The Alphastream Game Design Blog
Recently, Mike Shea tweeted a tip he and I have talked about before. It’s a technique to use at the end of a campaign:
Let’s review how this technique works. And then, let’s look at what it tells us about campaigns and how to reverse engineer the process so we run compelling campaigns.
I last talked about this when discussing the end to my Numenera “Wondla” campaign.
“The novel ends in a really cool way. It has short chapters spaced out across different times. Each leaps ahead to tell us how life has changed for their lands. It is a bittersweet ending – you see the characters die, but also see their legacy.
I asked the players to do the same. They imagined and discussed and chose what would happen near-term.
They then imagined and chose what would happen 100 years from now. Their powers would grow as a result of their transformation, and they could imagine any possible future. I don’t recall the exact details, but it was fun. The essence of what they had roleplayed became the future of the planet.”
The technique of asking players what happens 1, 10, 50, or even 100 years after the end of the campaign is a great way to honor PCs. First, it allows each player to reflect on what their character accomplished. Then, it gives each player the power to imagine what those accomplishments can mean over time.
When a player does this, they will examine their character and project it onto the campaign setting and their accomplishments. It’s a fantastic way to bring all the elements of a campaign together, empowering the players to have the final say in the narrative.
We can see this in The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Time is spent at the end, showing us what the characters do after the threat has ended. This can be bittersweet. An elf might ponder their relationship with a human. A character who fought for a kingdom might imagine how it rises after a threat is gone, but they may also envision new challenges. A halfling might ponder a happy home life, but also consider how brief it is in the scheme of things.
This is why it often makes sense to pose several time periods to the players. “Tell me, from your character’s perspective, what the campaign world looks like 5 years later. Then, tell me what it looks like 50 years later. And finally, 100 years later.” This forces the players to engage in a unique perspective as they contemplate near-term goals but also the legacy they leave behind. For long-lived characters, you may even move that final time period to be 400 years later!
As Mike proposed in his tweet, you can give players time to prepare, letting them know a session early so they can think about their answers.
Now, you may prefer the default ending to a campaign. The heroes defeat the great evil, and we don’t ask what happens after that. We presume the heroes will continue adventuring. Some players may prefer this, because they don’t want to think about endings, especially the mortality of their character. They want to feel that this can go on forever – the characters having a string of deeds without any actual ending.
That’s totally fine. We can still make a compelling campaign, which is what we will talk about next. And, you can always take a hybrid approach where you talk about near-term results from the heroes’ deeds, but don’t take it beyond their adventuring careers. That tortle never retires (sorry, buddy).
Not all campaigns lend themselves to easily answering these questions. Imagine a campaign where we simply explore a mega-dungeon, ending the dangers within. When we ask what happens 10 years later… we might just have a lot of treasure. One player might build a tower, and another might keep adventuring. 100 years later? We don’t really have many campaign reasons for the answer to be interesting.
Now consider a campaign that resembled Game of Thrones. The variety of competing factions and nations drives players to consider enmities and alliances throughout the campaign. Players had to develop opinions on what they want the world to look like, which makes it far easier to answer the question of what happens in 10, 50, and 100 years. One character might transform the Night’s Watch. Another might see to the elimination of a rival, or the creation of a lasting alliance. One might become a master spy, coordinating a network across the realms for the realization of some goal. And one might seek to rebuild the northern wall or undo ancient wrongdoings so as to transform the world.
We can look at a few of the official D&D 5E campaigns and ponder how well they set us up for answering these questions. The ones that do a better job are likely the most engaging, giving our characters a stake in the campaign and the ability to exert change.
Quite obviously, players get to end (or fail to end) the threat of the Cult of the Dragon and Tiamat’s attempt to return. With most adventures, characters can always dedicate themselves to making sure those threats don’t return. But we also have opportunities during the adventure to ally with the five factions (Emerald Enclave, Lord’s Alliance, Harpers, Zhentarim, Order of the Gauntlet). Furthermore, we have scenes where we meet with the major Sword Coast cities and their leaders. This very importantly gives our players and their characters footholds in the setting and the ability to think about alliances after the campaign ends.
Tiamat and Hoard do a great job. You can simply lean into this for greater yields.
While the characters explore many different locations such as Underdark cities, few of them create the types of interactions that lead to lasting relationships. While a character might decide to tie themselves to Blingdenstone or a similar location, the adventure doesn’t really facilitate that. Gauntlgrym is the most likely of the locations, but is still not as engaging as it could be. The campaign conclusion feels rather complete and the heroes likely leave the Underdark behind.
To get more out of the campaign, you can create deeper relationships with the different Underdark peoples. For it to matter, the characters have to have a personal stake in how these peoples fare, and to care whether they prosper or suffer. The places must in turn have a relationship with the characters, such that they react to the heroes and desire to help or hinder them. These underground kingdoms could have relationships with specific cities in the surface world, such that at the end the characters have surface world relationships and continuing surface and Underdark ties.
Beyond Red Larch, this adventure is a big romp through linked dungeons. The adventure misses out on opportunities to empower the characters in making big decisions, working with factions, or interacting with the elements of the setting. Part of the problem is that the “Mirabar Delegation” is a loose plot thread with no tangible consequence for the players.
To improve this campaign, consider replacing the Mirabar delegation with a city that is closer, such as Neverwinter or Waterdeep. Discovering the delegation’s fate could be of vital importance to that city, as well as Red Larch, and this could be communicated to the characters each time they visit any area town or village. The factions are present and their role could be elevated, recruiting the characters and promoting them within the organizations.
ToA has Port Nyanzaru, with five Merchant Princes who seek to keep their land independent. It is threatened by the Flaming Fist of Baldur’s Gate and by Ahm and Thay. It also faces threats from within (the villain, but also Yuan-Ti). In parallel, the people of Chult have retreated from their worship of Ubtao and their historical ties to the royalty they think dead. The characters can greatly change the nature of Chult as part of the campaign, but this only comes out if you make those elements relevant as the characters interact with the Merchant Princes, foreign threats, Kir Sabal, and the history of Chult. Characters can be a huge part of the setting’s future. Played well, this campaign has awesome potential for answering the 50 and 100 year questions!
By the measure we have been discussing, great campaigns are ones where the players feel attachment to multiple setting aspects. The players, and their characters, see a world with many possibilities and their own role as pivotal.
We can build that type of campaign. Here are some elements to consider.
I’ll avoid spoilers here, I promise. It’s no secret that the adventure deals with the Ten Towns. So, in creating a compelling Rime campaign that will let us have satisfying answers to the 10-100 year question, we can consider the following:
We can create relationships to one or more towns. The stronger, the better. Towns can act like factions, and the characters can ally with one or more. My personal pick is to use the franchise rules to let the characters be in charge of a town. This gives them a personal stake in that town and their success will naturally create relationships with other allied and opposed towns.
We can have the larger plot impact the progress of what the players hold dear. The entity they choose for their franchise (which could be a business or even the town’s government) is threatened by the villains, but also by other towns. Progress strengthens what the players care about, while setbacks hurt them.
We can stay connected. Unfortunately, adventures often introduce characters to a home base and then we never see it again. We can nevertheless find ways to keep players connected. The franchise rules let us do this, but even without them we can return to our town in between chapters. And, we can have NPC allies reach out to PCs, sending missives (or using magic) to provide updates. Successes far from home can still reach characters. “What did you heroes do? Things are better now! Thank you!”
Consider an NPC “B-Team.” When NPCs start to matter to the players, consider a surprise session where the players play those NPCs against a threat against their home town. You can use the Sidekick rules or NPC stat blocks to keep play simple, and throw manageable threats at them. This lets players know that their home and the organizations they fight for are still active even while they are off exploring.
Vignettes. When the players achieve something, tie it to their home. Maybe the PCs take down a band of evil humanoids that had threatened merchants. Reward them with a vignette where goods are flowing into their town more readily, bolstering commerce. Conversely, when the players choose not to tackle a danger, a vignette might underscore that decision. If the characters chose not to deal with the ogres, describe a scene where an ogre smashes up a wagon of vital supplies and hauls it back to their lair.
Create pivotal points as you near the end. Through vignettes, B-Team scenes, and missives from NPCs, you can underscore the importance of what the players are doing. As they prepare to take on the villain, give them the sense that everything hangs in the balance of their actions. Threats surround their town, and will either seize opportunity if the characters fail or run for the shadows if the characters succeed. A victory, even far away from town, has lasting impacts.
Threaten, but don’t destroy without the players being involved. While it can be tempting to have goblins tear apart their home, this can play poorly if the characters had no hand in it. The setting is engaging when what the heroes do and don’t do matters. Unassociated events rob them of agency. Their town shouldn’t be destroyed if they did everything right. If that happens, they may think that their actions won’t matter against the fickle will of the gods. Threats should show up either based on their actions or to reveal new important actions. The narrative, and agency, belongs to the players and their characters.
Asking the 10, 50, and 100 year questions don’t preclude having another campaign with the same players or even the same characters. If you know you will continue play, make it clear to the players that the question is now one of intent. Their goals and dreams. You can now use this as fodder for ideas, as you know how important those dreams are to the players.
There you have it. What do you think? Have you had campaigns that posed these questions? How would your characters answer them?