This is Our Game: How do you wrap up a campaign that has run out of steam?

Every month our group of contributors circulates a point about running a D&D game, or some other RPG-centric problem to address. We all stew and think about it for a while, then write up a response. At the end of the month we compile our responses for your reading pleasure.

This month’s question is: How do you wrap up a campaign that has run out of steam?

Geek Ken – Over the years I’ve had various ways my campaigns have ended, and not all of them were satisfactory. Sometimes things come up with the sudden departure of players or other family emergencies that just make your campaign grind to a halt. Usually you need a critical mass of players. If a ton of them drop, you likely need to alter the story to accommodate less players and at times you might even have to consider dropping the current campaign completely.

However as much as a DM might be enamored with the world they created, you really need the players on board. If the PCs don’t care anymore and rather be doing something else. You likely need to consider a change. I see two ways of doing this, either a break or ending the campaign (and restarting with other PCs and a new story).

I’ve done the hard stop. It is the least satisfying end. On occasions, I’ve had the best of intentions to continue the story at some later date, but it never seems to work out. Typically either I or the players will want to gather new characters and challenges, so a new campaign is usually more appealing. The quick end is always an option. I think you’ll find your players forgiving if that has to be the case, but I consider it the last choice. Players like some closure. Try to give it to them.

This might mean having to quickly go through some key adventures. I’d consider a night of narrating much of the events the players go through. Consider even resolving some events abstractly or as complex skill challenges. Think about even bumping your PCs up a level or two. But strive to make that last adventure something memorable and something they can complete. Above all, make sure you have ample time to wrap things up.

Make sure you have at least an hour of game time after that last killing blow is made, some ritual is stopped, item destroyed, etc. You need time to wrap up a lot of loose ends. Yes, the players finally stopped the main villain and saved the world. They need additional time to spend in that world interacting with NPCs, allowing them to savor the adoration of the people they helped. So carefully consider your last session. Sure they might be able to get through that last dungeon in an evening, but they’ll need more time after to truly end the campaign. Make sure you give it to them.

The alternate to ending your campaign is taking a break. There are lots of ways you can do this. You can run an entirely new campaign. Have a completely different group off in another part of the game world (or a different time, like far in the future). I would really consider making a jump into another system and genre though. Consider doing a short adventure playing superheroes, or investigators in Cthulhu horror setting.

Sometimes your players might just need a little change of scenery. Just something different for a while to get their minds and creativity engaged in something else. After a session or two, you’ll likely find them ready to jump right back into the old campaign. So don’t fret if your group wants to take a little break. Likely it’ll help them maintain interest in the current game you are running, oddly playing a different RPG can be a way to do that.

Thadeous I have to admit I have the least amount of tact of anyone I know when it comes to ending a campaign. If a game is sputtering out either due to my schedule shifting, the players lack of interest or so other unforeseen causes I just send out an email letting everyone know it’s over. I know, breaking up over an email is a harsh thing to do, and they are always filled with “it’s not you it’s me” lines but I would rather save my self a night of explaining and arguing. If it’s going to end I might as well end it quick and easy like.

Many DMs/GMs try to bring their stories and campaigns to some sort of conclusion that makes sense. For me this has always been an exsercise in futility. If lack of interest, altered schedules or tension between the players is causing a game to lose steam it can often feel like a chore to get everyone together to finish the story. I’m lazy, and I don’t like doing that much work just so I can get closure on my campaigns. It’s just not worth it to me, I would rather enjoy a night playing something else than feel like I had to work hard just to end the game on a good note.

I do continue on for a few weeks doing game nights; inviting any of now game-less players to join me in trying out new board, card, or role playing games. These game nights often help end things on a good note. As everyone continues to get together to enjoy games with out feeling the stress of needing to be there for the team and gridning it out. Running these nights also lets me get a feel for who in the group really wants to play and who is gone for good. If I plan to restart a campaign I always draw from the players who attended game nights first.

All in all “breaking up is hard to do”, but if something in the group dynamic really makes it hard to enjoy I would suggest that when you hit the end of your rope pull the bandaid off as fast as you can, the sooner it is over the sooner you can move on to the next group, game or next what ever it takes to enjoy your self.

Arcane Springboard: I’ll admit that I have a bit of a problem with Campaign Attention Defecit Disorder. I’ve found that I only have about 18 months tops in running a campaign before I want to do something ‘different’. As such, my usual campaign end is much like a cancellation of a TV series…sudden.

That said, my campaigns until recently haven’t had much in the way of metaplot. Mostly they’ve just been a series of loosely connected published adventures.

However, my first 4e campaign did ‘end’ around 18th level a bit over a year ago. I made a point of having an epic end to that campaign, with the party finally able to defeat a nemesis that had been bothering them over two campaigns (and over two editions).

Even then, that campaign didn’t really truly ‘end’ until the next session when we started a new ‘campaign’ though with a few new characters…which ended in a TPK. Xen’drik is dangerous that way.


Part idiot. Part old man. All geek. Geek Ken likes games. Sometimes he likes to blog about them too.


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About Geek Ken

Geek Ken likes games. Sometimes he likes to blog about them too.
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3 Responses

  1. I had a 4e campaign going really nicely. It was set in Faerun, but I was writing all the adventures myself. The pretence was a pilgrimage with some big reveals along the way. However, I made the mistake of dropping in a published adventure “Scepter Tower of Spellgard” and this really killed the whole feel I had going. I could tell my players were getting bored and I was getting bored, so I decided to throw a little curve ball. I basically initiated a Beholder invasion in the catacombs of Spellgard. I decided that when the adventurers discovered the Beholders they would either all die or if some of them survived that would be the hook for starting a new campaign focussed on raising an army to fight the Beholders. 2 out of 6 characters died in the encounter and that last session was very memorable, but I have DM’d since. 🙁

  2. Three little letters: T P K

  3. I completely agree with what you’re saying! In fact, I recently wrote an article concerning the same thing. All of us GM’s have at one point had a probelm with this. But, what are…

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