I love to be surprised. In a good way. I love it when a movie has a twist at the end, and deconstructs the narrative I’d been building for the last 2 hours.
I love to hear my brain going "WHAT?? WHAT JUST HAPPENED?!?"
Examples in cinema would be too many to enumerate, but some of my favorites would be The Usual Suspects and The Machinist.
RPG narratives allow us to use and many times build our own universe, and it is easy to fall into stereotypes and clichés: the grieving human widow, the evil orc, the money mad trader, the obsessed cultist. Usually all human, and/or mixed race, and/or something that would be at home in the Tolkien books.
To this, I ask only one word: WHY? Why not defy the usual expectations, and come up with something that would not cost you anything and will not take any extra time, but might make that character or NPC remembered for many moons to come? So here are 6 ways to make your game less predictable and funnier at no extra effort.
1. Sex –
Here I need to tread carefully, for it is VERY thin ice. Even in the early 21st century, and I guess due to the medieval feel to some fantasy settings, it is easy to fall into sexist stereotypes, women as evil sorcerers, grieving widows, etc. Defy that. Change the rolls. Maybe the woman is the hunter or ranger in the family household and the husband is the homemaker. If it’s normal in the 21st century, why wouldn’t it be in any other world? (Many so called "less advanced" societies – and I realize this is a really wrong choice of terms – have a tendency to be more even-handed between the sexes. If all elements of the tribe don’t share responsibilities, the tribe dies). So when you’re determining the sex of that character/NPC/baddie (if any), think about it; are you falling into a stereotype? Or could you mix it up and make it more egalitarian, interesting AND surprise your players?
2. Race –
Race issues are especially true in Fantasy. 50 years of Star Trek have taught us that there are good and bad aliens of the same species (for all your Sci-Fi RPG’s out there), but Tolkien, and now Peter Jackson have made sure to make it absolutely clear that elves = good, orcs = bad. Again, why? This is part of the lazy idea that everyone in the same kingdom/tribe will have the same attitudes and ideas. If you’re prepared to accept that there are other sentient races, you should also be prepared to accept that they should have at least the same range of personalities that we do.
So mix it up. Have an orc scholar, dropped as a baby outside the library, and raised inside as a foundling. Have an elf baddie, obsessed with racial purity. Or a drunk one. Maybe your fighter is a poet. Maybe your butcher is a goblin, your baker is a dragonborn and your candlestick maker is a thiefling. Maybe humans are the minority in that kingdom, living in Short-Ear Quarter. What could they bring to a mainly non-human settlement? Mix it up!
3. Monster Manuals have more than 4 pages –
Monster Manuals are huge, and still people only use – and I’m going to be generous here – 10 species as NPC’s, usually the same as playable races. Why? I LOVE to actually having to show the book for people to visualize the new arrival. Find new and different races for your NPC’s. I’ve used Aarakocra (think humanoid eagle) apothecaries and Ogre pub landlords. My militia sergeant was a Shadowrun-sized Troll and I had a drow selling meat-on-stick (He was very vague about what noises said meat made whilst alive). See point 2, there’s no reason why you need to stick to what has been done before.
4. The Story –
There are apparently only 7 different stories, and every single tale is a rehashing or combination thereof: Overcoming the Monster, Rags to Riches, The Quest, Voyage and Return, Comedy, Tragedy and Rebirth. Now most of these will again fall into known and well tread paths. But… Why? Why can’t The Quest be backwards? Maybe the adventure is done, and the ACTUAL adventure is a flashback. Why can’t Overcoming the Monster be the Monster asking for help? Why can’t a dragon ask for help because his/her mate has been captured by an evil princess/prince?
5. Play with the grey –
Do you know one of the reasons that Disney movies are so fun? They are simple. Not just the plot, the characters. The moment Jafar or Ursula showed up on screen (or if you want to go waaay back, Maleficent), were you in ANY doubt they were evil? Completely, absolutely, irredeemably evil. Disney animations works in absolutes, you don’t have to. Play with the grey. Get some subtlety in there. The ‘evil’ character might feel compelled into evil actions by a secret overarching plot issue, say, a kidnapped relative. The ‘good’ character might choose do evil for the greater good. Say killing a village to stop a plague. Don’t make your characters black and white.
6. Bring it together –
At the end of the day, everything that I wrote so far are just guidelines. Put pen to paper, write a couple of bullet points. And then, when you finish, go through it again, and change the details. Sexes, races, narrative points, motivations. Subtly, nothing major.
I promise you, that when the minotaur fabric market seller, or the lady barbarian, or the water elemental construction worker show up, people will lean over and pay attention.
Your players will love it, and it will be much more memorable.
Also the castle’s garbage disposal is a shaft going into a Gelatinous Cube in the cellar. But you guys knew that, right?
Rui is a Portuguese scientist that, after a decade doing odd things in labs, became a teacher. Then, 18 months ago, RPG’ing came into his life and he is now happily juggling the two. In the past, he’s lost his voice after caw-ing as an Aarakocra as well as playing every morally ambiguous NPC you could shake a stick at. He lives in England with his partner Joana, an ungodly number of potted plants and at least 3 to 4 Adventures across as many rule systems, at different levels of completion. He can be reached at @atomic_rpg
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.