From the Greek, to uncover, or reveal. But when we speak of an apocalypse, we think of a world-shattering event—most often, the actual end of the world.
What a memorable way to end a campaign.
A GM can end a campaign in several ways. The game can simply stop in mid-adventure, abandoned. The game can be neatly wrapped up and tied off, with “happily ever after” endings for everybody.
Or the game can end with a bang.
I’ve run many campaigns since I started gaming in the ’70s. Many of them have ended in a spectacular climax that changes the face of my world forever. Why?
First, an apocalyptic, earth-shaking ending satisfies players. That is, after all, the stuff that legends are made of—and every player likes the idea of his or her character becoming a legend. A good epic ending will keep your game alive in an anecdotal afterlife for years to come.
Second, apocalypses are great excuses for changing the world around. Decided you want to tweak your magic system, segue your Unknown Armies campaign into a Call of Cthulhu campaign, end your Warhammer Fantasy game with a bit of All Flesh Must Be Eaten? Or simply swap your D&D campaign over from second to third edition? Incredible events give you a great excuse for such a change. Blood-red comets bearing plagues … a nuclear explosion … a war among the deities … aliens landing. Just a few ways you can transform one campaign into another or explain a sudden change in the rules.
Third, apocalypses can end a campaign swiftly and without questions. Often the GM of a well-liked campaign may be pestered for weeks or months or even years after a game has ended: What happened to my character? Who won that war? Did so-and-so survive? If you want to end a game finally and definitively, destroying everything is one way to do so. If you’re a merciful GM, let the player characters escape with their lives. If you’re unmerciful, end it all. (You might want to consider your players here—some will be devastated if you smash your campaign world into smithereens, and others will applaud wildly.)
The way you end your world should be tailored to your campaign. If you know that your game will end at a certain time—for example, you know you’ll be graduating out of college and moving away from your college gaming group in a year—then you have a great opportunity to plant the seeds early for the cataclysm to come. If the end needs to come suddenly, then you’ll have to be a bit quicker on your feet to make it seem like a logical capstone to the campaign.
Some types of games lend themselves naturally to a certain type of catastrophe. For example, Warhammer Fantasy and Call of Cthulhu games are already stacked against the players—some unspeakable horror or another arises and it’s all over. ETesque games like Conspiracy X can end when the aliens land (or are destroyed, for a more heroic end). Magic-type games like Mage or Unknown Armies or Shadowrun or even Feng Shui can end with a magickal holocaust. And so forth….
In other campaigns, an existing plotline could very well culminate in some disastrous finale. Been running a campaign with a nefarious archvillain? This is his or her time to shine with some dastardly plot to destroy the very fabric of reality! Been running a game with escalating political tensions? Time for war to break out, fast, furious, and unforgiving. The key is to make the apocalypse make sense given the background of the campaign, the social situation that the characters are already aware of, and, preferably, the actions of the player characters themselves triggering the end. (Or perhaps just barely preventing it, for you soft-hearted sorts.)
Can this be satisfying? Sure! Think of Dr. Strangelove—what player character wouldn’t get a kick out of cockily riding the Bomb to its final destination (especially if that destination is, perhaps, the character’s enemy’s fortress)? Or any number of war movies, where the survivors walk through vast battlefields covered with corpses, hoping that—perhaps—the worst is over at last. Or those zombie and monster movies where the monsters are held back at last … but the protagonists know that they’re still out there, somewhere, just waiting to rise again….
In addition, recall the etymology of the word “apocalypse.” To uncover or reveal. An apocalyptic campaign can be a great way to reveal final secrets about the campaign or the nature of reality. Use it to strip away any remaining mysteries in your game, perhaps to evoke a sense of wonder. An apocalypse can be a stirring as well as frightening event. Use the event to enrich your campaign even as you end it.
Have I sold you on the idea yet? Then get out your gaming notebook and jot down these steps:
- Decide how the world will end.
- Decide how the player characters will be involved in the world’s end.
- Decide whether you ever plan to use the campaign world again. This will affect your next decision!
- Decide whether the world really and truly ends or just gets really bruised and battered if the player characters manage to foil the plot.
- Decide whether the player characters live or die. (Of course this should depend on how the players are likely to respond to their characters’ deaths, and also to what the player characters do during the game.)
- Decide whether the player characters’ dependents live or die. (Ditto.)
- Decide whether you want to end on a high note or a low note. A high note might be a “your characters foiled the plot and can now spend their lives rebuilding the world.” A low note might be “your characters look out the window of their spaceship and see the Earth vanish in a white flash.”
- Remember that you can always run a post-apocalyptic campaign later….
Ending a campaign with an apocalypse requires a bold and decisive GMing style. It’s a gambit filled with risk—risk that players will be displeased, risk that your GMing style will fail to impress, risk that you’ll prematurely end a campaign that you might want to resurrect again in a few years. But if handled well, the apocalyptic campaign end will be something your players will remember the rest of their lives. Or until the world ends. Whichever comes first.
Originally written February 16, 2001
Image Source: Revelation cap 20 v 1. Mortier’s Bible. Phillip Medhurst Collection