Ever since the original Dungeons & Dragons, pen-and-paper role-playing games have distinguished themselves from most other game formats by not having a clear condition for "winning" them. You could, technically, lose them if your Player Character died, but then you just rolled-up a new one and continued playing. A campaign could last for as long as the Player Party and the Game Master cared about it, with no mechanics/rules provided by the Game System for when and how to wrap it up.
This began to change as early as The '80s, but after the Turn of the Millennium, indie designers (like those affiliated with The Forge) started challenging the established tabletop role-playing paradigms, including the "indefinite play unless you die" one, resulting in the invention of the "endgame mechanics", which formalize how parts of or even the entire narrative are to be wrapped up. These generally come in two varieties:
- Campaign endgame provides specific rules on when and how to wrap up the entire campaign, including all of the player character's arcs, which must be resolved in one way or another soon after the endgame is triggered by anyone. This variation is usually found in games geared towards very specific genres with a more or less rigid Story Arc.
- Character endgame provides rules on how to gracefully but permanently retire individual player characters from the narrative, usually by turning them into an NPC, as well as on how to treat these ex-PCs later in the campaign. This variant is suited for more free-form narratives and usually serves to gracefully remove characters from play who have either become too high-levelnote or exhausted their dramatic potentialnote .
Examples of campaign endgame mechanics:
- The Body Horror RPG Abnormal has one of three endgames for a session. If the investigation goes badly and they end up with too many shards in play, the Witness (player character) is Utterly Consumed by the horrors plaguing their life; if the Witness ends up with enough shards on the "Normalize" stage, they stave off the worst of it but must learn to live with a Partial Transformation; if the Witness manages to reclaim four or more shards, they drive off the horror completely and get to live a Life Reclaimed.
- My Life with Master has one of the best-known Campaign Endgame rules, which says that as soon as any one of the playable minions successfully defies the Master's orders, they must attack and kill the Master, ending the campaign. Since it usually takes a bit of time, other players have time to get in on the action or simply to hash up their stats, which determine their character's ultimate fates in the epilogue, which occurs as soon as the Master perishes.
- Heroine has Campaign Endgame rules for the Heroine's return from the magical land (usually after saving it from the Villain and growing up as a human being), which structure the epilogue narration also detailing the fates of her Companions and the magical land itself.
- Pendragon naturally ends with the Battle of Camlann, in which King Arthur dies alongside all but one of the player characters. The rule explicitly state that the fighting continues until the second-to-last PC drops. Arthur then tasks the last survivor with returning Excalibur to the Lady of the Lake, and after he's done so, the campaign is over.
- Scum and Villainy, unlike Blades in the Dark (which it is based on, see below), has both character and campaign endgame rules, recommending that the GM retires the crew after they reach a +3 status with one of the major factions and do a major, multiple session-spanning, setting-changing score for them.
Examples of character endgame mechanics:
- Actually zig-zagged in Dungeons & Dragons, where some editions allow for indefinite high-level play and others provide endgame scenarios for top-level characters.
- AD&D 1E supplement Deities and Demigods Cyclopedia (1980). When PCs reach high level, raise their ability scores to divine levels and gain a body of worshipers, they can undergo divine ascension and become deities. They immediately become NPCs under the Dungeon Master's control.
- AD&D 2E Dungeon Master's Guide said that the basic game books only provided support for the PCs to reach 20th level, suggested that PCs who reached that level be retired from play, and provided advice on how to do so. TSR then caved in and released the High-Level Campaigns book in 1996 for levels up to 30 again.
- The colored-box versions generally do this recursively: characters can level up to demigodhood, whereupon they can rest on their laurels or voluntarily De-Power themselves and live another mortal life. If they ascend again, they Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence and vanish into realms unknown.
- In the original version of the tabletop version of Dragonlance for Dungeons & Dragons characters were limited to 18th level — it was explicitly stated that the gods would send any characters who exceeded this to another world, presumably to prevent very powerful characters from attempting to kill a god and to take their place as Raistlin attempted (he was 18th level at the time).
- In the 3E, the "Risen Martyr" Prestige Class from the Book of Exalted Deeds allows a dead character to return to life as a Deathless. In exchange each new Character Level they gain must be in Risen Martyr, and when there are no more levels of the class left to take they Ascend to a Higher Plane of Existence.
- 4E provides Epic Destinies that govern the top ten character levels, each of which has an endgame for a top-level character who achieves their Destiny. Demigods ascend to godhood, Archmages merge with magic itself, tricksters fade into legend, and so on.
- In the New World of Darkness:
- Mage: The Awakening:
- The core game suggests Archmastery as an endgame, whereupon the Mage surpasses the normal limits of magic and goes into seclusion as an All-Powerful Bystander — in part because beings with an even higher Super Weight are out there in a multiverse-spanning cold war.
- With Imperial Mysteries making archmages playable, they too can do this by rewriting reality in accordance with their transcendent will and Ascending to the Supernal Realms permanently.
- In Changeling: The Lost, this is the Bad Ending: Changelings who reach the highest level of Wyrd are in danger of losing their minds, forsaking their humanity, and returning to Arcadia to transform into a soulless True Fae.
- Vampire: The Requiem describes the mythical state of Golconda, where vampires become Ascended Demons and free themselves from their physical and spiritual weaknesses. Since it's set in a vicious Crapsack World, it also suggests subverting the trope by asking And Then What? and letting players struggle to maintain this state.
- Promethean: The Created has rules for the Golem-like Prometheans to complete their Pilgrimage, gain souls, and achieve true humanity. It also points out that this leaves the ex-Promethean in the World of Darkness with selective amnesia and none of their powers, and observes just how sadistically this trope could be subverted.
- Mage: The Awakening:
- Most games Powered by the Apocalypse include Character Endgame mechanics:
- The original Apocalypse World allows players to retire their characters to safety as a special Advanced Upgrade. A retired PC becomes an NPC, but unlike almost all others, the Game Master is explicitly forbidden from messing with their lives (i.e. they get Plot Armor for their trouble). The game encourages players to retire long-lived characters with the debility mechanic, which imposes permanent penalties on their stats every time they're critically injured, — accruing too many of them makes characters largely unplayable.
- Monster of the Week encourages character retirement with the luck mechanics: every Hunter has seven points of luck to spend and only a few can ever get one back. When your luck eventually runs out, the Game Master is legally allowed to screw your character over at any time without warning, quickly resulting in a messy death unless you retire them first.
- Flying Circus provides two separate ways for a character to leave the game - the first option is to take on a Destiny after fulfilling exceptional requirements (e.g. proving oneself worthy of leading a community), whilst the other is retiring, which costs a maximum of 15 Thaler, reduced by several factors (e.g. getting an addiction under control or adjusting to losing a comrade)
- Blades in the Dark forces the Scoundrels into retirement after they accrue four Traumas. After retiring, they become regular NPCs, although their quality of life depends largely on how much coin they have managed to hoard during their criminal days.
- Necromunda: In addition to the street gangs, it's possible to play as law enforcement as a squad of Arbites. They have much better gear and huge cyber-mastiffs, but they hit a level cap at which point the character is removed to serve as a Veteran Instructor elsewhere.
- Red Markets has the player characters trying to save a bit of their profits from each job towards a "retirement plan" that usually means bribing your way across the border wall from the zombie-infested Loss to the zombie-free but totalitarian Recession, though there's other possibilities suggested like establishing your own Enclave in the Loss.
- The premise for Dead Inside is that each player character has somehow lost their soul and needs to either regain it, get a new one, or assemble one from bits and pieces of magical energy. If they succeed, they become a sort of enlightened being called a Sensitive. They can continue playing if they can think of further goals for themselves (for instance, a Sensitive can become an even more powerful creature called a Magi, and a Magi can aspire to gaining True Immortality), but the default conflict of the game is over.