Thursday, October 10, 2013

What is an 'Endgame' ?


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 is done.

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.  Period.

So what is the use of an endgame?

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.

Additionally, endgames 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 endgame?

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.



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