Thursday, September 25, 2014

Gilgamesh and the End-Game

Much has been said elsewhere, and more times than I can count, about the end game of Dungeons & Dragons. Yet, not much is said of how the characters are to be, well... still characters even as they run around destroying countless kingdoms with their hordes of level 0 pawns, minions, or whatever you want to call them.

This seems a bit bizarre, and I should probably elaborate; after all, no one likes a writer who keeps the reader in the dark through lack of explanation. As part of my uni work, I've been rereading The Epic of Gilgamesh. If you don't know it, essentially an Assyrian poem about a king who kills some demons, loses his best friend, and then attempts to achieve immortality. All fairy standard fare for an ancient heroic poem. Yet here is something which seems to stand out when you think of Gilgamesh in the roleplaying paradigm (if I may be excused for being a hip person, but I can't seem to find any other word): Gilgamesh isn't just a character who was a mighty warrior or what-have-you when he was young, who then became king and retired to a life of city-burning with hordes of soldiers. Rather, with the epic, this is where Gilgamesh's story begins.

The poem opens with the people of Uruk (the city over which Gilgamesh rules) lamenting to the gods, because Gilgamesh spends his time being a Bad King, picking fights with the men and sleeping with all the women: rather standard behaviour for any adventurer, I'm sure we'll all agree. Isn't this exactly the kingdom of a player character? A mighty warrior, for sure, and one who has probably had much success and performed many great and heroic deeds in past years, which is why he is now king. But just because one is a hero does not mean one is a Good King. And so the gods create a man to be his rival, to distract him from oppressing the poor people of Uruk, and the pair become firm friends and decide to kill a mighty demon, as any normal person does when confronted with the thoughts of their meagre mortality.

From here, the epic really gets going: they slay the demon, Humbaba, and so Ishtar (goddess of love, sex, and war. They are vaguely related in the ancient Mesopotamian mind) attempts to seduce Gilgamesh, who spurns her (again, what player wouldn't spurn a goddess for a laugh, or at the very least attempt to manipulate her into giving them stuff?), and so she summons down the Bull of Heaven (i.e. the star constellation), which Gilgamesh and his friend kill. The gods being rather unfair, they decide this was a Bad Thing, and so they kill Enkidu, Gilgamesh's friend. Awkward.

Gilgamesh, being rather upset when confronted with the fact that all of his mighty deeds will simply end in his being a rotting corpse, runs away from the city to try and find immortality, and almost gets it, but not quite. If you really want to know all the details, go and read it for yourself; if a German poet can appreciate it, so can anyone!

This is what got me thinking. Too much emphasis is placed on how the players get to be kings in the grand end game, and then from there on how the players run around feeling rather awkward, because it seems as there is not too much to do when you're a level twenty something with +10 vorpal blade of absolute death, who also happens to be ruler over the Empire of Generic Yet Foreboding Fantasy Name. In short, they end up as Gilgamesh: great heroes, far above the common, mortal men, who just do not know how to rule. Where do they go from here?

This is the main trouble I have always had with the end game. How do you keep the players interested in playing their mighty demi-gods without being bored out of their minds? Personally, I plan on taking a leaf out of the four thousand or so year old Mesopotamian's book, and shoving the mortality of their characters into the players' faces. The gods don't care that you've destroyed Zot the Archwarlock, you're still going to die, and your subjects? They'll remember you as the violent hero who just couldn't cut it as a king. Threaten the kingdom with more than just invaders, challenge them to do something great for their kingdom, for all humanity even. Tempt them with the immortality, either true immortality or the immortality of being a Good King.

At least, that's all I can think of the subject. Has anyone else an inkling on how else to run these end games?

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