I’m going to take a short break from the Swords of the Skull Takers series to talk about surprises in games and how we learn from them. Surprise!
I used to think there were only 2 types of surprises in gaming. One: when the GM threw in a shocking twist of events on purpose to give the players a surprise (the bouncy bar maid is really an assassin sent to kill you). Two: when the players do something so random and seemingly stupid but the dice rolls make it actually work (I drink a fire resistance potion. Now set me on fire and catapult me to the enemy boat). In my younger, naïve, linear thinking days I labeled these 2 types of surprises good and bad, respectively.
I suspect some of you will have to read that a couple of times to make sure you read it right. And maybe, if you’ve ever GM’d your first campaign before you did much playing, you can relate. Since it is, or at least was, our job to craft interesting and engaging adventures it makes sense that a surprise that makes players go “Oooooo” feels like a good accomplishment. And when a player completely thwarts our many hours of planning and researching by unleashing a pair of rabid skunks into the mayor’s office, it feels like a bad surprise that we have to work hard to make up for.
What Started This Thought Train?
So I’ve been playing Swords of the Skull Takers, which is a solo RPG. I am both GM and player, with a deck of cards telling me what I encounter and inspiring the story. Feel free to google the game, by the way, and check out the rules if you haven’t already. It’s a free download.
I am still amazed by this games ability to inspire surprising stories and…well honestly, it is much more fun than it should be. How can it do that? I’m the GM and the player? Shouldn’t that mean I know what’s going to happen? Why should I bother playing? But it does surprise you when you play, and it IS a lot of fun to write.
I never expected my dark NPC to become my main character at the end of the game, but it pushed me to give her some depth. I may not have done a fantastic job at it, but I felt like it was a lot of fun to experiment with. And now I want to play this solo RPG again.
Sometimes when your favorite restaurant closes it can take a long time to adjust to the change. Surprises really are not good or bad in and of themselves, but we tend to categorize them as such based on how we deal with the consequences of them. For me, back in the day, I categorized them based on who was surprised. Or, if I am being honest with myself, whether or not I was happy about the change.
What modern gaming has really been teaching us for a while now is that surprises are actually opportunities, and any opportunity can be turned into a good thing if players and GMs are willing to make it so. Gaming has become much more improvisational than it used to be, at least officially, with games like FATE and Dungeon World limiting the crunchy rules and forcing us to embrace surprises.
And you know what? Like it or hate it, this view has done wonders for the growth of population in our hobby.
Three Things You Learn From Embracing Surprises
I am sure there are a million of things we can learn from surprises because life is like that. But I want to focus in on 3 things that, in my experience, continue to teach us how to improve our games. Maybe if we get a little more funding we can take the time to delve into the other 999,997 things we can learn.
- Surprises teach us to see things from other perspectives.
- Surprises give us new tools to use.
- Surprises keep us engaged in the story.
Seeing From Other Perspectives
Has a GM ever given you a choice and stuttered after you chose the option that they apparently did not expect you to? I remember giving one player the option of safely traveling to a town without any further events or finding treasure on the monster they just fought that may attract more trouble. She chose the quiet route.
Now in my head, I was asking all sorts of questions. Why didn’t she pick the option I expected? Doesn’t she like playing this game? How can she resist the shinies? Why would she skip combat and the rewards it brings? What is wrong with her? What is wrong with me? Did I do a bad job selling the choice?
What I should have asked is not “why didn’t she?” but rather “why did she?” Because if I can answer that question, then I can see the game from her perspective. And if I can do that, I can make the game more fun for her. And hopefully for everyone else involved, myself included.
We can often fall in the trap of thinking that everyone enjoys what we enjoy. After all, we all enjoy RPGs if we are playing one together, right? But while I loved planning elaborate combat encounters and earning shiny treasures she enjoyed clever social interactions and shopping for useful supplies that she knew she could rely on for future encounters.
So all we have to do is bring all those things together for a fun city encounter where she tries to con the mayor out of his pony and cart. Then we have an elaborate encounter with rewards that we are both happy with! And now we are both eager to play again!
Finding New Tools
Back before I knew that pen and paper RPGs were real, my brother and I had what we called The Paper Game. It was based on the old SNES Ogre Battle game, where we would build elaborate armies of mythic creatures and conquer enemy territories. We played on long 5 hour car trips, taking turns conquering enemy territories and running them.
Then we wanted to try a 2 player game, so we talked our sister (bless her heart) into running one for us. She had never played, so we had to teach her. Now when we played, we just kept buying the same strong units over and over with no real strategy. But when by brother fought a fire giant with a solder and a fire giant and won in 1 round, we were both shocked. In my sister’s mind, stats made little sense. But if you had 2 things of the same kind that were fighting, they would be equal in power. So of course the side that had something more would win.
The game changed for us to trying to recruit one of every monster and then adding a soldier so that we could exploit this logic. Suddenly we had uses for other units. I don’t remember if my sister had fun (she never played with us again), but we sure did. We learned a new trick, and it was a lot of fun to use.
These sorts of surprises really give our creativity a chance to shine. When you deal with something unexpected, you often have to try something new because old reliable won’t work on this surprise. When we find something that works, we will take that tool and use it for other things. This is how humans adapt and grow, and it works great for gaming as a player or a GM!
Have you ever seen the first episode of DS9 where Sisko is trying to explain to 4 dimensional beings why humans play games? They are shocked when he tells them that the game would not be worth playing if they already knew the outcome. The unknown calls to us, draws us to search for answers and new questions. And what better place to see that than with games.
Solo RPGs are very unpopular now because they have limited replayability. Once you know how the story goes, it becomes less fun to play. And when we read a book for the 12th time, what is the most common thing we get excited about? “I never noticed this before, but________.” Surprises make games worth playing.
As a GM, I often have a story that I want to tell. And it can get frustrating when that story does not actually get told because players have ideas. As a player, it can be frustrating when my character’s story does not go the way I want it to go thanks to failed skill checks and coplayer stereotyping. But when my character does something neat and cool that I did not expect, that’s a good surprise. And the story takes a new and exciting shape when we work together that no one of us could have hoped to achieve.
I could go on and on and on if I was allowed to. It would be great to move from the reveling in discovery to the actual application. You know, get some practical examples of how to apply perspective, new tools, and engagement lures in our games.
Alas, I have run out of steam and space. Maybe some comments would be more informative?