By the time you read this, I'll be getting ready to run what will hopefully be the finale of the Firefly RPG campaign I've been running since October.
Counting Firefly, I believe I've run exactly a dozen campaigns since I started GMing, but there are only two of those that I can say actually reached a proper conclusion and one of those only barely. All the others were cut short for one reason or another. The first got cut short when I moved to start university, two were put on hiatus due to hospitalisation and never got picked up again, one suffered a near TPK and would have needed serious retooling to continue, others faded due to player drop-outs (university can be a bitca for that, with study committments and such) and one or two due to GM burnout on my part.
As all of this suggests, I'm no expert at finishing campaigns, but I have learned a few lessons along the way which might help me more successfully end campaigns in the future. This post will be more about how to ensure a campaign actually reaches a conclusion as opposed to looking at how to handle the conclusion itself, but that might be a good topic to visit in a future post. Hmm...anyway, here goes:
1) Plan For The Short TermSome campaigns can go on for years with no fixed end point in sight, with the players just running around having adventures in the sandbox that is the game's setting. If you have a group that can commit to that kind of long-term game, all well and good, but if you're anything like me, then you have a very limited timescale for running campaigns in. I run games at a university-based gaming society, which means I have to run within the confines of the academic year.
I've always planned my campaigns as if they were 'seasons' of a TV show - the first game I ever ran was the Angel RPG, and the GM advice in that adopted a TV-style story structure - but I've learned to make them short seasons, more along the lines of Doctor Who or Spooks than US shows which generally run for 22 episodes per season. I have two semesters to run a whole campaign, knowing that I can't be sure of players' continued commitment over breaks or even into the next academic year. That gives me 8 weeks (minimum) per semester to run games, allowing for the possibility of breaks due to player absence or other unplanned for interruptions.
So I've learned that I need to set myself a hard limit of 12-16 sessions per season, with a mid-season hiatus for the Christmas break.
This doesn't mean I can't run a sandbox-style game, it just means I have to be aware of how long I have before I need to start steering things towards some kind of conclusion. It doesn't have to be utterly final, perhaps leaving an opening for another season if people are available and interested in continuing in the next academic year.
Keeping it short (with breaks) also helps reduce the possibility of GM burnout becoming an issue. A big part of GM burnout (at least for me) is growing fed up with running the same old thing for too long.
2) Know Your Endpoint and Pace Yourself Accordingly
Again, this is less relevant for sandbox-style play, but if you run structured, fixed-term campaigns like I do then your campaign should probably have some kind of end point built in. Your PCs have some sort of concrete plot-oriented goal to achieve, like defeating the big bad, exposing the conspiracy, or reaching the pit of doom to destroy the mystic macguffin. Knowing where the PCs should be at the end of the campaign, you can scatter the necessary clues or resources to help them get there. Knowing how long you have to run the campaign, you'll also know how many obstacles or side-quests to throw in along the way.
3) Co-ordinate With Your Players
I pushed my luck with the Doctor Who campaign last year and assumed I'd be able to squeeze in one last session after the exam period was finished to wrap up the campaign. As it turned out, one of my players had to head home very shortly thereafter and I didn't want to run a finale without everyone present. The result is that it's a year later and we still haven't had our finale for that game, and possibly never will.
This year, I've been careful to make my players aware of how many weeks I plan to continue the campaign for and been sure to keep up to date on what their plans are, so that I know what weeks they'll be available and how long they're willing to stick with the campaign overall. Luckily, most of the group has been willing to continue into the summer break if needed, but I've stuck to my hard limit of 16 sessions maximum and we're going to be wrapping up just before the exam period starts.
4) Every Now And Then, Stop And Take Stock
This is more about fending off GM burnout than anything else, but recapping the campaign so far for yourself is a good way of finding your bearings again. Knowing both where you are in the campaign and what has gone before will help you figure out where to head next with the campaign, especially as you approach the end. It also might remind you of elements that you can reintroduce or make you aware of elements that can be removed entirely from play, which will either reinvigorate your campaign or get rid of things which are weighing you down needlessly.
These are just a few ways I've thought of for helping make sure I can finish a campaign, but as always if anyone has advice or thoughts of their own I'd be interested in hearing from them in the comments. In any case, right now I'm probably sitting down to wrap up the Firefly campaign, so wish me luck with that and I'll see you again soon!