clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile
A river of fire, with a bridge made of heavy stone ascending in a torrent of heat and flame. Image: Everest Pipkin

Filed under:

How to end a tabletop campaign with karaoke

Everest Pipkin’s World Ending Game breathes new life into endings

If you buy something from a Polygon link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

It started raining at Everest Pipkin’s farm in rural New Mexico while I was interviewing them on Zoom. “I’m thrilled,” they said, with a bit of awe in their voice. “My dogs chewed through my irrigation lines yesterday, so I was going to have to water all my trees with buckets for the next week until I fix it, because I gotta put up a fence before I fix the irrigation, and this means I don’t have to water.” The last word came out in a sing-song way, a celebration, and then we shifted gears back into discussing Pipkin’s newest tabletop creation, World Ending Game. More on that later.

That moment of the joy of rain is what I would call fundamentally Pipkinesque. They describe themselves as “a writer, game developer and software artist” in their official bio, but spending a few minutes sifting through their projects reveals a true capaciousness when it comes to artistic production. 2019’s Five Objects for Corsicana Sky is made up of strange little sculptures that report the IDs of planes that are flying overhead at that very moment; 2020’s Roblox Dream Diary is a series of abstract art games made within the ever-popular Roblox.

What lives underneath these projects, and the dozens more that Pipkin has made, is a capacity to find wondrous things in mundane places. Building odd artistic works within the blockbuster grind of Roblox takes a certain perspective on the world that we live in, a perspective that finds joy in things like the chance occurrence of rain, and that’s easily visible in Pipkin’s landmark The Ground Itself, released in 2019.

Billing itself as “a game about places over time,” The Ground Itself is a tabletop game about developing and tracing the history of a place in all of its specificity — a field, a city, a rabbit’s den, or a continent. Working in the same space as games like Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year or Ben Robbins’ Follow, The Ground Itself involves players in a process of generating the place’s story. While mainstream games like Dungeons & Dragons often focus on the epic tales of people rising to world-historical challenges, The Ground Itself asks players to think about the world that makes those challenges.

The Ground Itself is mostly about players assertively shaping the world, making claims about a place, and then taking those claims to their logical conclusions using dice mechanics. A six-sided die roll might have them tracking a small farming village over the course of days, weeks, months, or millennia. The play of the game is tracking these time frames along the physical transformations of the world. Does a raiding galactic empire raze the mountaintops for fuel? Do beavers dam the creek, flooding the barn? Does a wildflower patch grow across the field, creeping feet every season, to marry up against the side of a once-burned cedar forest? The game is a kind of funnel for creativity of the ground and its attending ecologies.

A photo of two pages from World Ending Game shows a story called The Omen
World Ending Game pages

I asked my buddy, Friends at the Table host Austin Walker, why he considers The Ground Itself to be such a powerful work. He said that “it forces players not only to collaborate with each other, but with an explosive and forceful sense of time, too.” Rather than having you play through the major moments of a world, commanding armies or wizards, you engage more with the impacts. “The result is that instead of generating a fun playground for future adventures, you end up building a place that feels haunted by its own history.”

Speaking with Pipkin about the process of designing the game, I got the sense that this feeling of being haunted by space and place was critical to the project from the start. They told a long story about the process of accessing the internet while working on the game in a remote cabin in Nevada. To check their email, Pipkin had to trek for more than two hours up a mountain and tether their laptop to a cell phone. When they weren’t walking up and down that mountain, they were isolated in a cabin, doing an artist residency that many others had completed before. Those people had left fragments and remnants of themselves in that cabin, and Pipkin noticed that they were “existing in space, with others, though time.”

Pipkin wrote the game over a month, and said it was easy to write precisely because of the awareness of living with others who were not actually there. The cabin was remote, but the former residents had left texts, information, and their physical marks on the location. As Pipkin talked, I could see the scuffs on the floor or the burn marks on the countertops, all of those unthought remnants of ourselves that we leave behind. These kinds of interactive leavings, the impressions we leave on a place, were largely influential on the final product.

“The themes of [The Ground Itself] are essentially about that process, and abstracting that process out [...] to the types of lives that are lived in every place, human and nonhuman, including things like colonies of ants and big rainstorms,” Pipkin said with a laugh. “Not so much in a ‘the land remembers,’ but it remembers. Everything is imprinted on the world, and using that as a basis of storytelling is something that’s important to me.”

The Ground Itself made a substantial splash in the world-creating game genre, asking players to generate and make a place with certain finite rules, and Pipkin is taking a similar designer’s eye to the end of games in World Ending Game, out now as a PDF, with a physical release coming Sept. 15.

In a sharp turn from The Ground Itself’s spatial, mostly characterless worlds focused on narration, World Ending Game is character-focused. Meant to be used as a tool for managing the end of things in tabletop worlds, it slots right into games like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder as well as the wide world of tabletop beyond. These kinds of games are played in a character-centered way, and figuring out how to let go of those characters, to let them pass into some other phase of their life beyond the campaign that you have played, is often hard to do. What does Old Zoot the dwarf do after he’s defeated Strahd and flown a Spelljammer directly into the floating palace of a cloud giant?

A photo shows a two-page spread from World Ending Game
World Ending Game pages

With 20 small games that are designed to close out campaigns and characters, World Ending Game seeks to help people resolve that problem. And much like The Ground Itself, World Ending Game emerged out of a direct relationship with Pipkin’s present conditions. As Pipkin wrote to me in an email after our interview, World Ending Game is a response to our now: “It is certainly distinct, on year three of a global pandemic in a failed state with increasingly dwindling healthcare options and a murderous police apparatus, watching the hills go to fire in the summers and the power companies cut heat in the winters, as climate collapse slowly shifts the place I live into somewhere I do not recognize.”

While these are certainly dire circumstances, the way that this has been processed through World Ending Game is, again, Pipkinesque, if only because the games included in World Ending Game seem much less nightmarish than our current reality. Rather than being resolutely focused on the reality of endings, World Ending Game takes a cinematic approach to its games, giving players the tools to end their games with rulesets derived from our most popular media renditions of endings. I mean this literally; Pipkin revealed that a fundamental step in the design of WEG was looking at lists of popular screenplays and noting how they ended, then working backward to create categories of endings that could stand in for many of them.

There’s joy in them, and there’s also a sadness. After all, these games are meant to help you end things, and even the best endings are a little painful due to what you have to leave behind. Much of that is communicated through the illustrations of World Ending Game, as each entry in the book has an illustration to help it set a tone and a feeling. Michael DeForge’s illustration for “Karaoke Bar,” a riff on the final song ending for films, has both a characteristic exuberance and a deep melancholy to it. DeForge’s flat characters exploding with energy draws a conclusion about the inevitable come-down; the karaoke bar closes, the energy dissipates, and you’re out on the street walking home in the dim light and low smog. Doors close with a bang. Lights click out.

It’s hard to end things, but any person who has played more than a couple tabletop games knows that true endings are hard to come by. Most games don’t end. Someone can’t find time, or people get bored, or someone moves away, and people just never manage to come back together. The number of unfinished character arcs outweighs the number of finales by many, many orders of magnitude. By giving players a set of tools to end things with, I see World Ending Game as a pragmatic tool, but also a little bit of a carrot on a stick. I could push through a wavering campaign in order to play through a minigame where each player of the party sees a world-ending omen and has to interpret it for the others. It might give some closure. It might make the whole thing worthwhile.

At the opening of our interview, Pipkin said that “you can’t fully separate a creative practice from a lived life.” In thinking through the tools they have given us for our campaigns, making worlds and ending them, it’s easy to extend that slightly further into our engagement with that practice: You can’t fully separate play from a lived life. What I find so compelling about Pipkin, and what allows us to use these games to infuse Pipkinesque stances into our own tabletop games, is that they hold on to what could be in the world without losing what is already there. Barbarians and bards can get their gut-wrenching ending, resonating with our own world without being reduced to it, and they’re taken seriously when they do so. Rocks and the civilizations that are built on them are rendered ecologically within a game framework, and you can enjoy their emergence and annihilation or you can build a world for your characters with them. Pipkin’s contributions to tabletop games are ultimately centered on the world we have, and how we exist in it, without filing any of the burrs off the whole project. And then we can take these rough edges and craft, or obliterate, worlds with them.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for Patch Notes

A weekly roundup of the best things from Polygon