Surprises: How to Do Them Right
I recently ran a number of traps for one of my roleplay groups, and the question of how to do surprises right came up, so I thought I'd write a brief post on the topic.
Over the past ten years that I've been game mastering I've had hundreds of players in thousands of games across four game systems, and I'll tell you this: some people just love being surprised, and others really don't. And the latter feel this way for many reasons, all of which are valid.
Some don't like being surprised because situationally it doesn't make sense: if their character's senses are heightened and they are anticipating something jumping out at them or a trap springing from the floor, why would they be surprised when a thing jumps out at them or the ground falls out from beneath them?
Still others have issues with suspense: due to high blood pressure, anxiety issues, or personal trauma, they don't like facing sudden terrors or "jump scares," and all of that makes perfect sense as well.
So what follows is a short primer on some ways you can do surprises well, from one who has pulled it off well at times and poorly at other times. I hope it's helpful.
I. High Concept: Cards, Not Dali
As a quick summary of what we want, we are looking for surprises that will shock the characters (and their players) but in ways that 1) make sense, and 2) could be seen before it actually appears - a reveal of the "final picture" so to speak.
To use an example, consider a pop-up card: you have the outside of the card that says or shows something, and then the inside has a thing in it that pops out at you. It's a fun surprise (not as fun as dollar bills falling out of it, but still pretty fun), and while you knew it was technically possible that it could be a pop-up card, it might not have been, so it legitimately surprises you even if you know it exists.
Compare this to what we don't want surprises to be: a Salvador Dali painting. It is no doubt surprising to see a clock melting off of a bureau, or any number of strange things you may see in a Dali painting. But these surprises take you aback as being out of left field: they make little to no sense in light of what is going on around you.
And that's how a lot of surprises can be: the party is walking down the road, and then suddenly BOOM: a massive spider jumps out at them. That...can be jarring if not traumatic for your players, so we don't want to do that.
So how do we practically make good surprises for our players? A few quick tips.
II. Practical Application: Surprises You Can Use
1) Warning Signs: I love putting warning signs out to my players, because it means that when the surprise comes they are either prepared for it or they aren't and they learn to pay attention. Warning signs can be anything from heads on spikes along the road (telling them that the people here will behead people), large tracks (to tell them a massive creature is near), broken trees, walls, pots, etc. (to alert them to a creature ploughing through the area), and more.
But you can also make the warning signs subtle cues if that's more your speed. A lady in town who tells you, "Please help me find my husband: he went missing, and last he was seen he was near...the docks..." and then have her shudder and not tell you anymore about the docks. When you do this the party is warned: a local who knows about the place doesn't want to talk about something. So they don't need to be overt: they can be subtle. The trick is to make sure that subtle cues are picked up by the party.
I had a GM once who subtly gave a member of the party a necrotic disease, and what was communicated in the moment was that it was no big deal. Then a few sessions later the player was alerted that his character was in danger, and there was a lot of problems that arose from it because what was subtly being communicated was lost on the player.
Don't do that. If you're going to use subtle cues, make sure they get across.
2) Obvious Traps: A lot of people like to hide traps, but as we mentioned in our last post on traps, sometimes the best traps are the obvious ones. Sure, hidden dart ports or blades of death are sweet and you should totally use them (and you can easily include a warning sign to alert them to the presence of these somewhere), but there is also something exciting about seeing the trap, and then realizing that you're going to need to do some pretty crazy stuff to get past it.
Consider the scene: the party sees a massive boulder above them, and they notice that there is a track that slopes down to their level. They can see that if the boulder rolls, it will hit them. So what do they do?
This does two things. First, no one cries out, "Hey, that's not fair" if the boulder falls. They all know it's there (assuming they are paying attention), so we have not gone afoul of our players. But it also makes the trap more interesting for the encounter, as now it's something they could try to lure enemies into and take advantage of themselves.
Of course, having the trap visible and having the trigger visible are two different things: I'm not saying to make the trigger visible: make them work for that. Have them apply themselves to find the trigger. But make the trap apparent, and let them wrack their brain to find out how to avoid danger.
3) Whimpering: Have you ever used a whimper in your game session? Someone who is whimpering in a corner, or down a hallway, or in a dark room? If you haven't, you should: it's got something of a horror vibe, so be careful of that, but what it offers for surprises is incredible.
You see, people whimper for a reason: they are hurt, they miss their mothers, they see something in the darkness, they are despairing that no one will save them from the dark thing in the room, etc. And just the fact that someone is whimpering gets a person thinking about what it could be. So now if you surprise them with something it's all good: they were mentally ready for it, even if they didn't know what it was.
Plus they feel like a hero if/when they save the person.
4) Discarded Notes: I love using discarded notes (and if I have enough time before the session, I love to literally give the players a discarded note): they allow you to do so much to setup the terrors and surprises in a room, dungeon, or whole region.
Notes can communicate a theme, and they can do it in a way that is hard to do with narration without looking like you are providing metaknowledge to your players. Notes can give passwords or other clues/hints to puzzles in case players don't like or are not good at puzzles. Notes can trigger traps ("I prepped explosive runes today" anyone?). Notes can warn about traps ("Look Up"). Notes are so versatile!
So use notes - they prepare the party for a surprise, and can be done close or far from the danger based on what you want it to do, and it's still natural either way.
5) Footsteps: Think about the landmark movie, Jurassic Park. What would you say is the most iconic scene in that movie? It's a water cup, sitting in a cupholder in a jeep. In a dinosaur movie. Why is a water cup in a jeep the iconic scene? Footsteps that excite the imagination and convey the message of what is coming.
It doesn't tell the reader that a tyrannosaurus is coming - that's done by context. What it conveys is the size and scope of what is coming: this is far more than any kid (or any of our protagonists, for that matter) can handle. And it does it without the T-Rex suddenly jumping out (though it basically does moments later).
Result: you get all of the joy and advantages of suspense and surprise without the use of a jump scare or trauma-inducing element. It's manageable yet powerful.
6) The Fake Out: You knew this would be on the list, but there's also the surprise that is not actually scary. It's the bunny hopping out of the rustling bushes, causing the tension in the moment to subside.
This does two things for you. First, it lightens the tone, which can be useful for the energy level of your session (more on that in a future post). You don't always want to be going full throttle: you want to modulate speed, intensity, and heaviness, and this is a great way to ease up on all of those so that you can build up to your next crisis.
The other thing it does, though, is it heightens your other surprises. If something jumps out and it's not scary, it makes the party wonder the next time they hear a bush rustle, "Okay: is he pulling our legs again?" And if their guard is down they are legitimately surprised when the scary thing comes out. For those who keep it up the situation is already heightened for them. So it's a win-win as long as you vary up who or what jumps out at them.
Surprise is something we want in stories because it keeps it from getting stale. But how you surprise your players will make or break the scene. So vary up your surprise elements in your campaign, and regularly ask for feedback from your players.
Until next time,