Can the bad guys win?

– spoilers for Avengers and Lord of the Ring movies below –

There is a question that is boggling me for some time.
What if Endgame was never made and Thanos won?
What if Frodo kept the Ring and threw Golum into the volcano?

Games, movies, TV series are just a form of storytelling, storytelling has been present for millenia and in 99,999999% of cases “Good people win at the end”.
When and if can it be otherwise?
What conditions must be met for Bad guys to win against the players in RPG game?

I’m thinking of situation where all of the party is down, the last hero rolls critical fail and now is GMs Big Bad Villain turn. Is it allowed for him to finish casting the spell and win or he has to fart and forget the last line of the spell and search for the written note?

I’m a little inspired by the resent XCOM game. In the second installment instead of pursuing the aliens into their space base to blow it up and then go to their home world to blow it up as well, the designers decided that - what if players lost in the first game? And now instead of being the defender they are the attackers/resistance.
I can totally see that as possibility in other stories as well.

World of Marvel was still alive after Infinity War, some heroes remained and can be fighting bad guys in the world where 50% of people vanished.
More books might have been written as people of Middlearth unite with Elfs and Dwarfs once again to fight angry Hobbits.

But what about players fun?
We play games for fun, if we loose in the campaign finally? Are bad dice allowed to ruin our fun? Or bad tactical planning?

I’m really curious to hear your thoughts on the matter.
Kind regards.


I don’t think it’s as simple as people think.

Lord of the Rings - yeah the good guys succeed, but they got chased, lost Boromir, got captured etc, it was not easy and was certainly hard enough physically and emotionally to leave scars.

Starwars 1-3 (Phanton Menace, Attack of the Clones, Revenge of the Sith)
Each film the good guys win the battle, but the Bad guys are achieving their goals and end up winning the war.

V for Vendetta. The film starts with the bad guys having won, regular folks are mislead by media and repressed by law.

There was a series of werewolf films in the 80s called The Howling, where one werewolf would always get away at the end.

Demolition man and Judge Dredd (Stallone), while amusing - has both the good guy and the bad guy struggling against the oppressive culture that is the norm. In their struggle against each other they damage society enough to force a change.

In games, capturing people is better than killing them. It allows for people to escape, change sides, be rescued or persuade the bad guy to stop.

I have had games where the bad guys won, then the following game has a variety of situations to deal with, one of the later ones being to clean up the mess of the previous group.


You can craft compelling stories around certain failure. See Montsegur 1244 or Grey Ranks. I think it is more a matter of calibrating what’s going to be interesting and fun (by some definition of fun) for your friends in the moment. Beyond games with prescriptive failure states, simply playing to lose can be amazingly liberating and opens up all kinds of roleplaying opportunities sidelined in a traditional heroic narrative. Fiasco is a play to lose sort of game on the meta-level.

It’s worth noting that this is more than a mind-set - many, many games are built around the assumption of competence and success. Fate totally flops if you play self-compelling losers, and since it is crystal clear about its intentions, you are voiding the warranty if you try. Obviously D&D is a game that assumes a desire for (and, really, the necessity of) constant, gradually escalating victories.


The most topical answer I can give is Breath of the Wild.

In the same way that you are asking us to abandon the traditional narrative of “good guys win, then end” we must also abandon the narrative of “bad guys win, world over forever”. I refer to Elie Wiesel’s Night, no matter how tragic your character’s life has become, life goes on. We need to give our stories the freedom to assume that, with the exception of incredibly high fantasy, no one person, organization, or event is going to cause reality to cease. And if to this point every game you’ve played hits Endgame level stakes, I would ask that you try scaling back to see that you can still hit the same narrative highs and lows without having to resort to holding the entire universe hostage.

As a suggestion I would put forward Dog Eat Dog, (almost) all players are Pacific Islanders under colonisation. The game starts at the end of bloody conflict, the natives have lost and are actively subjugated. It is possible, albiet improbable, for the natives to drive off the colonists, but the purpose is to explore how imperialism devours cultures and feel the social changes that are inflicted upon a subjugated people. Pretty heavy for a oneshot, but I get the impression you are looking for something like that.


I played once in a Star Wars game (the old West End D6 version) with the premise that Luke had taken Vader up on his offer to rule the galaxy together, and overthrown Palpatine. The PC were, of course, rebels, still fighting against Luke’s & Vader’s Empire. And I’m sure lots of people have done similar things.

But that was the premise, established before we started playing. That’s not the same as playing a long story arc leading up to a climatic boss fight with an honestly uncertain outcome, having the boss win, and then going on from there.


I want the (player) characters to win. The players know that. The NPCs, of course, don’t, and I also don’t want to give the players a victory and just “let them win”, because then it’s not about their story. It can happen that they lose, and if it comes down to the last die roll then the cause depends on the game genre.

In D&D, that means they didn’t prepare properly or otherwise address their challenges, and because of the kind of game it is, that is part of the fun of it. In more story-focused or at least PbtA games, that’s part of the story that we’re telling together. The “good guys” or protagonists don’t always win, even in the end.

It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness; that is life. (Jean-Luc Picard)


Yes - “bad guys” can and should win when play and player choice supports it. Sometimes all the PCs may even die. At least this is my attitude towards TTRPGs. I don’t think the potential “unfun” involved in character death or even the death of the entire adventuring party, setting or campaign is sufficient to change playstyle when weighed against the fun for players of knowing that their decisions in game matter, and that bad decisions can have negative consequences up to and including having to roll up a new character. This is the distinction between a TTRPG narrative (mutually controlled by players and GM without a predetermined plot line and ending) and a fictional narrative (controlled by the author with a known - even if hidden - ending and plot structure). If players are to have authorial power - even if only over their character’s decisions those decisions must have the option of creating negative consequences - and in a TTRPG the greatest negative consequence is PC death, the requirement that to continue playing the player needs to create a new character.

To me at least the fear that your players will suffer enough to ruin their game if they suffer defeat, if their characters are destroyed, if their risky gambits don’t succeed, is less fear and more condescension to one’s players. Fudging dice on the fly, changing rules, allowing exceptions and sending in the deus ex machina when things go off the rails is as much a form of antagonistic GMing as fudging dice to arbitrarily kill characters with undetectable traps or unbeatable enemies. Both evidence a lack of trust in your players’ intelligence (their ability to understand and make decisions/weigh risks in a fictional world as well as their ability to detect the GMs heavy hand in creating illusionism) and maturity/character (their ability to live with the consequences of decision or make knowing choices). The savior GM may be acting out of kindness and sympathy, while the “rocks fall you all die” GM is malicious and sadistic - but either way the players autonomy doesn’t exit in the game in some meaningful ways. If the GM is showing such disdain for the players, how can the players trust them? The table quickly tends to dissolve into nasty bouts of protective or anti-social behaviour in and out of game (PVP, rules lawyering, murderhobo cruelty to punish the GM by destorying the setting)

None of this means that all defeat must end in character death (as you suggest). Some of my most memorable times as a player have been slipping away narrowly from a set of bad decisions and rolls, the party coming together to rescue a fallen member and flee in good order, or one character sacrificing themselves to save the party - none of it as a pre-plotted narrative arc, but as in the moment decisions by friends playing in a fictional world. A GM that is arbitrating the setting’s response to player action and random results for good or ill, but with an eye to discovering the story with the players - cheering their victories and mourning their losses without inserting themselves as the author of them. Such narrow escapes or well plotted overwhelming victories are far less exciting and meaningful if there’s no risk of loss (or no chance of victory).

Again, I think both mechanics and fiction allow degrees of seriousness, permanence and control: mechanically death saves, wound tables, healing times or resurrection possibilities all mitigate character loss in various ways without either removing the possibility or intruding into the narrative/turning defeat in to victory. Drawing a veil over death or playing with an “it gets worse” ethos allow narrative/diagetic/fictional ways of mitigating PC loss.

Thus is I was running a dirty, “dung ages” campaign about brigands and landless peasant clubmen robbing ancient ruins I might not want death to be easy - I might use a horrible wound table filled with descriptions of wounds gone awful so that characters didn’t always vanish the first time they were struck down but became picturesque liabilities for the rest of the party. In a light hearted “kids on bikes” sort of game character death would likely be replaced with things like being “grounded” for several sessions or “In the hospital with a broken leg” and eventually even something like “your parents decide you need to move to another town to keep you safe”. Neither of these systems eliminates the risk of defeat or loss of character - and that I think is important.


Midnight from Fantasy Flight Games explores the area where the bad guys win and the players are part of the rebellion; Sauron gets the ring back with the serial numbers filed off; D20.


I really like the Pathways to Revolution system from Comrades. In the game, you’re supposed to start a revolution, but depending on how you do it (by organizing, causing mayhem, using force), you actually may end up establishing the next authoritarian regime! The players can become the bad guys themselves, specially when they go around punching everything they can reach.

Also, I recently played a Comrades campaign set on near future Brazil that ended with all the players in jail and the bad guys taking power. While we were playing, real news became far more fantastical than our game, so we got kind of tired and gave in to our feelings at the time. It was depressing, but also cathartic in a way.


just realized I used the commas all wrong. sorry guys, I guess I was writing Portuguese sentences with English words…

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I believe “the bad guys won” is how the setting for Ghost Lines and Blades in the Dark came about. If I recall correctly, Dungeon World players failed to prevent an apocalyptic ritual that would open the gates of the underworld, so the campaign jumped forward a thousand years into a world full of ghosts. Similarly, my old D&D group (in which I was a player) messed up the final skill challenge, so our “hub city” ended up being a struggling tent village surrounding a giant hole in the ground with monsters occasionally pouring out.

These are best case scenarios in my mind: Yes, the villains win, but this is a jumping off point for a new campaign or phase. You can certainly just end with the protagonists losing, too — Ten Candles comes to mind — but you really have to have buy in from a group. It’s rare that I would feel okay with turning my very rare social fun night out with friends into a tale of tragedy. Ten Candles was okay because it was specifically billed as “Let’s play a horror game of doomed souls on Halloween,” but even that was heavier than I usually want.


I’d forgotten about the origins of those John Harper games. I’ve heard him tell that story, even. That’s a fantastic example (in all senses of the word) of how The End doesn’t have to mean “the end”.

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I am reminded of the Paranoia episode on Wil Wheaton’s TableTop. Paranoia is already a game designed around the concept of utter failure, and in that episode they show exactly how that pans out.

If you’re going into a game expecting to die horribly, you can have a lot of fun losing. It’s much less fun, IMO, to go into a game expecting to win and then calling it quits after a TPK.


If your previous post is unedited, I will certify, as a college writing teacher, that your comma usage is impeccable.


Thanks! Maybe I’m just not that good in Portuguese grammar as well hahaha

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I enjoy all kinds of games, from heroic adventure where we know ahead of time that the main characters will triumph in the end to the downward spiral of a good Fiasco session; but the ones I savor are those where the fate of the PCs (and by extension, their world) feels truly at stake. In my experience, the specific kind of dramatic tension that arises from a game where anything can happen – including failure, debilitation, and death – makes the struggle all the more engaging and the victories all the more sweet.

It seems to me that an important thing to do here is agree upon the kind of “fun” everyone is expecting before play begins, so that everyone understands exactly is at stake. When I facilitate a Fiasco game, I tell everyone that whatever story we tell will likely end in disaster for all concerned, and the pleasure of the experience comes in part from leaning into the crash and burn. When I run a session of Funnel World, I tell everyone that they should do their best to survive, but their lowly villager will likely die, and the group as a whole might well fail at whatever foolhardy adventure they’ve embarked upon. Maybe I’ve just been lucky, but I find that when I’m clear about these aspects up front, everyone – friends or strangers, and I regularly run games for folks who are new to RPGs – buys in and learns how to enjoy failure.

The potential for abject failure is built into a game like Call of Cthulhu, where, playing rules-as-written, only the luckiest characters don’t go insane or get annihilated by the end of a campaign. It might take a disciplined Keeper to really run things into the ground without making sympathetic concessions to the PCs, but the tone of the game is such that if the Elder Gods “win” in the end, it feels entirely appropriate. Lovecraftesque and Soth both run with this idea in interesting ways.


Outside of D&D / Pathfinder, Call of Cthulu is one of the most popular rpgs published. There is clearly a market for rpgs with bad guys winning. It seems to be more of an issue of expectations for a game than with the concept.

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Funnel World is a great example.

And in Paranoia the Troubleshooters don’t exactly come across as not bad guys, and usually one of them kinda-sorta wins. Ish.

Also I ran a home-spun campaign that started with a bunch of one-shot scenarios. Each one of them was crafted to eventually kill the PC. Which then returned to life with super powers… so maybe that isn’t the best example.

Another campaign arc ended with a cosmic serpent devouring most of the known spheres of reality. But the next campaign was already scheduled… so is that a loss?

In general I think it is fine for the PCs to experience abject failure, though the players need to know that it is a possibility when the campaign is started. I suspect that the longer the game arc the lower their tolerance for total failure would be unless, perhaps their actions still somehow shaped the world left behind or even that they can really see the outcome as the results of their choices.

If you’ve ever played the Dishonored, the more you murder people the more rats appear and the city falls into decay. You can still win, but the city is worse off. Perhaps some system where players carry forward dooms, or taints, based on previous actions or failures might be an interesting mechanism.

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I recall that the original Deadlands had something like this, can’t quite remember what is was called, but the higher the fear of the outback the more grisly and powerful the monsters in it would be. You could lower this stat by having your posse make Take Tellin’ checks when they slayed a beastie and brought it’s corpse back to town to show the populace that the wilds could be tamed.

There is a large history of “unhappy” endings in literature, but most great tragedies follow this formula:

The tragic ending was a triumph for the heroes.

You’ve heard of winning the moral victory? In most cases, the great tragedies people love are moral victories for their heroes or at least their themes. In Romeo and Juliet if they had loved one another less they would not have needlessly killed themselves when they thought the other had died. Their tragic deaths are a triumph in that it proves their love. The theme: great love defies even death.

In Cyranno, the only thing preventing the hero from a life of luxury and love is his set of principles. He refuses to compromise his dignity and lick the boots of the aristocracy in the acceptance of a patron, and he refuses to dishonor the memory of his friend by admitting that friend’s love letters were his own doing. If he had been less principled, he would have had a happy ending.

This isn’t universal. Junji Ito makes powerful use of human psychology in the completion principle in order to make the tragic endings of his stories feel inevitable, that they aren’t over until the last horrifying thing has happened. The reader feels the ending pulling them along the pages and it’s about the journey rather than the inevitable destination. Any other ending would almost be unsatisfying. This is a lot harder to pull off in RPGs because the players often feel railroaded by the premise, which works fine when you’re a helpless bystander observing the story and not as well if you’re trapped in the adventure unable to take meaningful actions.

MacBeth is about villainous characters in a suspense drama. They serve as the characters we follow but the drama turns both on the tension of their inner conflict as their schemes succeed but their souls stained with blood that costs them inner peace long before it costs them their lives. The deaths are a mercy killing and justice rendered all together.

And that’s the thing. People want satisfying emotional experiences in stories. Stories that mess this up just slap on a tragic ending for no adequate reason are even weaker at delivering this satisfaction than stories that whip out a deus ex machina to solve all the problems. What we crave in stories is meaning and satisfaction. This is also why random coincidences driving key story beats, while very true to life, cause audiences to call them fake or unbelievable.

My example is when one of my players built a backstory around raiding a dungeon with his wife and being too afraid as a lich chased them to stop and help her when she was caught in a trap. She died and he spent the rest of his life hating himself for his cowardice. He ended the campaign by choosing to sacrifice himself to save his wife from the lich’s curse, a great redemption - a tragedy that was a triumph for him.