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This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.
WEDNESDAY NIGHT. A few sessions ago, the Raven Queen summoned Vargas (played by Rodney Thompson) to her domain in the Shadowfell and charged him with one "final" quest: the destruction of the warforged. You see, in my campaign the warforged aren't living constructs. They're unliving constructs, animated by the souls of the dead, which are abducted en route to the afterlife by agents of Vecna. The Raven Queen doesn't expect Vargas to destroy the warforged one at a time, of course. Instead, she sets him on a course to wipe them all out at once, first by urging Vargas to "seek out the walking dead that does not speak." This clue leads Vargas to Anchor, a mute warforged plucked from the bottom of the sea and currently residing aboard the party's ship. It turns out that Anchor holds the key to finding one of the necroforges where the warforged are built and animated, and (ironically) this warforged becomes the instrument of his race's destruction by aiding Vargas in the fulfillment of the Raven Queen's quest.
Anchor helps Vargas construct a teleportation circle to the necroforge where he was built, on the island of Zaarnath deep inside the Black Curtain a dangerous region where traditional healing magic doesn't function (rather like the Mournland in the Eberron campaign setting). However, Vargas isn't the only party member keen on visiting Zaarnath. The party's warforged character, Fleet (played by Nacime Khemis), has spent much of the campaign searching for answers to important questions, such as who built him and why. The truth lies with Klytus Zandrau, a human wizard residing on Zaarnath. Fleet hopes that Zandrau will help him free the warforged from Vecna's tyranny. Fleet wants his fellow warforged to abandon their destructive cause, live in peace with the other races of Iomandra, and discover what it means to feel alive. He's about to learn that his buddy Vargas has a different calling.
The Mayans believed that 2012 marks the end of one world and the beginning of another. I can relate. As the Wednesday night group closes in on 30th level, the time has come to batten down the hatches and make final preparations to end my five-year campaign . . . and free up precious mind-space that can be put toward the next world, whatever it might be.
The extent to which a DM needs to "plan" for the end of the campaign depends on the campaign. For example, if I'm running a published Adventure Path such as Scales of War or Age of Worms, or a campaign based around a published mega-adventure the likes of Return to the Temple of Elemental Evil or Return to the Tomb of Horrors, I don't need to do a whole lot of planning because the campaign's destiny is pretty much written in ink. However, there might be a few loose character threads to tie up, particularly if I've given the player characters room to develop beyond the confines of the written campaign setting. In a more fluid campaign such as Iomandra, where the events are largely character driven and the climax isn't preordained, planning for "the big finish" is far more crucial.
It's too early to predict when exactly the Wednesday night campaign will end. I would venture to guess that the game has about ten sessions remaining, give or take a session. My mission, then, is to determine what needs to be crammed into the thirty or so precious hours that remain. I've walked this road before, but the last time was over five years ago (and here I'm speaking of my 3rd-edition Arveniar campaign, which now seems like ancient history). My end-of-campaign planning tips, some of which I'm about to share with you, stem mostly from that experience and from various campaign-ending experiences before that. Take them with a sprinkling of pixie dust.
My Wednesday night players would be unhappy if the campaign ended before Vargas and Fleet reconciled their opposing quests, or if Xanthum (played by Curt Gould) didn't get sweet revenge for his six-year imprisonment in the Nine Hells, or if Deimos (played by Chris Youngs) didn't get to take his supercharged flagship into one final, glorious battle and solidify his candidacy for supreme Sea King of Iomandra. When it comes to "paying off" the campaign, my goals are shockingly simple:
- Deliver on the players' expectations.
- Add some things the players won't expect.
It's not enough to end the campaign in a manner that the players expect. I also need to weave in a few surprises as well, but I'll get to that in a moment.
After almost five years and thirty levels of game play, I have what I believe is a fairly clear picture of my players' expectations. In fact, I think my players' expectations are similar to your players' expectations, and indeed, every D&D group's expectations. I would summarize these expectations as follows:
- Bring the major campaign arcs to a fulfilling end.
- Bring each character's arc to a fulfilling end.
My first step in plotting the end of the campaign is to remember its major story arcs. They are, after all, the lighthouses that keep the campaign from running aground or slamming into the rocks.
My campaigns tend to have three major campaign arcs, for reasons discussed here. It's time to consider how far along these arcs have come and the extent to which I want them resolved. I don't think every arc needs to be fully resolved, let alone resolved in a similar fashion. For example, not every arc needs to culminate in a world-shaking clash of swords and hit points, with the bloodied heroes standing over the dismembered carcass of some immensely powerful villain the likes of Tiamat, Kyuss, or Third Demon Prince from the Left. (Still, this being D&D an' all, it's nice if at least one arc ends in bloodshed.)
The Campaign Arcs
Here, you may recall, are the campaign arcs I need to wrap up in some fashion:
Campaign Arc #1: A Far Realm incursion ignites a war that threatens to wipe out the Dragovar Empire. As it happens, this arc is 99% done. The Far Realm incursion was crushed when the heroes killed the elder starspawn Allabar, whose death triggered a psychic shockwave that killed every last mind flayer on the planet. Only one piece of unfinished business remains: the defeat or capture of Starlord Evendor, a mad eladrin warlock who triggered the Far Realm incursion to begin with.
Campaign Arc #2: A secret kingdom of Vecna worshipers lurks beyond the Black Curtain, poised to unleash an army of warforged powered by dead souls. This arc, neglected for much of the campaign, gained a lot of momentum in the epic tier and is playing out nicely. The secret kingdom of Vhalt isn't irredeemably evil, and there's hope (among some of my players, anyway) that the Vhaltese wizards in charge can be brought to heel once their warforged army is neatly dispatched. Recently, I added a few complications to this storyline by tying the Vhaltese threat to a pair of recurring villains named Kharl and Nemencia, who are collectively the bane of the Wednesday night group's existence.
Campaign Arc #3: The mercantile Sea Kings vie for financial superiority in a war-torn world. This final arc is well on its way toward a resolution of some kind, though as yet I know not what. Two of the characters are Sea Kings with mercantile fleets under their command, and together they have united most of the Sea Kings against a common enemy (see Campaign Arc #1 above). Once the common enemy no longer poses a threat, the question becomes whether the alliance will hold. One constant thorn in the party's side is Sea King Senestrago, who not only refuses to join the Sea King alliance but threatens to undermine it at every turn. Some kind of resolution involving him seems inevitable, although maybe not the sort of resolution the players have in mind. Here is where I might surprise them.
The Character Arcs
NOTE TO MY WEDNESDAY NIGHT PLAYERS: The remainder of this article contains major campaign spoilers. Read at your own risk.
Just as important as the campaign arcs are the individual character arcs that still need to be resolved. With a very large group of player characters, resolving every single character arc might be too great a chore even for a seasoned DM, but one can aspire toward that lofty goal. Fortunately, my Wednesday night group includes only five full-time player characters and one recurring special guest star, which I find to be a manageable size. (My Monday night group is slightly bigger.)
Although I've witnessed notable exceptions, I think most players want their characters to survive the campaign. Consequently, I try to ignore the imp perched on my left shoulder, urging me to concoct fiendishly ironic or fitting ways to kill them off. I'm not directing a slasher flick, after all. Whereas I'm well within my right to deal with campaign arcs as I please, character arcs require more care. They beg for a satisfying conclusion. Granted, a character might perish suddenly and unexpectedly for any number of reasons tied to the plot or otherwise, but at this point in the campaign, I think it's healthy and wise for the DM to imagine that all of the current party members will be around for the final session. Besides, it would be a shame (not to mention bad practice) to leave a particular character dilemma unresolved.
With scant few game sessions remaining, I find it helpful to imagine a fun, fitting end for each character. More specifically, I try to think of the ONE THING (or things, although one thing is easier to accomplish than several at this point in the campaign) that will give each player character a proper sense of closure. Here are the major character arcs for my Wednesday night group:
Character Arc #1: Xanthum the gnome bard (played by Curt Gould) breaks his "curse." Xanthum is a member of the Deeplantern Guild, a society of undersea explorers, but he thinks he's cursed. Maybe it's because every ship he's sailed on has (eventually) come to a terrible end. By the end of the last session, I want to find a way to make it clear that the curse is broken. That probably means I should refrain from blowing up the party's flagship (again). There's also the matter of Xanthum being imprisoned in the Nine Hells for six years, which has led to his deep-seeded resentment (and fear) of all things infernal. That little bit of character melodrama should be well on its way toward a resolution by the time this article is published.
Character Arc #2: Ravok the goliath battlemind (played by Andrew Finch) discovers how he got his psionic powers. For more information on Ravok's destiny and his possible connection to the evil Starlord Evendor, click here.
Character Arc #3: Deimos the tiefling sorcerer (played by Chris Youngs) unites the Sea Kings and establishes his reputation as the greatest Sea King to ply the oceans of Iomandra. Sea King Impstinger (as Deimos is known) has one of the smallest fleets on the Dragon Sea, but he's turned his flagship into an infernally powered, nigh-invincible juggernaut. Deimos also has the spirit of an ancient dragon sorcerer living inside him, driving his ambition. Will this spirit give him the advantage he needs to humble Sea King Senestrago and convince to the other Sea Kings to look past Deimos' les-than-remarkable upbringing and recognize his true noble self? We've already seen the dragon spirit manifest in times of great need, and I would very much like to see it emerge once more before the campaign is through. It would also be cool if Deimos could achieve his goal without the fabled artifact that previous Sea Kings relied on to win their peers' allegiancethe legendary cutlass Fathomreaver, which the party lost many levels ago.
Character Arc #4: Vargas the deva wizard/avenger (played by Rodney Thompson) becomes the Raven Queen's one true champion or not. Vargas has one more quest to fulfill for the Lady of Fate: the destruction of the warforged. However, he is torn. If he decides to let the warforged survive, all is not lost. Maybe Vargas will find another way to appease Her Majesty. And if that doesn't work out, he can (in the guise of Sea King Silvereye) strive to spread the Raven Queen's faith throughout the Dragovar Empire. There's also the matter of Vargas's race: he began the campaign as an eladrin who was, through his own designs, transformed into a deva, but now he's becoming more like his old self again. It's all part of his paragon path-slash-epic destiny, and one of those gradual bits of character development that helps to define the character, but the time has come for the "real Vargas" to shine through.
Character Arc #5: Fleet the warforged warden (played by Nacime Khemis) liberates his fellow warforged. Fleet has already achieved independence, and his messianic journey to free the rest of his kind has been a strong focus for the past several sessions, and will continue to play out over the course of the campaign. However, things are complicated by the fact that his ultimate goal conflicts with the goals of two of his companions. Ideally, this conflict will be resolved before all is said and done.
Character Arc #6: Thorin the warforged soldier (played by "special guest star" Tom LaPille) also wants to "liberate" the warforged. Thorin was recently persuaded to abandon his allegiance to Vecna and become a freethinking individual like Fleet. But Thorin is not like Fleet at all. Thorin is unusual in that he has a singular, dominant soul trapped inside of him instead of an admixture of souls. His dominant soul belongs to a disgruntled dwarf paladin who believes the warforged are walking prisons, and only by destroying them can he free their bound spirits and set them on a righteous path to the afterlife. As yet, Thorin's true intentions are unknown to the rest of the party . . . but clearly this "special guest star" is on the verge of wearing out his welcome. (And because he's a special guest star, his survival is shall we say not guaranteed!)
In terms of character and campaign arcs, recognizing what needs to be resolved before the end of the campaign is the first step in ensuring a satisfactory conclusion. Once I've reminded myself of the campaign arcs and character arcs that need to be addressed, I can set about brainstorming a "wish list" of what I'd like to see happen before the curtain falls.
The Wish List
My end-of-campaign wish list consolidates my own hopes and dreams with what I imagine are the hopes and dreams of my players the things they most want to see happen before the characters ride off into the sunset. I think of it as a crude road map. The key to creating a manageable wish list is to keep the number of wishes few in number. I arbitrarily recommend no more than one wish-list item per game session left in the campaign. Obviously, if you have only three sessions left and five character arcs to wrap up, some crunching or clever combining might be required.
Based on my initial assumption that the Wednesday night campaign has roughly ten game sessions remaining, I've compiled a wish list that tries to envision what the remaining sessions will cover based on the campaign arcs and character arcs described above.
End-of-Campaign Wish List
You'll note that many of these items have undetermined outcomes; that's because it's not enough to simply meet the players' expectations. Sometimes you need to reach beyond themeven defy them, on occasion. I don't have a crystal ball that tells me when it's a good idea to defy expectations rather than deliver on them, my general philosophy is that a DM should only defy expectations when the likely outcome is something that will increase the stakes in a way the players will probably enjoy. For example, everyone is expecting some kind of showdown with the evil Starlord Evendor, but in my Monday night game, I defied player expectations by letting a group of NPCs capture the villain. That didn't spoil the campaign arc, because a few sessions later the heroes were instrumental in thwarting an attempt by Evendor's evil apprentices to break him out of jail. It's unlikely I'll pull the same stunt with the Wednesday group, but I can mess with their heads in other ways. My main point is that I don't need to nail down every detail at this stage; I simply want to make sure I'm not forgetting anything important.
You'll further note that the last two items on my wish list aren't specifically tied to the major campaign arcs or character arcs, per se. However, based on various player conversations and murmurings overheard by yours truly, I believe these occurrences deliver on certain other player expectations, and more importantly, they could spawn really awesome game sessions. I haven't a clue which of these ten ideas if any will form the crux of the campaign's climax. A good DM remains silently attentive whenever the players speculate on the likely "climax" of the campaign a topic too lengthy to discuss here and now, but one I probably should tackle at some point in the not-too-distant future.
Until the next encounter!
Dungeon Master for Life,