied PC goals, or can generate one. These could be “what’s Villain X really after?” or “what’s the meaning of Y” or it might even be that almost everything has been resolved already.

Wait, what if almost everything has been resolved already?

Just because everything looks resolved to the players and PCs doesn’t mean that it actually has been resolved. If you find yourself in this situation, go back over the past history of the campaign, looking for anything involving the player’s “favorite opposition” – the enemy that they had the most fun overcoming. What you want is any appearance in which (1) either the villain or a third party could have deceived the party into thinking that the situation was resolved when it actually wasn’t. and (2) where a plausible reason can be devised for why this deception did not become apparent on any subsequent encounter.

That might yield multiple choices, not a bad thing. If you do get more than one to choose from, pick the one that most completely changes the context of the subsequent encounters, especially if this results in the villain secretly having a different objective to the one he appeared to have, and which the PCs appeared to frustrate.

Here’s a recipe – well, a list of ingredients – that a really epic finish should contain.

  1. More of the same
  2. At least one MAJOR plot twist
  3. A revelation
  4. Meaning to (almost) everything that’s happened
  5. A Betrayal
  6. Higher stakes than ever before
  7. Life-or-sudden-death danger
  8. A moral inversion or challenge
  9. Imminent Total Failure
  10. One last chance at victory

To some extent, these can be reordered as necessary. Some can occur more than once. Above all, you want the end-of-campaign adventure to have an epic quality to it. The locations should be more spectacular, the scenes more wondrous, the magic more arcane, the violence more bloodthirsty – everything should be turned up to eleven!

Let’s run through these in detail:

1. More of the same

You want this final adventure to feel like it’s part of the campaign to date – so whatever you have been doing, you need to keep doing. This also makes a nice low-key beginning to the adventure. The difference is that where you would normally have begun to wrap the adventure up any other time, you instead ramp things up.

2. At least one MAJOR plot twist

This is very migratable within the sequence. Some major piece of the foundations of the PCs understanding of the world around them needs to vanish from underfoot at some point.

3. A Revelation

Another item that can occur anywhere in the plot sequence. This can be packaged with the plot twist, or it can be something more low-key, but the PCs need to learn something important about the game world and everything that they have experienced so far that they didn’t suspect.

4. Meaning to (almost) everything that’s happened

Ideally, the big finish should lend new significance and meaning to everything that’s happened in the past of the campaign. This is part and parcel of making the campaign feel like it’s coming to an end, and is often overlooked.

5. A Betrayal

This could be one of the Villain’s Henchmen betraying him for his own gain, or because he’s learned what his master is really up to, or it could be an ally of the PCs who either becomes a pawn of the villain or is revealed as always having been in the service of the villain. It can be tempting to have this ally be revealed as the major villain, but that’s much harder to pull off effectively. Not saying that it can’t be done, but nine times out of ten this stretches credibility too far.

Inverting a trope can also count.

6. Higher stakes than ever before

This is an integral part of the “epic” quality that I mentioned. It’s not necessary to have everything the PCs care about hanging in the balance, but the more that the outcome is critical to the PCs, the better.

7. Life-or-sudden-death danger

If this really is the big finish of the campaign, it’s time to take the kid gloves off – at least to some extent. If a PC falls along the way, who cares? Well, you do, and the player does – and I’ll get to that in a separate sidebar in a moment. Look at the big finish as a blockbuster disaster movie, in which – from time to time, and at regular intervals – someone (a PC or favorite NPC) has to give their lives to propel the rest of the party one step closer to success.

Wait, if I kill one or more PCs, what happens to their players?

It’s not as though they can roll up a new character and resume play next week/next adventure, after all. There are all sorts of solutions, but the bottom line is this: you need a way for dead characters to continue to contribute to the success of the mission. Ideally, a different solution for each dead PC. And, unless you can predict with complete certainty which PC will meet their demise, you need a plan that can cover that complication. There are two alternative general solutions:

  1. Link each PC with a dedicated means of continuing to contribute if he or she should perish, and simply pull out the ones that you need when you need them.
  2. Link each incident which could result in a PC death with a means by which any PC killed can continue to contribute.

There are all sorts of possibilities. Here are just a few:

  • The PCs ghost refuses to abandon his colleagues until the crisis is resolved.
  • A short side-quest provides access to a one-off means of resurrecting the PC – at least temporarily.
  • Recast the death as something that is inevitable but can be deferred temporarily.
  • The PC may have been ‘killed’ in such a way that they are supposed to join the PCs enemies, but he is able to resist – for now.
  • A magic item may have the hitherto-unsuspected quality of acting as a soul jar.
  • A God – or a Devil – may offer a bargain for the (temporary) restoration of the PC to life, one that is low enough that the PCs can and will pay it, but high enough that the PCs will not be all that happy about it.
  • A supposed enemy will appear, reveal themselves as a hidden (and perhaps reluctant) ally – “at least under these circumstances” – and restore the character to life. Or perhaps the PCs will have to go to them.
  • Whoever transports the dead to the afterlife might be bribable to delay ‘collection’.

A lot depends on the primary contribution that the character makes to the party. If it’s physical, they need to retain a physical body of some sort; if it’s intellectual, or spellcasting, you have more flexibility. The other consideration is what will be needed to keep the player happy. You need to tick both boxes with your solution.

With this ‘back door’ in place, you can kill off PCs with relative impunity – and nothing signals a raising of the stakes more quickly.

8. A moral inversion or challenge

Someone needs to have a change of heart, and/or there needs to be a significant moral challenge for the PCs to overcome.

Save the life of an enemy, or give them greater power? Cause intense short-term misery to safeguard a prosperous future? Make some fundamental change in the world with uncertain consequences? Permanently weaken the forces of Good in order to prevent total victory of the forces of Evil? Kill 1/3 of the world’s population to save the other 2/3 – with the certainty that friends and family will be amongst the 1/3? Is it better to elevate an evil man to the throne, or to tear the nation apart in a civil war?

Note that the “someone” can’t be a PC unless they are (and perhaps always have been) an agency of an enemy – even if they didn’t know it. This works best if you have an enemy who always seems to know what the PCs are up to, a capability that has never been definitively explained (or that has been explained, but the explanation was either an error or a deception).

9. Imminent Total Failure

For a big finale, I always like to make it look like the PCs are going to win – perhaps at a price – only to jerk the rug from under their confidence at the last possible second, perhaps through the enemy doing something desperate, something so dangerous that they would never have contemplated it – until it became their only hope of victory, or of a pyrrhic victory, or of exacting revenge for their defeat. The PCs think they are winning – and suddenly you raise the stakes again and tell them (metaphorically) that the game is going an extra innings.

10. One last chance at victory

Just as it looks like all hope is lost (refer 9), there needs to appear one final chance at snatching victory from the jaws of defeat. What’s more, if you have been exceptionally ‘harsh’ in your treatment of the PCs through the early part of the adventure, making them earn every inch of progress, you can now shade things just a little in their favor – just enough to ensure a last-possible-second victory, despite the opposition and the hand you have dealt them. If you have ramped up the bad guy enough in (9), they won’t even suspect.

Remember, your ultimate goal is for everyone to have fun! Losing that final battle would suck, but so would being railroaded to success.

You can even pull out the Pyrrhic Victory 13th-hour solution – let the bad guy win, discover that the sweetness of the victory doesn’t last, and travel back in time to help the PCs defeat his younger self at the 59th second of the 59th minute of the eleventh hour! But don’t do this every time.

If the PCs fall at the final hurdle, it’s often better form to pencil in, at some future point, a sequel campaign in which another opportunity will arise. But this time, you will have an end-game target in mind, and that will make a big difference, trust me!

Omitting Ingredients

Can you still devise a blockbuster finish without including all these ingredients? Sure. But every item that you leave out makes those that remain more important to get right.

Take a look back at the suggestions I actually made to Jesse by email, reproduced in part 1. How many of these boxes were ticked by my end-of-campaign proposal?

  1. Is there More of the same? Yes – there is still lots of running around fighting undead.
  2. Is there At least one MAJOR plot twist? None yet. But there is plenty of scope for one.
  3. Is there A revelation? Yes. Both where the villain’s base is, and the revelation of what his true goals are, would qualify.
  4. Is there Meaning to (almost) everything that’s happened? Yes – that’s one of the big selling points of the proposal.
  5. Is there A Betrayal?Yes, probably. The Trope inversion could count, but there’s plenty of scope for more concrete examples in the course of the wars and blood feuds proposed. Also, every PC that gets killed adds directly to the villain’s power.
  6. Is there Higher stakes than ever before? Yes – this isn’t about a single undead getting uppity, this is a full-scale subversion of both life and death, something that could ultimately threaten the Gods themselves.
  7. Is there Life-or-sudden-death danger? Yes, indisputably.
  8. Is there A moral inversion or challenge?Not at this point. You could insert one – Sacrificing the Goddess Of Life to end the menace, for example, or doing a deal with a Deity Of Death. There’s no indication of what the PCs might have to do in order to overcome the menace, yet.
  9. Is there Imminent Total Failure? Maybe. – it depends on what the PCs think is going on and how the Revelation of the truth about the Big Bad is handled.
  10. Is there One last chance at victory? None written in – yet – but the plot exists only in conceptual form.

That’s six yes, one Maybe, and scope for each of the remaining three.

Mapping Plot Threads to Requirements

So, the first step is to map the dangling plot threads that you listed earlier to the list of requirements. There doesn’t have to be a one-to-one correlation; you could have a dangling plot thread that will lead to an encounter that will tick the box. For example, you might have two seemingly-unrelated villains – discovering that one was a hidden ally trying to build the PCs up to the point where they could oppose the real Villain in the course of one last encounter with that Villain, or that one of the two Villains is secretly an ally of the first and always has been, for example. Or having the PCs need to turn one Villain into a reluctant Ally in order to deal with the other. Or any of several other possibilities.

Unticked Boxes

If you have any of the ten Requirements unfulfilled, you have to make a decision: you can either create something to bring about the item in question or you can forgo that item off the list. In the event that you choose option #1 of those two, you now need to create the game element in question. That leads to a second choice: you can either establish the campaign element ahead of time, or you can have it appear as a Revelation in the course of the final adventure. Which you choose will depend on the campaign element that you create, and whether or not you can think of a second plotline involving it, and whether or not there will be sufficient separation between that second plotline and the start of the big finish.

Don’t neglect the possibility that the second plotline could be what triggers the big finish, either.

Outline the plot

Once you know the specific constituents that you have to work with, it’s time to outline the plot. This essentially consists of four stages for each: (1) Something that will happen, (2) the significance of that something, (3) how the PCs will discover it, and (4) what they are expected to be able to do about it. Note that there’s no “how the PCs are going to do whatever they are expected to be able to do” – that’s up to them. Only if the PCs clearly don’t have whatever abilities or resources that they will need to have a shot at doing what the GM wants them to be able to do about the situation do you have to worry about it, and that’s dealt with separately in a later step of the process.

Complicate the plot with the other dangling plot threads

This is reasonably self-explanatory. But one point requires further amplification: for each other Villain you have out there, you need to answer two questions: (1) Is there any way that they could discover what the main Villain is up to? and (2) What will they do about it if they do learn of it?

Another critical question at this point is about the Major Villain’s capabilities. Does He have everything that he needs, in knowledge, power, and resources, to set his end-of-campaign-plot into motion? If not, can he obtain them from one of the other villains of the campaign – by guile, force, bribery, subterfuge, betrayal, or by any other means?

Create and insert any additional resources required by the PCs

Next, it’s time to revisit that question that was deferred in “outline the plot”. You have the same questions to answer, and the same answers to consider, as were listed in “Unticked Boxes”.

Dispose of any unused dangling plot threads before the big finish starts. Unless you’re saving them.

If you want to leave dangling plot threads for a possible sequel campaign, that’s fine, but if you don’t, then you want to get these out of the way before the big finish. In particular, if anything is likely to interfere with your planned big finish, get rid of it in advance.

Remaining Campaign Structure

The structure of the remaining campaign is now fairly self-evident.

  • The Pre-finish phase, in which unwanted dangling plot threads are resolved, and both Villain and PCs are acquiring the resources the GM wants them to have during the big finish.
  • The Opening Gambit, which appears to be just another adventure, a day in the lives of the PCs just like any other.
  • The Trigger, which sets the final adventure into full motion. This could be a revelation on the part of the PCs (learning what the Villain is really up to), it could be the Villain obtaining the final resource that he needs, it could even be the Villain setting out to acquire the final resource that he needs, or putting his plan into motion because it’s time-critical without having secured everything that he needs. The content will largely depend on the personality of the Villain.
  • The Big Finish.

That’s all there is to it, really.

One final piece of advice: Just as it’s never too early to start planning for the big finish of your campaign, it is also never too late. But a good “big finish” happens by accident very, very rarely. Have one or more ideas for what it might be and keep them in your back pocket at all times.

Further Reading

There have been a few other articles about undead (and scary stuff) here at Campaign Mastery.

There have also been several articles on Big Finish Adventures and other Anniversary/Special adventures.

Finally, there are a number of miscellaneous articles that are relevant to the subjects discussed in these three parts.

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