Hey, you. Yes, you. The person who just looked in, saw this was another gaming article, rolled your eyes, and was about to click away. Before you do, take a look at my last paragraph. Please. I will deem it a personal favor.
Okay, for those of you who didn’t just skip to the bottom, I’m here, once again, to give Gamemasters of various tabletop RPGs some advice that’s stood me in good stead. There are tools that will bring your players back, time after time, ready for more adventure and excitement. Since I just finished a story arc in my D&D campaign, I thought I would share some things that have made my games successful.
The Suspense Is Killing Me!
I try to make my game sessions end in one of two ways. When I come to the end of a story arc, as happened tonight, I try to leave a little extra time for people to level up their characters, buy anything they need, write down their new magic-items, or what have you. More often than not, however, I try to end things on a cliffhanger!
I’ve told you the story of the first appearance of Darth Vader in my Star Wars campaign: playing the breath sound effect three times, then ending the session. My players were positively *foaming* for the next game, to find out if they were really about to fight him, was I serious, was I bored and wanting to just get the game over with. They were incredibly eager to get going again.
The previous session of my D&D game ended with me laying the dungeon tiles of an elaborate room, giving the flavor text, then placing a Beholder miniature on the table as I described it. If you’re not familiar with the D&D Beholder, it’s a many-eyed monster that pretty much just kills you. Did I mention my party were 2nd level? Of course, it was just a gauth beholder, a low-level critter that my party handled…well, not easily…one character almost died, and many others were wounded, knocked unconscious, etc…but they handled it. At the end of the session, however, everyone wanted to know what was going to happen next, and that’s where I ended it.
Like most good tools, you can’t over-use this one, or it becomes dull. I recommend cliff-hangering a big surprise just before a session which will end with the characters leveling, hitting a milestone, or what have you. You build up to it, go out with a cliffhanger, then conclude the following week. Smaller cliffhangers, such as the discovery of a cool prop, putting an intriguing map on the table, or placing minis on the table to let the PCs know a fight may be in the offing are good ways to keep things intriguing at the end of a game, but save your big surprises. In the dungeon the PCs just finished exploring, the sessions went in a pretty good rhythm with small cliffhangers finally leading up to the Beholder fight cliffhanger, allowing for tonight’s session to be the Beholder fight, rewards, some discussion as to where they’re heading next, and then ending as the heroes ride off on the path to their next adventure.
Bait and Switch
The real term “bait and switch” refers to a sleazy sales practice in which you offer something for a ridiculously low price, then, when someone wants to buy it, you say “Oh, we’re sold out of that cheap one, but I can offer you this more expensive one. It’s nicer anyhow!” It’s illegal, and with good reason, and that’s not what I’m really talking about.
It’s fun to turn your players’ pre-conceived notions on their heads, especially if you give them every reason to assume that what they’re thinking is true, then throwing them an awesome plot twist. If everyone in your campaign knows that dark elves are evil and should be destroyed, you can throw them the clichéd plot twist of “this one dark elf is actually good!” or you can really mix it up with “actually, they see themselves as heroes, because they are all that stands between the surface world and the horrors of the Underdark, such as mind flayers”. I used that in a recent campaign, and the players’ jaws dropped. They suddenly had a whole new light to see the dark elves in.
My Star Wars campaign recently culminated in a sequence that took place during the Battle of Endor. Two players, a pilot and his Wookiee buddy, were flying their ship during the fight, attacking TIE Fighters and planning on covering for Lando and the fighters when they flew in to blow up the Death Star core. Suddenly, a comlink channel beeps on the pilot’s instrument panel. It’s his fiancée, Lady Deraida Juros. She’s on board the Death Star, and she’s calling, tearfully, to tell him that she’s okay with sacrificing her life for the intel she was able to provide the Rebellion. Suddenly, these two players realized that their big endgame wasn’t about helping to destroy the Death Star – it was to rescue Lady Juros before the Death Star was destroyed. This turned into a nail-biting sequence aboard the Death Star as chaos broke out all around them, and I think it gave those players a memorable end to the campaign. It wasn’t what they expected to be doing during the last sequence, but they loved it.
Consistency, Consistency, Consistency
Okay, show of hands…who flipped out when Qui-Gon Jinn started talking about midi-chlorians during The Phantom Menace? I know I did. Know why? Because this sudden new explanation of the Force didn’t jibe even vaguely with what we’d been told about it before. Was the Force an energy field that surrounds all living things and binds us together…or was it a virus? Because it was sure sounding like a virus now.
When something in a story doesn’t feel consistent with what has gone before, it can be jarring, and it can totally ruin believability. Small inconsistencies aren’t too bad…if you say the King of Summerlund’s eyes are black one session, and then describe them as blue a few sessions down the line, most players aren’t likely to catch it. On the other hand, if they do, you might consider rewarding them with a tidbit of improvised information. “Ah yes…as a gift of the thunder gods to the line of the Kings, the Kings of Summerlund have eyes that grow blue whenever a bad storm is coming.” Maybe it even means that a doppelganger has infiltrated the royal government! Or maybe you just say, “I’m sorry…I meant black,” and play continues as normal. In any case, it either gives the PCs some new angle, or it’s quickly corrected.
If, on the other hand, you make it very clear that arcane magic is a capital offense in Summerlund one week, and then start talking about a local magic shop the next week, you might not be able to just explain it away. This can feel as jarring as midi-chlorians, and don’t think your players won’t notice. Some of them will, at least, and they will call you on it, sooner or later.
One excellent tool for keeping a game well-organized is to keep a wiki of your campaign and record details in it after every game session. This way, you’ll have it to refer back to later on, and you’ll be able to answer those odd little player questions like, “What neighborhood of Ardaven is the Halfling community?” “Why, that’d be Bramblebury.”
A Very Important Question
I’ve been writing a lot of articles about gaming, lately. I feel somewhat guilty about this, as I was specifically brought on board as the Gay Geek Guy, ready to dispense advice on love, dating, and the gay perspective. People seem to be enjoying my articles, and E approves of the GMing articles, but I occasionally wonder if I shouldn’t be…I don’t know…gayer?
So how about it, gentle readers? Do you want to see me push my articles more into romance, love, and pride parades? Are the gaming articles of more interest to you? Is there a specific topic you’d like my take on? What would you like me to write about? Your inquiring GGG wants to know!