Monday, April 11, 2011

Ditching the End Game

Let me tell you how I really feel: the End Game sucks. Not the gameplay of course—that would mean that my current obsessive project would be an exercise in extreme masochism—but the phrase itself.

I am not exactly sure when the phrase passed into the common parlance of the old school blogosphere. Perhaps it was this post on Grognardia two years ago that brought it into being. The original post was inspiring to me, for back in the day I loved the notion of kingdom-carving as part of the arc of character development.

And in many ways my own first experience with this kind of play was the classic AD&D End Game. When my first PC, Evaro IV, reached “name level” we promptly cracked open the holy of holy books, the DMG, and read aloud to the group, “When player characters reach upper levels and decide to establish a stronghold and rule a territory...” The operative word was “when” for us, not “if”. This was clearly what you were supposed to do with a high-level character.

Dutifully, I rolled on the requisite follower chart; packed up the utility belt of magic items and other belongings; and slogged out with my band of brothers to a lonely wooded hex in Greyhawk's Wild Coast (told you it was classic vanilla). Monster lairs were cleared and the foundations of a great keep laid. Wilderness clearing, patrolling, and attracting new colonists were the business of the random encounter charts in the appendices of the DMG—in general it was about the most by-the-book experience as we could muster back then.

I not only had a blast, but it whetted my appetite for an endless string of increasingly complex and immersive computer strategy games to come (please god, stop Paradox games before it designs another Europa Universalis-type game again).

So what the hell is my beef with the End Game?

It's with the proscriptive nature of the term. Months ago in the discussion and debates around domain-level play that led me down the road of perdition to the current Domain Game, Rob Kuntz took me to task for using the very phrase I am bagging on today. At that time he said:
“1974 OD&D never posed an "end-game" that was "retirement" and "winding down". The "end-game" connotation is strictly a "New" (and revised/tacked on) phrase which is interpreted in some strange way as being both an end and a retirement. It's just the campaign portion extending itself dynamically...”

The more I see the phrase used the more I agree with him. For what it implies is a very linear, dull even, way to approach this portion of gameplay that limits its open edges.

By coupling it with a certain point in the power arc—and one in the glacial pace of our adult campaigns we are unlikely to ever see—we put play of this kind in a tight-lidded box conceptually. It's akin to buying so much into the B/X and BECMI D&D marketing decisions to put wilderness travel and adventure into the second booklets, that we all decided to call it the “middle game” and limit participation it to being something only for characters levels 4-14.

Absurd, right?

You play a character for years adventuring the hell out of deep dark dungeons, far-flung wildernesses, other planes of existence even and then your great hero is stuck becoming a graying bean counter in some dreary stronghold as his life fades to black—or worse morphs into an NPC tool for the DM.

Borrrrrring. No wonder you hear any number of voices explicitly saying it's not for them.

D&D was originally (and brilliantly) conceived as a game with few edges and had little in the way of proscription about what a character should or shouldn't be doing in his career.

There was no End Game in Arneson's Blackmoor, It started in fact as the great clash of armies and rulers and the players throughout its existence found themselves playing all kinds of roles in the realms of that campaign. Here was a high priest or town merchant, there a vampire.

The classic kingdom-carving phase when players moved off the southern edge of the map to that famous hex map from Outdoor Survival grew dynamically out of the machinations of the players. It wasn't the end, it was just another big leap into something new—and something fun.

As the Domain Game rolls forward I am all for figuring ways to subvert the End Game. Decoupling it from rail-car linear boxes and creating avenues to expand domain-level play to all levels.

After all we have a world to win—even if it only exists in our imaginations and Sunday afternoons.


  1. What I like about your posts on this blog is that they always feel like you are setting us up for an even more interesting discussion. I think I like where this is going game design wise but I don't quite grasp it yet. So... what's next mon captain?

  2. "I am all for figuring ways to subvert the End Game. Decoupling it from rail-car linear boxes and creating avenues to expand domain-level play to at all levels."

    Thank you for the subject of tomorrow's blog post. :)

  3. I love Ars Magica for front-loading this with the Covenant. You have to build your Bond base before you have the resources, and the adventure seeds practically write themselves.

    Now if only there were a conversion tool for the existing stronghold rules, for all those high-level Ogres Mages and Vampires who want to build dungeons and recruit entourage to populate it.

  4. Good post and good points.

    The caveat I'd make is that we shouldn't confuse the terminology with those points. Yes, the "end game" doesn't need to be restricted to certain levels just as a chess game can sometimes end before the opening is finished. Yes, the "end game" isn't really an "end" in the final sense as in chess because one of the big differences between chess and D&D is that D&D is open-ended. (Unless you're shooting to become an immortal, and even that "end game" can an open ended game of its own.)

    (Though, D&D certainly has "ends" in the "intention or aim" sense. "Getting to the 'end game'" can be an "end" to pursue. ^_^)

    As a term and an analogy, I think "end game" is fine.

  5. It's fine to refuse terminology, and the move from descriptive to prescriptive is definitely one to watch, especially where creativity is everything.

    As for the closing off of a career, I guess that comes down to what motivates the character, or what nudges him or her as time passes. To expect characters to go on picking up injuries and prematurely ageing without thinking about a comfortable chair by the fire or a sense of security is unrealistic, but the drives of the kinds of people who bust into ever weirder and more fell places could well be beyond that. Opening up new doors of some kind seems necessary, but they need not run only into new realms or new statuses, but could also be into new ways of thinking about the game world, new intimations or understandings and the desire to follow them up.

  6. @Kenneth
    Have I already become that predictable? (Wait, don't answer that.)

    Yeah, there is a little set-up for some thinking out loud about some directions for the Domain Game ranging from suggestions and subsystems to give low and mid-level characters meaningful roles to some more experimental bits like the Pendragon-esque campaign timescale and a possible second-tiering of new classes.

    If you mean your own blog, I look forward to it. Also still looking forward to that Greyhawk re-read. I pulled out my own battered copy of the Folio and have been totally engrossed.

    I feel like I missed out on something by not having been exposed to Ars. Your description only heightens that feeling.

    I like how Pendragon hardwires the same into the very beginning of a character's development.

    Dunno, the dictionary meaning of the phrase is pretty definitive in referring to "end game" as the closing or final moves of a game or other activity. To me it sounds less like an ultimate goal or vector than this is what a character does in their final years as a character.

    But I am less on about quibbling about the word choice than I am the straight-jacket concept of a linear career.

    It's too much like the expectations of real life: first you get through 12 years of school, then you go to the university (or join the military or whatever), then you get a job, then you get married, then you have kids, yadda yadda.

    First you start as a hard scrabble virtual nobody, then you explore a dungeon, then you some wilderness and urban campaigns, then you carve out a 20-mile circle medieval European barony in a wilderness, then you retire, die, or become a GM puppet.

    If you frame it that way no wonder people balk at it.

    I like playing at the edges of it along the way. You thought you were settling into ruling Aquilonia, King Conan, now you are back out on your ass. You thought you were a lowly carefree adventurer now you are drafted into captaining this company of Wombatmen archers.

  7. @Porky
    Well said.

    I like the idea of each character having their own arc. One in their prime who looks for that comfy chair, another who keeps on rocking it until they pry the sword out of his stiff cold fingers.

    But then again the biggest problem these days is that we simply don't play the same consistent campaigns long enough to find out what happens in the long run to these alter egos.

  8. I respectfully gotta say that like the term Endgame, it really seems to fit my feelings on how the game should play out. I like the idea of a linear sort of approach to a characters career, I actually did a post on it two days ago for the H of my April challenge. I like that the game has these different levels and thus different "tiers" of character ability and influence. Not to be too critical but with what you seem to suggest why don't you just get rid of character lvls entirely; since any type of adventure can happen at anytime - Conan doesn't gain lvls from one adventure to the next, he is just mighty Conan all the time. Perhaps a compromise would be to have the linear arc but not to necessarily always start at the low end of it when starting a new campaign. Very interesting a thought provoking post.

  9. @Pierce
    I'm not looking to throw out the proverbial baby with the bath water. The traditional idea of a power arc of escalating personal abilities is just fine and dandy to me. I like even having the various stages of their careers: low, mid, high. I even think the traditional path is fine and satisfying even (as my own story attested).

    I just think we need to have the same open-ended attitude toward campaign play as the early years of this game. Go where the campaign feels "right"--even if it's completely off from what you expected when you started.

    Most of us play games where wilderness or town adventures doesn't just come around when the players magically hit fourth level. In fact, I would hazard a guess that most campaigns are like my own, they mix them right in from the get go usually around the organic flow of the game. The players want to muck around in town this session. Cool we go with that.

    I just want to throw out the Chinese Wall around domain-level play that the End Game seems to imply to some people.

    I also want that part of the game to be just a lot more dynamic than the full or semi-retirement (or mostly off-stage)way it is often presented.

  10. Now you know how [King] Conan felt! ;-)

    Pendragon doesn't have the "End game" problem so take a cue from there...

  11. The only time any of my characters ever reached any sort of "end game" was when my high level wizard became a lich. I got exactly one session of creating insane mayhem before the DM made me retire the guy. It was really sad, actually.

    My first character ever, a fighter who killed Bargle, became a Lord and started his own kingdom. He had a lot of adventures after that, culminating in his death at the hands of a demon. It wouldn't make any sense for that character to sit around, holding court, being bored off his ass. Just like in real life, adventurers never stop.

  12. The great Svenny is your man my friend. He went from being a nobody (flunky) man at arms to building a small holding with 30 men within his first year. Continued to adventure, lost his holding in the 2nd coot war. Continued to adventure. Carved out a new domain in the south. Continued to adventure. Built a new fortress to defend the land. Continued to adventure. Led armies against barbarian invasions. Continued to adventure. Became right hand to the new king and council. Continued to adventure.

    What better model than that?

  13. I try and remember that players are going up in levels with more and more gold which isn't just a stand I for XP, but is in fact the means by which they acrue temporal power.

    BtB a magic user should be able to build a tower around 5th level as he's got 20,000 gp burning a hole in his pocket and the cheapest tower is 18,500gp. One well placed fireball (newly acquires at level 5) does what any mercenary army can do--wipe out the Orc tribe squatting in that hex.

    The domain certainly isn't without cost. 20,000 would have made a lot of scrolls or a good wand or researched spells. So it is obviously easier for the 11th level wizard to build the tower, but if a player wants to do it early he should go for it.

  14. I hear what you're saying, but I think the idea is that the rules as written lead to more and more powerful characters.

    Challenging those characters becomes more and more difficult. Eventually either they need to gracefully fade out, or pass the torch to a younger relative. Even Mr. Kuntz' Robilar retired at ~18th level.

  15. there's a whole other "what does high level mean" discussion to have, I think. About how the balance shifts between attack and defense, about the power mismatch between those high level PCs and their castle retainers (why do you need all those people around?) and about Deities & Demigods, which I think set a very low cap on imaginable power.

    I think Pokemon doesn't change enough between low and high levels, because it makes almost everything level-dependent: two level 10 opponents will have a similar battle to two level 100s. D&D OTOH makes very few things scalable so it has to become a different sort of game at high levels, and I for one don't quite know what that game is (because the AD&D books contained open disapproval of play above 12-15th?).

    captcha: sinning. Even this comment box disapproves.

  16. What does high level mean?

    To me, it means that progression slows or halts. You've mastered the basics of your class. It is no longer about learning, it is about application.

    PCs at that point often begin operating on operational, strategic, or grand strategic scale. At these scales, the challenges are less "personal". It is less about how hard you can hit or what spells you can cast. They may not do as much session-to-session adventuring. Thus, for some groups, this leads to "semi-retirement" and introduction of a new generation of low-level PCs.

    (Ironically, having mastered the basics often puts you in the position of not having to apply them, having earned a reputation and respect of someone not to be trifled with.)

    I think it helps if you have played a game like classic Traveller that has little or no mechanical progression. Rewards and challenges tend to be "in game" stuff rather than mechanical. In cT, the "leveling up" towards name level happens during chargen rather than in play.

    Although, even at low levels, I don't think the challenges in my games really have anything to do with level dependent stuff. I like the challenges to be mostly problem solving and such. (You know. Challenge the player rather than the character.)

    And that, I think, is part of what this post is about. These higher scale machinations are something that characters of any level could be involved in because their level doesn't matter nearly as much at those scales.

  17. Most of the campaigns I've run or played in that were long-term stagnated in later stages. Our group shifted focus to campaigns that from the outset had a beginning, middle and end. I've always been fascinated with domain-level play, feeling that Birthright didn't quite get it right, but not knowing quite how to fix it.