Friday, August 28, 2015

Surprise! There is no surprise.

Back before the poker craze of the mid-2000's, when most players were terrible (and few games were legal), I steadily earned some extra cash playing low-limit hold'em at the nearest riverboat. Movies and television convey the impression that poker is a game of bluffing; but in weak games, against players who are always trying to spot a bluff, usually the best strategy was to play in a completely straightforward manner. If you have a weak hand, get out. If you have a winning hand, play it strong.

Today, I was thinking about building RPG adventures, and all the ways I could avoid the stereotypical, "find the artifact," "save the maiden," and "kill the boss" story lines. Some twists might include:
  • The boss isn't who you expected -- perhaps a puppet of someone the PC's once thought was friendly.
  • In recovering an artifact, the PC's have accidentally hastened a villain's evil plan.
  • The damsel in distress was killed long before the PC's arrived; and her captor, anticipating their arrival, has laid a trap.
Sometimes, it is important to keep things fresh and avoid the same old tropes. This might especially be true with groups comprised of veteran players. But for every plot that you feel needs twisting, there are twists that themselves are old news.

Here's the thing: I got into D&D when I was ten years old because I wanted to delve through winding tunnels, face deadly traps, and eventually rescue the princess. That's the initial appeal -- living vicariously through your pen-and-paper heroes. I didn't care to be misdirected or surprised; I craved the moment when my party would open that last door to find the big boss, laughing his evil laugh and daring us to vanquish him.

Throughout the 90's and 2000's, movies were all about the twist ending. TV shows would capture viewers by dropping enticing bombshells during the final moments of every episode -- particularly season finales. Now it seems that in telling a story, surprise is mandatory.

But not so. I was very disappointed at the ending of Saw, because the final twist ending seemed entirely unnecessary. We already were given a satisfying build and climax; it could have ended a few minutes early and been much better for it. Remember The Forgotten? It begins as what seems like a psychological thriller, but unfortunately shifts gears near the end, when suddenly it's about aliens. Let the Right One In, on the other hand, told a straightforward story with no shockers or surprise revelations, and it did not suffer in quality as a result. This is because there is more to a story than "the big reveal." There is pacing, mood, tension, and character development. Why do so many horror movies play well with audiences? Because in a horror film, a character suspects danger, deliberately walks right into it, and finds exactly what they feared they would.

Next time you build an adventure, try sticking with a completely predictable story, with no twists. You don't need a gimmick to keep players engaged. Instead, consider these devices:
  • Create a mood. If your adventure takes place in a crypt, make it spooky. Describe the gnarled, dead tree branches outside, and how the wind chills their bones. Don't just tell them they see the corpse of a previous adventurer laying near the open sarcophagus; tell them how it reeks so badly it puts a lump in their throats, and how the skin pulses with maggots. In the case of horror, the mood is fear. When it works, players will be on their guard. In another case, the mood might be heroism; the players will feel gung-ho. In another case, the mood might be suspicion; the players will lack trust of others. When the objective of the adventure is attained, the mood breaks, and all tension with it.
  • Make them hate the bad guy. I mean, really really hate him. What is it about Joffrey Baratheon that had fans sending hate mail to the actor who portrayed him? We have grown so accustomed to the sympathetic villain -- Once Upon a Time's Rumplestiltskin, Batman's The Joker, and so on, that we overlook the entertainment value of a purely unredeemable bad guy, the sort of character who never fails to impress you with how low they sink to achieve their ends (or maybe even for no purpose but sheer sadism) -- the characters you do not suddenly feel bad for when they are humbled or punished, because you know they still haven't learned a thing. These characters inspire fear and respect, because there is no way they survived as they are without power. They earn PCs' contempt by demonstrating a lack for respect of life, taking advantage of the poor and young, and placing others in danger to protect themselves. And the closer your party gets to a confrontation on the foe's home turf, the more adrenalin-soaked the final encounter.
  • Use the theme of an adventure to spook the party. If the final objective is to kill a vampire, have bats periodically rustle the air overhead. Place "decoy" sarcophagi in the crypt near the vampire's hidden coffin. Let them hear a wolf howl outside the window. In their early encounters, pit the characters against foes who might be the final boss at first glance: a pale-faced human familiar, a shadow, or a giant raven. "Things that go bump in the night" are a time-honored way of creating the impression that the villain can always be around the next corner.
In all the above cases, there need not be twist endings or surprise revelations. A simple plot in which PC's have a clear objective and there are no surprises on the way can still be interesting, as long as the journey is entertaining. For some modern gaming groups, the lack of a twist might itself be the twist. And if everyone has fun, who cares? As the GM, you're not there to impress people with your scheming; you're there to ensure the game runs smoothly, fairly, and in a manner that doesn't generally suck for anyone involved.

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