Wisdom of the Masters: Epilogues
This article was first broadcast in Episode One Hundred Fourteen on 15th April 2020.
Ostron: Well, I’m officially out of spell slots. And I’m going to be mumbling the incantation for water breathing in my sleep now.
RaeRae: Did anyone actually double check that the gnome was the only one who could fix Lennon’s bike?
Ostron: What, you think he made that up?
RaeRae: I just, you know, find it hard to believe he made Lennon to go get him a bunch of meteoric iron. At the bottom of a lake. With nesting Hydras. I do this for him after he nearly breaks my scrying pool. He’s lucky it was his birthday.
Ostron: Well the gnome finally welded everything together, though why Lennon needs a wind gauge on his bike is beyond me.
Ryu: Most of Lennon’s reasoning is beyond us, honestly.
Ryu: So what do we do now?
RaeRae: I’ve heard of this great chain of islands everyone’s been talking about. Supposed to be lots of food and fish and pretty flowers. Also eggs, for some reason.
Ryu: Well, the ferry is only a few minutes away on Peaches. Hey what happened to that gnome’s assistant anyway?
Ostron: Don’t know; I didn’t ask.
RaeRae: Aww, I was kind of curious about that. And she had that sister with the money troubles we never asked about either.
Ostron: That can happen.
Most writers, whether they be of novels, comics, movies, or TV shows will agree that one of the hardest parts of writing is figuring out an ending. Tying the story together in a satisfying way while also taking care of loose ends related to the major characters can be a difficult to do well.
This is also something that can be an issue for campaigns in D&D. There’s no real obligation for the DM to come up with epilogues or concluding notes, but many players will feel a sense of incompleteness if a campaign abruptly ends as soon as the big bad drops to 0 HP. At the very least they’ll probably have questions about how their characters returned to wherever they live.
While many official adventure modules include epilogue notes that describe the aftermath of major NPCs, even those are sometimes lacking. Tomb of Annihilation, for example, includes epilogues for the four or five NPCs and one of the organizations operating in Chult, but it is very likely the characters met and formed bonds with many more characters and organizations than that. Since the official resource doesn’t provide anything to add for those characters, Their ultimate fates are a mystery unless the DM decides to fill in the blanks.
If you’ve ever wanted to have your very own campaign ending montage, just sit back and listen.
First we’ll touch on the NPCs. You don’t need to have an epilogue ready for every NPC the characters ever met, but it shouldn’t be hard to figure out the ones the characters will be interested in. If there’s an NPC that’s been traveling with the characters for a good length of time, having a wrap-up for them is a given. The same goes for a regular quest-giving or advisor NPC the characters often consulted during downtime. If any enemy NPCs are still around, noting what happened to them, even if it’s a vague and ultimately inconclusive end, is a good idea.
Other NPCs are a matter of “feel.” Sometimes characters will only meet an NPC once or twice but will often reference them and comment on their character. Or a character might have formed a quick but lasting bond they’re planning to follow up on after the adventure. Those NPCs probably need an epilogue as well.
The actual wrap-up each NPC gets doesn’t have to be a novel; one or two descriptive sentences is usually enough, such as “The maiden you rescued returned to her village, married a local scribe, and they both got a nice house in Waterdeep with the proceeds from her memoir My Time with the Goblin Horde.” You’ll want to make sure such summaries still tie up any loose ends that may have been left, and if the characters did something specific for the NPC, make sure to address what the consequences of that were, if it wasn’t part of the story. If you rescued little Jessica’s cat, an update on the animal should be in the summary somewhere.
The most important thing with these wrap-ups is that they mostly make sense. An odd twist for humor or surprise is fine, but make sure the wrap-up for an NPC fits with their character. Volo isn’t suddenly going to decide to set up a Jungle Safari franchise in Chult, for example.
Epilogues for the main characters can be trickier. With NPCs, you have all of the knowledge of their motives, associations, and goals, either because they were in the module or you made them up. The players dictate most of that information for their characters. Hopefully you have a good idea of the motivations and attitudes of the players by the end of a campaign, but if it was a shorter adventure you might need some more help. Talking to the players directly is an obvious way to get that kind of info, but you might also be more subtle about it, possibly by having an NPC bring up long-term goals in conversation, or just noting offhand comments the player makes in-character.
Also remember that you should avoid railroading the characters in epilogues just as much as you do during gameplay. If you have a wrap-up for the character in mind, it’s usually a good idea to still leave the character an out. That can take the form of an offer or a reward that the character has the option to refuse, or you can present them with a few different options. Let’s say one of your characters is a fighter and the campaign involved saving a village from demonic incursion with the help of a local group of Paladins. At the end, the paladins could offer to let the fighter join their ranks as an officer, but the townsfolk could also offer to let them be mayor. That allows the player to determine which goal their character would be more interested in.
In the end, it’s also okay to let the players decide. There are some groups where the end of the campaign will involve each player describing what their character does after the adventure concludes, and then the DM only fills in the stories for the NPCs. Note you aren’t completely free of obligation here, either though, because the players might have questions. In the example above the player might decide his fighter wants to stay in the village and will ask about that, at which point you can reply with how the village would feel about it, possibly mentioning the mayor thing then.
It’s also possible you could be totally off the hook for this part. If the player is planning on re-using the character or having them continue adventuring at their current level, they might not want a sweeping epilogue that sets their character up for life, because they’re going to be heading off in a month or so to go start another adventure.
If you or your player group wants, the epilogues could be entirely collaborative. In that case, you and the players would discuss and give opinions to determine not only what the player characters do after the campaign, but also what happens to the NPCs.
That can be a good approach for groups of newer players in particular. It gives them more experience with roleplaying but also reinforces that D&D is partly telling a story; now they’re helping to write the ending. For the future, it may even help them realize that the more their characters engage with the world, the more impact they have.
Now just because everyone’s working together on the epilogues here doesn’t mean you can just sit back and let everyone else do the work. While you don’t have to come up with individual stories, you should at least be able to say what effect the events of the campaign had on the general area. The life of the character’s favorite bartender will be directly affected if the cave of gnolls that was cleared out turns out to be a literal gold mine, and the players will need to know that if they’re going to put together a backstory they’ll all be happy with.
As we said, there isn’t a hard and fast rule that campaigns have to have wrap-up information for all of the characters, particularly if it was a short, self-contained adventure. But if you finish campaigns and find your players keep asking questions about the halfling magician or the traveling merchant they met, it might be worth getting them ready for your next one.
Ryu: All right, everyone, hop on.
Ostron: I’m not sitting in the middle this time.
RaeRae: Peaches’ back is like thirty feet long, you could lie down and still not touch either of us.
Ostron: I have my reasons.
Ryu: Oh, hey, what are we doing about the scrying pool?
RaeRae & Ostron: It’s handled.
Ryu: You mean…
Ostron: HR Oblex to the rescue
Ryu: Won’t someone notice?
RaeRae: Not if you stop talking about it and we leave now! Come on, Peaches!