September 24, 2021

Finishing A Character’s Arc Properly

If we’re lucky, we’ll get the opportunity as DMs/GMs to complete our tabletop RPG campaigns. Whether it’s scheduling difficulties or life getting in the way, finishing long-term campaigns can be a relatively rare opportunity.

So this week’s DM/GM advice zooms in on how best to capitalize on that good fortune when it occurs – and design great endings to character arcs that the players will love.

Mapping Out The Journey

In stories, characters have journeys – both literal and figurative. Focusing on the latter for the moment, the GM/DM needs to be in tune with each of the characters’ own individual stories. What are their backstories? What have they been through, accomplished in this campaign? And what will be most meaningful both to the character and player to do justice to their entire journey?

Long-term tabletop RPG campaigns, like any great story series, have many twists and turns. Huge, epic moments and quieter, meaningful ones. Not to mention, the times everyone at the table was laughing their butts off…

For the GM/DM to do justice to the character – but also very much the player – it behooves them to take time out to reflect on all these moments together. Map out that character’s journey. Take note of its twists and turns, ups and downs. Hone in on their goals, what motivates and drives them. Carefully consider how their individual story thread has intersected with the broader tapestry of the overall story.

And when you’ve got that clear picture, you’ll be ready to design something special to finish off that character’s arc.

The Moment To Remember

When I’m designing these scenes and sequences, I typically gravitate to the moment(s) that the player and table will remember. That when we look back years later at the wonderful times we shared, what are the moment(s) that the player will point to that helped define their experience? These small but crucial fragments of time are the natural centers of gravity for these culminating sequences.

Invest your thoughts into making these moments ones to remember. Dig in your heels and don’t accept anything other than goosebumps when you’re in your mind’s eye, thinking of these scenes. You need to feel these moments. And they need to feel right for the character and the player.

Once these moment(s) are clear in your mind, the surrounding scenes and sequences will naturally begin to fall in place. The lead in, the aftermath, the table discussion…all of it naturally gravitates toward and around these moments to remember. Harness the natural attraction these moments have and build fantastic ending sequences for your players.

Meaningful Satisfaction

Once our designs are complete, how we evaluate what we have can be tough. Are these scenes and moments truly what the players will remember years later? We need a firm criteria for how we make a firm yes/no decisions with what we’ve designed. And when it comes to ending a character’s story the right way, I’ve come to rely on “meaningful satisfaction.”

Naturally, we want these scenes and moments to be meaningful to the character. But what can be lost when you’re doing your prep is ensuring these endings are also meaningful to the player. Because after all, it’s the player who’s invested real-world time, energy, and thought into this whole story. Their character’s ending needs to truly embody their character’s journey. And ultimately, leave them satisfied in a meaningful way.

It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t even necessarily have to be a “good” ending for the character. But the player needs to be moved. They need to feel. And they need to come away enriched from the experience having played that character start to finish. So when you have your design ready, before delivering it to the player, just take a step back and ask whether it will leave the player meaningfully satisfied.

Both you and your players won’t regret that extra investment!