How To Conjure Incredible Sandbox Campaign Climaxes
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1000
Adventure Workshop GM Jeff B asked me this thorny question about how to finish a great campaign:
If the adventure is not linear and the PCs aren’t railroaded, how can I get all the roads to lead to the big finale and tie up the loose ends?
I like to have sandbox kind of stuff as it gives players more options and they feel more in control, but I feel it makes it harder to wrap up and keep the final goal in mind.
Great question, Jeff. And a tricky one. Leaving everything up to the players makes a Campaign Finale, or even an adventure finale, a moving target and difficult to stage.
Here’s how I think you should approach it….
Don’t Step on the Pressure Plate
The truth is, the more we control, the less satisfying our Campaign Finale will be.
I learned this the hard way in my Riddleport campaign.
Riddleport was sandbox and it ended in a crazy scene atop a massive arch spanning the entire harbour. One spot for divine ascension opened up through murder and all factions backed a champion to become the next god.
The PCs, starting at first level, had to survive the streets and avoid being crushed by ruthless crime lords. As they puzzled out the murder of a god they eventually became 10th level champions for their nefarious faction.
Everything was going awesome until I forced the Campaign Finale atop the arch.
…Things felt rushed as I tried to meet specific conditions.
…Encounters felt forced as I strived for certain outcomes.
…The players lost most of their agency as I struggled to get them to a certain place at a certain time in front of certain faction champions.
The final battle was fun.
But it all felt scripted to me. And it left a sour taste in my mouth that killed my gaming for awhile afterwards.
Here’s how I’m approaching the same situation for Season III of my Murdero Hobodashers campaign.
Step 1. Nail Down Two Major Requirements: X + Y
We can’t swim in turbid GMing chaos. We need some solid land upon which to build our Campaign Finale else we stress, fret, and burn out.
Make your island by hammering Stakes into two of these major requirements:
- Who — Give the PCs a villain to confront
- Where — Create a legendary location
- How — Make the recipe for victory specific
- When — Require precise timing
- What — Conjure a specific event or circumstance
For example, PCs learn in The Demonplague campaign that to save civilization they must go to the Heart of the Luna Valley and destroy the villain Xancrown.
Though the clock is ticking due to spreading plague spawning evil valok, there’s no set date or time the character’s must hit to win.
Defeating Xancrown will be very tough, but there’s no specific achilles heel the PCs must plan for.
Other than learning where the Heart of the Valley is, and outpacing demonic rivals who seek to free Xancrown, there’s no specific event tied to the finale.
With just two Stakes pinioned, you can let the players do what they want without jeopardizing your Campaign Finale.
You can remain a nimble GM without forcing gameplay in certain direction.
The trap comes when you pin too many Stakes to the outcome.
If your Campaign Finale needs to hit a specific requirement for each Who, Where, How, When, and What, you’re making it tough on yourself.
And putting multiple conditions on multiple requirements? Three Who’s, two What’s, two How’s, and four What’s….that leads to GM madness. Hello Plot Cthulhu, take my sanity.
Stick with two major requirements for your Campaign Finale. X + Y.
Step 2. Leave Campaign Finale Prep Until The Last Moment
It’s our nature to control details and gain confidence by knowing the answers.
We must resist this temptation and let gameplay define the remaining parameters of our Campaign Finale.
You might want a three act structure, a twelve session season, or an epic battle on rocking ships in a roaring storm on Doomsday.
You have lots of tools in your GM Toolbox to influence and guide gameplay to realize your vision.
However, be prepared to change your vision as gameplay develops new options.
Let some chaos into the system and learn how to improv and adapt.
Allow the Campaign Finale to remain fluid until you spot the right moment to trigger it. At that point you can plan the heck out of it. Battlemaps, NPC final stats, environment, constraints, roleplaying moments. Plan it all.
But have patience and wait until for the right time to take your shot.
Step 3. Track All Lose Ends
The bane of many game masters. Too often we let other media dictate how we play our own, unique medium.
RPGs are collaborative, more dynamic, and than bigger the size of any screen or the page count of any book.
Those older mediums have specific structures that include building up, up, up to a climax and then tying everything off with neat bows.
They can do that because the mediums are static. The book is pre-written. The movie is pre-scripted. We can only watch.
But our game must be played to reveal what happens next. And the end should never be plotted until the last minute.
This allows players amazing freedom…which opens up many loops.
I offer two tips for you here for closing those loops.
First, track your plots, side-plots, and open loops well. I suggest my Loopy Planning Method and my Campaign Logger app, both designed specifically to account for the unique nature of roleplaying games and how we play them.
Second, stage how you close your Open Loops.
I suspect we GMs want some kind of big energy explosion from our Campaign Finales based on traditional mediums.
Everything comes to a head, a magnificent action scene ensues, and then the audience gets a satisfying denouement. We close the book, leave the theatre, scan for another Netflix series.
RPGs aren’t like this.
Campaigns and adventures take place over a long time (weeks, months, and years).
They get chunked into 2-12 hour sessions.
They are co-created by two+ players, including the GM, who might have their own special loops to close.
Therefore, stage things out. Just like how you trigger your Campaign Finale when you think conditions are right — and then do the detailed planning of it — you look for opportunities to close Open Loops at any time.
Yes, I assert you should close as many Open Loops as you can before your Campaign Finale.
Because we have a massive advantage over books and films.
We can create an infinite number of new Open Loops!
I’ve Mused on plot factories in the past. Building your Milieu a certain way to keep players engaged with ever evolving plots and from spawning new plots.
Learn how to be an expert marksman and trigger mini-finales where Open Loops reach a finale moment at the right time. And then play the Infinite Game to open up more loops if you think there’s still play left in your campaign.
As you track Open Loops and close some, keep good notes and let your campaign evolve.
Next, look for ways to tie off Open Loops during your Campaign Finale.
Bring in NPCs, treasures, and answers that close loops where it makes sense.
Because you wait until the right moment to trigger the Campaign Finale, you remain flexible as to what Open Loops remain for closure and which ones might be good to combo into the finale.
This means some Open Loops remain after your campaign’s climactic encounter.
This is totally ok. Remember, we’re playing a game. We don’t just want that feeling of major drama a climactic encounter brings us. We also want that long-lived feeling of satisfaction afterwards.
In RPG, we can get this feeling by playing out the consequences of the Campaign Finale.
Who got affected by how the finale encounter turned out? How are they affected? What else was affected?
This aftermath lets you play to find out how remaining Open Loops are affected by the finale encounter and then letting them reach a satisfying conclusion.
In the same way you don’t pre-program your Campaign Finale, you don’t pre-program your Open Loops.
- Some loops you finish before, and optionally, use them to spawn new loops.
- Some loops you finish during the Campaign Finale if you feel circumstances are right.
- The rest you clean up in the aftermath.
Step 4. Make The Campaign Finale A 5RD
Broaden your thinking so the Campaign Finale becomes an encounter sequence.
You don’t have to put all your goblin eggs in one basket.
Yes, it’s ideal if you can swing things so there’s a climactic battle or roleplaying confrontation with the actor responsible for the suffering and evil in your campaign.
However, just as satisfying is completing a series of encounters such that, when the PCs complete the sequence, they get that major endorphin kick of victory and completion.
You have that option too.
And that means we could use the 5 Room Dungeon format as our Campaign Finale.
Once we are more certain of how we can stage our Campaign Finale, we pull the trigger and plan it out.
We can have several build-up encounters before the epic villain confrontation.
These encounters can be another way to tie up your Open Loops!
The encounters can also strategically deliver other Stakes you have not nailed down yet, such as the Who, What, Where, When, and How.
You can use these encounters to satisfy the Why is players still have gaps about that.
You can use these encounters to deplete party resources if it looks like Room #4 Climactic Battle is under-powered.
Finally, you can make your Campaign Finale more dynamic because you can run your 5RD as a series of integrated encounters. When the results of the first encounter get gamed out, you can have the next encounters react.
In this way, your climactic campaign encounter can react to preceding last-minute player choices for a final opportunity to make it even grander.
I hope this helps, Jeff.
Avoid mimicking traditional mediums because they don’t apply so well.
Keep your Campaign Finale details fluid until you feel the moment is right to pull the trigger. Meantime, give players a couple of solid Stakes to pursue.
Track your session logs and ideas carefully so you can stay on top of your campaign’s details. This lets you stay agile and close and open loops with ideal storytelling timing. Last, think of your Campaign Finale not as a single defining moment, but as a pool of moments whose energy you can ride both before and after villain defeat or event resolution as you masterfully pull the levers of your Open Loops.