It started to rain on Everest Pipkin’s farm in rural New Mexico while I was interviewing them on Zoom. “I’m excited,” they said, awe in their voices. “My dogs chewed my irrigation lines yesterday, so I’m going to have to water all my trees with buckets for the next week until I get it fixed, because I have to put up a fence before I fix the irrigation, and that means I shouldn’t water.” The last word came out in a sing-song fashion, a celebration, and then we shifted gears to discuss Pipkin’s new tabletop creation, World Ending Game. More on that later.
This moment of rain joy is what I would call quintessentially Pipkinesque. They describe themselves as a “writer, game developer, and software artist” on their official bio, but spending a few minutes looking at their work reveals a real capacity for artistic production. of 2019 Five objects for the Corsican sky it consists of curious little sculptures that mention the identities of the planes flying overhead at the time. decade of 2020 Roblox Dream Diary is a series of abstract art games made in the ever popular Roblox.
What lives beneath these works, and the dozens of others Pipkin has done, is the ability to find wondrous things in mundane places. Building strange works of art within his blockbuster Roblox takes a certain perspective on the world we live in, one that finds joy in things like the random appearance of rain, and this is readily apparent in Pipkin’s milestone The ground itselfreleased in 2019.
Billed as “a game about parts over time”, The ground itself is a board game about developing and tracing the history of a place in all its specificity — a field, a city, a rabbit or a continent. Working in the same space as games like Avery Alder’s The Quiet Year or Ben Robbins Follow along, The ground itself engages players in a process of creating the history of the place. While mainstream games like Dungeons & Dragons often focus on epic stories of people facing world-historical challenges, The ground itself asks players to think about the world that creates these challenges.
The ground itself it’s mostly about players dynamically shaping the world, making claims about a place, and then taking those claims to their logical conclusions using dice mechanics. A six-sided scroll can have them watch over a small farming village over the course of days, weeks, months, or millennia. Gameplay tracks these timelines along the physical transformations of the world. An invading galactic empire leveling mountaintops for fuel? Are the beavers clogging the creek, flooding the barn? Does a patch of wildflowers grow across the field, with creeping legs each season, to marry the side of a once-burnt cedar forest? The game is a kind of funnel for the creativity of the terrain and the ecologies they watch.
I asked my friend, Friends at the table host Austin Walker, why he thinks The ground itself to be such a powerful work. He said it “forces players not only to cooperate with each other, but also with an explosive and dynamic sense of timing.” Instead of playing in the most important moments of a world, commanding armies or mages, you are more concerned with the effects. “The result is that instead of creating a fun playground for future adventures, you end up building a place that feels haunted by its own history.”
In talking with Pipkin about the game’s design process, I got the sense that this sense of being haunted by space and place was critical to the project from the beginning. 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 hike more than two hours up a mountain and connect his laptop to a cellphone. When they weren’t walking up and down that mountain, they secluded themselves in a cabin, doing an artist residency that many others had completed before. These people had left fragments and remnants of themselves in that cabin, and Pipkin observed that they “existed in space, with others, though in time.”
Pipkin wrote the play over a month and said it was easy to write precisely because of the awareness of living with others who weren’t actually there. The cabin was remote, but the former residents had left texts, information and their physical marks on the site. As Pipkin spoke, I could see the scratches on the floor or the burn marks on the counters, all those unimaginable remnants of ourselves that we leave behind. These kinds of interactive departures, the impressions we leave on a place, had a big influence on the final product.
“His issues [The Ground Itself] they are essentially about that process and the removal of that process […] to the types of life that live in each place, human and non-human, including things like ant colonies and big storms,” Pipkin said with a laugh. “Not so much in a ‘the country remembers,’ but it remembers.” Everything is imprinted in the world, and using that as a basis for storytelling is something that’s important to me.”
The ground itself made a significant leap into the world-building game genre, asking players to create and create a place with certain finite rules, and Pipkin catches the eye of a similar endgame designer in World Ending Gamenow in PDF format, with a physical release on September 15th.
At a sharp turn from The ground itselfthe villagers, mostly characterless worlds that focus on the narrative, World Ending Game it focuses on character. Intended to be used as a tool to manage the end of things in tabletop worlds, it seeps right into games like Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder as well as the wide world of tabletop frameworks. These kinds of games are played in a character-centric way, and it’s often difficult to figure out how to let those characters go, to let them move on to some other phase of their lives beyond the campaign you’ve played. What does Old Zoot the dwarf do after defeating Strahd and throwing a Spelljammer directly into a cloud giant’s floating palace?
With 20 mini-games designed to round out campaigns and characters, World Ending Game seeks to help people solve this problem. And many similar The ground itself, World Ending Game arose out of a direct relation to 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’s certainly clear, the third year of a global pandemic in a failed state with fewer and fewer health care options and a murderous police apparatus, watching the hills burn in the summers and the power companies turn down their heat winters, as climate collapse slowly shifts the place I live to somewhere I don’t recognize.”
While these are certainly tragic circumstances, the way it has been handled World Ending Game is, again, Pipkinesque, if only because the games are included World Ending Game they seem far less nightmarish than our current reality. Instead of focusing decisively on the reality of endings, World Ending Game takes a cinematic approach to its games, giving players the tools to finish their games with rulesets drawn from the most popular media ending variations. I mean that literally. Pipkin revealed that a fundamental step in his design WEG he would look at lists of popular scripts and note how they ended, then work backwards to create categories of endings that could correspond to many of them.
There is joy in them, there is also a sadness. After all, these games are meant to help you finish things, and even the best endings are a little painful because of what you have to leave behind. Much of this is conveyed through his illustrations World Ending Game, as each entry in the book has an illustration to set a tone and feel. Michael DeForge’s illustration for “Karaoke Bar,” a riff on the last song that ends for movies, has both a characteristic exuberance and a deep melancholy. DeForge’s flat characters bursting with energy draw a conclusion to the inevitable fall. the karaoke bar closes, the energy dissipates, and you’re out on the street walking home in the dim light and low smog. The doors slam shut. The lights go out.
It’s hard to wrap things up, but anyone who’s played more than two board games knows that true endings are hard to come by. Most games don’t end. Someone can’t find the time, or people get bored, or someone drifts apart, and people never manage to get back together. The number of unfinished character arcs outnumbers the number of final ones by many, many orders of magnitude. Giving players a set of tools to get things done, I see World Ending Game as a pragmatic tool, but also a bit of a carrot on a stick. I could promote an unwavering campaign to play through a minigame where each player in the party sees an omen of the end of the world and must interpret it for the others. It might give some closure. It might make the whole thing worthwhile.
At the start of our interview, Pipkin said that “you can’t completely separate a creative practice from a lived life.” Thinking about the tools we’ve been given for our campaigns, building worlds, and finishing them, it’s easy to extend that a bit further in our engagement with this practice: You can’t completely separate play from a lived life. What I find so fascinating about Pipkin, and what allows us to use these games to infuse Pipkinesque attitudes into our own board games, is that they hold what could be in the world without losing what already is. Barbarians and barbarians can have their grisly end, resonate in our own world without being limited to it, and are taken seriously when they do. Rocks and the civilizations built upon them are ecologically rendered within a game context, and you can enjoy their rise and fall, or you can build a world for your characters with them. Pipkin’s contributions to board games ultimately focus on the world we have, and how we exist in it, without claiming any of the causes of the whole work. And then we can take those rough edges and create, or destroy, worlds with them.