Here’s one that should sound pretty standard. A group of adventurers are sitting around in a bar, when someone comes up to them spinning tales of peasantry in need of heroes, foul beasts in need of slaying, and ruins packed with untold riches awaiting plunder. All it requires is a simple voyage northward to the glacial tundra for this campaign to begin.
“No thanks,” say the adventurers.
The quest-giver’s jaw slacks in surprise. Whyever not? Surely you’re brave souls, in need of experience and coin? Adventure awaits!
“Well, because he’s a desert nomad not used to cold, he’s an ice wizard who hunts fire creatures, and having grown up in that wretched place, I’m thankful that—for the first time in my life—I’m warm!”
And with that, the game has stalled at Clichesville before starting. Sure, the GM can come up with more plot hooks, or change all the background visuals for the campaign from Ice Stage to Fire Stage and run it that way. Or if they want to be that guy they can just railroad the players into going there—kidnapped relatives, antitoxin for the plague they’re infected with, evil wizard who hates the players just found a teleport scroll.
This kind of thing doesn’t show up that often in campaigns, which is probably a good thing for the GM. After all, they either invested money in a pre-packaged campaign, or spent the time and effort planning out some grand enterprise for the players. Which brings us to the buy-in.
To me, every game has a buy-in that begins from the moment you make a game pitch. If you say to me, “I want to run this game set on the moon, where all the players are high society who solve mysteries,” I start thinking of character ideas for some science-fiction universe on the moon. It’s one of the big unspoken social contracts, but when you’re pitched the great moon-based game of far-future intrigue and diplomacy amongst the stars, I don’t show up and immediately jump in a rocket and drag the other PCs (and plot) off to Borneo, never to return. (Same goes for the GM; you don’t leave the moon forever in session one of what you sold as a moon-based game, that’s a bait and switch.)
The buy-in is a player accepting the pitch, thinking it’s interesting enough of a premise to play in it, or even if they’re not that sold on the concept, shrugging and seeing where it goes. It’s an admittance that the game’s premise and the plot, as explained from GM to you, is something you’re willing to play: you joined up for the moon game knowing it a sci-fi drama, not because you wanted to play a two-fisted martial arts game, or had this totally sick barbarian build you wanted to try. Especially since that’s not the bill of goods the GM and other players sold.
I don’t think there should be 100% rigid adherence to the original game idea, especially as in-game events change things so much that it’s quite conceivable that the players may leave the moon, never to return, because of something they did. This is also over-simplifying the game pitch down to a flimsy one-sentence idea to get the point across, since I would totally run/play a game of barbarians on the moon. But, you know what I mean.
For the GM: Know What You’re Selling
I mentioned above that it works both ways, and it’s a fine line the GM needs to walk if they have some grand surprise they don’t want to ruin.
For example, I played in one Savage Worlds game where the pitch was “You’re Confederate cavalry raiders in the Civil War,” but the first session revolved around some random demon-thing (?!) showing up and sending us to Barsoom, which was what the GM really wanted to run. In another, we were told we’d be playing Shadowrun 5th high-society in utopian Detroit, which sounded pretty badass. You always see Shadowrun from the gritty streets, what’s it like living at the pinnacle of power? Ten minutes into the game we realized we were playing Mad Max: Cyberware Edition as the apocalypse struck and the matrix crashed.
There’s a couple things that could have been done in these situations:
- Do the bait-and-switch: pitch one thing, run another. I’ve never seen this pulled off, though, since players have built characters expecting the game to go in one direction and instead see it go in another. They may end up stuck playing a campaign, genre, or theme that didn’t interest them to begin with. You’ve sold them on one idea, only to shoot it in the head and bring out something else. Some groups and players will roll with that. For me, I just get pissed off.
- Just be honest: tell your players that you want to run a Barsoom game and that you’d like to start out with them on Earth, before they planeshift to Mars. Done. It ruins your big first-session reveal, but you don’t end up with pissed-off players. Besides, if you’re going to play that surprise in session one, it’s probably not that great a surprise—it was only a surprise once and under specific circumstances. Think up some real ways to surprise them once they get to Barsoom.
- Start the game as pitched, but slowly incorporate elements into the plot that showcase there’s something greater at play, foreshadowing the big reveal that will happen some sessions down the line. This takes a lot of time and effort to pull off, eating up a few months of gaming or more, but when it works it’s amazing. One of my GM friends was a master at this, and even though we could suspect any game he ran had underlying secrets to discover that would change everything, we still had to discover what those secrets were.
- Drop some hints that there’s an entry-level surprise waiting to happen in session one, so that the specifics are a surprise, but the fact there’s a surprise is an open secret. One 3.5 D&D game I played in had the open secret that the players would be shipwrecked on an island, and we were told not to bother worrying about things like equipment or companions. I tried to do the same kind of thing when I was running my Dresden/Deadlands hack; when they’d bring up equipment, I’d recommend they not worry about it too much, that it’d make sense after the first session, and comparing the game to Momento. (The plot involved them waking up in a barn, and trying to piece together their recent past.)
I’ve had a few instances where what the players wanted to do and what the plot demanded conflicted; most times I split the middle, following the players but adapting the plots and intrigues I’d worked on. (Case in point, my long-running Dynastic Exalted game.) And usually it was due to not pitching the desired plot in enough depth—trying to keep it a surprise, but without giving enough direction to begin with, such as when my ex-roommate tried to run Victorian Age Vampire without explaining more than “I’m running Victorian Age Vampire.” At which point our group, brave souls that they are, grew bored and would make their own damn direction.
Got to love proactive players, yo.