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.

Extra Credits: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5LScL4CWe5E
Gamasutra: http://www.gamasutra.com/view/feature/4032/beyond_pacing_games_arent_.php

contributed by Lewis Pulispher

log in or register to remove this ad


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.
Last edited by a moderator:


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_of_best-selling_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?

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 :)
Last edited by a moderator:

"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 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
: )


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.


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. :D

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 [MENTION=42582]pemerton[/MENTION], 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.


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.

Related Articles

Remove ads

Latest threads

Remove ads


Remove ads

Upcoming Releases