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Many of my favorite works of fiction are either explicitly deconstructive in nature, or at least feature elements or scenes that unexpectedly subvert the audience's expectations. Often these are some of the most memorable and talked-about parts of the entire work.

A simple example of this type of storytelling is the shocking death of a character who would be expected to survive based on their apparent role in the story (as opposed to being set up to survive based on in-universe information).

I find myself increasingly interested in trying to recreate this type of storytelling experience in a role-playing game. However, it also seems to present several difficulties (undoubtedly some of which I'm not fully aware of) that will need to be considered and overcome.

The most significant one that occurs to me is that, by necessity, this sort of storytelling requires effectively misleading the audience as to the type of story being told, which in the context of an RPG generally means lying to your players about the premise of the game. Which should only be done with a significant degree of trust present.

What sort of problems should I expect to arise from this sort of campaign? How can I mitigate them?

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Are you primarily interested in subverting short genre tropes? Or are you primarily interested in subverting more broadly, for instance subverting viewpoints in a longer-running sense? (Or both?) – Novak Mar 1 at 3:16
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Are you looking to break the fourth wall, or simply subvert story tropes? Will the world still be innately coherent and believable, or are you looking to put a McDonalds in your dungeons where PCs might break through and find the denizens sitting around snacking? – Xavier Mar 1 at 4:59
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You could always run a normal campaign for months and then suddenly flip things upside down by revealing that they've been working for the BBEG all along and all the things they've been doing for him/her have (directly or indirectly) caused all manner of pain and suffering. Have the trigger event wound/maim/kill/destroy some of the favourite people and places your party has grown to know and love during the adventure. Done right, this can be a pretty awesome plot twist. – Cronax Mar 1 at 13:45
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@Cronax That can be epic but you've got to be careful that 1) Your players aren't too genre-savvy and might expect it, and 2) You don't have someone in your party who is IRL Lawful Stupid and might flip out about being forced into that plot twist. I know one player in particular who would quit the game over that, but a dozen who would love it. – thanby Mar 1 at 16:38

Be an NPC, not the GM

The GM, as an entity, must be infallible to a certain degree, because he is the PC's conduit to the game world. If he says the party meets an NPC, the party is now reacting to this NPC. If he says here there be dragons, the party stocks up on burn ointment. Players are likely to feel betrayed if this turns out to be false - not false in a "the princess we were sent to save is the dragon we need to save her from" but false in a "my combat guy has no skills relevant to a campaign centered around gangster rap battles" way, or an "I took an evening of my time to come roleplay a courtly flower arranger, not punch out Cthulhu as a superhero" way.

Enter the unreliable narrator. The GM needs to be infallible, but the NPCs need not be, so you can avoid the backlash by blaming it all on a made-up guy. If you are exposition-dumping, feel free to use crazy old man McGuckett as your mouthpiece. If he says he saw cultists summoning demons in the swamp, that's what he thought happened, but it's not the GM's fault the PCs took his word for it. Or he was lying and the PCs are now about to be ground into mincemeat at McGuckett's terrifying shed of rusty chainsaws and leather masks.

This works great when you can have an NPC travel with the party, and be their eyes and ears in terms of a certain task. A party of samurai may be escorted by a local shaman who claims to talk to the spirits, but in actuality is just making things up as he goes along. In an urban adventure, a lawyer, accountant, or other suit-type can string the PCs along in a nefarious scheme, or a scientist can ask them to do progressively stranger things...

Player vs character knowledge

Another issue is that your player's first session behind the sheet of Winnie the Wizard isn't Winnie's first day alive. She's lived in her world for decades, and it's not wrong for her player to expect that the GM will tell her things that Winnie knows but the player does not.

This one is actually very simple to fix - engineer a travel episode that sees the PCs arriving in an unfamiliar land. This will also help by gradually introducing the genre shift and making the PCs feel like it wasn't sprung on them.

One reflex might be to bar all kind of character knowledge, but you can actually use it to your advantage if you do it right. The perspective of a stranger in a strange land helps reinforce things that the players might not find weird, but their PCs sure as hell should. For example, your players might not know what color magic is supposed to be, but as soon as Winnie casts her purple spell and it comes out green she knows that something is afoot.

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That's clearer... But could you perhaps go into more detail about why player versus character knowledge is relevant to a question about subverting player expectations? – GMJoe Mar 1 at 7:51

When you intend to use misleading as a device, pay extra close attention to maintaining a sufficient level of Player Agency (see this excellent post by Tim C. for a definition: What is Player Agency and what is it good for?)

Part three is particularly important: "The player has enough information to anticipate what those consequences might be before making them."

This doesn't mean the player should know everything, and in a game where deception and misleading are commonly used devices, the player and the PCs should figure out things by themselves. That's cool. However, you should let the players figure things out when possible, even if it ruins something you intended as a shocking twist later - otherwise, you run at a risk of seeming like you're just making up arbitrary twists to complicate the plot.

Also, it means you should foreshadow everything major, to give the players the time and ability to react. If a plot-important NPC is going to be killed, drop clues about it early on. Maybe the NPC has some old enemies they haven't heard of in a while, or they keep taking pills for their cough which turns out to be more than just a common germ. Don't just make them drop dead because of a heart attack with no hint of illness beforehand. Describe lots of details, unrelated ones too - this way the eventual outcome isn't obvious in advance, but will be satisfying to the players when they figure it out afterwards.

Take notes on how deceptive twists are handled in other fiction. A good example is Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone:

Snape is portrayed as an obvious villain for most of the book, because the book is narrated from Harry's point-of-view and he loathes Snape as much as Snape loathes him. All obvious clues point towards Snape actually being the one trying to off Harry and steal the Stone, but there are about as many clues implicating the true villain, Quirrel - just far subtler ones, and they're further obscured by him being a fairly sympathetic and minor, yet not insignificant character until the reveal.

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I think you're along the right lines, the two main harms to avoid relate to "misleading the audience as to the type of story being told". There are fun ways to be misled (which we end up calling "misdirection" with hindsight) and there are not-fun ways to be misled (which we end up calling "stupid GM tricks" or "inconsistency" with hindsight). The main not-fun effects are:

  • If players expect a particular thing from your game and don't get it (because you subvert a fair expectation that they'll get it) then they might well be disappointed in the game. "They promised us jet-packs!".

  • The "type of story being told" informs the players to some extent how to play the game, that is to say what kinds of actions will have what kinds of results. For example, protagonists "get away with" different kinds of risk in different genres. If you subvert the players' expectations in this respect then they might well become frustrated that they can't act appropriately. "Why isn't this working?"

For an example of the first, suppose aliens kidnap their fantasy characters (Star-Lord style) and insert them into an SF genre. Players who really weren't in the mood for Big Space Ships (or who never like them) would be disappointed. They don't get to play the game they thought they signed up for.

For an (extreme) example of the second, suppose that you run a game giving every appearance of a Jackie Chan-style movie setting, but then every attempt to "do something fun or cool" imposes a penalty on combat rolls for not maintaining proper form, and their characters are incapable of the usual semi-plausible stunts like flinging themselves on or off moving vehicles, all because "that's not realistic". Players will be frustrated that every time they do what it appears they're supposed to do, you (or the game rules, or gravity) penalise them. These genre hints can be quite subtle, and it's not all that hard to do this accidentally when players have different views of the genre you're playing.

So, for your particular example, if you want to kill off a character that the genre/style of the game would seem to indicate is fixed, you have to avoid those two things:

  • Make sure the players aren't counting on that character for their enjoyment of the game. This usually just means making sure there are plenty of other sources of fun, and fun to be had in reacting to the death. But a player who thinks of the game as being about their character's relationship with X might well see the death of X as the beginning of the end of the campaign, and basically figure their plot arc is complete once the consequences of X's death are played out. This more or less rules out killing a PC solely for the purpose of genre-subversion -- I'm not saying it can't be done, but it's liable to disappoint at least one player unless you compensate for that by ensuring it's more than just a "gotcha!" moment.

  • Make sure the death doesn't cause the players to question whether they're playing the game right. If they care about X, they might suddenly go max-defensive on every NPC they care about on account of the game having "punished" them for not defending X, and they might feel the "punishment" was unfair if nothing in the game indicated that X was vulnerable. Unless that's really the way you want the game played, you have to be careful not to provoke the players to play it that way.

There are also some genres (noire detective, horror) where the players will be disappointed if there isn't an unexpected death. So depending on what you want to achieve, dropping genre-based hints that a major NPC death is the kind of thing that can happen, might be a good way to ensure that when it does happen it's a surprise of the form, "oh no! X is dead!" rather than a surprise of the form, "oh no! This game involves death!". A classic example is Psycho, where it's no surprise at all that Norman Bates is a killer, but the film nevertheless subverts the expectations of its genre.

A sudden change in direction of the game needn't be either disappointing or frustrating provided that the new expectations are still clear. "Up until now it was an action adventure story, now there's a big reveal and it becomes a Cthulhu-mythos horror story" is absolutely fine provided that the players can switch with you and are interested in mythos. So long as the reveal is clear enough, they realise that in a Cthulhu story the stakes involved in getting into a fight are way higher than in the action adventure story, they can act accordingly to give their new antagonists the appropriate respect, and there's no frustration. OK, they probably end up dying where previously they were wading through enemies with ease, but they understand why.

A surprise which makes the players think, "ah, now I understand!" is usually going to be easier for them to get behind than a surprise that makes the players think, "what? None of this makes sense any more", although the latter is more challenging. So if your big reveal can release a tension ("OK, so that's why the mooks have all seemed kind of unhinged: they're cultists!") as well as create one ("uh oh, we are really out of our depth with these extra-planar horrors") then it will feel more logical and probably more fun.

Finally, if the players know all along that their expectations are likely to be subverted in some unknown way (because you've told them that's what you like to do or shown them that in your previous games) then they'll find it easier to follow the change when it happens. Knowingly playing a bunch of rubes whose minds are about to be blown is often more fun than being a rube whose mind is about to be blown, but it's a different (and perhaps lesser) form of expectation-subversion when it actually happens.

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Solid, practical advice, +1! (Though, I suspect the action-adventure-to-Cthulu transition wouldn't go over nearly as well as you say; From my understanding, Mythos campaigns are usually about horror in the face of forces that cannot be defeated and the expected outcome is "everyone dies or goes insane," and that's generally seen as a disappointing outcome to an action-adventure campaign.) – GMJoe Mar 1 at 23:48
    
@GMJoe: quite, that's why it's only fine "provided that the players can switch with you and are interested in mythos". If they can't switch with you or they aren't interested in mythos, then they'll hang on to their expectations based on the action-adventure genre. Then you'd probably face both the problems I describe: "they promised us jetpacks" because they don't get the features they expected, and also "why isn't this working" because stuff that's sensible in action-adventure just gets you insta-killed in Cthulhu. – Steve Jessop Mar 2 at 11:19

I think the first step is to be aware of the tropes that exist in the genre, which might mean getting lost on tvtropes.com for long hours and taking notes. Movies like "Gamers" also do an excellent job showing off and mocking those tropes.

You may also consider reading adventure modules, most especially those noted as being "for beginners" and looking at the simple adventure structure contained therein. You can ever pull out the module and start to play from it, then twist it unexpectedly.

The problem is in getting to the payoff. People tend to like feeling like they understand the world, how to play, and how to pursue their goals. If you twist things too much, they may lose their attachment to the world and the whole thing will devolve into silliness. That may, or may not, be what you're looking for. What you're trying to do is can be really hard.

Perhaps you bake this into the plot of the game itself? There's an intrusion from the Far Planes occurring and its affecting the natural causality of the world - with escalating effects.

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+1 for making familiarity with the tropes to be subverted your top priority; It's a lot easier to subvert expectations once you know what the expectations are. (Incidentally, your suggested scenario reminds me of "The Circumstances Leading to Waltraute's Marriage," a light novel that revolves entirely around the mismatch and subversion of expectations that occurs when characters native to one genre find themselves in a different one.) And another +1 for pointing out that you must be careful to twist expectations in ways that don't nullify whatever it is the players care about. – GMJoe Mar 1 at 7:49

The question you should ask yourself is "Is this fun for the players?" If not, you will find yourself without players and few things are sadder than a GM without players.

So, just what is fun for the players? Unfortunately, the answer to that is different from player to player. Before trying something like this, you should know your players well enough to answer that.

Fortunately, some things are fairly universal.

  • Suspense is fun. Build up a sense that something is off about this adventure. Break their expectations in small ways before the big reveal.

  • Understanding what is going on is fun. Try to leave enough hints that the players figure out the plot twist themselves rather than just having it given to them. (Though players can be awfully dense)

  • Being railroaded is NOT fun. If the players don't feel they are contributing to the plot, they will get bored. Of course, a GM needs to railroad the players to some degree to do a good job, but the players shouldn't feel railroaded.

  • Recognition is fun. If you come across the Scooby-Doo crew in a medieval setting that will be a fun way to derail the adventure without the players minding too much. Referencing a well-known character or movie plot gives the players a new set of expectations to work with. Nothing like conflicting sets of expectations to keep the situation exiting!

  • Dying is not fun. Losing a character that you have invested yourself in is painful. If you feel like killing somebody off unexpectedly, take it out on a NPC. People say "Death is part of the game", but it should be an avoidable part of the game. When a character dies, the player shouldn't think "The GM is mean", because then they won't come to your next session.

You cannot always please everybody. Sometimes you will be left with three players going "WOW!" and one player going "GRR!". The type of campaign you want runs a larger risk than average of getting this reaction. You might lose a friend over this. Are you prepared for that?

If you run a more traditional campaign, you will most probably get "Meh, OK I guess" reactions from everybody. Do you think those three "WOW!"s are worth that one "GRR!"? Your call.

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a GM without players - I thought that's what authors were? :p – Martin Carney Mar 1 at 16:55

Try this out in simple ways first. For example in an Unknown Armies campaign I knew that I had some regular D&D players and some regular Vampire:TM players.

Based on that I had them approaching a crypt knowing something bad was going on but not what. As they approached I gave a description that went something like:

You see an old stone crypt with moss and lichen growing on the stonework. The path runs up to the door between a pair of stone statues while scuptures of gargoyles squat on the roof. The door itself is solid wood with iron bands across it and there is a stone lion head carved into the wall on each side.

So they approached, the D&D players were being super paranoid checking the statues. The Vampire players were watching those gargoyles like a hawk. They moved in carefully and started checking the door for traps...

...At which point the stone lion heads came to life and climbed out of the wall on mechanical legs to attack them.

Very simple but it offered them all the things they expected and then subverted it at the last second but in an entirely fair way.

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To start with I would strongly recommend against lying to your players about the premise of the game. Even with players you trust, I think that is a definite no-no. In fact the more you trust your players and the more you can rely on them to play their characters without meta-gaming.

Of course, there is the old political distinction between lying and being economical with the truth - not lying to your characters doesn't mean you have to detail every part of the premise. You're starting in a fantasy setting but actually this is post-technology or the characters are living in a simulated world and at some point the game is going to break out of that - to start with you introduce the setting that the characters would be familiar with. Maybe you tell the players "there's a twist here" but you don't tell them what it is, just to let them know that things may not be what they seem in some respect.

In a more conventional game the GM is the voice of authority, but that doesn't mean you can't surround the players with slippery NPCs who are trying to manipulate them to their own ends, even to the point of laying false trails and faking evidence- although again you must always give the players the chance to see through this. It's an idea I find so appealing it almost feels negligent not to.

I would think to introduce this by drawing the party into a situation where characters are intentionally slippery. So for example there is an underworld master criminal and a cunning mayor scheming over control of a town they arrive in. Both are interested primarily in opposing one another and the party may at first be bit-part players. Interacting with either or both characters and their own investigations can then allow the party to be appropriately cautious of their motivations, or not as they see fit. By ensuring that at first the deviousness is not directed at the party they can see what kind of environment they are going into and if they choose to involve themselves it won't be a surprise if they are very much being used and misdirected by supposed allies, employers or adversaries.

Make sure that you know what the factions have been up to and roughly what their plans are, so they make sense as the players run into them. Combine that with being flexible to respond to their actions and remember you don't have to know who the real power is up front - the players may start to suspect someone and if they have good reason, then you can go with that. If an NPC manages to escape a couple of engagements with them, maybe they are the shadowy organisation's leader. This type of game needs to be responsive.

Of course, if the players become too much of a threat there is a chance that common enemies may temporarily unite against them, creating a very interesting situation that could lead to a lot of entertaining gameplay.

You might also get a lot from reading up on games that aim to have a noirish feel to them, as those types of story tend to have a lot of devious back-plotting and enigmatic, morally grey, characters.

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As far as I understood, the OP does not ask how to mislead the players' characters; he asks for a ways to subvert the expectations of the players without annoying them. – Roux Mar 2 at 11:52
    
Good point, I will edit accordingly. – glenatron Mar 2 at 12:24

My top suggestion is don't have everything decided to begin with, that way you can reduce the chances of tripping yourself up. These sort of plays can get complicated so make it as easy as possible for yourself.

Also trust your players, then you can co-opt them into your schemes. Players love knowing things others don't. Just remember you don't have to tell them everything (or all of them the same thing).

An example of of both of these: in a recent game set in the first world war the first two thirds of the game played out as a normal game (Battle of St Julien if you want to know). We then revealed it was a memory of one of the players in an asylum, taking the players out of the room one at a time to explain the situation: until only one player was left. The game continued as before but the players changed the dynamic of the game themselves with their new knowledge. The focus of the game slowly shifted onto the remaining player.

It worked partly because we (the GMs) didn't know at the beginning who the the survivor would be and we let the story work itself out.

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