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. S'mon -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      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.

      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.
      Well I'm not criticising your Dusk War 'save the universe' campaign - clearly that is the scope & stakes of the campaign. But Buffy-style save-the-world-this-week plots can feel cheap and cheesy. And failure which allows continued play in the failure-state is very valuable for making stakes feel real, I find. So potential loss of a town or nation generally I find is a better stake, for most games.

      Yes, 'twas I came up with "Pemertonian Scene-Framing" as a description for your GMing style.
    1. S'mon -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      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.
      I don't recall Conan ever saving the world? Do you have any examples? Maybe he did in some Marvel comic I haven't read. In the REH stories it seems doubtful the gods even exist and I doubt Conan ever met any or even experienced any sort of divine intervention, far less saved the world from them. I can imagine Marvel-Superhero-Conan beating up Set, though.
    1. Hussar's Avatar
      Hussar -
      @S'mon - It may have been in the Marvel comics. Fair enough. I'll admit, my Conan experiences is far more De Camp. I didn't read the original Howard stories until much later.

      The problem I have with the article is the same as I have with the other articles. These articles take a very, very narrow view of the genre and then try to make broad claims. And, I gotta think that its deliberate.

      I mean, the article talks about how back in the day,

      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.
      But, that's not even true. We've got Burroughs and "A Princess of Mars" and subsequent stories being published in 1912. World spanning plot. Hardly a local story about "guns and ships and criminals". Never minding traditions like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Or H. Beam Piper. And, of course, there's the grand daddy of fantasy, Tolkien, banging out The Lord of the Rings in 1954.

      How can we argue that there has been this idea that "it used to take a lot less to make us feel heroic" when there have been these big, sweeping stories as part of the genre since pretty much day 1?

      Shock and surprise, yet again, we've got another non-trend. Broad, sweeping, epic style speculative fiction has been a part of the genre since the beginning.
    1. hawkeyefan's Avatar
      hawkeyefan -
      I think there is a place for both incredibly high stakes goals and lower stakes goals in most RPG campaigns. Neither is absolutely required, but I would say that having at least a bit of both is a smart thing. Especially if the protagonists are saving the world on a weekly basis; if that's the case, then dialing things back and making it about saving a town or maybe just one person is probably a good idea.

      But saving the world is not inherently bad for stories, or for an RPG campaign. My campaign has saving the world as the likely goal of the whole campaign. Actually, saving the multiverse, most likely. It's a crazy multiversal campaign with multiple worlds in peril. But that's kind of the end game.....the campaign is designed around many short term goals which are much smaller in scope.

      It all depends on the tone you want, and the style you're going for. I don't always make the stakes so high. But I can say that the last time I had an "end of the world" scenario in a campaign, the PCs ultimately failed to a large extent....and it became about how many people could they save and evacuate before the world died. And my players would likely say that's the most memorable campaign we've ever run.
    1. S'mon -
      Quote Originally Posted by Hussar View Post
      @S'mon - It may have been in the Marvel comics. Fair enough. I'll admit, my Conan experiences is far more De Camp. I didn't read the original Howard stories until much later.

      The problem I have with the article is the same as I have with the other articles. These articles take a very, very narrow view of the genre and then try to make broad claims. And, I gotta think that its deliberate.

      I mean, the article talks about how back in the day,



      But, that's not even true. We've got Burroughs and "A Princess of Mars" and subsequent stories being published in 1912. World spanning plot. Hardly a local story about "guns and ships and criminals". Never minding traditions like Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. Or H. Beam Piper. And, of course, there's the grand daddy of fantasy, Tolkien, banging out The Lord of the Rings in 1954.

      How can we argue that there has been this idea that "it used to take a lot less to make us feel heroic" when there have been these big, sweeping stories as part of the genre since pretty much day 1?

      Shock and surprise, yet again, we've got another non-trend. Broad, sweeping, epic style speculative fiction has been a part of the genre since the beginning.
      I agree, and I run a bunch of broad epic sweeping stuff. But I get a bit burned out on WoTC "Save the World from Demon Cult #6078".

      Just thinking about this earlier, I think the key is that what's to be saved should match the scope of the setting. It's ok for John Carter to save princess, city, even planet, or for Luke to save the Rebellion. But it would look odd for Sherlock Holmes to save the planet. I remember this criticism directed against League of Extraordinary Gentlemen #2 - it seemed wrong for Mina Harker & Alan Quatermain, Jekyll/Hyde etc to be fighting off a full scale War of the Worlds Martian invasion, whereas fighting Fu Manchu in #1 was fine. The latter seemed within the appropriate scope for these characters, the former didn't.

      Likewise Buffy saving a friend felt a lot more real than Buffy saving The World for the umpteenth time.

      With D&D there's a natural progression of scope - saving the world feels a lot more natural at 17th
      level than at 3rd.
    1. Ratskinner's Avatar
      Ratskinner -
      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.
      I'm suddenly struck with the image of someone playing an accordion and robustly singing:

      Apocalypse! Apocolah Apocalypse, Apocalah!!!!
      Joy is everywhere! Apocalypse Apocalah!

      To the tune of Funiculi Funicula
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by S'mon View Post
      I get a bit burned out on WoTC "Save the World from Demon Cult #6078".
      I tend to avoid that stuff. It seems pretty ordinary, as far as storytelling goes! (And part of that is that it's all meant to be happening in about the same place at about the same time.)

      Quote Originally Posted by S'mon View Post
      I think the key is that what's to be saved should match the scope of the setting.



      With D&D there's a natural progression of scope - saving the world feels a lot more natural at 17th level than at 3rd.
      Agree with that.
    1. pemerton's Avatar
      pemerton -
      Quote Originally Posted by S'mon View Post
      I don't recall Conan ever saving the world?
      Thinking just of REH Conan, the closest I can recall is The Hour of the Dragon.
    1. Charwoman Gene's Avatar
      Charwoman Gene -
      In other words, get off my lawn.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by rknop View Post
      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.
      The author of this article is actually wrong about Bond novels as written by Fleming not involving "save the world" plots. There are a number of them.

      The novel Casino Royale is about saving France from a Communist infiltrator, though, so it's a "saving France, and Western Europe from Communism". Perhaps not the world, but very much something that was considered very fearful and real to likely readers. The novel is set right after World War II, when many people were very afraid of a Communist takeover of Western Europe. The villain Le Chiffre is funneling huge amounts of COMINTERN money into the French election. However, Le Chiffre has a wee bit of a gambling problem and turns out to have dipped into those funds... so Bond's task is to take his money so that he ends up ruined, discredited, and likely killed by his Soviet masters. (I'm not spoiling the book, this is all discussed in the first several pages of the novel.) Moonraker, Thunderball, and Goldfinger all involve the threat of nuclear weapons. The novels usually show both Communism and Naziism, something which was very much in the worries of people at the time.

      I could go on, but you get the point. Bond novels, and a lot of the thriller/spy genre more broadly, have had "save the world" plots for a long time. Not all of them do, of course, but many do.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by S'mon View Post
      With D&D there's a natural progression of scope - saving the world feels a lot more natural at 17th level than at 3rd.
      Totally agree. In most fictional sources, characters don't actually scale up to nearly the same degree. Bond actually does age over his novel career and at times he gets better gear, but by the end of it he's pretty clearly a PTSD-ridden alcoholic wreck facing the end of his career, so in a very important way he doesn't actually get more powerful. Of all portrayals of Bond, the one that Sir Roger Moore (RIP) did in For Your Eyes Only was a lot truer to the old, much more world weary Bond, t hough he does look kind of stunned in much of the movie.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by S'mon View Post
      Buffy-style save-the-world-this-week plots can feel cheap and cheesy. And failure which allows continued play in the failure-state is very valuable for making stakes feel real, I find. So potential loss of a town or nation generally I find is a better stake, for most games.
      This I absolutely agree with. TV shows are the most guilty of this and it absolutely is lazy writing.

      If you want to have a "save the world" plot, build up to it. 4E had its "tiers of play" and 5E does, too, though they don't really make much of it. However, at the low tiers (1-3) you can be expected to face pretty localized threats, 5-10 they're more regional, 11-16 more national/world, and 17-20 cosmic, though this isn't set in stone. A suitably backed great wyrm dragon or the Tarrasque might be pretty darn good threats for 17-20 level characters and their threats might be primarily regional. Cultists of the Tarrasque might want to summon their big bad to destroy Chateau Tarascon and the County of Provence. They start small and things develop over time, all within an area the size of the South of France... you've got a full levels 1-20 campaign that doesn't even touch cosmic aspects at all.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by hawkeyefan View Post
      But saving the world is not inherently bad for stories, or for an RPG campaign. My campaign has saving the world as the likely goal of the whole campaign. Actually, saving the multiverse, most likely. It's a crazy multiversal campaign with multiple worlds in peril. But that's kind of the end game.....the campaign is designed around many short term goals which are much smaller in scope.
      Yep, this is a good way to do it. You can also steal a page from Michael Moorcock and have the characters set in currents that are really beyond them, even if they are playing at the cosmic levels.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by pemerton View Post
      Thinking just of REH Conan, the closest I can recall is The Hour of the Dragon.
      Yeah, I agree, REH Conan doesn't have "save the world" plots. Mostly Conan is lucky to escape with his life. If he's really lucky he ends up with a wench and some gold, which ultimately slips through his grasp. As I recall REH thought of his world as essentially being the pre-history of the Cthulhu mythos, too, so there's really no saving things. Ditto for Lieber, though Swords of Lankhmar might qualify. It's not as if the world would end if Fafhrd and the Mouser don't succeed, though. Lankhmar has been through worse!
    1. Von Ether's Avatar
      Von Ether -
      Quote Originally Posted by Jay Verkuilen View Post
      This I absolutely agree with. TV shows are the most guilty of this and it absolutely is lazy writing.

      If you want to have a "save the world" plot, build up to it. 4E had its "tiers of play" and 5E does, too, though they don't really make much of it. However, at the low tiers (1-3) you can be expected to face pretty localized threats, 5-10 they're more regional, 11-16 more national/world, and 17-20 cosmic, though this isn't set in stone. A suitably backed great wyrm dragon or the Tarrasque might be pretty darn good threats for 17-20 level characters and their threats might be primarily regional. Cultists of the Tarrasque might want to summon their big bad to destroy Chateau Tarascon and the County of Provence. They start small and things develop over time, all within an area the size of the South of France... you've got a full levels 1-20 campaign that doesn't even touch cosmic aspects at all.
      I had a d20 Modern game set up this way. Low levels were a "escaped science experiment" fugitive story line, then a mid-range X-Men story to be followed up with a full on superhero "save the world from alien invasion" finale.

      Even though most OSR clones don't even make you a regional ruler until your last few levels, some of my old 2ed GMs had us saving the world on a regular basis. We'd hit new levels every month as hundreds of thousands of XP were split amongst us.

      It didn't get boring until we did the same set up (plucky magical rebels trying to start up a resistance) on a repetitive basis.
    1. Jay Verkuilen's Avatar
      Jay Verkuilen -
      Quote Originally Posted by Von Ether View Post
      I had a d20 Modern game set up this way. Low levels were a "escaped science experiment" fugitive story line, then a mid-range X-Men story to be followed up full on superhero save the world from alien invasion finale.
      Nifty. I never played D20 Modern but they had some cool ideas, like Urban Arcana.



      Even though most OSR clones don't even make you a regional ruler until your last few levels, some of my old 2ed GMs had us saving the world on a regular basis. We'd hit new levels every month as hundreds of thousands of XP were split amongst us. It didn't get boring until we did the same set up (plucky magical rebels trying to start up a resistance) on a repetitive basis.
      Yeah that kind of thing was common back in the day, though by the 1990s I'd been gaming for a while and knew not to do that for things I wanted to run, but if you guys were having fun that's all it takes. Lots of times the kinds of things that new gamers do end up receiving a lot of aggro later on, much like teen pop does. Understandable that when you've been doing things for a while that's old, but it's fun for kids when they first start out.
    1. Aenghus's Avatar
      Aenghus -
      My rule for such things is "The players must care about the world before they can save it". I run a slowish campaign with heroic-ish PCs, so they run through the gamut of save the lost traveller, save the village, save the town, save the kingdom, save the world, along with other more personal or self serving plotlines.

      But I start with basing and connecting the PCs at low level a particular community and NPCs so hopefully they care about them, so threats to the community naturally cause the PCs to react and defend it. I find it's important for the players to care about something other than mere survival and greed, for the type of campaign I normally run. As they rise in levels I connect them to the local political unit (kingdom, city state, tribe etc) in various ways, so they care about that and have motivations to intervene when trouble arises or threats emerge.

      You need the right sort of PCs and motivations to make a "Save the world" plot work, at least vaguely heroic PCs are easier to work with. It's possible to use more mercenary types or antiheroes, but this often involves more plot devices and railroading, maybe "Escape from New York" type coercive measures.

      I like high level heroic play, approaching the superhero genre even, which is a natural fit for "save the world" plots. YMMV. It's possible to have too many, but it is I find possible to have more than one such plot in the same long campaign without it necessarily feeling corny.

      I run different plots for hardbitten mecenary bands with personal axes to grind.
    1. Chaosmancer -
      I've often thought something similiar for games like Final Fantasy.

      Yay, I'm a prophesized [insert here] who's going to defeat [insert here] after dealing with [insert twist or tragedy here] and Save the World.

      I don't think RPGs on the tabletop suffer from this as much, because players can talk to the DM and try and correct the problem, but whoo boy, do I feel like Fantasy Video Games need to do less saving the world and more interesting characters in a bizarre world.
    1. Random Bystander's Avatar
      Random Bystander -
      Having given this some more thought, I think my objections primarily come when saving the world is unnecessary. To the story, I mean. When the writer has already given sufficient motivation for the character to go adventuring, and do something heroic, but throws in "...and save the world!", as if checking items off of a last. For example;

      "Thieve's and traitors have stolen away Throthgar the barbarian's horse, sword, gold and wife. To get them back, he'll have to cross trackless wastes, fight his way past countless monsters, confront horrid necromancers, and deal with treacherous civilization. But worse is yet to come, for unknown to him, the fate of the world is at stake, and Throthgar has a heritage unknown to him!"

      Aside from probably being a terrible story, it also did not need quite so many kitchen sinks - Or that "and your planet, too!" The motivation that exists is already quite sufficient for adventure and dramatic story.

      I mean, were the story not thought up in approximately thirty seconds by someone who is definitely not a published author.

      Let's not even get into that whole "obvious chosen one" plot point...
    1. Istbor -
      When I run into that feeling, like I have made my players save the day/world/multiverse one too many times, then I take a different approach to the next campaign, should I be the DM. That is, "Taking over the world". While one could argue a point that you are 'saving' it. It doesn't typically feel that way. It starts out small, gaining influence, followers, land and power, and eventually you are a force to be reckoned with.

      I had fun running it, and my players have had fun playing the not-so-good guys.
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