I love surprising myself when I GM.
Years ago, I ran just over 50% of Paizo’s Age of Worms adventure path. (Someday I intend to finish that). I’d customized many things throughout the course of the adventure, but most of the game remained pretty close to the adventure as written; and most of the NPCs did not change from from their magazine descriptions one bit.
Around the middle of the arc, the heroes had to track down a great and wise wizard who mentored the wise and great wizard providing patronage to the PCs thus far. Basically, Gandalf’s boss. When they found him, I realized I didn’t have a picture for the big boss wizard, so I rattled through my brain for a well-known actor who I could tell my players to picture.
For some reason, I settled on Sam Elliott. And not just his face; I pulled off one of the few vocal accents I can reliably perform. The Great and Mighty Wizard was a cowboy.
Roger the GS at Roles, Rules, and Rolls offers many great suggestions for busting cliches like this in role playing games. Using examples of a webbed ceiling, a one-armed statue, and a well-apportioned meal laid out in an ominous place, he gives examples of how to upend expectations for rich role play experience.
Here’s my take on Roger’s three examples:
- The ceiling covered with webs that can be burned away is actually part of the root system of a long-buried Memory Tree. This ghostly tree serves as sort of spiritual generational library, where seven generations of a noble family of wizards stored their knowledge and memories upon their death. If players find a way to excavate the tree, in gratitude, it will offer each player the answer to one question before ascending to the astral realms. If players find a way to burn the tree… well, have you ever seen the kind of haunting that seven generations of angry wizard ghosts can pull off?
- The one-armed statue is a warning built by adventurers to conceal a secret and deadly tunnel. Players examining the statue will likely find the hidden tunnel. Players who observe that in addition to missing its right arm, the statue has other wounds covering the left side of his body–and anyone with a modicum of wisdom will see that this statue warns of deadly traps that cover the right side of the tunnel.
- The well-apportioned meal in the dungeon is the remains of a previous explorer’s spell. Under the table is a rug, and under the rug is a small pocket dimension that admits only those who have fought a demon. Characters may rest in this dimension, and leave it satiated and healed of most non-grievous wounds. The wizard thought about erasing the spell, but realized most seasoned adventurers would “not fall for” the trap of the meal in the dungeon, and so let it be. The rug may be removed from under the table, rolled up, and transported easily–the pocket dimension moves with it. The dimension will admit 2d4 persons before it disappears for good.