Namely that it is not a brilliant idea to pull a sudden bait-and-switch on your players. It isn't fun, it isn't clever, and no one is going to think you're oh-so-smart for doing it.
|Rescue the queen, folks, rescue the queen... she's in there, I promise!|
Twist Vs. A Bait-And-Switch
Now, just to be clear, what I am not saying is that every game needs to be straightforward, linear, and uncomplicated. I fully endorse DMs including mysteries, plot twists, and a heaping helping of moral gray areas for the PCs to try to wade through. All of that is just fine, works great, and if it makes you and your players happy then shine on you mad bastards.
There is a difference between a twist, and a bait-and-switch. A twist is when the villain the party has been chasing all along turns out to be the nobleman who hired them in the first place, or when the mysterious vigilante who keeps saving their bacon is secretly the paladin's father, but he hadn't been able to reveal himself because he'd faked his own death so many years ago to keep his family safe. A bait-and-switch, though, upends all agreed-upon rules, and does something that does not fit within the existing world structure. It changes the game, instead of the story.
Say you say down to play your usual round of Pathfinder, or Dungeons and Dragons. Your world setting is rich, and the players put a lot of investment into it. Everyone gets really in-depth with their PCs, and they grow attached to those they save and help. Then, in the climax of the game, you reveal that, shocker, there is no actual magic in this world! All unusual powers or abilities come from ancient technology that's been forgotten, and turned into objects of awe and wonder. The wizard is just using a neural net without understanding the mechanism, the sorcerer is the descendant of a genetic experiment from long ago, and the barbarian is actually gaining his powers from tampering done to ancient shock troopers instead of from his ancestor spirits.
That is a bait-and-switch. It completely alters the agreed-upon setting, the rules of the world, and even the genre the game takes place in.
So why might it explode in your hand? Well, on the surface it's because people who signed up to play one kind of game may not be interested in playing something different. If you told someone you were giving them a bowl of ice cream, and it turned out to be artfully disguised mashed potatoes, they might enjoy the potatoes. Or they might throw them back at you, and demand the ice cream you promised them.
The other reason a bait-and-switch doesn't work as often as you'd think it would is because RPGs are a collaborative storytelling setup. When you agree to tell stories collaboratively, you also agree that other people's contributions are valid, and part of the existing canon. So if Jake made a barbarian with a detailed family lineage, and drew out precisely how the effects of his rage draw on the full spirits and manifestations of his warrior ancestors, he isn't going to appreciate it when you reveal that, no, that isn't what's happening. He's a relic of 40k-style gene splicing, and he only believes those are the voices of the dead he hears.
If you're reading a book, or watching a movie, you weren't part of that story. You were an observer. So while you might think a Shyamalan-style twist was really clever in a movie, if your DM threw one of those curve-balls at you it would be significantly less amusing. Especially if it completely negates your contributions to the world, the story, and alters who and what your character is without your consent.
As with all things, there will be players out there who think this kind of setup is just peachy keen. However, you need to make sure those are the people sitting at your table before you pull a bait-and-switch on your players. Because otherwise you may erode their trust in you as a storyteller, and you'll have to do something to earn it back before they let you sit in the big chair again.
That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday installment. Hopefully it doesn't fall on deaf ears, and it saves my fellow DMs a lot of grief. If you'd like to see more of my work than I have here on my blog, check out my Vocal archive, or drop by the YouTube channel Dungeon Keeper Radio where I help out from time to time. To stay on top of all my releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter. Lastly, if you want to support my work, then consider Buying Me A Ko-Fi or heading over to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page to toss a few quarters into my cup. It's much appreciated, and I'll be happy to send some sweet gaming swag your way as a thank you.