Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Surprise Is Overated

People love surprises, or so goes the saying. When we have something big coming up, something that could alter the game or the relationships of the characters in the game, our natural inclination is to keep it a secret. We don't want people in on it until it happens in game. Why? Because we have it in our heads that when it's done as a surprise that we'll get a more authentic reaction. The only problem with that is that while a surprised player might give you an emotional reaction to what just happened, it might not be authentic, or even how the character would react. Today, I want to talk about that, and why it may be worth at least telling your GM before you spring a big one on your player group.

Each Character Has Two Minds
I'm not sure about your group, but in my group every character pretty much has two minds. There is the character's mind - their headspace or whatever you want to call it - and the player's mind. Basically you have the IC/OOC divide, but both are fueling decisions. With rare exception we're not slaves to our characters, and our player brains can hard force a character to act in a way they otherwise might not.

The problem here is while I say it is 2 minds, it really is only one: the player's mind. The character is just a character. The character can feel things, but those feelings are derivative of our own feelings and ability to be empathetic. This is why a lot of PCs are little better than wandering murder hobos. The player brain is fixated on a goal and the rest isn't real so there is no reason to feel emotions.

Who Is Really Surprised?
So, if a character can't actually feel things, or can only feel things when the player wants it to, then who are you surprising? The player, and only the player.

A Surprised Player
Surprise is a fun thing when you think about it. It makes people act in weird ways. Some freeze like a deer in the headlights. Others get violent. When the surprise spurs an emotional reaction that is anything other than 100% good, the mind tends to want to do one of two things: destroy the offender, or protect the self. You want to see someone get defensive really fast? Surprise them with hard criticism about something and if they don't freeze ("Huh? What are you talking about?") and you actually get them to speak right away, it will probably either be an attack ("Hey, $(@( you, man") or something to their defense.

Bring That Into Game
Bring that into game and what you have is the Player's lizard brain getting in the way of the game. They just got surprised - and odds are by something not good. Even through the filter a character provides, if the player is empathic enough to have their character feel emotions and they're in character mindset, their brain isn't going to know that the emotion is just for a game - especially when surprised.

So what happens? You get a surprised response but from the player and not the character. Perhaps my Lion bushi would respond with violence to news his sister and mentor is a traitor, but as a player I may withdraw when given bad information like that. The emotion hits, the brain processes, and I withdraw. Then, later, a very cold and rational response comes out of my Lion bushi while my brain is still playing catch up. You got a response, but it isn't one that is authentic to the character.

But What If You Knew?
But what if the player knows ahead of time? Well then there is no surprise. Even better, without the surprise it isn't as huge a hit. The player can digest the information, and then run it through the character filter. They can see that their PC would react with violence, while they would perhaps not. Then, when it happens in game you can get that response from the character and life goes on.

But I Don't Want To Tell...
Honestly, this doesn't mean you have to tell, but you should at least consider telling your GM and asking them what they think. If nothing else the GM should know the players and how they may react OOC and if that will override things IC or not.

Also, some players don't have this issue at all, others do, so your mileage may vary. Still, give it some thought before springing a doozy on someone.

1 comment:

  1. When springing surprises on my players, I always give them a heads-up before the game. Usually I single out a specific PC who gets to have a surprise-moment in the spotlight and most of the time the player knows what kind of directions he or she can take. They know I'll _always_ give them two options and they'll be able to create a third option if they found additional information (or a fourth if they realize something I haven't yet). It doesn't look like much, just one or two sentences before the game, but it surprises ME how much it impacts the player if I make sure the player will expect a surprise or a mindscrew coming. Most of the time, it adds a whole new layer of immersion for the player him/herself, if he/she knows there is something coming at least. Also, with one of my players, the anticipation is half the fun. She LOVES knowing something her character/the other players don't know (yet).