Engage your players by surprising them, not just their characters.

a surprised "smiley"

If your players look like this when surprised, call the doctor. They have turned into a smiley.

It can be so hard to surprise your players these days. The stats on every magic item are available in a digital, indexed format. The population at large is far more knowledgeable about common literary tropes than ever before. There is a pervasive feeling of, “It’s all been done before.”

As game masters, how do we combat this growing cynicism and craft a word that is unique and full of surprises? We keep our yappers shut and do not say a dang thing to our players.

Okay, that may not be entirely true, but it is a good lesson to keep in mind. The temptation to share just a little bit of our plans and secrets can be nearly overwhelming at times, but learning to hold back and not reveal anything can greatly enhance your game.

On many weekends, I play in a fantasy LARP called simply the Realms, a persistent game world that has been running for roughly 25 years. Very, very few of the original players or game masters remain, and with 16 years in the game, I am one of the most seasoned veterans at this point. This past weekend, my in-game nation, Chimeron, marched to war.

In the first battle of the first day of fighting, our line of soldiers formed up opposite the goblins, trolls and snake men of the enemy army. The battle began and our line advanced, when from the other side of a small hillock , a lone battle cry erupted. “Fight! Fight to defend Chimeron!” Running over the hill was Sir Shane Cambeul, avatar of the god of war and former hero of the nation of Chimeron. The soldiers could not help but cheer and scream, and we broke formation and charged the enemy line with a ferocity that will likely be retold around camp fires for years.

Why was this so special? Colin, the guy who plays Sir Shane, has not been to a Realms LARP event in close to ten years. His character, Shane, is now something of a legend, with tales of his exploits and status as the ascended avatar of the god of war being told and retold to each new generation of players. This all would have made it really neat and fun to fight by his side for the weekend, but the real kicker was that no one knew Colin was even at the LARP event. When he charged over the hill, it was a complete and total surprise to all of the players.

After the LARP event was over, my buddy, the game master for the event, turned to me and exclaimed, “You have no idea how hard this was. I have been sitting on this secret for three months!” I do not doubt that it was very, very difficult to tell no one outside if his core staff about his plans, but that effort was repaid by the shock and surprise experienced by the players.

Bringing It Back to the Table

In your tabletop game, surprises and secrets are just as useful a tool for engaging your players. Just like at the LARP event, however, it is important to surprise not only the characters, but your players as well. A treasure chest turning into a mimic might surprise the party fighter, but his player is likely used to that trope by now. If you want to really engage your players this way, you need to pull one over on the players themselves. Violate their sense of normalcy in the game, and they will be engaged, even if that violation is small.

If you are stuck on how to surprise your players, these are a few tricks you might try at some point:

Write out a secret note from an NPC and leave it at the table for the players to find. This can be as simple as writing it on an index card and dropping it on the table when the player next to you is not looking. Keep playing as if nothing has happened. When the player finds the index card is when the character finds the note.

Place a new piece of equipment on the player’s character sheet. It could be a gift from an anonymous benefactor, a sign from the gods, or a manifestation of the artifact they are seeking. Alternatively, you could replace a power card with a new power even go so far as to change their race or class. You should only make such strong changes with a solid story reason, and you should be careful to choose a player who will not mind trying something new. The point is not to say, “Jim, your character is a wizard now,” but instead get Jim to say, “Wait a minute, why can I suddenly throw lightning bolts?”

Greet the players “in-character” as the local baron or similar dignitary, and escort them to a table where you have their character sheets set up as well as a nice meal. Invite them to dinner. This could be a social skill challenge or just a role-playing chance to further your campaign story.

Place a few item cards in a plastic, waterproof container and set it up as a geocache. Give the coordinates to the players as the result of a math puzzle they find in a dungeon.

Set up a blog that is actually the journal of an important NPC. Drop hints about it to your players, but do not outright speak about it. When the players find the blog, the heroes have found a magical book that copies everything the NPC writes in his or her journal.

The big lesson here is that when you do anything like this, do not telegraph it to your players. If you place a geocache, do not tell your players you are doing it, even if you insist it is for some other reason. If you set up the blog-journal, then do not talk to your players about how you have been working hard on a website. You want to surprise the players, so make it real.

How have you surprised the players at your table? What have you tried to break the expectations of the game? Do you find players to be more cynical of the traditional fantasy trappings than they used to be?

One Response to “The Power of Surprises”

  1. The biggest surprise I have sprung on my players was during a Shadowrun campaign. During play the phone rang, the real world phone. I had already positioned myself so I could not answer it easily and had one of the players answer the phone instead. The caller asked for one of the characters by name. This confused the players tremendously. The caller was a friend of mine playing the role of a Johnson looking for the party. I had arranged the call before hand to be done at a certain time and I simply made sure the characters were in downtime at that time. I worked beautifully.

    But you bring up a good point I have thought for some time now. RPGs are not about engaging the characters, but entertaining the players. Too often an adventure will target characters and not the players when it should be the other way around.

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