Endgame Mirages

Panel from Berserk volume 12

Rules Cyclopedia and BECMI D&D provide rules for advancement up to level 36, with guidelines that adventurers should gain one level every five adventures (Rules Cyclopedia, page 129). I generally take “an adventure” to entail multiple game sessions, but even if you complete one adventure every session, assuming no setbacks such as adventurer death or level drain, and play once per week, a group must play for almost 3.5 years to reach level 361. It seems reasonable to assume that few actual campaigns have followed this procedurally proposed trajectory. This is an extreme, but other TSR rulesets, such as B/X or AD&D, seem to also imply an implausible level of commitment for most people playing most campaigns in most situations. One interpretation of this fact is that the rules are flawed, and it would be better to make endgame rules that people will, in fact, actually play. But what if the main function of late game rules material in TSR D&D, and descendants, is more to entice players into longer games?

A design trend exists around more focused games, which values explicit and transparent description of both rules and intent. According to this sort of evaluative criteria, the late game TSR D&D rules are ineffective, and perhaps even misleading or disingenuous. They promised me a castle, and all I got was this lousy longsword +2! However, there is no inherent reason that the most effective rule, functionally, must articulate its intent and function, or even that the designer must understand the likely function. Surely there are exceptions, but in general focused games tend toward one-shot, mini-series, or shorter campaigns. It seems possible that the lack of enticing phantasm in such designs may partly explain this difference.

Goals are only motivating prior to being reached. Following goal accomplishment, it is on to the next goal. Perhaps the TSR endgame is a form of ultimate imagined goal that works exactly because it is unlikely to be obtained. Lack of complete consummation does come with some drawbacks, such as the anecdotal observation that campaigns often end, following Eliot, not with a bang, but a whimper. As the duration of a campaign increases, an anticlimactic ending becomes more likely, even if players do maintain interest and attention, as changes in life circumstances will implacably conspire against the campaign of unusual ambition’s persistence. Whether a longer, complex campaign, often lacking closure, or a shorter, more contained campaign is better seems like a matter of taste, but either way having rules that players almost never use could still shape gameplay in substantial ways. This is another example showing how taking a text at face value may be a poor, or at least incomplete, guide to game functionality or game meaning.

1. A fighter requires approximately 3.4 million XP to reach level 36. A magic-user requires approximately 4.3 million XP to reach level 36.

9 thoughts on “Endgame Mirages

  1. Paul T.

    Good post! I agree with this take. (Well, except I think this aspect of the design is fairly clear, not a dark mystery which must be carefully pondered. It’s always seemed rather apparent to me that D&D’s level structure provides incentives for long-term play; in fact, just last night I was talking about this with some friends who are new to GMing. Many of D&D’s mechanisms, from XP to hit points to levels, function as pacing tools: to slow down the progress of play, effectively, stretching out the journey from point A to point B. I’m pretty sure that, at least in my circles, we’ve been discussing this aspect of game design for decades – it’s not an outlandish claim in the least.)

    That said, I don’t know if it’s quite correct to assume that this is intentional. It seems fairly believable to me that the authors of the text either regularly played games of that sort of duration or, more likely, *thought that their target audience did*.

    Anyway, an excellent post on how advancement (and other) mechanics shape the social aspects of play, from setting expectations to informing perceived value.

    1. Necropraxis Post author

      It is possible that I am late to the party, but to clarify: the suggestion here is that including goals that most players never reach increases the longevity and complexity of campaigns, rather than just that the level structure provides incentives for long-term play.

      I am unsure about intentionality. I have heard stories about early players having very lengthy and involved campaigns. Even those had to have been limited in number, however. How many 3+ year campaigns can a person play in their life? How do you play test such a game? Additionally, by the time of the Rules Cyclopedia’s publication (1991), which is after the publication of AD&D 2E (1989), the game designers must have known more about who was playing Basic D&D and in what manner.

  2. Ben L.

    I do feel like a huge difference between storygame people and the play style that I engage in is that I tend to play games with a very long view. It’s hard for me to imagine reaching the real pleasures of a campaign before 30 sessions or so. And the really big deal stuff hits closer to 50, or even 70 or 100 sessions. And the funny thing is that even in the campaigns that have not gone remotely that far, from day 1 I’m still building the sandbox in ways that presuppose that the real mysteries of the setting are that hard to get into. For me the deep pleasures of RPGs are all in the long game. So I have great sympathy with the BECMI phantasm you describe, even if that’s not quite the way I play.

    1. Ben L.

      To be clear I’m running two games now, one is about 20 sessions in, and the other is about 100 sessions in. So it’s not all projected phantasms.

  3. Gavroche

    I always thought these advanced rules (and maybe many campaign supplements and adventure modules too) were never really intended for play. They were primarily sold as reading matter to be consumed by a large audience of people mostly fantasizing about playing D&D, rather than actually playing it (for whatever reason, no judgment here).

    1. Necropraxis Post author


      Yeah, I agree that many products are probably read individually more than used at the table. I have probably read more modules than I have used, even though I don’t particularly like RPG materials as pleasure reading, and am not a big supplement collector. The interesting aspect of the endgame mirage for me is that the high level rules might be affecting games in a big way by not being played.

  4. John Paquette

    There are long campaigns out there. I am playing in one, and running another. In the one in which I’m player, we’ve almost reached our long-sought goal, and I have no idea what we can do to top it. Maybe the campaign will end.

    In the one in which I’m the DM, several PCs have lands and followers (we were just doing hex clearing for the latest earlier tonight), but that hasn’t ended the campaign. New adventures are easy – just threaten the lands. And the characters have goals on a bigger scale now.

  5. rogerginersorolla

    One does hear of campaigns that last decades, and before the Internet people had more hobby time – my high school game met twice a week, for example.

    Any ruleset you run now with even a slightly accelerated pace (level every 4-5 sessions instead of every 10-12) still needs to be really solid in giving a sense of accomplishment within the span of levels 1-7. Without intentional planning, too, the mechanics of old school D&D kind of break down after that point, becoming swingy and dependent on magic items and countermeasures.


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