Surprising the GM

Surprises mean many things to many GMs. For some, it’s a way to see the unbridled creativity of the players, or an extra layer in the running competition between the two. For others, usually the more methodical planners, a surprise is just another wrench in the gears, and as off-putting as it is interesting.

I’m accustomed to playing with GMs who are somewhere between the two. As a result, I’ve learned to turn surprises into a balancing act, finding ways to make them as amusing as they are frustrating. Here are some tips I’ve learned.

  • Make it something your GM would ordinarily like. If he eats, sleeps and breathes the Rule of Cool, make your surprise follow that rule. If she’s fond of character development and introspection, give it to her.
  • Make it fit within the rules, or at least the game’s meta-rules. Duh, right? It’ll just get vetoed otherwise. Moreover, make it work with as few twists or exploits of said rules as possible. It makes it harder to call “Not fair!”
  • Coordinate with other people. With plans like this, there’s strength in numbers, and not just because it makes it that much harder to say no when outnumbered. Conspirators can point out flaws in the plans you have or suggest improvements you might not have thought of. Both in character and out of character, their skills can help turn what might otherwise be unfeasible into a possibility, or even assure success. Besides, there’s something particularly awesome about a carefully coordinated escapade, even to the more jaded of GMs, that speaks of effort, resourcefulness, and sheer concentrated awesome.
  • Don’t make all of the plan a secret, just part of it. Not only does this give the GM something to plan for (we like that, or at least I do), but it also makes it less obvious that you’re still holding back. If you don’t say anything, you’re hiding something. If you lay out a basic plan, you’re either hiding something or underthinking the problem (or just not a planner). If you lay out a plan with several contingencies, recruit a few NPCs to help you with parts of it, and are generally open about the basic idea, your GM will probably get complacent… and then you hit him with the twist you’ve been planning all along.
  • Speaking of which, when you’re asking for things that are relevant to the twist, figure out how to ask about them so it sounds like the part your GM expects rather than the part he’s not supposed to—the point is just coming up with some other way you can get to the desired quality. (For instance, if what you want is something that can be improvised into a mirror and you’re looking at metal plates or shields, don’t ask specifically for reflectiveness—ask instead if it’s been well-taken care of, whether it’s chipped, or dusty, or things that would interfere with mirror-qualities.)

These have a combination of effects. They make the surprise unexpected, but easier to plan for (particularly if it’s just a variant on the existing plan); they tailor it to the GM so he’s likelier to have as much fun as you are; and in general, they try to make it seem like something that’s to make the game better rather than just a way to inconvenience the GM. Give it a shot!


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