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: 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 a time that I had one of these brilliant ideas so we can discuss why they never work as expected.
I was running Corporation 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! 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 players who feel that their characters are inadequate, because their characters were 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 effect 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 was 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?