Monday, June 11, 2018

DMs, Do Not Pull A Bait-and-Switch on Your Players (It Won't End Well)

I have not been playing as long as some people, but I've got my share of experience when it comes to RPGs. I've played a variety of genres, several different systems, been through more groups than I can readily count, and I've been behind the screen for one-shots and campaigns alike. I've given my fellow DMs some advice in the past, such as with Are You Not Entertained? (5 Tips For Engaging Your Players) and DMs, Think Outside The Traditional Templates (Orcs Can Be Vampires, Too, You Know!), but this week I wanted to touch on a land mine that a lot of folks seem to think is worth stepping on.

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 sat 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.

Twist Responsibly

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.


  1. I've attempted a twist in a long-running campaign. There were many clues over the 2-year game, the most prominent of which is that they knew they were involved with a droid-worshipping cult. One player had been in on it for a year, having damning evidence the people the group were working for were evil, were looking to start a violent revolution and he kept it to himself. In-game it was revealed by someone they thought was their enemy that they had been working for an evil droid worshipping cult (this was Star Wars) and that who they thought was their enemy had actually been doing some evil stuff to build an army to stop the droid cult. The party split so hard on what to do about it that we had to resolve things out of the game just so they would actually meet back together and finish the campaign. It was kind of a disaster.

    Also they were murderhobos and overly sensitive about anything that didn't go their way. So there's that.

  2. I had a DM tell us that we'd be playing in a world that we'd help to create. We created our characters, some with more backstory than others. Then we dove in. Three sessions in, our DM made us spontaneously timetravel 200 years into the future to 'fix' what he thought were problems with the setting.

    But it made all of our backstory immediately useless and the stakes that we were fighting under were suddenly exploded out of secrecy and into being a fish-out-of-water story involving time travel. We stuck with it for a while, but the game fell apart pretty fast after that.

  3. I had an early experience with that in gaming that almost killed the group. Some of the PCs were lower level than veteran members of the group, so we were going start a mini-campaign to gain additional experience. The two DMs came to a few of us and confessed they'd overpowered the scenario but it was too cool not to play, so they lent us a couple of their older characters to run like henchmen. We spent real time making sure we understood the capabilities of those characters and came ready to play them, but within 30 minutes of the campaign at the critical encounter we needed those characters for, the DMs took the characters back and attacked us with them; this was "the trick" of the episode that we were fighting those advanced characters instead of them helping us. While the story point made some sense, we felt betrayed; we hadn't asked for the henchmen, and they were pushed onto us with the excuse "You didn't really think we'd let you play our old characters?" Yeah we did... because you're the DMs and that's what you said. Fun idea or not, it was a betrayal at our expense, and it wasn't in-character or part of the narrative. It was shortly afterward I started running games instead of playing in them because I didn't want to be that kind of game master.

    1. Realistically, if the DMs hadn't been like, "take these characters with you as underlings," you probably wouldn't do it. That's a seriously dick move... One, I've been on the receiving end of too, sadly.

  4. That's not a bait and switch. Nothing changed in how your world was running, the player characters simply found out that there was something hidden about the way the world works. It's equivalent to that moment in the Amber Chronicles when Corwin and his fellow family members found out that the Amber they thought was real was simply the prime shadow of the real Amber in which the true Primal Pattern was drawn. Your example is still a twist.

    1. Thank you, I was thinking the same thing.

    2. Definitely. I, for one, would be blown away by a twist like that and need to delve deeper in.

  5. The two worst swerves that ever happened. We were at a con playing a game. Just a group of people in between games. A few people had to leave and our party was no longer strong enough for the final boss. The DM introduced an elf to assist us. Who turned out to be a Drow and double crossed us so we all died. And we should have seen that coming according to the DM.

    The other swerve, different DM. We were exploring the room we were in and then he said, "Since you are all in this room, the item the wizard was studying has had enough time to drain all of your magical items." We were level 10 or so with no magical items. The campaign was never the same after that and thankfully came to a conclusion.