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?
3 thoughts on “Things are not what they seem…”
I’ve tried some of those ideas and in general it does not go well.
Mostly because although it keeps the adventures fresh for my as the GM, my players end up “dissapointed” by the outcome. They don’t seem too intent on the original story/engaging narrative and mostly prefer their adventures to be about good results for well planned scenarios.
On one or two occasions where their stuff was taken from them, that’s the adventure they remember for years, to complain about it 😀
Although, when a friendly NPC ends up betraying them, or they realize that they been questing to help a villain, they end up accepting that if they could get angry/riled up outside of the game about it, it must have been an engaging story to play. I just have to make sure it doesn’t happen too often
I find that those ideas work well when you have a regular group and frequent play. Getting stung occasionally is not so bad. When you play infrequently, and the games hold more value, getting stung can leave players feeling cheated, regardless of how the characters feel.
Most of these are fairly standard concepts in the non-fantasy stuff I run, and there they work reasonably well. I suspect that’s because players have different expectations and the genres are often more amiable to those plots. A salted mining claim sold as the next El Dorado? Check. Espionage agents being used as pawns in one manipulation or another? Check. What also matters there is how you follow through on the concept…the players are able to hunt down the prospector who sold them the salted claim, or they get some payback (however small) on an agency later.
I’ve tried a few of them in fantasy, even with the same players, and they can be harder to pull off because player expectations are different. Subverting narratives in my experience can be very genre-driven for players. What they’ll accept and even enjoy in one genre results in disappointment in another.