You’re GMing when you’re struck with an awesome idea for a new setting or campaign. This is so cool you simply can’t wait for the current campaign to end. Instead, you throw the player characters into this new reality. I call such sudden shifts Everything You Know Is Wrong (EYKIW), wherein everything both players’ and characters’ assumed about the universe and how it functions is now null and void.
While this is a powerful plot device for a novel or movie, it has several choke points for player adoption. Revealing a campaign to have been a dream or false reality is likely to violently jar the players out of their shared suspension of disbelief, making them unwilling to continue. I have been a player in three such campaigns and only once did it continue past the EYKIW event, and even then it ended 4-5 sessions later.
Why does this happen? I have identified two reasons: Enforced Character Disassociation and Terminal Momentum Derailment.
Enforced Character Dissociation (ECD) occurs when the GM suddenly changes something which yanks the player out of character. This can happen independent of an EYKIW event. Suddenly declaring a character had previously murdered their parents when this hadn’t been in the characters back-story would likely force player to rethink their characters personality and portrayal. Usually the player will prefer to abandon the character, assuming they don’t simply turn on the GM instead.
The core conflict is the player started play under certain assumptions which became the foundation for how their character responded to situations. Rewriting this foundation removes player certainty of how the character is supposed to behave. It also becomes difficult for the player to consider the character “theirs” anymore as the GM’s plot has extended into rewriting player characters, making player involvement optional. Inducing ECD in all players simultaneously through an EYKIW event compounds this exponentially.
For example, revealing that the characters of a pseudo-medieval setting are actually different characters in a sci-fi setting is an enormous ECD inducing event. Only the most understanding and flexible of players would be enthusiastic about such a change. For the GM, this isn’t an EYKIW event since he planned it. This is not the case for the unsuspecting players though. Everything invested into the portrayal and development of their characters has now been invalidated.
The Dwarven Fighter who fought hordes of Goblins to regain his clans Mithril Hammer of Smiting and spent years improving himself to be worthy of such a weapon is now an 18 year old human boy living in a far-flung future with no Dwarves, no Goblins, no reclaimed clan relics, and mundane stats again. It’s like reaching the last chapter of the Lord of The Rings and having chapter 6 of a Star Trek novel pasted in. This leads to the second reason for player abandonment.
Terminal Momentum Derailment (TMD) occurs when the plot is so damaged that no one can sustain the mental and emotional energies to continue pushing it forward. Usually this is brought about by external factors such as poor player attendance or inordinately long breaks between sessions. It can also be caused by internal factors such as boring plot lines, overly frequent side treks, or excessive interruptions. When triggered by an EYKIW event, it usually expresses itself in two ways.
One, the players lose so much will to play due to ECD they don’t feel like or even know how to continue acting their characters. They’re trying to reintroduce themselves to their own characters as well as simultaneously learn about and understand an entirely new setting, understandably they don’t know what they would or should be doing next.
Even if you change the setting, but leave characters unchanged, it can still trigger an EYKIW event. If D&D characters step through a Dimension Door spell and end up in 1950’s New York instead of the Wizards keep, the characters may be the same, but the players ability to use most of their PCs abilities has been voided, at this point you may as well have switched characters. ECD and TPD will still occur.
Two, the GM isn’t exempt from TMD either. He planned the EYKIW event and might even have a new plot-line ready, however his plans rarely will anticipate player ECD too. When they don’t move with the shift, he’s left prodding players onto responding which easily degenerates into railroading them, provoking player abandonment entirely.
With all these risks, what’s a GM to do? The easiest response is to avoid EYKIW events altogether. This is highly recommended as a successful mid-campaign change of this nature is difficult for even the most experienced GMs. However, we’ll assume this is undesirable.
One strategy which should be obvious, but is often overlooked, is to involve the players in the transition, thereby transforming it from an EYKIW into an event anticipated by everyone, not just the GM. Ones first inclination is to reject this as it removes the element of shock and surprise players experience from having it sprung on them without warning. To this I say, leave such stage tricks on the stage where the audience is expected to passively observe. You wouldn’t drastically alter the script of a live stage play and expect the cast to seamlessly continue on stage as though nothing had gone wrong, so why expect the equivalent of your players?
This has many advantages. Instead of becoming drive-by victims of your campaign change, players are now partners, contributing to the planning. They may even have better ideas than you alone had scripted. Their participation ensures the event is free of ECD or TMD. They’ll be prepared – not only will they have new characters’ ready, but they’ll be prepared as players and performers to continue on through the event and directly into post-event plans, thus preventing the second aspect of TMD as well.
Another strategy is to thrust the characters into action the millisecond the EYKIW event occurs. This is critical as even if the players are pre-involved with the event it’s still jarring for the characters. Immediate action prevents a “well, now what?” character response. Here’s an example of the immediacy I mean:
The party flee the evil Overlord’s collapsing stronghold. The Dwarven fighter turns to congratulate the Elven wizard when a klaxon sounds and a loud voice calmly proclaims, “Hull breach. Decompression imminent. Orbit destabilized.” The PCs look around, wondering what spell this is. Did the Overlord have an unknown ally? The PCs lose all sense of their surroundings as well as their sense of self.
The characters then awaken in a hot, coffin-like chamber, not knowing where or even WHO they are! The coffin opens of its own accord with a hissing sound revealing a small metal room lit by a blinking red light. Their minds finally clear enough for them to remember who they are. Their relief is short-lived however as they realize the Sim Chamber shouldn’t be lit with the emergency lights and there DEFINITELY shouldn’t be the smell of burning plastic and electronics! The automated warnings of “hull breach”, “decompression”, and “orbit destabilization” are now terrifyingly comprehensible to these young residents of the orbital city above the surface of 22nd century Mars!
Marty, no longer “Krungan the 12th level Dwarven Clan Defender”, rushes to the computer display and frantically types a query. “System Offline: error C14-J5KL009.”, responds the computer.
“What’s happening?” wails Cecilia, who fervently wishes she were still Elendonael, the 300 year old Elven Archmage, HE would never be helpless if the world crashed into a planet! He would just teleport to safety!
The door to the Sim Chamber opens and a badly burned man wearing a scorched ‘Mind Over Matter Inc.’ uniform shouts, “You kids gotta get outta here! Tranquillis is falling! Head to the Evac Pods now!” He lurches left down the hall towards the lobby. An explosion harshly lights the hallway as pieces of paneling and shreds of a Sim Chamber Attendant uniform fly past. As black smoke curls in from what used to be the lobby, Marty stares into Cecilia’s eyes, “I guess we head right then?” as shock starts to settle in…
A scene like that would immediately thrust the players and their characters into the new plot in mid stride, deliberately not giving them a chance to lose momentum or become lost in being disassociated with who they no longer are as a character. Rediscovering themselves gets shelved in favour of immediate survival and you’re able to put them into the thick of things right away with no momentum-stealing contemplation. Figuring out who they are and what to do happens in between avoiding falling debris and escaping the crashing orbital city (or possibly saving it – whatever the plot provides).
This two-pronged approach of player involvement and post-transition turmoil removes the underlying cause of the risks by preventing anything from disrupting the players capacity to continue performing within the game. Creating a reality-disrupting occurrence affecting the setting and characters is fine, so long as it doesn’t simultaneously disrupt the game and the players.