I know I’ve written about this before (An Epic Confusion, Or How To Stage A Blockbuster Finish), but I’ve been thinking some more about big finishes to campaigns, prompted by the fact that my superhero campaign is currently in what I hope turns out to be an epic conclusion. As I developed this final scenario, I tried to keep track of the different elements that I wanted to incorporate and why I wanted them to be an element in the big finish; the goal was to attempt to further define the ways in which the final scenario should differ from any run-of-the-mill scenario. This post is the result.
Every campaign has one or more themes that inform the scenarios that have taken place, how they relate to each other, and how one leads to the next. Sometimes these are deliberately placed and made clear to all participants from the start; other times they emerge from the choices of the players, the backgrounds and aspirations of the characters, and the scenarios that the GM has created to explore those backgrounds and choices and their ramifications and consequences, and to satisfy those aspirations, and may not be obvious except in hindsight.
The final scenario should be the ultimate expression of those themes, even revealing them for the first time if they were not made clear earlier in the campaign. That means that the starting point in designing the final scenario should be a retrospective review of everything that’s happened in the past of the campaign. Without recapitulating actual play, summarise the campaign in one sentence, and the style of adventures in one sentence, and so on.
Everything’s Been Leading To This
Something else that I like to do is to touch on as many of the campaign’s past scenarios as I can. That doesn’t mean bringing back every enemy that the PCs have ever faced; but there should be a strong element of taking the next step in every past plotline. So far, in the superhero campaign’s big finish, we’ve had mention of past PCs and what they are now doing, mentions of past NPCs of significance, events relating to the construction of their base, mentions of old enemies, and reminders of past victories, and even of past mistakes. And it’s only just getting started. In fact, of over 150 scenarios, only eight don’t form part of the tapestry that I’ve woven for the PCs.
Look How Far We’ve Come
Another essential ingrediant that I’ve identified are a number of nostalgic elements that signpost just how much the PCs have come since those early, hesitant, steps. Problems that would have once seemed insuperable should come… well, not easily, but without great difficulty.
In a D&D campaign, I often note down the specifics of the first encounter that puts the characters into genuine difficulty; then, as a minor side-encounter, I arrange a rematch for the final scenario, in which the loser has brought friends.
In the last game session of the superhero game, the players spent slmost half an hour listing and discussing technical experts that they could call apon to help them solve the problem confronting them (the transformation of the artificial armour-plating a previous member lined their base with into almost-invulnerable Replicators threatening the lives of everyone living in central Boston), while two of their members who were in the process of becoming the First Lady and White House Chief Of Staff, respectively were busy in Washington and unable to contribute more than ideas and theories. Ultimately, the three remaining ‘active’ team members were able to solve the problem on their own.
The purpose of touching on so much of the Campaign’s past history is to create the impression that this is the culmination of everything that’s happened in the past, that it has all been leading to this. This is especially important when the players can already identify major elements of the big finish. My players know who the big enemy is going to be at the end, they know what he’s capable of, they know why they oppose him and vice-versa. In the past, they have been mortal enemies, political adversaries, and reluctant allies. When the campaign started, this enemy seemed impossible to overcome; over time, they have whittled his power base down to the point where, while they aren’t expecting him to be a pushover, they now feel like the final battle is a foregone conclusion.
I intend to confound those expectations, using the campaign’s past history to even the odds…
No Loose Ends
The third ingredient that I want to mention is the wrapping up of loose ends. As these link to the main plotline, and the dominos begin to fall, this becomes just another of the ways in which “everything’s been leading to this”. I want there to be surprises (both pleasant and unwelcome) and for all the remaining loose plot threads to get tied up along the way.
It’s Always Darkest…
Another must-have in a big finish is the most devestating, cataclysmic threat the PCs have ever overcome. That doesn’t necessarily mean the most epic, or the most cosmic; it might be intensely personal. But it does mean that that the threat has to feel more intense, the danger more imminant. The final throw of the dice should always be double-or-nothing against the odds!
Everyone Plays A Part
If it’s important for every PC to have a role in any ordinary scenario, it is essential that each has an essential contribution to make in the big finish. In fact, I’ll go further and state that as much as possible, every unique major aspect of the character should have a special relevance; if a character is both the only elf and the only mage in the party, then that character should have two vital roles to play. You want the characters to feel like they had to bring everything they had to bear on the final problem in order to achieve a solution.
That usually means building in subsidiary and intermediate challenges – so it’s a good thing that you have all those loose ends to wrap up and all those past plotlines to touch on, because that’s the best place to find those subsidiary and intermediate challenges.
Here’s the biggest hurdle of them all: the finish has to feel emotionally satisfying to both the Players and the GM. Achieving that can mean that some of the techniques that you might have employed in lesser encounters are off the table – no fudging die rolls to get the PCs past final hurdles. But, in general, what it usually requires is making sure that the endings are fitting to the history. The bad guys have to go out with a bang, to suffer in proportion to the crimes; the good guys have to overcome tremendous odds to snatch a memorable victory from the jaws of defeat.
For the GM, this should be the payoff for everything that he has done, every hour he has invested in the campaign. Half-measures won’t get the job done, the way you might be able to get away with in a lesser scenario; props, sound effects, prepared dialogue, accents, descriptions, encounters, personalities – they all have to be better than you’ve ever done before. This should be the performance that earns get you multiple Oscar nominations in the eyes of you’re players; there IS no tomorrow, so this is the time to give it all you’ve got! If that means a sleepless night doing extra prep, then that’s what you do.
But it’s even better to have started work on the scenario far enough in advance that you can get a good night’s rest the night before. I’ve been planning the big-finish scenario in detail for more than 6 months, and parts of it have been on the drawing board for more than two years. Plot threads have been deliberately left dangling for resolution in the final scenario for more than 5 years, and the earliest notes on the content were written immediatly after the first scenario of the Campaign.
To The Victors Go The Spoils
Here’s another point to think about: because there is no game after the final scenario, experience awards and other rewards issued after the fact generally don’t mean as much as they usually do. The implication is that rewards should be made in the course of play, even if that means that they take a form other than those that you usually hand out. That, in turn, means that extra care is needed to ensure that these rewards do not unbalance the final encounter.
The final scenario should mean that the players know (or at least they think they know) the rest of the story.
A sense of finality
Another difficult requirement is that the final scenario should feel like it’s the final scenario. Relationships should change, and things should never be the same again when the smoke clears. To some extent, this can be achieved by the tying up of loose ends, but it’s too important to leave to the side-effects.
In part, this can also be achieved by generating a sense of occasion. In the past, I’ve made arrangements for a double-length session, and a 3-day marathon finish, and for guest GMs to share the workload, and for guest players to take over their roles. I once even called in a tactical expert who never plays RPGs to run the tactics for the army opposing the PCs.
On another occasion I started the final scenario with a TPK and then let the PC’s ghosts get summoned and restored to (temporary) vitality for the final stand – nothing makes a player feel like a scenario is all-or-nothing than having them KNOW that they are going to die at the end, win or lose!
Genesis and Rebirth
Having said that, history usually doesn’t end with the campaign. Throughout the final scenario, there should be an undercurrent subplot of someone else coming forward to pick up the reins and take up the fight where this generation of PCs left off.
In the Zenith-3 campaign, the team have been responsible for the downfall of both Republican and Democratic Parties through the revelation and prosecution of internal corruption. They have emptied the Supreme Court of all but one Justice. They have put the Dons of organised crime who were responsible for the corruption of those politicians behind bars. Their allies formed the nucleus of one new Political Party (hence the new positions of two of the team members) while their Ultimate Enemy was the central figure of the opposition party during the recent (in the campaign) Presidential Elections. All victories of note, but they will all have consequences for the future. A large part of the final scenario is making the team members who are ‘retiring’ into political life aware of the problems that will need to be faced by someone else once this campaign is over. These are problems that the PCs don’t have to solve – they are merely shadows on the horizon at the end of the campaign.
The finale should sow the seeds of a future campaign (even if that campaign is not going to actually be played). The continuation of the world afterwards maintains the plausibility and credibility of the situations and encounters within the finale.
That’s my recipe…
So that’s my recipe for a big finish to the current Zenith-3 campaign. After an interrim period, a blend of the existing characters and some new ones will form the core of a new incarnation of the Zenith-3 team, in a new paralell world named “Dimension Regency”, while Zenith-2 will take the places of the existing team and continue to deal with the problems of the world in which the last 15 years of scenarios have taken place.
As one final tidbit, which I have revealed to the players, here is the makeup of the final scenario:
“The Light Of Morning” is the name of the overall scenario. It has been written in five parts:
- Part I: Elements Of Perpetuity
- Part II: Elements Of Conclusion
- Part III: Elements Of Transition
- Part IV: Elements Of Resolution
- Part V: Elements Of Regeneration
So far, we’ve played through most of Part I. Each of these 5 parts is as large as a normal scenario; the overall final scenario will take months to complete. All it has to do now is live up to its full potential…