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I run a My Little Pony(MLP) campaign. By design, at the start of the campaign what the citizens (PCs) know about the world is true, but it's not the whole and complete truth, and many issues of the past are either not widely known or just reframed to appear less severe than they are. The campaign revolves around them figuring out How Things Really Are, and becoming ones who keep the surface level of the Utopia running.

And here's the question. MLP makes people think that they know how things really are. So, over time, a player may decide that it's too dark, or by other means too conflicting with their own vision.

Were it another campaign, we could compare our visions for compatibility beforehand, to make sure that it works.

But this campaign is meant to include perspective shifts; I have a few players that are prone to 'bleeding' (and know that!) and/or prefer to stay out of spoilers. The 'actual state of the world' has/will have a 'darker past'; this Utopia is based on a few questionable decisions, and is not as stable as it appears at first. I am afraid of alienating these players, or being met by a reaction of "You asked us to play in the Utopia, and then the mood became totally different". Basically, "I was creating my character for another sort of game, one that you initially described to me; and now it's a different game, one that I don't actually like".

How to reduce this risk of alienation, yet still keep the mood of mystery and (classical urban-fantasy) 'this is deeper than you have thought', without spoilers?

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    \$\begingroup\$ MLP is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic (the campaign will be unofficial, of course). 'Bleeding' happens when it's too hard for a player to keep clear distinction between IC and OOC motives, especially in dramatic situations; for example they may have difficulties to keep OOC knowledge out of character's reactions. \$\endgroup\$
    – Cloud Ring
    Feb 4 at 18:04
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    \$\begingroup\$ Ah, so bleeding would refer to basically what might also be known as metagaming. \$\endgroup\$ Feb 4 at 19:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ @RevenantBacon "Metagaming" usually implies something done for strategic advantage. "Bleeding" I've more commonly seen referring to emotional or motivational entanglement with the character, either "bleeding out" (you start to feel what your character is feeling) or "bleeding in" (the reverse). In some play styles this is an intended creative goal. \$\endgroup\$
    – Mark Wells
    Feb 4 at 19:31
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    \$\begingroup\$ @MarkWells Metagaming refers to any actions a players takes in game that was influenced by that players meta knowledge, and is still metagaming regardless of whether that action is advantageous or disadvantageous. This is most commonly seen in combat, because a huge majority of RPG's focus a disproportionate amount of time on combat, but it can also be in social encounters or general plot, such as knowing why the duke sacrificed 100 innocents (to stop a greater evil), or where the MacGuffin is (under the viziers night stand). \$\endgroup\$ Feb 4 at 20:07
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a good question that addresses a real concern many of us have faced. But really it boils down to, "How can I guarantee my players like my plot twist?" When you strip the question to its essentials, it becomes clear you really can't. (That said, not voting to close. It's not opinion-based, per se, and I'll enjoy being wrong if someone posts a good answer.) \$\endgroup\$
    – Novak
    Feb 5 at 3:33
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It's not possible to achieve all those goals.

What you're asking for is, in effect, this: Given a setting that has a very well-established tone, can I run a campaign that pretends to follow that tone, but later turns out not to, without warning the players in advance, but also without upsetting them when it happens?

You can't. Tone affects people emotionally--that's why it's tone--and you can't control what they'll do with that.

If I sit down to a game about adorable magical ponies solving problems through the power of friendship and kindness, it's probably because that's what I want to play. If it turns out halfway through that Twilight Sparkle is running a military dictatorship where ponies who displease her get chained up in a pit full of horseflies, I am going to respond like you've tricked me into this. Because you did. You've surprised me, like you wanted.

Don't overestimate the value of surprising the player.

Back around 2010 there was a crop of console video games about being a badass Special Forces soldier. Some absolute mad genius snuck a game onto the market called Spec Ops: The Line, which started out as yet another Call of Duty clone, and then made the Americans the bad guys, made you commit war crimes, turned your mission into a spectacular failure, revealed that your character was a delusional psychopath, and directly mocked you for playing the game. It was a huge critical success but almost nobody bought the game because from the outside it looked like, well, off-brand Call of Duty. The camouflage was too good.

RPGs depend on player buy-in. If you hide the real premise of the game until midway through, then you are attracting players you hope will want to keep playing once you've revealed it, and deterring players who actually would buy into it.

Setting the expectation of no expectations

You can, in principle, try to warn the players that the tone will shift without saying much else. For example, I ran a game at a convention that deviated from the usual genre expectations, and I listed it in the schedule something like this:

System: D&D 5th edition

Modifications: No races; no classes; amused disdain for the idea of "rules".

and I ended up with a group of players who were prepared for this not to run like the typical D&D game. If you were to label it similarly as:

System: Tails of Equestria (My Little Pony)

Warning: Mature players only. A darker and more complex take on the setting than usual.

then I'd know to be ready for this not to follow the usual MLP tone, but you still haven't really told me what the twist is. That may be the best you can do in terms of setting expectations in advance. However:

Keep communication open.

This is the most fundamental GM advice but it's especially applicable here, because you're making a tone shift to which you necessarily don't know how the players are going to respond. This would be a good campaign to have a brief meta-discussion after each session to make sure everyone gets a chance to be heard.

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This might be handled with a carefully crafted/guided Session Zero, in which you verify that players are okay with the world not being exactly what they expect it to be.

You could give examples: your ponies "wake up" to find they're something else entirely, and were only dreaming they were ponies; your ponies find out they're actually the villains (perhaps accidentally so) and their normal life is destructive to some aspect of the world; your ponies find out their entire race was created as part of a long scheme for domination, etc.

This won't spoil your intended plot, but it will give some assurance you won't alienate players by straying away from the "Friendship is Magic" common theme of MLP.

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    \$\begingroup\$ While I enjoy checkmarks as much as the next guy, it's generally suggested to wait 24 hours (especially on a fresh question like this one) before accepting a single answer -- just in case someone from a less conveniently located time zone comes up with a much better one (entirely possible). \$\endgroup\$
    – Zeiss Ikon
    Feb 5 at 15:23
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Most stories are strictly formula. As TV Tropes notes, this is one of the biggest things making stories predictable (with all the negatives that entails) and yet it is by far the most successful format.

Imagine a "romantic comedy" with a twist: It's actually a Godzilla movie. Ten minutes before the end, Godzilla attacks. The entire cast dies in the ensuing carnage.

Odds are real good nobody - but nobody - will enjoy that movie. Godzilla fans will think the first hour and twenty minutes are boring. And people who actually like the romantic comedy part are likely to be very upset.

People want to know what they're getting into up front. This sounds like a threshold question, a matter of what kind of game your players are down for. No one is down for anything. Your problem is the campaign's basic premise is simultaneously one that will turn off a lot of people, and one that's hard to run by them ahead of time to be sure they really want to play it. On top of this, some of your players have let it be known they don't like spoilers.

You might try sounding them out. Ask what kinds of campaigns they like in general. Just generally go over the various genres (Looney Tunes inspired, guts-to-the-wall Doom style splatterfests, heavy intrigue, high fantasy, zombie apocalypes, etc.) Then ask about various different kinds of meta-fiction swaps. (E.g. "would it bother you to play a campaign that spent a few months focused around heavy political intrigue, and then the zombies come?") As one of the options, describe in vague terms something like this campaign idea. If possible describe similar starts that go in a different meta-twist direction. And also ask about playing it straight.

That way you can sort of get a feel for what they are / aren't down for, and hopefully answer your question in a way that doesn't tip your hand because the setup might match a couple different hypotheticals you were asking about. (Especially if you space the two out with a 4-week long mini-campaign or something to not be too fresh in everyone's mind.)

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