The stasis creates the status quo world for your audience (in this case, the players). The ignition drives the party to action. Complications along the journey force them to adapt and grow. There’s one piece remaining to finish the picture, and bring everything to a satisfying close for you and your players:
(If you haven’t read the first two articles in this series, I recommend that before you read this one! Links are in the first paragraph.)
This is the moment you’ve been building to all along. In Dungeons and Dragons this often comes down to a showdown with a major villain character. That’s not the only option, but it’s the most common and it makes sense within the world the game system creates. No matter what kind of Dungeons and Dragons game you run, the core rules governing the mechanics of the game are tied heavily to combat with powerful foes – it’s only sensible that the final climactic challenge is also of that nature more often than not.
I challenge, though, that no good story involves just “beating the bad guy” and going home. A satisfying conclusion is one that forces characters to grapple with difficult ideas and struggle through not only external obstacles but internal conflict, coming out the other side carrying what they learned through their journey for better or worse.
It isn’t about the fight. It’s about why they are fighting, and how the journey to that final confrontation has changed them.
Planting the Seeds
You should be preparing for your conclusion the moment your story begins.
I should be careful making that statement so boldly, so I’ll clarify what I do and don’t mean by that.
I do mean: Your conclusion shouldn’t arise from a vacuum. You should go into your story with an idea of the direction you want to go, but allow the events of the campaign and the actions of the players to constantly amend that idea as you go. Be looking for story threads you can pull on for that final climax in every session. A good Dungeon Master is a good listener. If you don’t believe me, fire up an episode of Critical Role and note how often the dungeon master, Matt Mercer, actually speaks and how often he is listening closely and taking notes.
(If you somehow are reading this article without knowing what Critical Role is, here’s a treat for you: Critical Role is a weekly Dungeons and Dragons stream run by a group of fantastic voice actors, watch it here on YouTube or Twitch.)
I don’t mean: Have a concrete idea of how you want your finale to run and try to steer the story towards it. This is a recipe for disaster. I’ve read countless accounts of Dungeon Masters feeling frustrated because the party won’t follow “their plot”. Some of those situations may be out of that particular DM’s control (sometimes you just get a bad group, it happens – know when to cut, run, and find a new one!) but I would wager that in a majority of cases, the DM had a solid idea of where they wanted the story to go and the players didn’t obediently walk down that path because of course they didn’t, they can’t read minds. Trying to run a game like this is likely to end in frustration for the players and the Dungeon Master more times than not.
Creating a story on your own is like sculpting something from clay or stone; you work and shape it until it takes the form you imagined when you began. The material may hold it’s own surprises for you, but ultimately the sculpting knife is in your hand.
Creating a story with a group of people is more like gardening. You plant seeds and cultivate ideas, but you can’t forcibly form a plant from the dirt – you have to let it grow. As a Dungeon Master, you can sow seeds of the main plot around and water them carefully but by nature the result is outside your control.
Don’t fight it. Let it work for you.
The Power of Reincorporation
If you plant the seeds of your conclusion early, cultivate them, and listen carefully to the choices the players are making for their characters – you already have a fertile foundation to build on.
When you are planning the story arc that will conclude your campaign, look back through your notes and look for loose story threads, old favorite characters, rivals that are not yet defeated, and anything else that might slot nicely into that conclusion.
Reincorporation is the act of bringing back these old threads and tying them together in novel ways. Equipped with your secret weapon, the DM binder that organizes all your past notes, you should have more than enough material to play with by the endgame of a campaign.
Your conclusion isn’t the time for new characters, ideas, or plot threads – it needs to be when everything you have done before comes together. If you listen well throughout the campaign and take good notes, the secret here is that the work is already all done
When you do it right, reincorporating all these old threads and characters makes you look like a genius. It gives the illusion that every story thread or choice was calculated, even though any sensible person can see that is ludicrous in such an open, improvised storytelling setting.
Don’t let on, though. The mystique helps maintain the illusion, and the illusion is everything.
Endgame: Bringing it Together
I’ve spent a lot of words on the set-up for the conclusion, so let’s get to the event itself.
Throughout an epic-scale campaign, there are likely to be a number of finale-like sessions throughout the story. When I have run long-form campaigns like this, I find it easier to divide the story into discrete “arcs” that each contain their own ignition, complications, and conclusion.
There are a lot of good reasons to do this. A typical campaign of this length is not a short affair. The campaigns I’ve actually managed to see through to the end spanned multiple years of playing. Seriously. That would be a long damn time to be trying to build to one conclusion.
This method gives the players a chance to breathe after each arc for a moment before you start ratcheting the tension back up. This is important to not fatigue the players. From a gameplay perspective, it gives them time to do some fun downtime activities or pursue their character’s personal goals. From a story perspective, having a few points in the story where the tension reaches a breaking point before your final climax helps it not feel bland or one-note. The ebb and flow of the action gives the story texture. Take each of these arc finales as a chance to examine a facet of whatever theme is emerging in your campaign.
When you are planning out your grand finale, you will have already gone through a few finale sessions with this party and should have a much better basis to build upon. You don’t have to tie up every loose end, but this is the time to be grasping on the threads that speak most closely to the theme you have been honing in on.
The theme, at this point, should have crystallized for you. If you are unsure of your theme now, go back through your notes on past stories and try to figure out what central question each of these stories has set out to answer. Trust me, there is something here. People can’t help but put themselves into the stories they tell, and if you listen the right ways to yourself and the players the questions that keep coming up will become clear to you.
As an example, the central question for my current campaign is: “Who has the right to decide the fate of others?”. As a result, my campaign arc finales have involved placing the heroes in positions where they have to take leadership positions in crises and make difficult choices that affect others. They have repeatedly come up against villains who believe they are doing what is necessary for the good of their people, or the good of the world, and been forced to ask difficult questions about what they themselves have done after gazing into those dark mirrors. My grand finale will involve driving the heroes to wield the power of creation, making a choice that will affect the entire course of the world moving forward with consequences good and bad for all living beings in it.
Your responsibility when building a finale for your players is not to slap them across the face with this theme. Instead, put the characters in a situation where they have to answer the central question for themselves. Find a way to do that, and the drama takes care of itself. This is a simple explanation for a nuanced art, but like all other arts you can’t really be taught how to do this the right way; you have to find your way for yourself.
Aftermath: Living in the New World
The events of the conclusion should rock the world of the characters to their very cores. But the story isn’t over yet, because the story was never about fighting the evil lich overlord and finally defeating them in an epic showdown. It is easy to get lost in the extravagance of the finale and lose sight of the fact that, at the heart of it all, a good story is about people. The story is about the characters attempting to overcome that force, how they struggled, how they changed, what they learned, what they lost.
This remains true across all spectrum of stories, whether you are running a grand epic campaign or a short mini-campaign taking place in a single city over a handful of sessions. The resolution is the moment the heroes try to return to the world that had been upended by the igniting event. The status quo has changed, though. Even if the world is the same, the characters are not. How do they fit back into that world? Or, if your world is drastically changed through the plot, what is their place in that new world? These are the questions you are setting out to answer with your resolution.
The resolution is your opportunity, also, to cement the central theme you’ve been working with throughout your campaign. If that central question wasn’t already obvious, this can be a good time to work it into your wrap-up to frame the story for the players.
Continuing with the example of my current campaign, the resolution will see the heroes returning to a new world that is in a state of rebuilding after near-cataclysm. The choices they make during the finale will have a lasting impact on the landscape of that world, and the epilogue will enforce the central theme by exploring the ramifications of those choices for each character.
There you have it, a “quick” run-down of the basic steps of a story and how you can use them when crafting a Dungeons and Dragons campaign! At the risk of sounding repetitive but to emphasize just how important it is: this is only my idea of how to do things.
Running a campaign well is a mixture of art and craft. There are lessons you can learn from looking at other stories in other mediums that you can carry into your own games, you can pick up tricks by watching other people run games, and you inevitably will develop your own methods the more you do it as you find what works for you. The only way to improve, though, is to take the dive and do it.
Becoming a good Dungeon Master requires a mix of study and practice. You need to take the time to do your research and prepare, and that time is invaluable. No carefully constructed plot will survive contact with your players, however, and the only way to get better at sailing with that current rather than being swept off by it is practice.