Today I’m going to
discuss a design technique that has become more and more popular in RPGs over
the last ten years. It is the “Endgame.” An endgame is a moment where play permanently
stops for one or more characters in a campaign.
This means that once certain conditions are met, that character’s story
The idea of an endgame
isn’t new. It’s been around for as long
as writing “retired” at the top of a character record sheet has been
conceived. However, the idea has been developed
more and more over the last decade. As a
result, several ways to treat an endgame have emerged.
The first way to
address the endgame mechanic is to assume that there is no necessary
endgame. Games like D&D, Ars Magica,
Vampire, and Sorcerer fit this category.
They assume that play, at least in theory, could go on
indefinitely. Players decide on their
own when they are done with their characters and often make up some grand scene
to say goodbye.
The second way is to
have a soft endgame. Dogs in theVineyard and Prime Time Adventures have what I call “soft” endgames. For dogs, it is the salvation of a town. The characters discover the sin, find the
perpetrator, and punish him or her. In
PTA, it’s the end of a season or story-arc.
If the players want, that can be the end of play OR they have the option
to continue the same characters in a new town or new season.
Some games have triggered
endgames. I think The Shadow ofYesterday and Dungeon World are prime examples.
In TSoY, when one character’s ability reaches a certain value (6 IIRC),
the character “transcends.” This means
he or she has become so powerful that the character is taken out of the world
in order to maintain balance. In Dungeon
World, it’s getting to level 10. Both of
these are mostly voluntary by the players.
In TSoY, reaching a 6 in an ability is never inevitable. It’s easy to avoid. In DW, there’s a way to avoid hitting level
ten if you really want. So the
character’s story only ends if the players want to. Of course, character death in more traditional games is another example of triggered engames. Triggered endgames are often linked to individual
characters and may not affect the entire party or the story.
Finally, there are games
with hard endgames. My Life with Master
and my own Cutthroat are exemplars of this.
MLwM ends with either the death of the Master or the death of the Minion
(or both). All play drives towards that
eventuality. There’s no escaping
it. Likewise, all play in Cutthroat
drives toward one biker dominating all the other bikers in the gang. It is inescapable. When the Master dies or when one biker
dominates all the others, the game ends.
So what is the use of
To begin, endgames can
provide a focus for play. They give the
players something to drive towards and the characters something to
achieve. It helps everyone know what is
happening during the three timescales of play.
The endgame keeps everyone on the same page and satisfies the
expectations all the players have.
can limit the amount of time people play the RPG. Take my Game Chef 2012 submission for
example. The Coyote Lode was meant to be
a one-shot, one-session RPG. Thus, I
gave it explicit endgame mechanics (every room in the mine eventually floods). As the designer, my intention for play was
not indefinite. It was well defined. I think there is plenty of design space in
one-shots and might cover that topic in a more in-depth way in another aricle.
Last, endgames provide
a social reward. When a player or a
group of players hits the endgame successfully (like killing the Master in
MLwM), there is a payoff of social esteem.
For a lot of players, social esteem is why they play, and an endgame
will greatly appeal to them.
There are ways to
further break down these endgames. For
instance, you could break them down by character, session, adventure, or campaign. A character’s endgame could be when he loses
all his hit points in D&D or loses all his humanity points and becomes the
GM’s character in Sorcerer. A session’s
endgame could be tracked by some expendable currency or resource, or it could
be timed. For an adventure’s endgame, it
could be solving a crime in InSpectres.
And as I mentioned earlier, My Life with Master is an excellent example
of a campaign’s endgame.
Do all games need an
Nope. In fact, many do not. But is another tool in the RPG designer’s
toolbox that you can use. As you create
your game, regardless of the genre or creative agenda you want to support,
consider whether an endgame might be right for your design. Sometimes it will be; sometimes it
won’t. But it’s always good to at least
consider how it might help focus your game or provide a payoff for the players
at the end.