One of the things that I’ve been asked about a few times is ending a campaign of D&D or other roleplaying games.
It’s the sort of thing that comes up from time to time because of the fact that many of these games are entirely open-ended. There aren’t any real stopping points or times to end the campaign scripted into most games, and barring a catastrophe that kills all the player characters (deserved or not), it’s hard to reach a point where the game comes to a satisfying conclusion.
First, you need to know the player characters well enough to really wrap things up. What do they want? Did their actions help them get it or move them away from it? Is it easily achievable? Will it bring them happiness, or is it a quixotic quest?
In the Hero’s Journey set out by Joseph Campbell and then distilled into other forms by various critics and literary theorists, there is always a supreme ordeal that comes at the height of the hero’s trial.
Then this ordeal is followed by a return to the ordinary world.
This isn’t something that necessarily has to be the same place as the player characters started (though it can be), but there are three things to consider at the end, and this can be a mixture of reward and punishment for the characters.
The first step is solving a problem or proving themselves in the ordinary world. This can happen most obviously when whatever major quest hook has been leading the whole campaign has been resolved, but that’s often part of the supreme ordeal.
Instead, you want to have a focus on how the player characters go from adventurers on a quest to “retirement” and what comes after their quest. This doesn’t mean they’re gone forever (you can even do this at interludes in the campaign), but you do need to think about having them go back into the world.
Usually this takes the form of returning to the quest-giver and getting the reward, but you can also have there be other challenges ahead. Tolkien does this in The Lord of the Rings by having Saruman’s forces arrive in the Shire. The hobbits easily repel him with the experience that the protagonists have gained in the world, but it is still a final challenge, if an easy one.
The second step is to have the heroes improve their world meaningfully. This is different from just returning.
Whatever secrets or powers they have gained transform their society: if they have slain a dragon, then that has solved the immediate problem, but their mastery makes them a protector of the village in perpetuity, a stalwart that stops not only the dragon problem but future monster problems until the hero’s eventual death.
Think of it like patching software–something fundamentally and universally wrong with the world is no longer a concern for the people around the hero once the hero has returned triumphant into the ordinary world.
There are times that you are going to deviate from these two steps.
One thing that can happen is a tragic hero, who triumphs but then is brought low by some series of events, especially relating to earlier moral failures. If the player characters succeeded in their mission, but at unacceptable costs (or they committed crimes along the way), they’re going to face the consequences when they return to the ordinary world and they are recovering from the jubilation of their triumph.
The important thing is to consider how you are going to be bringing it all together. Not every character is going to have the same ending, and it’s really hard to pull this off if you fail to introduce your world well at the start of the campaign.