Could I get away with it?

This might be a podcast topic someday.

I was reading John Wick’s PLAY DIRTY and three things occurred to me:

  1. Arrogant tosser isn’t he?

  2. I wonder if I’m that bad?

  3. How much of this can I steal?

I was especially struck by the chapter in which he advocates ‘bait-and-switching’ the players by putting them in a setting which isn’t the setting they think it is. Pulling a ‘Matrix’ or something like it.

And it struck me that I have perhaps been following the ‘polite GM’ rules a little too much. I have been issuing prospectuses and asking people what they want and setting up expectations about the world in advance…

And some of my players still bitch about how it wasn’t what they were expecting… And some of them say ‘Run something you want to Mike…’ And I wonder if I should take them at their word.

I once ran a game where they showed me their choice of fantasy art card from the collection I had put together for EVERWAY and then woke them up in a cavern with amnesia and ran from there, improvising the world as we went. It wasn’t a bad campaign.

I wonder if I could get away with something like that again. Perhaps not even tell them what the game system was until it became clear…

It would work best with modern day characters in ignorance of the strange things behind the wainscoting. Which argues something OVER THE EDGE or UNKNOWN ARMIES to me… Except that UA nowadays has a lot of pre-game generating of background going on.

I want that liberating feeling of knowing very little at the start but still more than my players do.

Many of you in the UK will know Brian Ameringen, legendary second hand book deal and punster. He used to go around UK SF conventions with a lot of little unlabeled liquor bottles in his pockets and say to innocent fen: “Try this. No i won’t tell you what it is until after…”

I’m proposing to do the same with an RPG. What would go well with it?

Mechanically, Rob Donoghue’s Fudge on the Fly might fit well. It’s a method of generating characters as play progresses, so your amnesiacs wouldn’t necessarily know their abilities until they try something.

I’m not thinking precisely of the same amnesiac set up. And as far as characters made up on the go are concerned HEROQUEST would be ideal. Except that my players all loath and abhominate HQ.

At the moment I’m thinking of stealing another John Wick idea: THE FLUXX from BIG BOOK OF LITTLE GAMES.

The PCs wake up as American teenagers in the 1950s. It’s the end of summer and the first day of school. They aren’t given any more briefing than that.

All seems as you would expect it to be. Except… It’s a little off. Something tells them that having a black man as principal is odd. And there are roads out of town that don’t seem to lead anywhere. And they keep having flashbacks.

I’m thinking of a game of multiple levels of reality where you’re never sure exactly what’s real and you keep jumping from world to world… But it’s more Jack L. Chalker than Infinity Incorporated or THE STRANGE.

The players are rebels and heroes against the corrupt Lords of the Many Worlds who have had their memories wiped and must start again with mere fragments of who they once were and what they meant to each other.

And the Lords of The Many Worlds can always wipe them again and force them to restart afresh in an even worse world than this.

GURPS could do this but so could many things.

The only problem with the idea is that I might actually have to sit through THE MATRIX and its sequels for research purposes.

Watch The Good Place instead.

Not this one, I take it?

I may have difficulty accessing an American series…

Oh, no wait it’s on Netflix.

That’s where I saw it!

I have had bad experiences with bait-and-switch games; in particular I joined a long-running game of modern mercenaries, in the very same session that the GM threw the entire party into a fantasyland with no hope of return (the idea being something like Janissaries). That’s not the game I wanted to play, and I didn’t go back.

I think it might reasonably work for a short campaign (perhaps with an option for players to extend once they get the feel of it), but I do like the discussion/prospectus approach – it helps get the players thinking, and talking, about what they want from the game (my experience is that players very rarely talk about what they want, though they’re good at telling me what they don’t want).

Michael, I have blog-reviews of The Good Place. Had I known you hadn’t seen it, I should have recommended it to you (specifically, even though I also think it may be the best show on TV right now). I earnestly recommend that you avoid spoilers; it’s one of the rare shows which really benefits from coming to it cold.

Alas too late!

Nonetheless, I want to run this with players I know… And there would be no bait-and-switch because I would tell them nothing about what the game is about, either setting or theme but just ask them to trust me.

And I am far, far from ready to do this. And I’ve just committed myself to doing a HQ TEKUMEL game at Continuum…

A tendency to overconfidence and sheer masochism may be endemic among GMs.


What game system would you use? It’s hard to create characters without some idea of the setting.

If my character generation brief were approximately “American teenager in the 1950s” I think I’d prefer a fairly complex system like GURPS, which lets you build a wide variety of normal people and establish interesting things about them. Then, while the weirdness is still spooling up, there’s already differentiation between the characters; they will notice different things, talk about them from different perspectives, and so on.

Obviously you can do this with a simpler system, but for me one of the great things about GURPS is that it’s a constant source of ideas for character personalities.

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I would tend to agree with Roger here. I’m not proposing doing a leap from game to game as John Wick proposes in THE FLUXX (which is where the idea triggered from) but rather revealing secrets within secrets and worlds within worlds. I’d like to keep the system consistent so there could be continuity between the various types and levels of character.

I’m also thinking that something like ‘karma’ is carrying over from incarnation to incarnation. They were world saving heroes… They did a lot of good. And that good karma is part of what frightens their enemies (enemy?) and makes them important enough to trap and contain.

And I don’t see how I set this up without creating the first characters for the players… And perhaps all of them as well. It’s a pain and risky and would cause complaints… But I might be able to make it work…

In GURPS terms, I think I’d say that some number of points must go to a “black box” (which will be made out of Destiny, Reputation, etc.), and let the players generate the rest. Which is functionally just the same thing as “there are secret traits your character doesn’t know about yet” in any system, but assigning a point cost makes them aware of it.

The only thing similar to this I have done is with template character creation in Talislanta 4e I gave out a list of evocative terms and had the players pick and then handed over a template I associate with the term.

Perhaps the players get fiddly control like Roger’s GURPS recommendation on initial persona but the powers and karma that grow over time are guided by player choices of evocative terms or Everway images rather than by point spend?

The closest thing I’ve done to this was the 1960s psionics campaign:

  • players knew it was going to involve acquiring psi powers
  • players generated characters who might volunteer for a drug trial
  • I had a chat with each player considering the sort of power that that character might get

I want (for reasons that may approach pure sadism) to see the look on my entirely male team of Wednesday night players when they discover that they are waking up as teenage girls on the first morning of high school.

And I wonder how long I can stretch things out before they realize that something is more wrong than the fact they can’t remember having any life before that morning.

Well, don’t complain if they turn it all X-rated.

I have run and played in bait-and-switch campaigns that worked, and in ones that failed, and that ones that failed in bitterness. And I have given the issue a deal of thought over the years, because there are bait-and-switch campaigns that I would like to run in the future, and I want to figure out how to make them successes that do not embitter the players. One solution that I have discussed in other places is to specify explicitly that there is going to be a switch right from the beginning when you are trailing the bait. I’ve tried it. It worked in the sense that it avoided the failure mode in which players essentially reject the switch (and either leave the campaign or want to change their characters). On the other hand it failed completely to produce the moment of awe and wonder in which the characters realise that they aren’t in Kansas any more and in which the players experience a perceptual shift in their imagination of everything that has gone before. That moment is in my humble one of the chief reasons to bait-and-switch rather than start in media res with FBI men in Fäerie or whatever.

In all the said pondering I have come up with only one insight that I think is worth sharing. Many players often and some players always generate a character with what I call a “dramatic agenda”: they have an idea in mind of what that character is going to do, be, or seem, and this is in a way their most fundamental idea about the character. Sometimes the idea is an iconic schtick that the character is going to execute. Sometimes it is a trope the character is going to embody. Sometimes it is a niche the character is going to occupy in some sort of functional or dramatic scheme. Sometimes it is an image that they are going to project. Sometimes it is a particular relationship with NPCs and other features of the setting. Perhaps it is best thought of as a particular way of looking cool. Players, particularly creative players, usually set their dramatic agenda for a character to suit the announced setting and genre.

Players’ dramatic agendas are usually inexplicit, and very often a good bit abstract and even vague. They likely won’t tell you about them, and might often not have formulated them explicitly.

In my experience most failures of bait-and-switch campaigns and adventures are strongly associated with moving characters to settings and genres where they cannot carry out their players’ dramatic agendas, or where doing so would not seem cool or otherwise impressive. For example, I once generated a character for a fanatsy campaign that was inspired by Michael Corleone (in The Godfather), an army veteran whose dramatic agenda was to negotiate the conflicting demands of honour and loyalty, and the tense relationships between his Family, their rivals, and the law. That went badly when the GM sent the campaign to sea. Another time I was playing an English nobleman in 17th-Century France who (a) maintained a callous front and cultivated a reputation for uncanny omniscience, and (b) was in a complicated and carefully-specified relationship with his much younger wife by and arranged marriage. That went badly when the GM sent us into a fantasy interlude where Rule (my character) was could not be a master of worldly intrigue and did not look cool when he acted supercilious and uncaring (and had no need to do so). And it went worse when we came to find that in his several months’ absence Rule’s wife’s situation and attitude had changed without my dramatic agenda there having been addressed.

So it seems to me that one of the things that you have to do when setting up a bait-and-switch campaign is to contrive that players do not generate characters whose dramatic agendas cannot be executed stylishly in the setting or genre of the post-switch campaign. Perhaps the acme of skill in this matter would be to specify a setting and genre that will naturally lead to the players’ generating characters with dramatic agendas that can be executed in the true setting and genre. For example, I once tried setting up a bait-and-switch for 1920s people from Earth stranded on a 1930s-sci-fi version of Venus and then Mars by asking the players to generate pulp-adventure explorers and archaeologists who were in media res on an expedition in western Brazil in 1929. I reckoned that that would not get me any characters whose agenda was to deal with social and political ties, and would dependably produce characters who would do what they wanted bigger and better on Venus than in the Amazon, look even cooler on Mars than in Peru.

That would have worked too, if not for a TPK in the second session after the switch.


The biggest problem I ever faced when it came to running games where things suddenly got weird (my fractured reality adventure SLIDEways being the most ambitious I’ve tried as yet) was persuading the players to create characters who were actually normal people. It seemed like everyone was a travel agent who dabbled in ninjitsu or a policeman who was a dead ringer for John McClane.


“Well, I’m only working as a travel agent until my application to Ninja Graduate School is accepted.”

I think that taking a character out of their home setting is a fairly major thing to do to them; as a player, there are some characters I’d create who’d be willing to make the most of it, and others who’d just want to get home. I think that’s why I prefer the idea of having some sort of warning if that’s going to happen.

I think the setup sounds intriguing, and being put into new worlds now and again could be interesting, even if it was against the PCs will. As long as it isn’t against the players’ will, of course. Be upfront about the framework, and admit that you will be putting them in surprising situations.

A thing that would ruin it for me would be if I wasn’t allowed to progress or strike back (even in a minor way) against the Lords of All Worlds. It shouldn’t be easy, but it should be possible to hide in their blind spots, or take out some of their infrastructure so that you could enjoy your 1950s high school experience in peace for a time. Of course that situation would still be laced with paranoia. Is a new teacher THEIR gauleiter, or just a new teacher?