I’m a big fan of the Arrow television series. That said, (and without major spoilers) it’s obviously shifted gears in tone. What started as a dramatic series about a former castaway completing his father’s mission in a realistic, Nolan-style universe has shifted into a more traditional superhero action series. While I still enjoy it, I do miss the original concept.
There have been many times over my gaming career where I’ve run and played in campaigns that shifted in tone after an initial premise that was working well as-is. Sometimes it was because the campaign was getting stale or the GM was inspired to work in something that didn’t mesh with the original premise. Sometimes it was a complete bait-and-switch; the players were promised one type of campaign only for the GM to reveal a session or two in that they were actually in another type of campaign.
Needless to say, some of these campaigns were more successful than others and some failed entirely, with players crying foul or simply losing interest in the new direction. Unfortunately, it can be difficult to roll things back once the campaign has gone too far in the new direction, forcing a complete scrapping and requiring all-new world-building on the part of the GM to get a new campaign in the popular vein running again.
One way to avoid that is to test the waters.
‘Testing the waters’ means exactly that; you give the players a feel for your new direction and gauge their reaction. If it’s favorable, then you can wade in deeper. If not, then you can easily pull back and continue playing with the original premise. Sometimes, you may even find a third way that satisfies both you and your players.
This works even in a bait-and-switch campaign. I can’t tell you the number of times I ran or played in such a campaign that I realized within a single session how much fun everyone was having, only to have it destroyed when the “switch” appeared. In some cases, I would have loved to have had an “out” to pull it back before the switch went too far.
Here are some examples of testing the waters:
The PCs find themselves confronted with supervillains in what has been up until now a non-superpowered campaign.
One way to test the waters here is to make the “supervillains” merely flashy criminals that use particular trademarks when committing crimes. They may even tease police officers and investigators through the anonymity of the internet using supervillain-ish code names.
If players find this intriguing then you can tread a little deeper. Perhaps the justice system is corrupt and one of the supervillains is let free even with damning evidence against him. Just this once, the PCs need to consider vigilante justice to stop him. If instead they decide to devote themselves to taking down a corrupt judge, then the players probably aren’t biting on the superhero idea.
The PCs are investigating a serial murderer who just may be a vampire.
This one is pretty popular in my gaming circles, as it’s often an attempt to start new PCs “on the ground floor” of a preternatural setting. The players generally start as mundane investigators who are suddenly confronted by something not quite human. As a GM I’ve been guilty of setting an initial tone by having the PCs solve two or three normal cases, just to hit them with a werewolf or vampire on the next one.
One way to test the waters here is to use the Scooby-Doo option. The threat seems preternatural, but turns out to be mundane. A “werewolf” is simply a woman that owns a trained wolf, while a vampire is a man that believes drinking blood will cure him of some ailment. During this adventure you can have the PCs consult experts who believe in the preternatural, and even leave clues that maybe there is something more going on here than normal.
If the players “bite” (pun intended) then you can wade in deeper; if not then you can easily go back to normal crimes. You may even discover a third campaign where PCs enjoy debunking what seems like preternatural threats but turn out to be mundane.
The PCs are mutants in a fantasy setting.
I’ve had this happen a couple of times where the PCs discovered that they had mutant powers in an otherwise traditional fantasy setting. The first time was a lark on the part of a GM that wanted to incorporate Gamma World mutations into an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons campaign; a later similar campaign was due to a GM mixing and matching GURPS books.
One way to test the waters here is to make such powers temporary, most likely gifts from the upper Powers in the campaign. Maybe the gods felt the need to bestow powers on a group of champions to combat a particular threat. Perhaps a rogue archangel wants to build a better mortal. Perhaps the gods are just doing it for a lark.
In any case, if the players aren’t biting then the powers are lost after a session or two. If the players enjoy it you can let them keep the powers – perhaps they weren’t from the gods after all, or the gods have decided to let them keep their gifts.
A word of caution – “It was all a dream!”
It’s tempting to test the waters with a dream sequence, drugged hallucination, virtual fantasy or other such scenarios with ‘magic reset buttons’ at the end. If you do, be sure to compensate the players for it. Dream adventures often feel like a cheat and players are going to at least want XP for it.
In addition, it’s always good to give them some clue during the dream adventure that is useful in the future. Perhaps a PC was the victim of a new drug on the street or the superheroes’ trip into Fantasyland was the result of a dream-inducing supervillain who incapacitated them while he infiltrated their headquarters to steal something. Maybe the PCs unplug from a virtual reality to find real-life victims that were tied to the fates of their avatars.
In any event, the important thing to keep in mind is to build a back door when testing the waters so you can preserve the original campaign. As a GM I know it’s tough when I lose a campaign’s worth of material because of an ill-fated tonal shift. Hopefully by testing the waters first you can avoid that fate.
Have you ever ‘tested the waters’ and successfully recovered? Has a tonal shift ever torched a good campaign because you lacked a back door? Has a test ever been positive and improved your campaign?