After writing adventures for over 35 years, one of my goals is to try upending my players’ expectations. Coming up with a new monster, adversary or spin on standard adventure tropes doesn’t truly challenge my players; most who have been gaming for decades.
For me, the discipline is not just “one upping” the group or seeing them through an adversarial lense (GM vs Player), but to literally challenge their long held perceptions that create standard encounter reactions that might as well be behavioral tics.
If you’ve read some of my 50 in 50 Adventures, you may see where I’m going with this post. For instance, in The Cabin in the Woods, appears to be a straight up bandit encounter, but there is a “more than meets the eye” aspect. In The Hermit of Castle Ruins, the typical foe may not be the villain the villagers think he is. Feldaryn’s Flying Ship introduces one of my favorite NPC tropes: the mysterious mage who is NOT as powerful as the players assume. (Because every old man is tattered robes must be a powerful mage in disguise!) I could go on with most of my other adventure hooks–most have some twist or reversal that will require the players to think on their feet or change their viewpoint.
Here are a few of my favorites:
“The Usual Suspects“. I’ve only done this once, for a stand-alone adventure. But basically one of the PC’s is actually the bad guy! In the process of chasing down a shadowy figure, the group actually eliminates the bad guy’s opponent, or recovers an object needed by the baddie. The fun is watching the player try and manipulate the group’s decision making to his/her benefit.
“Friend not Foe”. Similar to The Usual Suspects, this is the simple idea that the MOB is actually a good guy, friend or potential ally of the group. What happens when they rush to combat and kill someone that should have been a friend?
“The Burden of Power”. While all players are in an endless quest to level up, advance their characters wealth, abilities and equipment, there could be a cost to that. If the player possesses a famous weapon, what stops NPC’s from attempting to steal the object, challenge/kill the PC to acquire it or attack the group when they are injured and at a disadvantage? Does being powerful also make them a target from rivals, adversaries or less powerful NPC also trying to level up? It’s one thing to obtain power, it’s another to hold onto it!
“The Sting”. I’m surprised how easily it is to con my players. Feldaryn’s Flying Ship is a good example of using a mysterious character to manipulate and fool the players into doing all sorts of things–many to their detriment. When my players get complacent, greedy or foolhardy I know it’s time to bring in a “Sting”. Nothing sobers them up like losing a treasured item, having their wealth taken in an elaborate ruse or being used as pawn’s in someone else’s ambitions.
“Paranoia”. One of the harder plays to run successful is the subversion of a PC. Whether they are tainted, charmed, possessed or similar, it relies on the good faith and roleplaying ability of the players. When it works, it’s fabulous.
“Fools Gold”. A long arduous quest for a mythical object. What could be more tropey than that! What if the object was never powerful, magical or valuable. Maybe it was a hoax, or a story twisted over time, or maybe the object held is a counterfeit–the original having been stolen long ago.
“Job and The Capricious God“. I’ve written a lot about Channeling/Priests. What if the God is just an asshole? He/she blocks spellcasting randomly, enacts hardships and curses of the player(s) to “test their faith”. The follower can not rely on anything and must take extreme steps to please his diety. How will the rest of the group react when they realize they are joined to a cursed player–who could drag the group into one disaster after another!
“Dopplegangers”. What if the player or players had someone pretending to be them? This foe was causing harm, hurting their relationships or reputation or taking credit for their triumphs. What would the PCs do if they were framed and pursued by the law? That could be fun?
So those are just a few ideas. I’m curious and interested if other GM’s have tried to subvert their own adventure narratives. What are your ideas?