It’s time for another RPG Blog Carnival post. This month’s theme is “A Stack of Surprises” hosted by Mike Bourke over at Campaign Mastery. What a theme it is! I’ve already covered this theme from a few angles on this blog. I wrote about building up to a big story plot twist in a campaign and used my fourth edition Dungeons and Dragons Eberron game as an example of my methods in action. There’s another post on this blog about what to do as a dungeon master when the players surprise you. Then there’s all the surprising magic items, monsters, D&D fifth edition rules modules, spells, adventures, backgrounds, and more you’ll find in the Free Game Resources section of this site. What’s left in this theme that I haven’t covered? Plenty. Surprises make the game fun and memorable. As a dungeon master they make you feel accomplished and satisfied. So I need to keep them coming.
One of the best ways to do just that is to set up a story that has a seemingly obvious outcome, and then twist those expectations. What follows are a few tips and tricks that will make players gasp and eat the phrase, “I know where this is going.”
It’s All About The Setup
If you want to surprise your players in this way, set up is key. You’re players have to think they know where the story is going and that means you need to give them misdirecting clues. Here’s a few things to rely on which can set up a great surprise.
- Tropes. Most players coming to the table have consumed a least a bit of genre fiction. Go ahead and use expectations brought to the table to really surprise them. For instance, your players are tasked to with hunting a savage beast who tears apart unfortunate citizens in the rat-infested slums of a city whenever the moon is full. Many will naturally assume, “That’s clearly a lycanthrope.” After some investigation and throwing a red herring at the PCs, like a werewolf living in the slums who swears she has her transformations under control, they might find that the problem is far worse than they ever imagined. These aren’t lycanthrope attacks. Moonrats, magic rodents who gain super intelligence as the moon grows fuller, are behind the attacks. Worse still – these attacks are just the first step in their evil plan for dominance of the city.
- What’s Hot. Sometimes we build our campaigns around stories that are popular in the moment (for instance zombies are pretty hot right now thanks to The Walking Dead… one could also imagine a D&D game set in a Westros-style world thanks to Game of Thrones). This gets even more specific than a single trope, so much so that your players will probably roll their eyes when you initially describe the setup to them. Keeping players engaged during the setup may be difficult, but if you can keep them in the game, they’ll be even more shocked when the big twist happens. When I was 11 years old I saw the movie Titanic with a bunch of friends and the next day our game was centered around the PCs taking the largest passenger ship ever built across an ocean. Even at age 11 we exchanged get-a-load-of-this-guy looks with one another concerning our DM as he described an iceberg hitting the ship. Imagine our surprise when demonic sharks showed up and a demon worshipping wizard in the belly of the cargo hold was revealed to have caused the accident in order to serve up a huge sacrifice to his aquatic demon overlords.
- DM Habits. If you’ve been running with the same group of players for a while, odds are they’ve begun to identify some of your favorite monsters, traps, encounter set-ups, plot twists, and story hooks. Let this expectation set your players up for a big surprise. I apparently have a tendency to put the romantic interests of PCs in trouble to get investment in a story. I even had a player email me his character’s backstory and mention in big capital letters that his fiance was a super capable combatant and spellcaster. To play on that trope I had said fiance show up mid-enounter and offer to hold off a hoard of aberrations by herself while the PCs made an escape. The PCs were pleasantly surprised to learn that not only did said fiance not get captured or killed during her desperate play, she also managed to hold off the enemy long enough to let the PCs get to where they were going without further trouble.
- Published Adventures. Want to set up and surprise your players with minimal effort? Take a popular adventure module and change an iconic detail of it. Some may cry sacrilege, but I cry surprise (you can always go back and play the module as written later). Imagine the reactions if the villain in Ravenloft turned out to be a deranged, shapeshifting gold dragon who loved pretending to be a vampire or if at the end of Rise of Tiamat it was actually Zuggtmoy who rose.
- Small Details. Not every surprise needs to be a huge, memorable story twist. Sometimes you can set up something quick based on a player’s expectation about a creature or situation and give it a small twist to create a memorable surprise. A red dragon could breathe acid because its mother was a black dragon. A troll could be immune to fire because it wears a magic ring. These surprises will knock players back and give them something to talk about for years to come.
Give a Little Hint If You Can
If you can give players a small hint that not everything is as it seems before you reveal the twist, that will make your payoff all the more sweeter. Be careful not to give too much away as you don’t want players guessing the surprise early. This is a case where less really is more. In the moonrat example above, mentioning the presence of large rats in the slums is a great hint to give your players. Odds are they’ll think that’s just descriptive flavor, but it’s an image they’ll recall when the intelligent rodents come gunning for them.
Twist In The Moment
While setups may seem like they take a little work, if you’re good on your feet, you can twist a story in the moment. If you find midsession your story is going to some place expected. Go ahead and make something that surprises even you happen. If you can twist the plot in a way that makes sense, go for it. If not, it can be totally random. You don’t even need to justify to the players why a troupe of mummy bards is suddenly attacking them, you can figure that out later.
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