With that said, writing a campaign is like writing a novel in another way. There comes a point where the story needs to reach a logical conclusion. And before anyone sits down at your table, you should have an idea of where that end point is... or at least which events precipitate it.
|Then they awaken the sea giants... form a pirate fleet... and... ugh... become kings?|
Story Planning Saves You A LOT of Headache
One of the common DM questions I see on forums, and occasionally get asked by readers, is what they should do to end their campaigns. Typically they've been going on for a long time, and the DM wants to wind things down, or is tired of running, or can't think of where else to take the story. And every time I ask, "What was the end goal of your campaign?" the answer is always a confused, "huh?"
A story is like a road trip. Sure, part of the fun is the journey itself. The roadside attractions you stopped at with your friends, the greasy spoon with the unforgettable pancakes, and that time you had to sleep in the car because you couldn't find a decent hotel for fifty miles. But the reason you all piled into the wagon in the first place was because you wanted to go to the far shore, and witness the great Battle of the Bands in the desert wastes among the Burning Men. That was the whole impetus of the trip, and why you're all out there in the first place.
|Some of them were burning before the show... all of them were burning after it.|
Your campaign needs that same, underlying structure. Yes, it should be about the PCs, and their specific achievements, but if all you're doing is following them around while they do whatever they feel like, it can be terribly unstructured and chaotic. And, unless you're a masterful DM and world builder, it can quickly lead to things falling apart, or getting ridiculous. The efforts of the PCs should be bent toward achieving some goal, or doing some great thing. Defeating the monster, finding the macguffin, solving the mystery, etc., etc. You need to be going somewhere with it, otherwise you're just driving on the highway until you run out of gas.
Smaller Arcs Build To Big Crescendos
A piece of advice I would give to DMs who have trouble picking up speed to hit a solid, definitive end is to build your campaign sort of like a Russian nesting doll. Pick a small arc that achieves something, and tells a definitive story. Like the classic, "Oh no, this town is about to be overrun by zombies!" scenario where a low-level party defeats the undead, and then slays the necromancer that summoned them. An arc that has a definite beginning and end, and whose purpose is to solidify the party, and to give them a big win.
Now, you could end the game there if people wanted to. That would be a really short campaign, but you could do it. If the players want to keep going, then you go into the next arc. Perhaps it turns out that necromancer was merely one member of a greater cult, who is now focused on the party for their part in disrupting a greater overall scheme. Now the party has to uncover who is in this cult, what they were doing, and stop the individual leaders. Once that arc is complete, the party will be mid-level, and will have achieved a greater victory. If the players want to continue, they now have to uncover the secrets the cult was attempting to glean from ancient ruins, facing a potent lich who has been trapped and bound for centuries in the blackness of his own, buried citadel. If the party succeeds, then the curse has been well and truly broken, and the land above can sleep easily.
|And with a final cry, the ruins fell silent.|
Now, seen from a bird's eye perspective, your ending point for this campaign is going toe-to-toe with the CR 17 lich. In order to get the party to that point organically, you provide them with self-contained arcs that act as stepping stones. Each one is a building block leading to that final point, like smaller books in an ongoing series.
Could you concoct another, even grander arc after the ancient lich for your party to face if they wanted to keep playing the same game, with the same characters? Yes, you could. However, you need to ask if you should. Do you have the necessary skill as a DM to handle a party with the resources of that level? Is there a story you want to tell that requires that amount of power? Are you engaged, as the DM? Because it's better to end a campaign on a high note, with the players wishing there was another chapter to go, then it is to just peter out, wandering from brawl to brawl with no real purpose in mind until enough people lose interest.
Or, put another way, flare up brilliantly, and end definitively. Don't fade away.
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