The worst thing about the best games is when they’re over.
Given that, it’s often tempting to keep a good game going even after the PCs have done just about everything you had for them to do. The Big Bad can only wait so long for the PCs to show up and whoop their tail before they have to go through with their plans to finish taking over and/or destroying the world, but there’s always the option to reveal that they were just the puppet to an even bigger Big Bad that now requires a whole new quest chain to collect the pieces to build the divine weapon to have a chance of saving everyone.
And there’s nothing inherently wrong with Matryoshka-ing your way to more game forever and ever as long as your players are interested and having fun! But there is an inherent value in bringing a game to a satisfying end, and that shouldn’t be overlooked when you’re coming up on that last arc and final fight with fate.
With alarming regularity, I hear gamers in their 30s, 40s and even 50s talk about having never played a ‘complete’ game. For so many of us, the game goes until people get bored of it and want to do something else, or the group falls apart due to scheduling, or outright ruptures for other reasons, leaving literal years worth of gaming without a satisfying end.
Compare that to a fixed-run game – six months, maybe a year with the same characters before they achieve the major goal they came together over in the first place – and then a happy epilogue with everyone energetic and eager for the next thing.
Yes, there’s a loss in terms of getting to play and grow the same characters a bit more, but compared to the chance that the group will fall apart before that happens or interest will wane unevenly across the group, forcing you to string some players along for the sake of others, it’s often worth it for the certainty of a satisfying end.
For the best of both worlds, plan for complete story arcs with just enough room to squeeze out a sequel without it being a cliffhanger. You don’t need to know all the details in between, but pick an end when you pick a start and keep yourself at least somewhat on pace to wrap up in a year or less. If everyone’s schedules are behaving and look likely to continue, take a brief break (a month or so) and then kick off the second arc with the new Big Bad – not necessarily bigger and badder, but different.
Give players the opportunity to switch out characters, or individual players to bow out gracefully if they’re no longer interested or able to join regularly. They’ve at least had a satisfying complete game with the group, even if they can’t join in for round two. It’s a perfect time to onboard new players, or to try out a new adventure path or a new setting/motif for the second arc without starting a whole new game.
But it is also a chance to switch games entirely and/or to pass the mantle of GM, and because the game had a preset expiration date, there’s no hard feelings for the old game if folks want to try something new.
Games and gamers suffer their own inertia, and players who want to do something different may not say anything until the game’s over because they assume everyone else is still enjoying what they’re doing. Having built-in break points gives them an ordained opportunity to speak up and weigh in on continuing or not along the current path. Naturally if they all want to keep going, it’s more than a little of an ego boost for the GM, which is never unwelcome.
Like with any game, keep your ending open enough that you can trigger it on short notice if folks do want the campaign to end on their clock rather than yours, and have a few short mini-arcs in your back pocket in case folks want to extend the game by a small amount but not enough for a whole year. Your players will get that satisfying “achievement unlocked” feeling and the opportunity to switch things up at regular intervals, so you can always feel confident they’re playing the game they want to play.
Appropriately, let me end with the epilogue. To signal the end of an arc, always have an epilogue prepared. It should be deeply personal, telling the story of the PCs’ individual efforts based on the trajectories they took during the game itself.
Give the players the choice to tell their own, but have ones ready on your own. It gives a sense of what the players accomplished not only as a group but on their own, and should be a mix of humorous and heartfelt, bringing in mention of the NPCs they seemed to enjoy most as witness to or partners in their future victories.
Don’t go too far into the sunset unless you’re sure the game is ending for real – leave open the option for the PC to be playable in time for the potential sequel campaign, but give them something in-character to do with themselves other than going back to the same old status quo they started from.
All this is to say don’t get so distracted enjoying your game that you forget that all good things must come to an end, and that your players will often be much more grateful to have an ending to a game they would happily keep playing than to press on into an indeterminate future until the game and its players are run into the ground.
When it comes to gaming, it really is best to quit while you’re ahead.