For the most part, we GM’s take a lot of abuse in our games. Our NPC’s get beaten and killed, our world-ending plans are thwarted, and our hidden treasures are plundered, all while we cheer on the Characters for their victories. Then, there are those times, when we get one over on the characters and players. Times when we reveal a plot twist that leaves them reeling, and they sit there speechless, stunned by the sudden change in their campaign world. In those moments as they sit there looking unsure of what to do next, there is a warm glow of satisfaction inside, a burning pride that reminds you why you are behind that screen. You just blindsided your players.

The Blindside

The blindside (sometimes known as a reveal) is a technique where the GM reveals a plot twist which comes seemingly out of the blue. The plot twist is often something fairly significant in terms of the session or the campaign. In geek culture, the most iconic Blindside is:

[Spoilers]

When Darth Vader tells Luke Skywalker that he is his father during the lightsaber battle in Empire Strikes Back.

[/Spoilers]

Joking about spoilers aside, if you think that you need to use spoilers when talking about a plot twist, then it’s likely worthy of a blindside.

Players both love and hate blindsides. One one hand, they often create new and dangerous situations, which lead to new adventures. On the other hand, the blindside can come off feeling like the GM has unfairly manipulated the players or is showing off. Lets look at what makes up a good blindside, and what goes into the not so good ones…

The Good Type

The best blindsides have a few things in common.

  • The Characters are not screwed – the plot changes do not doom the players when revealed. It may put them in immediate danger but it should not be overwhelming or hopeless.
  • Use existing plot elements – in order to get one past the players, you need to develop the plot twist in secret, but you want to take advantage of elements of the stories, NPC’s, unfollowed plot threads, etc. This helps the twist feel less arbitrary.
  • The twist makes sense– the plot twist you are going to deliver makes sense in the context of the session or campaign. It has a logical consistency that fits into your gaming world.

A good blindside feels like a natural and dramatic part of the story. It fits in the greater story, it often creates a setback, and when explained in the game, the players can see how they had an opportunity to have anticipated it but missed it. After they get over the initial shock, they tell you how sneaky or devious you are.

The Bad Kind

The bad kind of blindsides are in most ways the opposite of a good blindside:

  • It’s hopeless – the twist changes the story such that the players have lost their ability to be useful and are at the mercy of the new order of things.
  • Made up out of thin air – the twist utilizes elements which were never part of the campaign or story, such as NPC’s which were never named, powers that were totally unknown, etc.
  • A twist for twist’s sake – it makes no sense for the plot twist to occur in the greater context of the campaign. The twist is created for no other reason than to have a twist occur in the story.

The bad blindside feels unnatural and often triggers the WTF look from the players. The setback that it creates halts the progress of the characters, or the characters and players had no chance of anticipating the blindside. With a truly bad blindside the players will feel as if they have no control over the events of the campaign world, and will feel frustrated.

Tips For Delivering a Blindside

Once you have crafted a good blindside, you need to deliver it in the game. A good blindside requires a little prep and some thought about timing. Here are a few tips to help you deliver the blindside.

  • Light foreshadowing – a good blindside starts with some foreshadowing in earlier sessions. You want to plant a few clues, subtle enough that players may pass them over. If they do, then the blindside will be that much more devious. If they follow them, you run the risk of them ruining the blindside, but it is worth the risk. If you have clever players, blindsides can be difficult to execute.
  • Put the twist towards the end of the session – for reasons that we will cover below, having the blindside towards the end of the session will make your session go smoother.
  • Speak slowly – there can be an excitement that comes with delivering a well crafted blindside. That excitement can cause a GM to speak faster – or worse, skip some details -in a rush to get to the reveal. Put a note in your prep to slow down as you deliver the blindside.
  • Do not gloat – if you have pulled off your blindside well, your players are likely in a bit of shock. Now is not the time to brag about how you got one past them.

What to do after you Blindside Them

The time after the blindside is a crucial point in the game. The players are feeling a number of emotions: shock, anger, surprise, etc. What you do next is crucial for having your players come to appreciate what you have taken the creativity and care to construct. Here are some tips for what to do just after you have blindsided your players:

  • Press them, but not hard – The blindside produces strong emotions (and you will want to play off of them) so give the players a small challenge or encounter to handle, but don’t make the encounter too hard as it could amplify any negative emotions.
  • Give them a place to run and hide – in times of uncertainty, much like when a plot twist has changed the player’s understanding of the game, you want to provide a place for the characters to escape and hide. Give them time to regroup in a place where they are not threatened.
  • Allow for some role play – once they are somewhere safe give the players a chance to express their emotions through their characters, and for their characters to come to grips with the new order of things.
  • End the session – once the initial shock wears off, the players will want to rally and take action. In their charged emotional state their reaction may be rash. By ending the session shortly after the blindside, you give the players more time to process what has occurred and to work out a plan of action that is more thought through.

Didn’t See That Coming, Did Ya?

The blindside is a powerful tool which a GM can employ. It is one that is best saved and used sparingly, lest you become known as the M. Night Shyamalan of GM’s. When you do plan on using it, think out your plot twist and make sure that it makes the campaign more interesting without minimizing the characters. Take care when delivering the blindside, and give the characters a place to retreat so that the players have time to process and think through their next actions.

What is the best blindside you have delivered in a game? When have you had one go horribly wrong? Do you use blindsides often or are you more of a straight shooter?