We GM’s are a creative bunch, coming up with all sorts of plots and challenges for our players, session after session. There are times when we get a bit carried away, and think up a brilliant idea; something that the players will never think of, something so incredible that they will bow before our great creativity, something they have never before experienced. Genius!
I am here to tell you something:Â that Brilliant idea is going to blow up in your face.
Let Me Tell Ya’ A Gaming Story
For the sake of illustration, I want to tell you about aÂ time that I had one of these brilliant ideas so we can discuss why they never work as expected.
I was running CorporationÂ and my players had been on my case to give them more money and more tech. I came up with an idea to oblige them and not unbalance the campign. It started by having them rescue a scientist who could perform illegal Agent Backups (downloading minds to digital format and reloading them into bodies). Then, they were assigned a mission with a near unlimited budget, of which they jumped on the chance to get new gear, including new implants. When they were under the knife, unbeknownst to the players (e.g. the brilliant part), I had the scientist make backups of their minds, and loaded them into cloned bodies. I informed them that the implants went well and they were all set for the mission; never mentioning they were clones.
The mission turned out to be a suicide mission, of which none of them survived. When the last clone died, I took a break and then came back, opening with how the characters just woke from a chemically induced coma. The debriefing officer told them that the mission was over, and explained what had happened. They were looking at me slack-jawed.
Brilliant! They got a mission with an unlimited budget, and I did not have to have any after-effects in the game. I used a piece of in-game technology to create a win-win. Brilliant!Â Well, brilliant for me. They were pissed. They felt like I tricked them (I did).
So What went wrong?
Clever for Whom?
The first danger in these Brilliant ideas is that often these ideas are brilliant for just the GM. At it turns out, players don’t like to be tricked even if they say they do. A GM’s genius can often look like shenanigans to the players.
So why is it that our Brilliant ideas create animosity in players? There are three common reasons:
Players are at a major disadvantage in an RPG. Their understanding of the world relies solely upon what the GM provides. The players are always operating with far less information than the GM has. They compensate for that by making various assumptions about the world. These assumptions are the scaffolding that allows them to act in character, and not have to ask the GM questions about every little thing.
When one of our Brilliant ideas plays against one of those assumptions, we are in effect “pulling one over” on the players; shaking that foundation. When done in a small capacity it can be an enjoyable twist, but when done in a larger fashion, we wind up violating the players understanding of how the world works and make them question other assumptions they have about the world.
This is often accomplished by manipulating the flow of information. For example, in a horror game the GM tells the players they are talking to a normal person, when in reality they are talking to a Vampire. The GM does not ask for any checks for the players to notice this fact, and the GM skirts any questions asked by the players, such that she does not reveal any clues that this NPC is a vampire. Later the GM reveals the Vampire as a twist.
This kind of manipulation causes the players to start questioning all of their assumptions in the game. They come to not trust the information provided by the GM. The players/characters becomes increasingly paranoid, acting in weird ways, and often foiling the plot by not believing anything they are told.
Invalidate Mechanical Aspects of Characters
Even when our Brilliant idea does not mess with the assumptions of the players, we can still cause ire if our idea renders some mechanical aspect of a character(s) useless. Players often work to build their characters with some level of optimization, so that they can act heroically, or in a larger than life way. When our idea ruins that plan, it can upset the players.
As an example, a player makes up a fantasy wizard who lives in a mountain world, and specializes in earth elemental magic. The GM surprises the group on the first adventure by transporting them to the elemental plane of Fire, where the character’s extensive earth elemental powers are greatly diminished.
This will manifest itself with playersÂ who feel that their characters are inadequate, because their characters wereÂ built on an assumption that is no longer true. The players will be frustrated, feeling unable to be effective in the campaign.
Invalidate Story Aspects of Characters
Affecting the mechanical aspects of the character is not the only only way to invalidate a character. The Brilliant idea can alter just the story, but do so in a way that invalidates the character’s backstory, in part or in whole.
For example: The player designs a character where a defining fact of the character’s background is their participation in a major battle in the world. Then during a time travel adventure the GM has the players affect someone who through butterfly effectÂ prevents the battle. When the characters return to their own time, the battle never occurred.
Players who feel that their backstories are inconsequential will stop using them as part of their character, and won’t bother to make detailed backgrounds in future campaigns.
What Did I Do Wrong?
Looking back on my story, I see that my major violation wasÂ Manipulating Assumptions. I told the characters they were undergoing surgery for implants, and I cloned them and replaced them, then had the players play the clones, without any knowledge. That was the part where I thought I was being clever.
I could have easily changed that scene, and informed the players about what their corporation wanted to do. My guess is that they would have been fine with it, and knowing that their characters would not survive the mission, would have been more aggressive and risk taking. The adventure would have worked fine, and no one would have been upset.
Before You Decide To Be Clever
When you come up with a clever idea, stop and think. In most cases our clever ideas, those twists, are going to mess with something that the players take for granted: assumptions, character mechanics, or backstory. When we tinker with these, we are in essence violating the trust of players.
You can sometimes (not always, as I found out) get away with this, in a one-shot or limited capacity, but doing any one of these for an extended period of time, or as a key part of the campaign will only cause resentment and detachment from the game.
When have you tried to be clever in a game? Did it work the way you wanted? Did your players find it as clever as you did?
I may have broken this rule recently….
In my current 4E D&D game, all magic items over 10th level require some sort of minor quest to be created. Obtain a rare ingredient, perform a difficult ritual, something to keep these items from becoming trivial items with price tags.
So, during a plot arc involving fighting the underworld mob boss, our rogue asks a local NPC mage to create some nifty gloves for her. Sure thing – pay this much coin and then wear the inert gloves while defeating a chain devil in melee combat to activate them. The mage can even summon one for you!
Once the gloves are ready, the party gathers in an out of the way empty warehouse. The mage summons the devil from a protected corner of the building.
The party starts fighting the devil. Another person, an exceedingly beautiful woman, walks into the protected corner and starts whispering to the mage. The mage starts casting the summoning spell again! Now the party has to fight two chain devils! The woman is attacked by our suspicious heroes and reveals herself to be a succubus. The mage casts a teleport spell and they both vanish.
The party then fights the two devils and defeats them, but the new gloves never activate. They retreat to their lair to rest and recover.
My brilliant idea: the mob boss had summoned the succubus weeks ago and tasked her with charming the mage, then having him mislead & ambush the players. He told them the truth about the item as he knew it, so they never caught that the information was wrong because he never lied. Meanwhile, earlier in the same day (actually the previous session), they had killed the leading enforcer for the mob boss in a daring ambush. I put the item my player wanted into the loot them recovered from him.
No harm done, right? Sooooooo clever!
Now the rogue PC is questioning every statement by every NPC for *everything*. And the player is starting to do the same, even in other games I’m not GMing. I think he will get better – someday. 🙂
I think every GM has done this – but only potential good GM’s realize it… and VERY few of us realize it until it’s too darned late.
I’ve done this a couple of times, with poor results each time. I totally destroyed a character concept for a guy once, and destroyed group cohesion another time.
Related to this is the “clever” trick or trap that is SO obvious that any idiot can figure it out… except that only the GM knows the truth of the matter and what is so glaringly obvious to us may well be unfathomable to an entire group of players. (Dude, just twist the idol’s nose!!)
I dont think I agree with this I have to say.
I have played in several games where the end twist was ‘it was all a dream’, ‘it all happened in a computer’ or the Gm states ‘Im declaring this a Marvel ‘What if’ scenario’; so making all our previous decisions/assumptions invalid in one sense.
Yes sometimes they dont work, but thats true of any possible story. I recently played a ‘it was all a dream’ horror scenario and it worked really well. In the game we were police officers tracking down a murderer, and then by the end we realised it wasnt a real world, and discovered the hard way it was actually a dream quest to pick the ‘one’ of the party who was worthy of joining a mystical cult. In hind site the plot and the setting worked together really well (though I admit it was very confusing at times; but Im ok with that – maybe because confused is my natural state 😉 )
Another horror game I played in we discovered that we were (probably) ‘Brains in Jars’ linked to a simulation. At one point the GM gave us the opportunity to smash our own Brain Jars… not one person in the game wanted to take the risk of the simulated act killing our characters. The game was still fun (in a dark twisted kind of way) despite the high probability that it was all just a simulation.
Maybe it works best in a horror setting? Or maybe some groups are happy accepting the that the simulated world they are playing in may actually be a simulation inside the simulation!
I’ve tried some “clever” ideas before, but only a rare few actually worked out. 🙁
PS: Hey tman, or anyone else, how do I change my avatar pic? The crazed gnome pic is good, but I want to use something else.
I couldn’t even tell you. I set that picture long ago for a different site, then gnome stew tied into that profile network and … I can’t remember the slightest thing on how to update it now.
I see that none of the profile edits available here have anything to do with that profile picture.
It’s most probably a Gravatar, and is tied to your email address. Head here to edit (you will have to create an account if you haven’t already): https://en.gravatar.com/
This is excellent advice for any GM. Every step more convoluted a plot is, the more likely you are to lose your players. I think the paragraphs about managing assumptions are especially pertinent. Playing with assumptions and expectations can be fun, but when you completely violate them, especially without giving the players a chance to see through the sham, they can leave the table feeling justifiably cheated.
It would have been considerably more fun if, in the clone scenario, there were hints that the players weren’t who they thought they were. A new mole. Missing fillings and scars. The dawning realization would have been a blast, and then they could have continued the game knowing they could take crazy risks because they hadn’t much to lose.
But, as I am reminded at the end of every game I run, hindsight is 20/20.
To me this comes down to player agency that includes being able to make decisions based on true information.
If the the PCs make a decision based on false information provided by the GM that ends up in a negative, they are unlikely to be happy about it. IMO, the only time it is acceptable to have the PCs make decisions based on false information is if the net result is a positive for the characters, but even then it should not be used frequently.
Brilliant ideas and twist endings are fine when the PCs are given the agency to discover them on their own rather than just being told by the GM, or worse an NPC, ‘here is what is really going on’.
I used to do this too often, and have wound up abandoning most of them. A short shift in the middle of a campaign can work if you don’t undermine players’ trust in the game. (The earth mage on a specific quest to the plane of fire, for example.) Most of the time, though… the brilliant idea proves not to be so great–better to file it away for another game with that as the central premise later.
Great advice. Similarly, I always find it hard to hit that sweet spot of having an occasional ally turn traitor to shock the party, but not often enough that the party refuses to trust anyone.
Your examples come down to PCs being lied to in the game by an NPC. The twist happens when the lie is revealed, at a time most benefiting the NPC. The question is, is lying okay? And if so, how and when?
I have NPCs lie to PCs all the time in my game. I do it because it’s part of human nature and thus I want to include it in my game.
Lies happen for all different kinds of motivations, of course. An evil person lies to manipulate and thwart the party, a neutral person lies to protect his/her own interests, and even a good person may state something misleading because he/she is ashamed of the truth or is simply misinformed.
The crux to incorporating lying NPCs in the game without making the players angry or excessively cynical is to give them reasonable chances to see through to the truth. These don’t have to be huge chances, but usually there is at least some chance, based on the skills, spells, and/or tech that various PCs have. If the PCs have these capabilities but aren’t using them, the GM should offer subtle reminders.
On rare occasion there will be lies or liars so powerful that the party never figures out the truth, despite all their best efforts, until the until too late. Use these situations sparingly because they will anger players, especially if in addition to having no ability to figure it out beforehand the PCs also have no recourse after the fact– e.g., the villain disappears in a puff of smoke with no way to be found.
Another tool I use to prep players for this is explicitly telling them beforehand that not everything their hear from NPCs is going to truthful and/or accurate, and I’ll follow up by having different NPCs repeat contradictory rumors or theories about the Monster of the Week, Big Bad or what have you.
It’s the same tool I use to make it okay to have high-level monsters and characters make appearances far earlier in a game than they should: I tell players beforehand that not every battle can be won, and I’ll give them plenty of opportunity to know when they should run, negotiate or find some other way to handle a problem rather than hack and slash.
I can’t completely agree with the premise of the article. You need to have twists in the game. This is not a failure of the twists themselves.
Instead, this is a failure to telegraph the twist correctly. Foreshadowing is an important tool for setting up these sorts of things. They need to be surprising in the moment, yet inevitable once looked at in hindsight. That means dropping clues.
For instance, a major plot point in the campaign I’m running is that the party’s patron, The Exalt of the Great Church, has less than exalted motives for sending them on missions and might turn out to be one of the major villains of the game (depending on how the rest of the campaign plays out).
At first, I dropped hints that all was not well within the halls of the Great Church. A necromancer managed to spring a surprise attack with undead on a gathering that should have been warded. There were rumors that The Exalt was in poor health, and she always seemed frosty and a bit distant when directly dealing with the PCs, very concerned about the image of the church dealing with threats rather than focused on just doing good. She gives off a strange aura when Paladins use their Divine Sense around her (not quite celestial, not quite undead–a mixed signal at best).
When I dropped a bomb on them, I did it in the form of a revelation from an untrustworthy source (a necromancer about to be executed). The party Paladin went to check out the rumor, and was confronted by the Exalt herself, who revealed that she was, in fact, undead (she’d turned herself into a baelnorn, which is a type of of elvish Lich that generally act as guardians for sacred places). This rocked the faith of that character and has lead to tons of interesting personal drama for the player.
This whopper of a twist touches on the “Invalidating the story aspects of a character” that you mentioned in the article, but was done very deliberately from the beginning of the campaign. I seeded the hints of this revelation a long time before the reveal, and I did it in such a way that the character’s backstory and previous support of the Exalt has come into serious question. But the emotional punch would have lacked teeth otherwise.
This is not the only time I’ve done this sort of thing. It tends to work for me because I build on the backstories I’ve been given. I ask characters for secrets about their characters that the characters themselves are not aware of, and then I build from there. I telegraph twists through foreshadowing. If the clues were there, and the PCs catch on, they don’t get upset with me about dropping things on them. I don’t try to M. Night Shyamalan them with “twists” that come out of nowhere.
Interesting observations, and I actually agree with you on most of your points.
I think there are players that like to be surprised though. I also think GM/Player trust has a lot to do with it. At our table, as long as a great story is being told we always seem to be a happy bunch. And we’ve all gamed together long enough that we trust our primary GM.
But I wholeheartedly agree that most players THINK they LIKE being surprised in certain ways, when in fact that is not the case at all.
This also ‘works’ when the GM decides to reboot the world. A friend was running 2AD&D when 3.0 came out and the group switched over during a crippling Mana Storm catastrophe. He had kept up with what was to be and already ‘knew’ where they would end up, but the players were desperately trying to nail down what they thought the world would be. He had them ‘find’ the various mechanisms, etc. to redefine the world, letting the players feel responsible for the way the new game world functions. He calls it the Reading Railroad, but his players still believe THEY did the work themselves.