Genre Twists in RPGs

30 Apr 2020

This article was originally written to be submitted to Steve Jackson's Pyramid magazine, but never saw the light of day. It deals with that age old question - how to inject new life into a stale campign? Try giving the players a twist - turn the game into something unexpected! Read on for more information - maybe this will help your D&D or GURPs game!

It is quite common for role-playing campaigns to die premature deaths because of burn-out on the part of the GM or the players, or both. Anyone who has played in many campaigns has probably experienced this. For whatever reason, the campaign begins to lose steam, and suddenly people begin to have excuses about why they can't make it the next gaming session. It is a truly talented GM who can keep his or her players interested enough to continue playing in a long-running campaign. And it's easy for the GM to tire of his or her own game - it's a lot of work continuously coming up with new content for each gaming session, and propelling the story in some sort of arc that is interesting to both the players and the GM.

{mosimage}Of course every good GM should have plenty of plot twists lined up to throw at the players. But sometimes this is just not enough, and too many plot twists can make a campaign too byzantine even for the most committed players to keep track of, much less the GM! Sometimes the best way to enliven a flagging campaign is to twist it into an entirely new campaign altogether.

As an example, suppose the GM has been running a sort of gritty "film noir" detective game. The characters make their living solving crimes, perhaps getting involved in politics, etc. For whatever reason, the campaign is in trouble - the players are getting tired of running through the same old problems, and it's getting difficult for the GM to come up with new challenges for them.

So the GM decides to twist the campaign into something very different. One day the characters receive a call from an old friend - an NPC who is very close to them, one for which they will do anything they can to help. His daughter has gone missing, and he fears the worst - will the characters do whatever is necessary to get her back? Of course they agree, and begin to research the case, trying to discover when and where she was last seen, etc. Up to this point it's all standard for the campaign that they've been playing all along - this is what private eyes do.

After running down a few false leads and red herrings, the party discovers she was last seen in some sort of "goth" bar, with a particularly creepy, cadaverous fellow. Perhaps there's rumors that he's a drug dealer, and that the unfortunate daughter was purchasing some recreational materials. The characters begin to research this fellow's background, and learn of other missing girls who were last seen with him. Perhaps they even interview one of his victims who somehow escaped, only to find her story is bizarre and the poor girl has apparently been deranged by her ordeal. They assume that he is some sort of twisted serial killer, and that the daughter must be rescued as soon as possible.

Finding out where the apparent abductor resides, the characters bust in, guns drawn. They confront their adversary. Depending on the players involved, they may or may not speak with him. Regardless, he leaps at them and they gun him down. They find the daughter, near death from apparent blood loss in a back room. As they carry her out, they find her abductor's body is gone. At a suitably frightening and surprising moment, the vampire attacks again, intent on regaining his victim.

Hopefully, up to this point the players have been blithely proceeding, not expecting the campaign to suddenly take a supernatural turn. There have been no supernatural occurrences before. If they were bored, they are no longer! This is a new challenge!

Somehow the vampire is defeated or driven off. Now they are left with a problem unlike anything they've dealt with before - what do they do with the daughter? She is apparently becoming a vampire. What will they tell their old friend, if they dispose of his daughter by burning or beheading? What if there are other vampires out there? Perhaps one of the characters was wounded by the vampire - will he or she become one?

The campaign has suddenly taken on a new and (hopefully) interesting dimension. In all their other sessions, there were no obvious supernatural occurrences - but perhaps now the players look back at past sessions and find that there were some loose ends that have taken on a new, more sinister light. The introduction of a supernatural element to the campaign has changed the world that these characters exist in - there are now all sorts of new possibilities and challenges for them to be concerned with.

From this point the GM can go in all sorts of interesting new decisions. Perhaps this session was the beginning of a series of events that cause the party to uncover some vast occult "war" that has been going on for centuries. Perhaps they get involved with a war between rival groups of vampire or other "monsters." Perhaps the characters themselves will change and develop new supernatural abilities. Or perhaps they will remain "normal," but will begin taking on all sorts of supernatural cases - like the "X-Files" TV show.

The idea here is to keep most of the original campaign world - and the PCs, but to still change the basic structure of the campaign world in such a way as to add spice and interest to the campaign. In the previous example it was a change from a "normal", modern campaign world to one in which there is now a relatively small supernatural component. One of the challenges is to make sure this change does not contradict previously explained elements of the campaign world. In this example, the vampire (or vampires if there are more than one) obviously has good reason to remain hidden from public view- thus it makes sense the characters have never encountered or heard of them before. A vampire is a good supernatural creature for this kind of a campaign twist because it works well in an urban environment and can exist fairly anonymously in the world. A dragon would be much harder to work into a campaign like this!

Since it is desirable (in most cases) that the new campaign world still contain many of the elements, characters and plot lines of the old campaign, this sort of a campaign tactic works best if it is planned from the beginning. It is much easier then to plan various ambiguous "hints" that the players can look back and view in a different light after the changed nature of the campaign world has been revealed to them. Coming up with ways to hint at what may be coming in a way that doesn't make it completely obvious is quite difficult - even the densest players would start to suspect something if every other PC wears crucifixes and carries a canteen of holy water around "just in case." But tetrofitting such a "twist" onto an existing game without having planned it ahead of time is even more difficult, but can still be done. It just requires a fresh look at the existing campaign world to decide what will change and what will remain the same.

The goal of this change is to force the players to view the campaign in its entirety in a whole new light. They should look back over the history of the sessions up to the date of the change and begin to rethink both their own actions and the roles of the NPCs that they've encountered and the events that they've experienced. This, plus apprehension and interest in what the future holds, tends to make the campaign far more interesting than before.

Regardless of how the GM arrives at the change, there are several important things he or she must keep in mind. First, the survivability of the characters can be a big problem. The players have designed their characters to work well in the campaign world as they understood it that the beginning of the campaign. These characters may be very poorly prepared to exist in this new world. In the previous example, it is very possible that the vampire could easily kill all of the characters, because their weapons are useless (or at least less effective) against it, and the characters themselves do not know this, nor what may actually be effective against vampires.

There are several ways for the GM to solve this problem. One is to have the monster simply break off the fight and inexplicably run away before the PCs are too seriously damaged. It can later be revealed that this occurred because of any number of reasons - something occurred to frighten the creature, one of the characters possesses some sort of unknown power that scared it away, or perhaps the creature simply prefers to play with its victims. Another strategy would be to have the PCs be saved by someone - either an existing NPC who suddenly shows unexpected powers or a new NPC. In this case the NPC can also serve a valuable role as a teacher and protector to the PCs, who can help them to understand (and survive) this new world they have been thrown into.

A second problem that can occur is that the players may rebel when the world which they designed their characters to excel in changes fundamentally. It's quite likely that some (or all) characters will be much less powerful or useful in the new campaign world. One solution to this issue is to give the characters new abilities or powers as appropriate ot this new world. Or the GM can simply make it clear to the players that the world has changed, and this gives them new opportunities to refine their characters. It's a chance for the characters to learn new skills and develop new abilities, which is always interesting for players. It also opens up all sorts of new role-playing possibilities for the players - in the prior example, the players will get to role-play the problems and difficulties surrounding the death of the daughter at the hands of either the vampire or the party, either of which is a thorny problem.

Finally, this technique is really a one-shot deal. The GM can't use it in every campaign he or she runs (at least not with the same set of players) or it will lose much of its usefulness. It will no longer be as surprising when it occurs, and the players will begin to try to second-guess the GM when designing their characters and during each session of the campaign. They will wonder about all the unanswered questions of the campaign, looking for clues to some upcoming genre shift - making it even harder for the GM to surprise them, which is the real value of this technique.

Any kind of campaign can benefit from this tactic, but some are easier to work with than others. Modern "real world" games especially benefit from it, because a change via the addition of supernatural elements, aliens, time travel, etc is a more dramatic difference from what the campaign was focused on before. For example, a modern "cops" type game could be easily turned into an X-Files style conspiracy campaign. A "special ops" or "black ops" could be turned into an alien invasion game, with the PCs leading some sort of resistance movement - or perhaps working for the invaders (perhaps even unknowingly). One of the characters' long term villains could suddenly develop magical or super powers, or perhaps one of the PCs could suddenly develop strange powers.

It's a bit more difficult to make a campaign change like this as dramatic if the existing campaign has a fantasy theme. If the characters are already used to dealing with strange powers and races, it's more difficult to surprise them. It is possible, thought it requires more ingenuity. For example, perhaps aliens could invade in the middle of a high-magic fantasy campign - and find their hands full with a world that, while having low levels of technology, has very high magical abilities.

Regardless of how it is implemented, a subtle (or jarring) genre twist can be just the thing to revive a campaign that is beginning to seem a little lackluster for the the players - or the GM who is running it. Hopefully this article will give GMs out there some interesting ideas that they can use to help their own campaigns.