The End is Nigh

How Deathmatch Island and The Silt Verses RPG play with endings.

The End is Nigh
Photo by Salvatore Tonnara / Unsplash

This month's RPG Blog Carnival theme is 'Endings,' hosted by Plastic Polyhedra, and I felt moved to contribute. A lot of circles praise and seek out the 'forever' game or campaign, the One Game that in the darkness bind them. I'm sure such rarified never-ending campaigns are deeply fulfilling, but I know they wouldn't suit me even if I had the option. I am enchanted by novelty and have deep gaming infidelity: I lust for new worlds, scenarios and game procedures. Obviously shorter campaigns suit my 'swinger lifestyle,' but there is more to say for them than that. Games can short-change you by running too long.

I have read two titles recently that got me thinking about additional advantages for both designers and players of working to a short, sharp shock of a campaign: Deathmatch Island and The Silt Verses RPG.

Deathmatch Island

Deathmatch Island is a game designed by Time Denee based on John Harper's Agon, not yet widely available awaiting Kickstarter fulfilment. The premise is a group of over one hundred amnesiacs competing across a range of challenges as they sail between a string of three islands, under the voyeuristic gaze of 'Production' and 'the Audience.'

The game is very upfront that each island should take 1-2 sessions of play, and the third island is when the game 'ends.' It does provide considerable support for repeat playthroughs, including a 'New Game+' that sets you up to subvert the premise and sue for greater narrative closure, but fundamentally the game is built to show its full hand in those 3-6 sessions.

This is great! It helps me to pitch the game to players by making the time commitment explicit. It helps players work through a character arc and ration use of powerful consumables without leaving all the fun goodies to go stale 'just in case' of an emergency that never comes. It helps the GM to have clear beats to hit each session, and judge the pace of reveals regarding the deeper mystery of the perverse game you're playing in world.

The Silt Verses RPG

I've mentioned The Silt Verses: A Game of Folk Horror & Monstrous Divinity before, but this work by Gabriel Robinson and Jason Cordova really has some intriguing elements warranting discussion.

For today, that's the games equivalent to Blades in the Dark's resistance roll: Write a Verse (of History or Prophecy). And unlike the resistance roll, the mechanic is given suitable gravitas to prevent it being overlooked by new players. After the consequence has been narrated from a moves' die roll, the player may elect to bump up the result to the next tier (mitigating the consequences), but must mark a Verse.

Each Verse of History prompts you to narrate a flashback filling in a piece of your personal backstory, and each Verse of Prophecy prompts you to narrate a flashback (or later contemporaneous scene) relating to your faith and worship of a particular god. Each track is finite, and the final Verse of Prophecy you will mark is "Say your Final Prayer."

At this point you flip your character sheet over, and the only thing on the obverse is the centred text of your Final Prayer, a calamitous and capital-F Final scene for this character. Reminiscent of the ultimate abilities in Heart: The City Beneath by Grant Howitt and Chris Taylor (and if I recall correctly, this served as inspiration) yet I found this take really hit home. When you read each Faith sheet (sort of one-half of your typical Powered by the Apocalypse playbook), you can't help but be excited to envisage how your going to reach that finale for your character, and how you're going to make sure its suitably impactful.

Starting at the End

A lot of games set am implicit player goal to keep their character alive for as long as possible, somewhat analogous to old arcade games where the skill is in stretching your pocket change for maximum playtime and core. Yet most media is built around narrative structures of a beginning, a middle, and an end. There is a meaning in endings, and a struggle to find it in the face of inevitable loss and passing, that is given short shrift when the only lens of play is staying alive.

What do you think about short, finite campaign structures? What other games contain proscribed character endings? Or do you feel we should always strive for the 'forever campaign'?