I can’t find the thread anymore. But over at the SJG Forums, someone was talking about starting perhaps an Old West style game. But then, there would be Zombies. But the players wouldn’t know ahead of time.

This brought up the concept of the Bait and Switch, where the players are ready for one style of campaign, but the GM drops another layer, or changes it up completely.

Why is this annoying?

It sets up a pretty spectacular clash of expectations. If the GM were to hand out a campaign prospectus (or a set of them), and everyone likes Old West but no one likes Horror, then to layer your Old West with Horror doesn’t necessarily invoke the Peanut Butter Cup effect. It may just piss your players off.

It may also result in characters that are entirely useless. Not just “gee, my combat skills are mostly in ranged firearms, but I have some brawling and jujitsu as well, so I better go find me a crossbow.” But potentially “I designed an expert forensic accountant for a game involving corporate espionage, and this frackin’ GM Banestormed me into a world where this kind of bookkeeping doesn’t even exist.” Way more so even than being short on one or more of Kromm’s List of Skills Every Adventurer Should Have. This is serious “my character is 200 points of useless” stuff, and sets up for potentially very angry players.

Ultimately, it’s about assumptions clash, and purposefully misleading the group as to your intentions sets up that clash purposefully, and demands the group find it fun.

And yet . . .

Why can this be fun?

Some really great gaming can occur when things are very, very different than one expects. I went into The Matrix more or less blind. I totally didn’t see the major twist coming, and was floored when it did.
What works in cinema can also work in RPGing.

It can also be fun when it’s done by plunking the characters into a slightly different genre than is expected, but one that is also enjoyable. If the group settled on Old West, but would have played an explicit Horror campaign . . . well, maybe that Old West Zombie Horror campaign isn’t so far wrong after all. Or a criminal escape that doesn’t turn out as expected.

It also, of course, provides for great roleplaying opportunities – and if it’s arranged such that characters are unprepared or out of place, but can rapidly adapt and rise to the challenge, maybe that’s not so bad after all. The accountant suddenly finds he’s got Magery 8 and spontaneous spellcasting. This only works if . . .

Parting Shot

. . . the players enjoy the new campaign premise and feel like they can have an interesting and fun time with the character they’ve brought to the table in that game.

This can, of course, be entirely above board, in which case the character is being switched, but not the players.

I did this once – above board, mostly – in an old game I called Lords of Light and Shadow. I had the
players all be part of a town’s special emergencies teams. Volunteers with medical or crisis skills, including combat skills, that would respond to trouble. So the players were forewarned that odd things would probably happen, and I’d prepped them by saying that I wanted to have a campaign kinda like the clash between the Vorlons and Shadows from Babylon 5 . . . but on Earth and much nastier. Sterile order and raw chaos, rather than the more altruistic-ish versions displayed in that show.

It didn’t last long, but the first campaign sessions were pretty good.

It’s all how you set it up, I think. And the more buy-in you have, the better.

10 thoughts on “The Bait and Switch

  1. I can see both sides of this. The GM would have to know if the players would enjoy the second "surprise" theme of the campaign. If so, it could be really groovy. If not, that would be one big crash and fireball.

    1. At the risk of making the same comment I made in response to Israel Reyes on Google+, the key here is the very high risk of adverse consequences, especially if the group getting together takes things pretty seriously. You've misled them, and perhaps more importantly as I get older, wasted their valuable time. Commuting, arranging a schedule, making characters and investing (mentally) in whatever background material's out there, all wasted.

      And when I think about it, other than the moment of the reveal (Look! Zombies!), AFTER that reveal, there's not much to be gained that couldn't have been done in the setup: "Your PCs will have just learned that the world they live in is infested with Zombies; the campaign starts…"

  2. I've never been a fan of the Bait and Switch. I think there are happy mediums – build a character based on this information, with the understanding that I intend to throw a twist at you after the fact, and give you X more points to prepare for it, for example.

  3. The closest I've come to running this was an alternate-world campaign (the Japanese colonised the Americas after Europe was mostly wiped out by the Black Death) in which the briefing notes mentioned that while everyone believed in magic, and would go to fortune-tellers and so on, nobody took it terribly seriously. So when the party met an actual spell-flinging witch, they were a bit surprised. (Then the Empire of the Sun met the other Empire of the Sun, and it all got terribly messy.)

    As a player, I joined a long-running game about modern mercenaries, only to find that in that very session the group was being thrown in a non-returnable way into a fantasy world. No thanks, I wanted to join a game about modern mercenaries.

    In my GMing I'm very fond of transitional moments – as the aliens arrive, as the zombie plague breaks out – but I have found they don't make for great campaigns, so I mostly use them in one-shots to be run at conventions. If I want a big transition, I brief the players about it up front: as it might be, "you are normal students in London in 1967, but you're going to gain psychic powers". I have a decent player group, and I find that I can trust them not to take advantage of this sort of foreknowledge any more than they'll take advantage of other player knowledge that characters don't have.

  4. I think the key is to a) know your players, and b) warn them that the genre you're starting in is not going to stay the genre you're playing in for long.

    You can do some pretty fun games if everyone's on board, but if you have one person who hates horror in your games, then your modern-day game about college students that start getting hunted for food by vampires is not likely to go over well. And likewise if everyone signed up for a modern day game, even if they like fantasy they might be pissed if you Banestorm them.

    1. It absolutely does not help that I've yet to be in a game where the world changes radically that didn't turn into a hurr-durr comedy game almost immediately. I appreciate humor in games when it is in-game. I'm not interested in playing in a sit-com.

  5. I have long been tempted to ask my players to roll up ordinary, 21st century people, and then start the campaign with, "Okay, you are all crushed to death by a tremendous earthquake. Now, in the afterlife…."

  6. The thing with a bait-and-switch game is that what you're offering people to play isn't what the actual game will be. So what the agree to and get ready for is not the actual game.

    I find it's better to tell the players about the switch – at some point this game will switch radically to a fantasy game, say, or this game will add in horror but not right away, or there is magic but not at first, etc. That way they're waiting for it, and enjoy anticipation rather than surprise. It's fine for the PCs to be surprised, but I think players in general enjoy anticipation better.

    I've done very mild versions of this – "We're playing a post-apocalypse game, make up Spec Ops troopers for it" – and not telling them "post-apocalyspe" didn't mean bikers and zombies, but Gamma World. But that's really "I'm giving you chocolate and peanut butter, but I'm not telling you in what proportions they're coming in."

    I'm always careful about games on offer, because I see so much bait-and-switch stuff ("This is a gritty low tech historical game" turns into "but where you are all Vampires!" Bleh) as a substitute for actually offering the real game.

  7. A possible half measure would be to gauge their reaction to an uncertain or reversible transition.
    E.g. the old west heroes escape the bandit posse by taking shelter in the forbidden Sioux graveyard where they are attacked by zombies.
    If they like it, then that is what really happened.
    If they hate it, then the peyote smoke and bizarrely costumed group of tribal sacred guardians they fought turn out to be a mundane explanation for the horrific hallucinations they underwent.

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