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.
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.