When we play RPGs, we usually follow the same route as books and movies: we move towards a climax.
In the nerdy, fantastical worlds typical of role-playing–quasi-medieval fantasy, cyberpunk, space opera–this usually means apocalypse. The end of the world (or the worlds). And the players’ characters have to stop it.
What if they can’t stop it?
Travel with me back for a moment to the 1990′s, and a TV show called Babylon 5. It revolutionized television. It had a firm story arc that progressed in each episode, the first non-soap opera to do so and gain wide critical acclaim. It ushered in the modern era of The Sopranos, Mad Men, and Lost, and Battlestar Galactica, of long-form stories told on television.
Moreover, Babylon 5 showed you its future. Early episodes showed the death of certain characters. Indeed, the station’s commander is told that he will go to a place called Z’ha’dum, where he will die.
Viewers became fascinated by the the process, by the story of the characters and how on earth they’d get there. Who in their right mind would go to the place of their death?
Imagine using this in a role-playing game. Imagine if the players are shown an apocalypse that they can’t stop, but that they can change.
What if two races are warring, and the players’ characters must choose which one survives?
What if the PCs must choose which disease or corruption or system that the world will live with?
What if the PCs are told that one of them will die? But they get to choose which one?
If you’re going to threaten apocalypse, make good on your threat. Then see what happens.