January 19, 2010

Twist It


The genre of fantasy (and RPG games in general) is full of clichés. Clichés can be like comfort food, something we all know and like. For people new to rpgs they make things easier and get them in the mood. However, they can be, and often are, overused. They become tired and unexciting by virtue of having seen them before. Eventually there has to be a shift away from using the stereotypical encounter.
However, I say there are many times we still want to use the cliché.

Here are some typical rpg situations most of us have seen before:

• The characters meet in an inn and form an adventuring party.
• A fight breaks out in said inn.
• The beggar is a source of information.
• The advisor to an authority figure is the bad guy of the adventure.
• If an authority figure is clearly good, he is really evil or will die soon.
• If an authority figure “has been acting strange lately”, he has been replaced by a shapeshifter.
• Doors into a treasure room are always trapped.
• Gifts given freely by an NPC are always cursed. (Also: Nothing is ever free.)
• Victory in battles involving huge armies comes down to a party of adventures at the last minute.
• No matter how long it takes you to get to the sanctum where the evil sacrifice is happening, you will get there just before the sacrifice ends.
• If an NPC says to stay away from a ruin, it really means to go there.
• NPCs never use the magic items they carry. (Also: Things with charges are always at full.)
• An odd item of no worth looted from a monster will be needed later in the adventure.
• If a lock is immune to being picked, there will be a key for it later on a monster or behind a puzzle.
• Racial stereotypes (elves are aloof, dwarves are grumpy, halflings are thieves, gnomes are eccentric builders).
• Every ship the players travel in will sink.
• Every traveling circus is evil.
• Ancient prophecies come true during the player character’s lifetime.
• The “shortcut” always leads to an ambush.
• If the GM is happy with the choice you made in the adventure, you made the wrong choice.

These situations have been done to death, but that does not mean they can not be used. In fact, I recommend their use, with the proviso that you put a spin on them. Present the players a situation that looks like a cliché and then have it turn into something different. If the players go in expecting one thing and find another, it will make the encounter more memorable and engaging. In effect, we want to lull them into a false sense of complacency.

Let’s take a look at some of the above-mentioned situations and see what we can do to spice them up a bit. These are meant to be ideas you can use or to give you examples of how to twist a cliché.

The characters meet in an inn and form an adventuring party.
A fight breaks out in said inn.
The characters are in the inn by happenstance (or perhaps they were passing by and felt compelled to enter-see the following). Unknown to the characters, someone is looking for a few adventurers to do some dirty work. The villain mind controls a few of the drunks to start a fight. While they fight they chant the name of a well known mage in the region. The villain is hoping adventurous types will follow up the clue and attack the mage. His plan is to come in behind the adventurers and steal a specific artifact while they keep the mage occupied. [The villain can only control minds for a very short time, otherwise he would simply mind control the characters for the attack. Also, drunken minds are easier to control, but drunks aren’t very useful when assaulting a powerful mage.]

If an authority figure “has been acting strange lately”, he has been replaced by a shapeshifter.
There are numerous reasons why the authority figure has been acting strange lately; having an illicit affair, preparing a birthday surprise for one of higher rank, received bad news (is not the legitimate heir, loved one has died), received a fortune telling stating he will die soon. Players tend to overlook an innocuous reason in these situations.
However, a non-doppelganger reason can still lead to adventure. An authority figure is “not himself” because he is being blackmailed. If order for him to retain his position he must be in control of an ancient heirloom. It turns out the heirloom he has is a fake and someone has found out the truth and is blackmailing him. The player characters can be hired to deal with the blackmailer and then to recover the real heirloom from an ancient crypt.

Doors into a treasure room are always trapped.
Make the difficulty of disarming the trap stupidly low. Players will be wondering why it was so easy and imagine situations far worse than what you actually had planned. They will be on their toes for some time waiting for the hammer to drop.
Alternately, you can have no trap but when the door is opened the characters hear a loud clicking noise for a second.

Gifts given freely by an NPC are always cursed. (Also: Nothing is ever free.)
Start having NPCs give the players free gifts. The givers will be in awe of the characters, but when asked to explain why, the gift givers are vague; “for all the wonderful things you have done in the past”. This will go on for some time. Apparently there is a group of paladins riding throughout the lands righting wrongs and doing good deeds. For some reason the natives think the party are these paladins (perhaps one bears a striking resemblance to the leader of the paladins). After some time, the paladins hear of the player characters and how they have been “taking advantage” of the native populace. A confrontation ensues.

No matter how long it takes you to get to the sanctum where the evil sacrifice is happening, you will get there just before the sacrifice ends.
Have the players show up too late and the sacrifice has just been made. At this point the characters have to deal with the fallout of being late, such as killing the creature that was summoned.

If an NPC says to stay away from a ruin, it really means to go there.
Have the NPCs words be true. This is as simply as putting a monster there the players know they can not defeat. This encounter can then be used at a later date. Trust me; the players will be eager to gain some more levels and hurry back to “finish the job”.

If a lock is immune to being picked, there will be a key for it later on a monster or behind a puzzle.
Let the players think this for the length of the adventure. It will be funny as they explore every nook and cranny of a dungeon. Near the end they can find a note in a diary detailing how the former occupant of the delve lost his key.
An alternate of this is having the lock itself be a component for another puzzle. The lock actually doesn’t open the false door and is removable. The lock is part of a set of special items that need to be gathered to open another door somewhere else.

Every traveling circus is evil.
Every town the Red Horse Travelling Circus visits is plagued with a series of killings. Eventually the circus is driven from town as they are blamed for the deaths, but the deaths start up again once the circus reaches a new town. The relative of a victim has hired the players to exact revenge on the circus; either by slaying the murderer or burning down the circus if they can not prove which circus member is the killer.
The killer could be a diabolist who follows the circus form town to town, killing anew. He knows the blame will fall upon the circus and he will not be looked at. Soon his ritual of slaying will summon an evil demon of great power to wreak destruction upon the player’s world if he is not stopped.
Alternately, the members of the circus are again innocent. This time within the Hall of Mirrors there is an evil artifact which causes a person who looks into it to become homicidal. The killers are actually members of the towns visited. Once the circus moves on the mirror loses its effects.
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