Let's Not Save The World...Again
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  • Let's Not Save The World...Again



    It used to take a lot less to make us feel heroic. Guns and ships and criminals used to be good enough, as in the stories of Rudyard Kipling, Arthur Conan Doyle, Robert Louis Stevenson, and even James Bond as written by Ian Fleming, not as he's known from movies. In pulps, it was enough to defeat a gang or an unusual villain. The "science fiction" adventure of H. G. Wells and Jules Verne is surprisingly tame by contemporary standards. Now we want everything in movies to be flashy and completely unrealistic, approaching the ridiculous, as in most comic book movies and other action movies (Indiana Jones IV, anyone?).
    Jaded: "tired, bored, or lacking enthusiasm, typically after having had too much of something;"
    "feeling or showing a lack of interest and excitement caused by having done or experienced too much of something"

    We see it in video games: "save the world (or galaxy)" is a pretty common, almost mundane, motivation. It's not enough any more to rescue the kidnapped person or prevent a dastardly deed.

    "Saving the world" creates a cheap sense of grandeur. It's the Age of Inflation, everything has to be "stunning" or "awesome," everybody is "saving the world." I call that jaded.

    I played in a campaign where, invariably, we faced such waves of monsters that few of us (sometimes only my character) were left standing. The GM evidently manipulated numbers so that this would happen. But it became almost tedious rather than exciting.

    We lose impact when it's always "save the world", or always any particular outcome/objective. Pacing is vital both in games and on the screen, and good pacing requires alternate tension and relaxation. If every story is “epic”, epic becomes normal, not extraordinary. If we always save the world, that becomes mundane. Games (like life) benefit from variation in tension/relaxation. The contrast makes them both more intense and more enjoyable. Good pacing would mean alternating the Save the World objectives with others at a lesser scale. (For an under-3-minutes explanation of pacing see https://youtu.be/QAPkcr4b0EE.)

    What can a GM do? Set expectations from the campaign beginning. Choose players (and adventures) wisely. Make "Great Objectives" the purpose of an entire campaign, not of each adventure. The threat of death, or of losing all their stuff, should be enough to thrill adventurers without resort to saving the world.

    In my campaigns, stretching back more than 40 years, we've never saved the world; an entire campaign might be about saving a city or country, but that didn't happen in every adventure (nor any particular adventure, really). Saving the world calls for really experienced (high-level) characters, and few get that high.

    If it isn't enough to risk death, regardless of objective, then there may not be much you can do about jaded players. Or maybe there's no risk of death in your campaign? That could lead to boredom: no extreme lows.

    References:
    Extra Credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LScL4CWe5E
    Gamasutra: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/featur...mes_arent_.php

    contributed by Lewis Pulispher
    Comments 92 Comments
    1. Henry's Avatar
      Henry -
      I like it!

      Some of the greatest films of all time are about smaller struggles on a personal scale. The Maltese Falcon is about one man, really, and his life being changed by a material object and what it represented. Taxi Driver, The Godfather - really, if you think about it, the first Predator movie was not saving tons of people -- it was one man trying to save himself and one other person, but was pretty "epic" in the way it was told (and yes, it's Most Dangerous Game with an alien spin, but still quite fun in the telling).

      EDIT: I just thought of another one that fits the genre - 7 Samurai! Party of "adventurers" thrown together to save a village from a group of bandits - pretty D&D when you think about it.

      I've run into this problem myself in D&D games - I told the world-threatening story I wanted to tell, it ended with the players saving the day, but they wanted to keep playing -- what do you do for an encore?

      Save the world a second time, of course.

      That's why most of my stories since then have been regional (save the forest, help the duke reclaim his throne, etc.) rather than global. Don't misunderstand, I still want my occasional epic world-saving adventure, but too much makes it common.
    1. prosfilaes's Avatar
      prosfilaes -
      Quote Originally Posted by Christopher Helton View Post
      It used to take a lot less to make us feel heroic.
      The extremely popular Lensman series, finished at its core by the 1940s, had humans save the universe; I don't know any other setting that broad, or that high-powered with people throwing around planets. The Golden Age of comics was when Superman and the other big superheros were at their flashiest and virtually invincible, whereas the later Iron Age offered us guns and gangs.

      Arthur Conan Doyle
      Doyle wrote detective stories, and the genre has continued after him; heck, Sherlock Holmes stories keep getting written to this day. In the whole genre, saving the world is rare. Ed McBain's 87th Precinct only once or twice crossed the river into the neighboring state, and in thirty volumes, Eve Dallas has stopped a number of villains with different MOs, but never came close to "saving the world".

      We see it in video games: "save the world (or galaxy)" is a pretty common, almost mundane, motivation. It's not enough any more to rescue the kidnapped person or prevent a dastardly deed.
      Looking at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_o...ng_video_games , there might be a tendency here, but to say "it's not enough any more" is to overstate it, and I think some of the difference is the gaming audience. Looking at the four most recent games on that list, we have two Pokemon games, Call of Duty: Ghosts (which is "save the world") and Grand Theft Auto V, which is not.

      As for big-screen movies, I think there's a big part to be played by the fact that huge TVs and cheap DVDs/VoD has made the demand for theatrical releases less, so you have to show something that will give people a reason to go to the theater, something where a 50 inch TV and surround sound can't compete with what a theater offers. That is, theater is epic because TV can do non-epic just fine.

      In "pacing", you're extrapolating from sources that just don't have the duration and style of an RPG. "This is how a two hour movie is set up" doesn't really say much as to how a 100-hour campaign should be set up.

      The threat of death, or of losing all their stuff, should be enough to thrill adventurers without resort to saving the world. ... If it isn't enough to risk death, regardless of objective
      Huh? I don't like playing murder-hobos; I want to play heroes. You can do that without saving the world, but thrill me by letting me do heroic things.

      I assume you're talking about not every campaign ends with a world saving event. I see an argument for that case; I also see an argument on the other side, that players want to play what they want to play. Mixing it up can be nice in many ways, even with games that don't have a risk of death.

      When you say "stretching back more than 40 years, we've never saved the world", that, in my mind, says that it's worked just fine for you to never have that world-saving victory, and thus for another audience a string of world-saving victories may be just fine. Maybe you should try blowing it all out, going over the top and saving everything?
    1. R_Chance's Avatar
      R_Chance -
      I agree with the article. My players have never saved the world. They've saved a person, a farm, a village, a city, even a nation, and always had a blast doing it. Never the world / existence etc. That's always allowed the game to continue after the objective. I don't play / run APs though, I prefer my own material. You pull the players Into the world, let them make friends (and enemies), let them become invested in the game and the objective is always important, whether it's rescuing a merchants child, saving a village, or stopping the Orcish invasion. That's always fun. And, more manageable for long term games. All, imho of course.

      Of course, if some people want to save the world, feel free
    1. Random Bystander's Avatar
      Random Bystander -
      "What's the plural of Apocalypse? Apocalypses? Apocalypsi?" - Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

      Everything old is new again... Or also, everything new is old in some way.
    1. werecorpse's Avatar
      werecorpse -
      I'm confused about what this article is saying. No campaigns in 40 years with the objective of saving the world -but also that to do so needs high level adventurers and few get that high. IMO the objective usually matches the level of the adventurers. I agree low level adventuring can be fun and should generally involve low level stakes - higher level adventuring usually involves higher stakes. If you don't run high level adventures (which is fine, many people don't) you probably keep the stakes at the level appropriate to the adventurers.

      I don't think many campaigns are about saving the world really. You might be trying to stop a Demon Lord escaping its prison (cos then there will be 185 not 184 roaming free), or prevent an evil creature from becoming a god (see above comment) etc. most adventure paths have massive foes at the end but failure usually means a deity released, a nation pillaged, conquered or destroyed. Whatevs, the world marches on.

      Post apocalypse games are all about what happens when someone has failed to "save the world". I once ran a heavily tweaked version of Savage Worlds Evernight campaign which is all about playing in a fantasy world before, during and after War of the Worlds style aliens invade. Failure to "save the world" at least early in the campaign is a story requirement. It was brutal and the players had a blast.

      Star Wars (the last hope) is used as the example of good pacing. In it they literally saved a world (and probably many more). So is it a bad story for that fact? Not IMO.

      and yes Buffy & her crew stopped many apocalypses and it was awesome every time
      : )
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      I've run campaigns that have a political focus, and that have a cosmological/"save the world" focus. I'm currently playing in a game where the focus so far has been quite personal, but I think the GM will have ideas about how those personal matters are going to get the PCs drawn into more wide-reaching political events.
    1. S'mon -
      I definitely agree with the general point, and I strongly advise against using "save the world" when "save the immediate campaign area" feels if anything more real and more epic IME. A threat to the World is often too abstract to feel meaningful, and players may be sceptical the GM would really destroy The World. Players are much readier to believe the GM would destroy the town of Sandpoint if they fail - they did and I did.
    1. Scrivener of Doom's Avatar
      Scrivener of Doom -
      The Age of Inflation, as the OP terms it, is why I was never a comics fan, even as a scrawny, nerdy kid. As much as I have enjoyed many of the Marvel movies, I'm still waiting for them to "jump the shark" necessitating a reboot of the particular universe as has apparently happened many times in the source material.

      My main players simply aren't the sort to want to save the world. Threats have to feel local, regional at a pinch, for them to bite. And part of that is because they're not the sort to commit to a campaign past level 10 or so. So, yeah, local or regional is better... which is a shame because I'm still longing to run a Pemertonian, Epic-level, multiplanar extravaganza at some point. (And @pemerton, I know you're not a fan of fanboys, so I hope you won't take offence at "Pemertonian".... ) That said, because we've never jumped the shark, the campaign world remains in good shape for future campaigns.
    1. AriochQ's Avatar
      AriochQ -
      I have evolved a DM'ing philosophy over the years that really makes the article above largely irrelevant.

      "The players should not be playing out your story in your world, the players should be playing out their story in your world"

      The distinction is subtle, yet profound. Too many DM's push player's through their story and that leads to very little player investment. Instead, put the world in motion, throw out some hooks, and see where the story leads. Allow opportunities for player development. Sometimes they will save the world, sometimes they will save the farm. Either way, it is usually a better play experience.
    1. rknop's Avatar
      rknop -
      I remember after seeing "Casino Royale", the first Bond movie featuring Daniel Craig, that I liked that the whole main plot was over some large sum of money. It wasn't about saving the world. Now, granted, yes, the villain was going to do things like crash some planes to make that money, and early on there was an epic stop-the-plane-from-taking-off action sequence. But the main plot was not about saving the whole world.
    1. SMHWorlds's Avatar
      SMHWorlds -
      If folks are looking for inspiration where smaller stories are woven into larger ones, I would recommend the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series. I feel that particular aspect of the series was done very well.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by S'mon View Post
      I strongly advise against using "save the world" when "save the immediate campaign area" feels if anything more real and more epic IME. A threat to the World is often too abstract to feel meaningful, and players may be sceptical the GM would really destroy The World.
      I think this is not a weakness of "save the world" but rather a weakness of the GM! A prioritising of the setting over the play of the game.

      Quote Originally Posted by Scrivener of Doom View Post
      because we've never jumped the shark, the campaign world remains in good shape for future campaigns.
      Whereas my approach is to use new worlds. Even when I'm suing GH for the Nth campaign, it doesn't have to be the same GH. I'm not obliged to have regard to past failures to "save the world".

      Quote Originally Posted by Scrivener of Doom View Post
      My main players simply aren't the sort to want to save the world. Threats have to feel local, regional at a pinch, for them to bite. And part of that is because they're not the sort to commit to a campaign past level 10 or so. So, yeah, local or regional is better... which is a shame because I'm still longing to run a Pemertonian, Epic-level, multiplanar extravaganza at some point. (And @pemerton, I know you're not a fan of fanboys, so I hope you won't take offence at "Pemertonian".... )
      I'm happy to accept "pemertonian"! - I think @S'mon coined it a few years ago now, for relatively lowbrow, D&D-fantasy scene-framing GMing.
    1. Hallowed's Avatar
      Hallowed -
      Quote Originally Posted by Random Bystander View Post
      "What's the plural of Apocalypse? Apocalypses? Apocalypsi?" - Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

      Everything old is new again... Or also, everything new is old in some way.
      Funny that you mention this because in season 5 they fight a literal god, but then in season 6 they fight against "the trio", who are just nerds from a high school. The story during that season also focused more on Buffy trying to work a fast food job and support the household, so it went from "saving the world" to "surviving paycheck to paycheck while dealing with annoying nerds once in a while". Of course the season finale goes back to saving the world from Dark Willow, but for most of the season it was pretty mundane for Buffy. It was a great change of pace for the show.
    1. Random Bystander's Avatar
      Random Bystander -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hallowed View Post
      Funny that you mention this because in season 5 they fight a literal god, but then in season 6 they fight against "the trio", who are just nerds from a high school. The story during that season also focused more on Buffy trying to work a fast food job and support the household, so it went from "saving the world" to "surviving paycheck to paycheck while dealing with annoying nerds once in a while". Of course the season finale goes back to saving the world from Dark Willow, but for most of the season it was pretty mundane for Buffy. It was a great change of pace for the show.
      I just think it is ridiculous that it stayed a "secret urban fantasy" past the end of season 3, and then later retconned into "normals just forget".

      I have the same general problem with Stargate SG-1 after the two Gua'uld motherships were blown up in Earth orbit.

      Also, if anyone remembers the much more obscure TV show "First Wave", the body-snatching enemy in that series called themselves "Gua"...
      Quote Originally Posted by https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/First_Wave_(TV_series) View Post
      We were like you once. There’s a time for peace and inner-growth, but we became complacent; and when the invasion force landed, they took us down. One rebel led us to freedom. That’s when we took the name Gua; it means “power to overcome”. Over the centuries, science and industry achieved perfect focus. We created a military machine to ensure our freedom, permanently... We’re here because we’ll never be victims again.”

      — Joshua Bridges, season 1 episode 09, “Joshua”
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      For movies, you can blame, "Save the Cat!"

      It's been the latest "bible" for lazy studio execs for the last 10 years. One of its main credos is to always up the stakes. The trouble is that the book is aimed the screenwriter, but the suits use it to add their two cents.

      "He's just saving is family? What about the rest of the city? ... or the whole nation?!"
    1. Random Bystander's Avatar
      Random Bystander -
      Quote Originally Posted by Von Ether View Post
      For movies, you can blame, "Save the Cat!"

      It's been the latest "bible" for lazy studio execs for the last 10 years. One of its main credos is to always up the stakes. The trouble is that the book is aimed the screenwriter, but the suits use it to add their two cents.

      "He's just saving is family? What about the rest of the city? ... or the whole nation?!"
      ...I now want an epic film about saving a muffin.
    1. shidaku's Avatar
      shidaku -
      Sure, repetition can be boring. But I think "saving the universe" misses a lot about what you're saving it from and how you go about saving it. If the threat is physical, tangible, "real" then yeah, you're likely to dive head-long into waves of enemies, battle impossible odds and save all the princesses. But that's a very narrow selection of "saving the universe". Threats don't have to be bold-faced mustache-twirling villains seeking semi-phenomonal nearly cosmic power. Threats can be subtle, subversive, intangible. Threats can be ideologies, threats can be things you can never just punch into submission. Threats can require different solutions, diplomacy, puzzles.

      Ex: in my Dragons campaign, the world is dying. The players know this in an indirect way in the same way you can look outside and tell its going to rain. Part of saving the world requires finding out the cause. In this case, there are two ancient dragons locked in eternal combat. One has trapped the other on this world, but in order to do so, he had to cut this world off from the rest of the multiverse, which is killing everything on the planet (them included). One is irredeemably evil but seeks the aid of the players in order to defeat his good brother, free himself from the world and escape. To that end he promises the party great power, to save their families and friends, to restore the world to greatness. The Good Brother seeks a new way to trap his evil counterpart but offers no easy solutions to it.

      Punching your way to victory simply isn't a solution and neither side is going to throw endless armies at you until you're defeated (they simply dont exist in the world).

      Meanwhile, there are 3rd parties interested in the outcome of this fateful battle who will likewise attempt to influence the players (there's a deevil lord who is trapped in the "Black Book" who seeks to escape and use the world as a staging ground for an infernal invasion of the planes. The 1st generation of the Immortal Dragons' children have in secret torn open a hole in the Veil surrounding the world, unfortunately while they could open the door they couldn't control where it went and the Breach links to the Abyss. A plane-traveling race of "Elken" (elves with deer-like physical features) have breached the Veil from the outside but are set on conquering the world and turning it into a giant battery for their homeworld. Meanwhile the incarnation of death "The Lich" has awoken and requires the planet to die for as it does he gains power. In addition to a wide variety of other problems on the world.

      The goal for the players isn't really to "save the world", sure it's there as an option but that means doing everything right and really, what party has ever done that? It's more about knowing when to pick your battles and where to take your victories, and the cost of easy victories may outweigh the gain. There's very little room to "punch your way to victory."

      But beyond that, I think there are plenty of games where you save a city, a town, but they're not something you're going to run for 30 years.

      And while I hate to shoot the messenger, I couldn't help by see who this article was contributed by and re-read it in the context of some of his other commentaries and I do get a startling vibe of "back in my day..."

      Social commentary has limited appreciable value when it doesn't come with any sort of suggestions on a resolution.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      Oh, gee, it must be Friday again.

      Hrm, world or universe spanning fiction - Moorcock, Tolkien, the aforementioned Lensmen series, heck, even Conan saves the world from this or that god a few times.

      This is basically the argument of High vs Low Fantasy warmed over. Epic fantasy, which has a very long tradition, is, well, all about the epic. Cast of thousands, fate of the world stuff. Speculative fiction has been swimming in this since pretty much day 1. Writers like Frank Herbert, Asimov, and others have been doing this sort of grand story telling since Spec Fic was a thing. Heck, roll it back to Well's War of the Worlds or Wyndham's Day of the Triffids or The Day the Earth Stood Still if we want to go silver screen, have a lengthy, storied history in the genre.

      So, why is it a surprise when we see this in RPG's and video games? You want local, low fantasy stuff? Sure, we can do that. Lots of games, modules, and whatnot fit. You want high fantasy epic stuff? Great, we got that too.

      Why is this set up as some sort of bizarre binary? Is there a particular reason we can't have both? For every Slave Lords campaign, why can't we have Queen of the Demonweb Pits or Dragonlance?

      I guess I'm just a greedy bastard. I want both. Sometimes I want a low fantasy game - my current Primeval Thule campaign is certainly that. Sometimes I want epic high fantasy - our recent Dragonlance campaign scratched that itch. Sometimes I'd love to play a real gritty SF game like GURPS Space or Traveler, and sometimes I want epic space opera and, well, Star Wars is a possible campaign looming on the horizon.

      Just pulling out one specific quote that caught my eye:

      Quote Originally Posted by The Article View Post
      The threat of death, or of losing all their stuff, should be enough to thrill adventurers without resort to saving the world.
      Sorry, but the threat of failure is more what I'm interested in. Losing their stuff? Who cares? If my campaign is about "stuff on my character sheet", I've already failed at role playing. If the only thing the PC's are worried about is their +1 Sword and HP, I've utterly failed as a DM.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      Well's War of the Worlds
      I'm glad you mentioned that - I'd thought of it too.

      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      If my campaign is about "stuff on my character sheet", I've already failed at role playing. If the only thing the PC's are worried about is their +1 Sword and HP, I've utterly failed as a DM.
      I'm in two minds in relation to this.

      My first response - even when I was hitting the "quote" button - is to agree with you. Certainly in my 4e game equipment isn't where the stakes are.

      But then I thought - in the BW campaign I GM, and the one I play in, gear is important. It's a gritty system, and having (or, more often, not having) the stuff you need is part of it.

      So maybe a bit like your response to the bigger contrast of the OP - sometimes one, sometimes the other.
    1. MarkB's Avatar
      MarkB -
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