Bait and Switch

This month, the RPG Blog Carnival topic is “Transitions and Transformations,” so I’d like to talk a little about Baiting and Switching campaign premises in RPGs.  The basic idea, seductive in its simplicity, is that you emulate a common staple of fantastic fiction where the protagonists find themselves in a setting or situation that is a radical change from their everyday lives and for which they are unprepared (as when a group of children find a strange world in the back of the wardrobe in the house they’re staying in, or a dying prospector is astrally transported to Mars) by having the players prepare characters as if they were going to play in a particular setting (e.g. the Old West), and part-way through the first session plop them in a new one (Barsoom).  In one swell foop you short-circuit any temptation to meta-gaming in the character build process, eliminating any difficulty over professors, reporters and nurses curiously well-versed in the handling of shotguns and dynamite in your Call of Cthulhu game, and you present the players with the exact psychological experience that the characters have of being gobsmacked when their plans for their lives are turned upside-down.  That’s a pretty rare thing to be able to accomplish in an RPG, so it’s quite tempting.

I know what you’re thinking.  You’re thinking that I’m going to warn you against doing it, because the risks are too great.  The players might not like the new premise that they didn’t buy into; they may have built characters that have rich connections with the original premise and are reduced to hollow shells in the new one or may have an obsessive motivation to return to the original; if the characters aren’t built with the setting in mind they may be ineffective to the point of not being fun to play; if any characters are lost the switch in premise might make it impossible to neatly add new ones, etc.  In essence you’re playing a trick on the players, and what they might have cheerfully agreed to if you’d presented it openly they may end up resenting when it’s forced upon them, ruining a perfectly good campaign for a brief moment of epiphany when they realize what the game is really about.

Let me tell you, though, that when it works, it’s beautiful, and can cause great awe and glee around the table.  To me, that’s worth the risk.

That’s not to say that there aren’t things you can do to minimize the risk.  Take, for example, the Escape From Tartarus game I ran.  You might want to read the recaps of Part 1 and Part 2 before going further.

I knew going into it that the bait and switch I was planning was tricky, so there were some things that I did  specifically to address that:

  • The game was planned as a one-shot, instead of a full campaign.  If things had gone badly the number of sessions ruined would be minimal (it ended up taking two sessions, but it was also apparent by the end of the first session that it was going to work).
  • The players were all given pre-gens.  This reduced their investment in the initial character concept (nobody spent two weeks working on a back-story that would be completely discarded), and allowed me to make sure that everybody had something they could do once the switch occurred.
  • Because I know my players well, I was able to tailor the pre-gens to their preferences, to the extent of having them be reminiscent of characters that they’d already played and enjoyed.
  • It was presented as “Here’s what I’m running this week.”  Slightly high-handed, but again reduced the players investment in the initial premise and eliminated any hint of breaking a promise to deliver them a game based on what had been previously agreed to.
  • The switch granted the characters a step up (in this case a big one) in importance and ability to exert an influence on the course of events.  It’s much better for player buy-in for the alleged madman to find out he’s Corwin, Prince of Amber than for Corwin, Prince of Amber to find out he’s actually a madman hallucinating in the loony-bin.
  • The shift left a goodly amount of continuity between pre and post.  In this case, the literal setting remained the same, while the power-level and style underwent a radical change (from gritty prison drama to super-agent adventure).  I think continuity helps: change the setting, keep the style; change the style, keep the setting; change both, at least keep the themes.  If you change everything, the players may feel that you’ve just switched games in the middle.

The Escape From Tartarus was one of the most succesful games I’ve run, and everybody had a really good time.  In fact, it’s one of the settings my players have indicated an interest in returning to some day.

I’ve run other Bait and Switch games, some wildly successful (The Midnight Special), some failures (The Irvine Effect) and I think the above hits upon the key points to make it work:  Minimize the Bait, by not letting the players get too invested in or put too much work into the initial set-up, and carefully target the switch so that the players can experience some sense of continuity and the switch leaves them in their comfort zone as to the kind of characters and situations they like to play, or places them there if that’s not where they started.  Done right, and it’ll be a game to remember.

3 thoughts on “Bait and Switch

  1. brian says:

    Hey, Escape from Tartarus! The only thing keeping me from saying that was the best bait-and-switch story ever was that I also played Midnight Express, so I can’t decide. And you’re right, the one-shot nature of the story and the use of pre-gens did eliminate a lot of the problems. I would love to do a story like that, but I’m far too transparent.

    One other element that I think helped was that you let the players in on it one at a time, letting us be part of the “reveal,” which is, after all, the fun bit. Since I was the second player to find out in the Tartarus story, I got to enjoy trying to figure out just what Doug knew that the rest of us didn’t (usually a good rule with Doug’s characters, but especially so in this case), and then I got to enjoy being in on the secret before the last two players. The fun factor may be reduced for the last player to find out, but that depends on how much that player likes being in suspense.

    The Midnight Express had a similar element, but to a lesser degree. Since each character had a secret they wanted to keep from the others (I think they all did, right?), there was less information-sharing than in a tightly knit party. As a result, each player figured out the twist in his or her own time, and kept it private, rather than one player getting suspicious and blurting it out.

    The trick, I think, is that when the players participate in the shift, they can take ownership of the plot, instead of just reacting with, “My, what a clever GM we have.” (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.)

  2. Joshua says:

    I think that’s a good point. In “Escape” characters didn’t have any reason to trust each other at first, and each individual’s trigger condition was deliberately chosen to be something that nobody in their right mind would consent to voluntarily so there’d be no “well, I’ll humor the madman.”

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