Don't Imitate Avengers: Endgame
So I was rewatching Avengers: Endgame, and on each subsequent viewing my dislike for the movie continues to grow. As I tried to discern why I hate the movie so much a few things came to mind that serve as warnings to myself as I plan out a campaign, and I thought I'd pass those along to you.
If you like Endgame, great! I'm glad you do, and by all means enjoy the film. And I'll note upfront that, depending on what the next few Marvel movies do, I might change my mind on this. But as a game master there are several things I don't like, and I think you'll find my warnings helpful as you plan for your next game.
Also, this should go without saying, but, spoilers for Endgame in this post.
I. Keep the Rules Consistent
We get some clear rules in Avengers: Endgame regarding time shenanigans: everything needs to end up where it belongs, lest we destroy the fabric of reality and create an alternate timeline. And on its face, I really like this: I think it makes a lot of sense, sets expectations for the main characters, and raises the stakes - your actions determine the destiny of the entire world. And all of these are good for your roleplay campaign.
The issue I have with Endgame is that it breaks all of its own rules. Multiple people and things don't end up where they should be come the end. The Tesseract is not only not restored to where it should be, but it isn't even in the right place for Thanos to get it to complete the Infinity Gauntlet for the end fight in the movie, as they resteal a different tesseract to get a tesseract so that they can get the gem, but that creates an alternate reality.
Steve Rogers is both frozen in ice and living out his days with Peggy at the same time. His busted shield and a new version of his busted shield are both around at the same time, thanks to King T'Challa making him one while Old Steve still has that very same shield with him as he lives out his life with Peggy.
And there is more, though these are the most egregious because they are done for no good reason. Yes, I know people want the touching ending of seeing an old Cap who got to have his dance with Peggy (and, having danced with my wife, I get that feeling), but it breaks the rules that they laid down when they made this film.
No one forced them to make these rules. No one forced them to joke about Back to the Future being wrong and reiterating these rules over and over again throughout the film. But they did. They threw out the rules they spent so much time explaining.
Don't do this. Set the rules, make them clear, use them to raise the stakes for the campaign, and then stick with them. Subverting them just causes problems.
II. Actions and Consequences
Do you know what's wrong with the villain in Endgame? He hasn't done the things he's being attacked for doing. Thanks to the time shenanigans of the movie (more on that below), we're not fighting a Thanos-Who-Snapped-Everyone-Away. We're fighting Thanos-Who-Wants-the-Stones, and that's a different man entirely. Has this Thanos killed his own daughter yet? No (as evidenced by Gamorra's presence in the film). This Thanos is not the same man who took the lives of half the universe: he's a different person entirely.
So why is he being punished for the now-beheaded Thanos's mistakes? There's an issue in this film with consequences not being tied to actions, and that's dangerous for your game. You want the consequences - especially bad consequences - to stem from the action that caused them, as it builds the buy-in of the players in accepting what is happening to them.
If you punish them for something they haven't done yet (like accepting a quest to fetch something, but they haven't actually fetched it yet), the "lesson" is not learned and it rubs the players the wrong way. Similarly, if the party is punished for doing a thing that they didn't know was wrong (perhaps because there's a cultural aspect to a thing they steal or a person they kill), simply punishing them isn't going to go over well. You have to let them know what the consequences are, and then give them a chance to react, respond, and possibly even perform restitution/penance.
On a related note, this ties into my issue with the Steve-Peggy ending decision. If the character arc of Cap includes him learning to do the right thing over what he wants (which is the theme of the ending of Captain America: The First Avenger), and if embracing the consequences of what you've done, however much it may hurt is the theme of Captain America: Winter Soldier, the ending of Endgame cheapens that arc, if not destroys it outright. The consequences of making the "right call" are removed, and living with the choices you made however painful is removed, as the "choice" is a choice in the moment, but not really a choice as he gets to have his cake and eat it too.
Don't do this. Let your players make hard choices, let them live with it, and let the pain and heartache make it memorable and meaningful.
III. No Time Shenanigans
If someone is moving faster than normal and getting more actions (a Haste spell, a spell from the Lore of Time in Zurn, etc.) that's one thing. Going back several years, changing a few things, and (especially) pulling people who are not from that time to another time? That's a bad idea. Every time.
And it's not a bad idea because it involves alternate timelines (boy do I wish a specific major movie franchise would do this to remove content that I don't think fits within the universe, but we won't get into that here). It's bad because there is no real reason for an alternate timeline to be created here.
With a few changes to the plot - going back to after Thanos collects five of the stones but before he takes the Mind Stone from Vision, for example - the Avengers could stop Thanos and set everything right. Then they don't punish a Thanos who has barely started collecting the stones, but a Thanos who has murdered many people including Gamorra to get what he wants, and who has made it clear he will stop at nothing to murder half the universe. They then make sure that everyone ends up where they should be (no Steve-Peggy shenanigans), and they save the day without an alternate timeline being created.
It could be done - but they don't do that, because you know, why let the rules you make for your own film get in the way of some good ol' fashioned time shenanigans?
Don't do this. By dabbling with alternate timelines you invalidate the work of your players in the past, because that past no longer exists. And as you make changes to the timeline, you risk jeopardizing the relationships they have made, alliances they have forged, etc. It's a dangerous game, so don't play it.
IV. Crossovers: Cool but Dangerous
It's fun to have a connected universe where things or people that your players remember from past campaigns reappear. But keep in mind that there's a danger of under developing a plot element in your campaign because you're trying to fit too much into your story.
There's a lot going on in Endgame, and we give the longer running time some slack because we know it's got a lot of ground to cover. On a related note, I wish that Star Wars: The Force Awakens had an extra 30 mins of runtime to address things like the nature of the New Republic, the political landscape following the destruction of the Empire, etc., and we would have all happily watched another 30 mins of Star Wars, I imagine. No one would have complained.
But the result of having so much ground to cover - both in terms of the actual plot and trying to fit in references to so many Marvel movies that came before - is that some parts of the movie drag unnecessarily. It also detracts from the movie because they are trying to make all of these connections instead of sticking to the already complex plot they are making.
And for the record I'm totally down with fan service: a huge part of why they do this is to cater to the fans who have been supporting them for over 10 years, and that's fine by me. But since (I'm guessing) you don't make money off of your campaigns and your players may not have been playing in the same world for 10 years (though they might - some groups are like that), while fan service and tiebacks can be good, don't overdo it. Keep things moving, don't bog them down.
And I have to admit, this is a personal pitfall for me. I've been running groups for almost ten years now in the same world, and it's tempting to borrow things that were hinted at/done by other groups, and even more so NPCs that they enjoyed meeting, and tie them to the current campaigns I run. And at times, where it makes sense to the group - typically for a specific player who was part of that adventure - I'll throw something in to reward them for being in that campaign. But on the whole I have to remind myself that this would be an "Easter Egg" only for me or for a few select people around the table, and that if it would derail the energy and pacing of the current scene it should be avoided.
And that's hard. It's a lot easier to get into the mind of an NPC if you've used them before, and that means prep is faster and easier to do. But if it's not good for the set of friends around the table, the story you are trying to tell, etc., you have to let it go.
V. Pointless Violence
Now this is not the point you think it is: I'm not going to say, "Cut out some of the violence from your game," because most roleplay games are combat simulators, and that means that you are likely going to have combat in your game. What I'm saying here is that when you have combat in your game, make sure it has a point.
The vast majority of the heroes in Endgame fight endless amounts of minions that at the end of the day don't really matter. The number of people who actually get to fight Thanos, touch the Gauntlet, and have a chance to change the outcome of the story is very small, and that's bad since it makes the character's actions meaningless for the purposes of the movie.
Take Gamorra for example. Did you know that you can actually write her out from the movie and the movie basically doesn't change? From a combat perspective the movie definitely doesn't change, as she only ever hacks apart mindless minions. The same can be said for most of the snapped characters in the movie, as hardly any of them contribute meaningfully to the final fight.
So keep in mind, as you're planning out combat, not to just have mindless violence for your players to do. Make their actions matter - more on this in a future post on dungeon design.
If you like Endgame, fantastic - I have many friends who do. But if you take this advice to heart, I cannot promise you a perfect game, but I can promise you that you'll be running a game that's on the right track to make the campaign a delight to your players. And that's what we want to do when we game master.
Until next time,