The Gassy Gnoll: The End of the World (Happens All The Time)

This past Saturday, 21-May-2011, the world was supposed to end. Considering that it’s now 4 days later, it’s possible that didn’t happen. Or did it?

As gamers (and writers), we have dealt with avoiding (or in some cases starting) the apocalypse many many times over the years. Sure, those worlds may be fictional. But if you think about Heinlein’s multiverse in which he theorizes the existence of a six-dimensional universe in which fictional worlds (like Oz and Barsoom) actually exist (read The Number of the Beast – great book)… Perhaps we as gamers are causing untold destruction (and creation) in that same multiverse.

If that’s the case, then every moment of every day I’d guess that a world ends somewhere. So though the folks predicting the Rapture on May 21st were wrong in our world, perhaps they were right somewhere else.

How’s that for a disturbing theory? Then again…

“There is a theory which states that if ever anyone discovers exactly what the Universe is for and why it is here, it will instantly disappear and be replaced by something even more bizarre and inexplicable.

There is another theory which states that this has already happened.”

Douglas AdamsThe Restaurant at the End of the Universe (1980)

However… beyond the whole “world ending” thing, I find the whole concept of the end of times interesting. There are many names for it in different cultures – Apocalypse, Ragnarok, Armageddon, Rapture, Kaiki, Li Hong, etc. – and many different meanings. For some it’s religious. For others it’s philosophical. For others it may simply signify the destruction of man, the planet, or the universe.

I take a slightly different approach. I say the end of times is nothing more than a mile marker in history. These don’t even have to be big mile markers like the end of a decade, century, or millennium. It could simply be the passing of a leader (political, spiritual, philosophical) or the creation of an idea that changes the world. Each of us has probably thought the world is ending at some point or another, so there’s also the personal apocalypse to consider. But perhaps those are more “beginning of times” than an end.

Chapman as King Arthur in Holy Grail

Image via Wikipedia

“Look, let me go back there and face the peril,” said Sir Galahad.

Lancelot flatly replies “No, it’s too perilous.”

Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975)

When running a RPG campaign, sometimes we like to put our heroes in grave peril and in a position to save the world or at least delay its demise by a moment or two. Sometimes this approach even works. The problem of course is when your heroes don’t save the world. Do you help? Or does the world fall into ruins and the PCs have to help clean up. Why not treat the end as a beginning? Some players might not enjoy that process, but if you have a few post-apocalyptic things planned you might as well see where they lead. Or perhaps the world ends and it’s time for a new campaign entirely.

(Over store speakers) “Irv, clean up in Aisle 5!”

Jack (Michael Keaton): “Irv, I wasn’t even in Aisle 5!!”

Mr. Mom (1983)

If you’re truly going the end of the world route as a GM, make it memorable. Think of all the over-the-top villains from movies over the years. Cross that with a Contingency Spell (or the technological equivalent). Maybe a major NPC sets off a magical or technological device when they die to leave a lasting mark – a global EMP, a destructive wave of energy destroying everything around their body or tomb, or a chain reaction that truly does trigger an apocalyptic event destroying a planet… You want some tension, I think the imminent end of life itself would probably create a bit.

Cover of "The Restaurant at the End of th...

Cover via Amazon

Or perhaps use smaller apocalyptic events. Some people say sleep is the “little death,” so why can’t you have “little apocalypses”? Perhaps it’s not a planet-wide event, but the imminent collapse of a dungeon or underground structure (like at the end of The Mummy). Or maybe it’s about a small terrorist event where a suicide bomber is going to take out a crowd and kill as many innocent people as possible. If PCs are closely involved with NPCs, the death of a beloved NPC can kick off some interesting events from time to time.

As players, sometimes our characters need to live on the edge a little. Why not have a character who goes into every battle thinking it’s his last? Or have a paranoid or terrified character out to stop the end of the world? Not all heroes are the kind of folks who face fear well – look at Shaggy and Scooby-Doo!

But don’t think of the impending Rapture in May 2011 October 2011 as an end – think of it as a beginning. It’s the old statement “when one door closes, another one opens somewhere else.” Use mini-Armageddons in your games to create true tension with your players. But keep in mind that even if they fail and the world still exists, there’s room for a do-over.

Disagree? Leave comments below or drop the Gassy Gnoll an e-mail via the contact page!

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5 comments to The Gassy Gnoll: The End of the World (Happens All The Time)

  • D-Jumpers Issue 6: Collapsing World ( deals with the end of the world and the saving of in your campaign, and it doesn’t pull any punches. Of course, it has an advantage when it comes to end of the world scenarios – when you’ve got an infinite number of worlds to explore, the GM can afford to gamble on whether or not the PCs will actually bother to save one or not, or just try and make for the nearest portal as mountains are flying past their heads as the planet itself breaks apart.

    There’s a reason why post-apocalypse is the second favourite genre of gamers too – I think it’s because it’s the one they are most used to dealing with when they failed to save the day and have to otherwise clean up the mess! “It’s life, Jim, but not as we know it…”

  • Fitz

    @Da’ Vane – Having an escape route is definitely a nice touch. It’s the Stargate approach… “Oops, we just destroyed a planet – everybody jump through this door into the unknown!”

    But as a player, I tend to like the saving the world part, not necessarily cleaning up after we fail to do so. I can’t say that I recall ever getting that far in a campaign however. It might be fun to start a campaign in the moments after the apocalypse occurs and let the heroes try and figure out what happened and how to move forward… Hmmm… Wheels are turning. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    Thanks for the comment!

  • forged

    There is a balancing trick I need to find with end-of-the-world as we know it campaigns that I run. How to get the players invested enough in what passes for status quo so that they will really feel the events as being significant to their characters?

    Good role-playing can cover up that a lot, but alas, not everyone falls into that camp.

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