On ‘Bait and Switch’ Campaigns

‘Bait and Switch’ is the term used for campaigns that present themselves as one thing, such as Criminal Mind style agents solving crimes, and then suddenly changes to another, such as Delta Green where you’re being hunted by Lovecraftian monsters.

Or how about a game where you start playing as sword and sorcery heroes, but suddenly you’re pulled through a portal to a strange scientific future filled with mecha and laser guns.

Or you’re super heroes flying through the skies, when suddenly your powers get taken from you. Now you’re wanted criminals on the run from the law without your powers at all.

These might all sound cool to you. They do to me as well! But the difference is that a bait and switch campaign is about the game master intentionally hiding the change in theme from the players not just their characters.

Bait and switch campaigns are sometimes referred to as ‘screw jobs’ and I think that’s for good reason. They screw over the players by messing with their expectations. However in my experience the intention is often not designed to be annoying screw jobs, quite the opposite in fact. Often the GM wants to surprise the players with a massive narrative twist, one they think will be so awesome.

Yet, bait and switch campaigns are often doomed to fail.

After all, if you’ve sold me on a campaign that’s “Criminal Minds” and at the end of session three it’s more like “Call of Cthulhu” then maybe I’ll just quit? After all, I didn’t sign up for Lovecraftian horror.

This isn’t just about changing tones and themes. There’s also the issue of consent.

Consent in tabletop RPGs has evolved a great deal over the past 50 years, and it’s easy to see why. Just take a look at Reddit’s r/RPGHorrorStories which is dedicated to awful RPG experiences. At the time of writing it has nearly 15,000 submissions and 750,000 comments.

Saying “The campaign is Criminal Minds” and then suddenly throwing the campaign into ancient cults and mythos monsters not meant for mortal eyes is a massive breach of consent. Hopefully we have already established some Safety Tools but even then how can I have consented to something you intentionally kept hidden from me? It’s a bit late after the tentacle monster bursts out of someone’s neck in place of their head for me to say “Let’s not do body horror”. All for what, the GMs hope it might be a cool twist?

These sorts of big twists don’t even need to be hidden to be cool anyway. If you pitch the campaign as one where the player characters start off as normal FBI agents, but soon things go all Lovecraft, that doesn’t really ruin any actual twists or surprises. You aren’t giving away much at all – but you are letting me know the themes and subjects that might come up, giving me time to let you know what topics I’d like to avoid… or just say “No thanks, I don’t want to play in a game like that.”

Plus if the GM is worried you might say “No thanks” to their campaign idea, then springing it on you as a surprise anyway is an incredibly selfish thing to do regardless… but I honestly don’t think this is the reason most GMs want to do a bait and switch.

In fact there’s lots of RPGs and setting books out there that even instruct the GM to potentially set up the campaign as a bait and switch:

  • Vampire the Masquerade where you start out as unknowing mortals.
  • The Strange where you’re completely ignorant to the multiple recursions.
  • The Origin where you don’t know about the apocalypse and your soon to manifest super human powers.
  • Dark Heresy where you start out as Imperial Guardsmen, but soon become acolytes of an Inquisitor.

And it isn’t even an RPG thing either, after all how many stories start with one genre then switch out to another? The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe sees 1940 children evacuated from the London Blitz to an old mansion only to discover the titular wardrobe which takes them to the fantasy world of Narnia. The Matrix is about a corporate drone’s secret life as a hacker, before he discovers the whole world is a computerised prison. Countless zombie movies start off with normal life, before someone gets infected and the undead apocalypse happens.

Yet look at how all of these things market themselves. Narnia isn’t pretending to be a story about evacuees. The Matrix isn’t pretending to be a film about the secret life of a hacker. Resident Evil 2 isn’t pretending to be about a police officer’s first day on duty. They all very clearly sell themselves as what they will be not about how they initially start.

Make the characters ignorant – not the players

If we go back to our RPG examples, we can easily see how you could begin with their proposed ‘ignorant’ starts yet only make the characters ignorant – not the players.

Failing to do so means that the players will end up creating characters that either don’t fit the switched campaign, or have goals and ties to the game world that no longer apply. This disenfranchises the players, who have spent time both physically and mentally preparing their characters only to have the rug pulled out from beneath them.

I know there are many many people out there who have either ran or played in bait and switch campaigns and loved it. They had positive experiences and everyone had a great time. The genre twist was exciting and only enhanced the awesome-factor of the game. The problem however is that you just don’t know if that will be the case. You’re gambling your campaign on the hope that the players will find the twist cool, adapt their characters to fit this new reality, and become just as into it as you are.

But what if they don’t?

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