Mining Tropes for RPG Nuggets: This is the End, Friend


No no, I’m not ending this series, no worries. As mentioned here, I’m exploring “Endings” as applied to RPG campaigns…

Many long-lasting Role playing campaigns based on power-gaining PCs hinge around a progressively increasing threat that almost invariably escalate to the World Destroying level.

The threat usually takes the form of an impeding Cataclysm that would be caused by some sort of Doomsday Device (Technological, Biological or Magical) or assorted Lovecraftian horrors.

If left unopposed, such threats can lead to…

The End Of The World As We Know It

What will happen if the heroes don’t stop the Big Bad or the Ultimate Evil from doing its nasty work. Can be either supernatural or superscience, depending on the villain, but in either case the bad guy must be beaten down and his toys broken in order to save the planet, or the universe, depending on the focus of the story.

Is usually figurative — expressed as “merely” the death of humankind, the obliteration of Civilization, or its subjugation to aliens, for example — rather than the literal rendering of the planet down to gravel. Common in Speculative Fiction, horror and over-the-top espionage shows, as well as many anime series. May serve as a prequel to an After The End series. May also include Cosy Catastrophe and/or Scavenger World elements. Especially if the heroes are slated to succeed in preventing the End, they (and the audience) may be treated to a detailed preview of what’s coming.

This trope is the bread and butter of schizophrenic overlords and somewhat emotionally unstable cultists. As mentioned above, applying it to a Role playing campaign is often the logical conclusion to the PCs always seeking out the Boss behind the Boss.

Threatening world destruction is often expected to be the ultimate motivator for Player Characters . I mean what’s cooler than saving the world from assured destruction? Right? (it sure is used a lot in published adventures)

The thing is, unless you are an adept of gritty games where heroes are deluded, statistical anomalies (until eaten by Azatoth), chances are that your players may not actually feel all that concerned or ‘scared’. In heroic games where coolness (or power gaming) rules over logic, chances are your players expect to ‘roll a 20’ when shooting at that exhaust port or break the Altar of Endless Sorrows just before Chthulu’s left tentacle enters the realm.

There are ways to address this. I’ll explore a few of them and then propose my own take on the subversion of this trope.

Storyboarding the Apocalypse

One of the ways to make the threat believable is to have the players get a glimpse of what things will look like after the Cataclysm strikes.

This works well in movies and TV shows by showing a montage of ‘just-how-bad-things-will-get’. However, unless you are a brilliant orator and your players are selfless listeners , chances are you’ll be narrating to a distracted audience if you try to do this the passive way.

The trick is to get the players to interact with these visions of the Apocalypse. For example, it could be done with:

  • Traveling, for a short time, to the future ( just like Hiro did in Heroes) to witness how bads things will get.
  • Have the heroes live a shared dream-sequence (powered by a Psychic or Seer)
  • Play one ‘what if’ session where you go forward in time and present the campaign world as it could become, a post apocalyptic version of your home campaign with future version of the PCs or new PCs that are actually linked to the original ones.

In such cases, you should feature some of the NPCs that the heroes care about. Go fish in your PCs backstories and do the most gruesome stuff to their loved ones, friends and allies. If your players are allergic to back stories and have no relationships with NPC’s, make sure that none of the survivors of the post-Kaboom world remember anything about the Heroes,

Better and more evil yet, make them reviled for not having saved the world in the first place!

Make the world part of the player’s stake.

Another way to get players to care about an End of the World trope is to actually have them come to see the game world as more than a reservoir of Mooks & Loot to get richer.

Make them heir to kingdoms. Give them the leadership of the thieves guild or make them advisor’s of powerful leaders. Make them Earls of luxurious acres of fertile lands. Fill such lands with industrious citizens who are more than happy to toil for the glory of the Hero, in exchange for some protection from the insidious machinations of an Evil DM.

Make sure to have all NPCs they meet make a point on how grateful they are and how cool the PCs are to be the leaders. (Trust me, it works. Your players will be grinning like idiots by the third game)

Then hatch the World End’s plan on them, threatening their beloved holdings and having the NPCs implore them for help or look up to them expectantly.

Nyogtha” is awakening? Bah, good thing that Bokdar the Bold here is our liege. He’ll kick that thing’s butt back to the Far Realms before the end of the week! Right my lord?’

It’s the whole ‘Give them the Sun and Have them fight for the Moon‘ application of the Rule of Cool.

Another day, another world saved

While getting PCs to care about an End of the World threat can be a challenge, the act of saving the world is usually pretty basic.

Saving the world usually entails killing the Big Bad before the proverbial button is pressed, or by chucking the Ring in the Volcano, or interrupting the last part of the Dawning of Eternal-Nights Ceremony, etc.

In such cases, it’s expected of GMs to apply the laws of Dramatic Timing in one form or another. This means that no sane GameMaster would trigger the Doomsday device while the PCs are getting their armour fixed or that the meteorite never strikes when the heroes are asleep.

In fact, Players may expect that you will apply one or another of the Just in Time trope (and you just may).

But you know what? After having done this for about 20 years, I’m a bit weary of that trope and I am soooo ripe for some honest to goodness subversion.

Nuking it!

Cataclysmic events are often seen as a prelude to a Post-apocalyptic campaign, as ancient history to a rebuilt world or downright averted by the timely intervention of meddling kids Fearless Heroes!

However, is your campaign coming to a close soon? Are you thinking of changing systems, GMs or at the very least, switch editions?

Then why not pull the plug on your campaign and game world with Style?

Go ahead and have the Big Bad press the Button, break the Seal or summon The Ultimate Evil. Do this while the players are actually fighting for their lives against the Horde of Endless minions!

Of course, don’t have the Cataclysm kill the PCs when this happens (unless you really need to get a message across) but everything should be exploited.

This is a perfect way of surprising a group of players who didn’t actually expect you to have the Stones (or Iron Ovaries, I’m totally equal opportunity) to pull it off.

When you start destroying mountains and draining oceans, you have to offer the heroes a new focus (and keep player buy-in) such as:

  • Trying to stop the destruction before it kills everyone.
  • Brining as many people to safety, as fast as possible.
  • Find a new world for the PC’s dependents (from family to entire kingdom depending on your campaign’s scale)

The thing is to shift the campaign from saving the world to salvaging it, or reclaiming it.

Depending on how grim or gritty your group’s playing style is, the PCs may die or fail. You may then end your campaign thus, making the next one about an After the End theme or a fight to Reclaim what was once lost (Excellent post Trask).

This subverted trope is a perfect opportunity to take an established world and make it into a new one. A strange new/old dark world, where danger lurk everywhere and civilization has shrunk to a mere few Points of Lights. (hint hint)

It’s the End of the World as we know it… and I feel fine! 😀


  1. Tangent128 says:

    A good Trope post, as always.
    Though I’m not a roleplayer, it seems like the Human Popsicle is a good way to bridge the old world to a not-being-actively-destroyed-anymore one.

  2. Nice inclusion of the R.E.M. song.

    Though I do prefer it with a Newfie twist.

  3. Tangent128: The Human Popsicle trope is great for any ‘drop the Player Characters here and start’ type of campaigns.

    It applies rather well to post-apocalypse themes, Vintage Super Heroes (70’s heroes waking up in the 2000s) and a “Heroes sealed in a Can” fantasy game.

  4. Ripper X says:

    What would happen, indeed?

    Sure, I support the Cuthulu Minions of doom, but end of the world retirement parties? This is a fascinating series BTW, endings are much harder then any of the game mechanics.

    It leads to the problem of what would happen if Cuthulu escaped, unleashing hell on Earth. First things first I suppose that it would organize all of the monsters . . . those that don’t submit will be considered carrion (could be fun but not on any regular basis), but The entire land mass would now be following the rules of the sea, (a popular Lovecraftian nightmare) and life would be so cheap that we wouldn’t even be allowed to care about each other anymore . . . among other social problems.

    All this kind of looks fun on paper . . . but as a full-time playing world? I think that it would get silly and boring quickly. I’ve played worlds like this, designed by crazy DM’s with great idea’s but the balance of play is too far out there and it wasn’t fun anymore. Just frustrating because no matter what you do, you don’t seem to get any real ground won. Sure, there is a gate that needs to be closed, but you need to be about 15th or 20th level to be able to do it . . . after all, we are talking about an evil god here.

    I suppose that after a week of this, that you could pull the old “War of the Worlds” ending, the evil minions disrupt and destroy society for a week or two, then suddenly start falling down dead because of a serious oversight in Cuthulu’s plan. He would return to the plane from which he came, but continue his genocidal war from his side, granting powerful monsters their own kingdoms and missions.

    Personally, my campaigns don’t center around gods, but around rivals. A threat like this would make some interesting alliances, and totally change the world in a positive way if done well.

    It is stuff like this that keeps me coming back to this blog every day. Thanks for the ponderings, Chatty.

  5. I live but to serve…

    …the powers of dark Crunch and wailing insanity-check inducing Fluff

  6. It’s not apocalyptic, but the “End of the World as We Know It” can be used in a different way and still do just what it says on the tin. See Scrapped Princess.

    In it, the PCs are actually the ones destined to bring about the “End of the World” and the rest of the world (or at least the authorities) are out to get them.

    Of course (spoilers!), the “Scrapped Princess” is only going to bring about the end of the “ruler”‘s reign. See that wikipedia article if you want to know more.
    .-= Sam Erwin´s last blog ..The Land of Magic, Kraj Magia =-.


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