You’ve seen it happen to many good TV shows: X-files, The Simpsons, M.A.S.H., Scrubs, 24, Friends, ER, Star Trek Voyager (regardless of whether you think it shouldn’t have existed in the first place). Series that should have called it quits but kept dragging their viewers along like a sack of tomatoes along a bumpy, dirt road. And in the end, all you have is a mess.
Recently one of my players confessed that he would be moving away, leaving our D&D campaign. This player and his character have been integral parts of the game from the start. He was a newcomer to D&D, but he learned quickly. His half-elf warlock was a lascivious aristocrat, who was always getting into trouble. He unwittingly carried around an orb containing a fragment of Tharizdun, feeding it aberrants and listening to its whispered promises. He attached the Hand of Vecna, and when it was lost, he became a vampire to restore the missing appendage. That kind of stuff.
His character was one of four from the original cast that began the campaign about two years ago. Thus, when he told me he’d be leaving the campaign, I made an executive decision to end the campaign rather than let it drag on with an increasing number of new characters who were disconnected from the plot.
Knowing when to end a campaign can be challenging. You and your players invest a lot of time into a campaign—hundreds of hours of your life over several years. As a DM, you get to know the players and the characters; it’s much easier to run a campaign in which you’re familiar with the moving parts. William Faulkner said “In writing, you must kill your darlings.” In other words, when you love something in your writing that you’re too attached to, it’s something that must usually be removed. I think the same is true in D&D. Once in a while, you read the writing on the wall, and it says “That’ll do pig. That’ll do.”
Okay, enough quotes. In all seriousness, I think D&D campaigns have natural lifespans, and even a DM who carefully paces his game can succumb to extending that lifespan with plot tricks and filler. Your players might not even realize they’re being dragged along toward some foregone conclusion. As a DM, it’s easy to get ideas into your head about how a campaign should end. Particularly in 4th edition, where all the big baddies are level 30+, it’s easy to assume that a campaign must end at that point to be dramatic.
That’s not true at all! You decide where the drama is. I’ll confess, in my head, I envisioned the PCs fighting the Princes of Elder Elemental Evil, Vecna, and possibly even Tharizdun. But that’s the danger. You get so preoccupied with an end point that you don’t recognize natural conclusions when they come along. The conclusion might be brought about by the plot and the characters, or it might be a result of the players leaving. Whatever the case, be vigilant in your game to make sure it doesn’t stagnate. The best TV series and novels, the ones that you remember fondly, are those that leave you wanting more. It’s the same with a D&D campaign. As a DM, I want players to talk about what happens to their characters after the campaign ends. Epic destinies might discuss about what your character does after fulfilling his destiny, but let’s face it, once you’re a demigod, life really isn’t all that interesting. I think it’s more interesting if there is some space there, and recognizing when to end a campaign is really a matter of having the restraint to leave a bit of mystery at the conclusion.