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This question has a specific and a general sense.

Eventually, if your game runs long enough, a party will be pretty much maxed out - reaching level caps, wielding top-level powers and abilities, dispatching the most fearsome enemies. There are monsters and encounters that can challenge even the toughest parties, mechanically speaking, but in terms of narrative, there's only so far you can go. Speaking D&D-specific for a moment, I've seen monster specs for some of the 4e gods. Once your party has killed a god (or several), there's not much to go "up" to from there.

Also, even if you can think up a tale that justifies a string of high-level encounters of that sort, with no more skills or abilities to gain the players will no longer be able to develop their characters beyond free-form RP, so gameplay might get a bit repetitive (my players love gaining and trying out new skills... with nothing new to gain, I fear they'll get bored).

So, the general question is: how do DMs deal with this?

In a more specific sense, I had an idea a little while ago for an encounter (D&D 4e) that basically ends with the party being "retired". The basic gist is that the campaign ends with a choice: leave yourselves an exit, and know that this also leaves the chance for your foe to return someday, or make the ultimate sacrifice to defeat them permanently. It wouldn't be a death as such; the characters would still exist but would be trapped beyond the mortal realms. (If anyone's familiar with the Thomas Covenant books, think of the bit where he gets trapped inside the Arch of Time). As a DM, I'd love to have the characters show up as NPC demigod/guardian angel/Ghost Of Encounters Past thing, and I think my party know that I'm the sort to do something like that. Do you think a party is likely to take the latter option and end their characters' stories?

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8 Answers 8

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There are many ways to retire a party. The trivial one is, of course, say that they lived happily ever after.

But you can borrow big endings from classical stories, like:

  • The characters, or some of them, become gods themselves. They are not mortals anymore, they are out of space and time, and their stories end there.
  • The characters must make a terrible sacrifice to kill / destroy the ultimate evil. They must give their lives (or, worse, their XPs) in order to prevent the True Evil from winning. This seems to be in line with what you are thinking.

If your players are well-versed in stories from Tolkien, LeGuin, and the usual suspects, they may well go and end the story like that. They are probably aware (as players) that there is not much leverage left for them in terms of story and mechanical rules.

On the other hand, if they are of the I-am-my-character or there-is-no-such-thing-as-too-much-power type, they may not be able to let go.

You know your players and you must take that into account when planning the end of a campaing. If in doubt, talk to them. The story is not your sole responsibility as GM, they share the responsibility with you. Ask them "I feel this story is coming to an end... I feel it in the water, I feel it in the earth, I smell it in the air... What kind of ending would you like for this story?".

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+1 for the all important "If in doubt, talk to them. The story is not your sole responsibility as GM" –  Rob Jul 2 '13 at 13:44
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Additionally, the "Give up their XP" appeals to some groups - they feel that their characters have become too powerful, but are too attached to the character or party to retire them. Having an encounter that (literally or figuratively) strips levels/powers/XP from them, making them "mortal" again, to for sure finish the Big Bad is a viable option in some situations. I've used it two or three times to 'reset' the party to a lower level, or different system, but keep the party composition and characters. –  Phill.Zitt Jul 2 '13 at 21:37
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There is one question you have asked (though it is not your titular question) that I haven't seen addressed yet:

how do DMs deal with [not being able to "go up" anymore]?

While, as others have pointed out, you don't have to continue on (and the retirement suggestions sound great), there are ways you could continue if you and your players wanted to. For example, you don't have to continue to "work up". Now that your players are "at the top" they are (as you have pointed out) essentially gods or demigods themselves. Being in such a position is a tremendous responsibility. Now instead of "working up" you can have them "work down" into more responsibilities. As new powers in the land, there will be complex issues for them to deal with. This can slant your roleplay to being a little more political, but it could be fun and interesting depending on your group's preferences.

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I just thought, in this scenario this raises one thing I hadn't thought of - the players become near-godlike heroes, and choose a "retirement" conclusion that doesn't kill them as such, but means they can't go adventuring. In between being playable characters and NPC demigods, I could give them a chance to use their new godly powers to do one thing that affects the world. Also, maybe when they roll new characters afterward, their old ones might be available as lesser deities. It could be entertaining to play as a Paladin who follows a god that used to be your character... –  anaximander Jul 2 '13 at 16:15
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the having old characters act as patrons is something I experienced in a Traveller campaign. It keeps people interested in their old characters too, as these are the people who give their new characters tasks, just as their old characters had tasks to do when they initially started –  Sean Cheshire Jul 2 '13 at 18:35
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While I agree that at some time, characters get too high to play with anymore, I strongly disagree with your planned method of retiring. To me, it feels like a bad ending. My character would be gone, you left me no choice but to pick one evil. That's not very satisfying as a player. In real life, bad stuff happens, but at the gaming table, I want to be able to get up with a good feeling.

To actually make it a happy ending, try to ask each player, what his character's happy ending would be. Some may want to rule a kingdom, or become gods, maybe the mage wants a library and a stack of potions of longevity, maybe the fighter wants to live a life in peace on a farm somewhere. Maybe, someone wants to die a heroic death. If you ask them, they will tell you. And you can craft some final adventures around those ideas. Take that evil kingdom from it's oppressive ruler and plant flowers everywhere. Sneak into the god of trickery's domain and install the thief as a new god. Stand against a horde of daemons, defending humanity and dying a heroic death while the rest of the party slays the master. Find a farm, a wife and happiness. Whatever. Once the final adventures are over, each character should be happy to stop adventuring because he has achieved whatever he wanted to achieve all his life and the players can create their new characters with the fuzzy warm feeling that they actually managed to "win" a role playing game.

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+1 for letting players choose their own epilogues. I have a player whose retirement plan is to develop the setting's first interstellar railroad. That's creative role-playing, right there; Why would I want to discourage it? –  GMJoe Jul 3 '13 at 6:56
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A very good point. I think the main thing to take away is to let the players figure out ahead of time that this is an option, see how they react, and give them alternatives. –  anaximander Jul 3 '13 at 7:59
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I've dealt with this in a way that's been rather successful at my table, and may help you too. Essentially, a lot of players had been picking up followers/apprentices/hirelings, and they had become powerful too (though still well below player levels - the players were 15+ and the NPCs were levels 1-8 or so). What I offered was for the players to pick any NPC they had with them and use this NPC for a one-shot. The one-shot was successful and fun, the players enjoyed their hirelings, and everyone had fun playing a new character for a change. I later spun it out into a longer adventure, and eventually the new PCs had a whole campaign for themselves.

The reasons this worked, as far as I can tell, were:

  1. The old PCs were still around, and could be called on by the players at the final battle when their powers were needed. The players didn't feel they would lose their old characters.

  2. The new PCs had some advantages from their old masters (if a fighter has a +5 Longsword, he won't need one that's only +2, so the warriors were fairly well-equipped, and the mages had a lot of spells copied down from their masters, for a few examples). This helped the feeling of continuation.

  3. The players enjoyed a lower power level for a change, and one was even nostalgic when they had to fight kobolds again for the first time in months!

  4. A combination of points 2 & 3 meant that no-one felt like their old characters were 'wasted'.

Also, none of my players metagamed too much. No-one suddenly decided their old character would give all his possessions and money to a hireling, based on a sudden whim, for example.

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I really like this approach. The idea of fleshing out some of the supporting characters and understanding their motivations within the larger group is really intriguing. Thanks for that tip. –  CaseySoftware Jul 7 '13 at 1:20
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Methods of Ending a Campaign at Top-Out.

Aging Out

Applying the aging rules can, in many games, render characters nerfed, then eventually, dead. Whether that's a good solution or not is a different matter. To use it, start tracking downtime, and forcing downtime.

In D&D, use aging effect monsters liberally.

In Trek, retirement age of comes sooner than death... usually.

And they were eaten by Cthulhu

The option for falling victim to the big bad evil is one that can be anti-climactic. It can also be quite memorable, and the talk of the table for years to come.

In Star Trek, this could be being assimilated by the Borg, or captured by the Romulans, or destroyed by a second Planet Crusher. (Which leaves open the next crew for "What happened to...?")

In D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Cthulhutech, or The Laundry, or any of that ilk, it could literally mean being eaten by the big bad evil man was not meant to know. In D&D, it could also be the Mists of Ravenloft snatch you up with a big-bad-evil-guy... and decide to trap you just outside of his reach as punishment for him...

Go their Separate Ways

Come up with a reason for the Party to split.

In D&D, each has come into his own as a landholder. In Star Trek, they're transferred to desk jobs in separate sectors.

In CoC, they're in different assylums.

Simply Leave it Hanging

Find a chapter break, and say, "Time to move on. I'm bored of your current characters. Maybe we'll come back."

Kill them all, God Knows his Own

Wipe out the party with a save or die effect at a penalty so hefty that they'd be cheating if they all made it. Or with overwhelming odds.

My favorite of these endings is from literature... the pulp hero is last seen in one novel swarmed by his enemies, and for once, not winning. Next novel, he's standing over a pile of bodies, with several new scars, and a new ally...

Ascension... Becoming One With the Force...

Particularly powerful characters may be called up to the realm of the Gods as Heros. In other games, other forms of ascension can absorb one or more characters.

Think about Daniel Jackson in SG-1, or Hercules, or the starting point of any Cyclopedia D&D Immortals campaign... or in 3.X, the start of your Deities and Demigods campaign.

For settings without deities, it still may be an option.

Take a Vote

If you tell them it's time to go out, let them each suggest 2-3 endings, then secretly rank them in desire order. Total up the numbers, and pick from the most desired.

Don't play Games with Top-Out in reach

Maxing out isn't something inherent in many rulesets; it's highly arbitrary in quite a few. Having know people who played in 50th level and higher AD&D games, and others having extended the D20 spell charts to 50th level and beyond, the max out there is somewhat arbitrary.

Don't let it worry you

I've known people who have played and enjoyed games where their characters had maxed out, and gained nothing further mechanically (18th level on Krynn, as one example), and had great fun. Further advancement is not essential to further play.

In fact, one such mode is the so-called "E6 D&D" - no character gains anything after 6th level. It's got quite a few adherents, and most of them play extended games at 6th level...

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There is no reason you have to keep running the same campaign for any length of time.

In general, we end campaigns and start new ones when either the GM or players have run out of steam with them. Maybe that's high level, maybe it's low level with a TPK, maybe it's some other level where the GM is done with the story elements they'd prepared or the players just aren't "feeling it" any more.

It's certainly fine to give some closure by either a last super epic session, or asking "so what does everyone's character do with their future," but that's a bit of frosting on the main issue, which is that you really can terminate a campaign at any point, not when "levels are maxed." You can turn the retirement into a big deal and have "maybe we'll come back to this" plans - but as you get older and have played in 20+ campaigns, you'll realize this is generally unlikely. Except for occasional nostalgia one-shots, old campaigns stay as stories to tell and new campaigns get the players' interest.

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Good call highlighting noting that players can lose motivation or investment at any point. To clarify, I'm looking for ways to persuade players to bring things to a close before they get bored of it - but not much before. As GM, you can watch the players and how they're reacting, and you know what's coming up, so you may be able to tell that a campaign is winding down before the players do. When that happens, I'd like to have something I can use to end it in a way that makes the players think "what a good ending" and not "you're just ending it because it's become boring lately". –  anaximander Jul 2 '13 at 14:04
    
Oh sure, it doesn't have to peter out, but usually you can wrap up the story and be done with natural closure. –  mxyzplk Jul 2 '13 at 22:35
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The group I currently play with maintains two sets of characters at different levels. We have a "high game" and a "low game." The two games exist in same continuity, but the high game is about 3 months further down the timeline. We will occasionally switch between the two games. It's fun to see where their paths cross in the story. For example, the low game may accidentally release a vampire, and the high game will end up meeting and ultimately vanquishing him.

I haven't been with this group for a full cycle yet, but my presumption is that eventually, when the high game maxes out, we will naturally switch to the low game characters. When we next want to switch games, we will instead roll up new low-level characters, and the former low game will become our new high game. In this way, the story remains continuous. We could also do some form of retirement rp session, but it wouldn't be necessary, and leaving the characters active allows the option to pick them up again if we ever have the inclination to do something with that party.

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My personal advice is to make continuing to adventure difficult for them. As an example one campaign I slowly transformed the party from an uber-high level party of levels 25-30 to a party of new adventurers over the course of 4 sessions. It was a nuclear D&D group of a fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric.

With each player I took them aside and told them to have a first level character ready, though I didn't tell them why. The fighter was named as the heir to a kingdom (tradition didn't allow him to refuse). The wizard was offered headmastership of the magic academy (I had to remind that player that the character he had played up to that point would never turn down such a position). The cleric got to meet his god face to face and got told he was chosen to be the new high priest (what cleric's going to say no?) and the rogue became the guildmaster of a thieves guild in Sigil (given that the campaign took place on a prime this took him out of the world entirely, mostly because that character had become a thorn in my side....All I'll say is be careful who you let have a wish).

After the first couple there was some grumbling, but by the third one they were wise to what I was doing and ok with it. By session number 5 all of their old characters were tied down with responsibilities that kept them from adventuring and we had a whole new group. I had only the common problem that all GMs should be able to deal with of introducing new characters to an existing group. As an added bonus there was no need to go over the details of the world that they'd all know having grown up there (a normal first-session thing for me since I always use homebrewed worlds).

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