Having lost track since the RPG Blogger Network went down, I see the RPG Blog Carnival is still going strong! And this month, Rising Phoenix Games suggested At World’s End - write about the (or an) apocalypse. So...
Apocalypse Not Now
How to present something that could be the end of the world but actually can’t be in the middle of a game
The Watch House started as the title of a six year and seven season Buffy The Vampire Slayer RPG series, in which the PCs averted an apocalypse or at least a pretty disastrous supernatural event at least at the end of every season, like Buffy and the Scooby Gang did and Angel Investigations sometimes did too. Since the game was intended to be ongoing until Season Seven, and to tie in with the Buffyverse, obviously the world wasn’t really gonna end. So how to make a non-starter apocalypse still feel interesting?
Stakes besides everything ending
The obvious place to start is to set up some smaller stakes that can happen while the PCs are saving the day. Will they all survive? Will they lose allies? Will their enemies gain in power? Perhaps setting elements like the availability of magic could change as well.
The big final fight should be a tough one, and it could well see some PCs and NPC losing their lives or taking grievous injuries. PCs died at the ends of TWH seasons two, four, and seven - and only one of them got better. It should be noted that these were player calls at jumping-off points, as PC death in Buffy is essentially optional, but a game with a less player-chosen body count can still ramp it up for a big finale. (Check out Our Last Best Hope, a storytelling game about stopping apocalypses where a well-placed PC death is a key tactic!)
Nothing will ever be the same
The PCs save the world, but not 100%. Smaller changes in the setting can show the impact of their actions and those of their enemies. Say the PCs stopped the Red King killing the sun god, but he still managed to conquer one PC’s homeland and oust another’s queen from her throne, and now his Red Orcs hunt the Free People through the land - the next run of adventures should feel different.
Choose what you lose
Maybe the PCs can save the world but can’t do everything on the way so they have to prioritise - do you save Kingdom X or Kingdom Y? Villains love making heroes do this - and of course players love finding a way to achieve both. But a change that the players will find interesting (and I’d discuss in advance) could become unavoidable, or something might arise from the PCs’ actions.
So, the world ends... and, uh... what next...?
Then again, in a setting with a high enough Weird Level, the apocalypse can happen mid-game. It could continue in a hellish future where everything sucks, if that’s fun for the players - it might not be if everybody the PCs liked is dead and it’s their fault! Alternatively, the PCs could find a way to travel back in time to undo the destruction. Good if you establish this possibility at least in passing in advance, less so if you drop it in abruptly after the players mess up the apocalypse-stopping adventure. You can also have your cake and eat it by running a Days Of Future Past adventure where someone flashes forwards to after an apocalypse somewhere in the PCs’ future, gaining a clue about how to stop it in the process. Yeah, I did that one in TWH as well...