In any story, the twist of the unexpected is what makes for great entertainment, and a story created through a Dungeons & Dragons adventure is no exception. Since most dungeon masters and many players are well-read in the fantasy genre and equally familiar with fantasy films, it is usually safe to assume that even the newest players seated at your gaming table are aware of the various tropes and story devices common to fantasy stories; experienced players have the added memories of how various plots and battles unfolded in other campaigns.
One way to maintain player interest in your game is by periodically placing something in your game that doesn’t match what they expect. In some ways, this post expands on my prior thoughts about managing player expectations by embracing tropes for many aspects of your game, and deliberately breaking a handful of tropes in believable ways.
A recent example of this emerged during a session of our 4e Dungeons & Dragons campaign. In order to streamline play, I complete as much preparation in advance as possible, including pre-drawing encounter areas on vinyl battle mats. In the early part of the session, the heroes were traveling upriver in a keelboat; when I produced a pre-drawn map depicting a stretch of river with large rocks and copses of trees near the banks, one of my most experienced players coughed the word “ambush” under his breath, and the players positioned their miniatures in the boat to defend against attack from the shores of the river.
The players all rolled their eyes at me when I indicated that their boat had struck a sand bar. The most experienced player suggested that the party’s ranger, wizard and rogue train their missile weapons and spells upon any movement on the shore, while the armored heroes stepped out of the boat into thigh-deep water to push the boat free.
It was then that a giant catfish, a creature adapted from the first edition of the D&D game, lurched up from the water and swallowed the paladin whole.
While the specifics of the combat won’t be recounted here to protect the identities of the nearly digested, suffice it to say that the players, after having been ambushed numerous times in other games and seeing the effort that went into drawing the trees, rocks and other cover on the battle mat, fully expected a land-based attack, and were caught in a poor field position to face the real threat.
Three weeks have passed since that session, and the players are still talking about the fish. And making fish jokes, and making up fish-related puns and inventing nicknames for their swallowed-and-rescued companions.
Of course, the battle with the fish damaged the boat, so the heroes decided to beach it on the nearby shore and camp for the night, where they were ambushed from the land. After all, there was no point in drawing all those rocks and trees for nothing.