Plot Twists and More: Adding Surprise to Your RPGs

A collection of blue dice

Have you ever led your adventurers into a seemingly calm village, only to unveil a hidden plot that turns their world upside down? This moment is the essence of surprise in storytelling – a tool that can transform an ordinary session into a rollercoaster of emotions and excitement. Using surprise in RPGs is not just a twist in the tale; it’s a pivotal component that keeps the narrative vibrant and players perpetually engaged.

Crafting surprises in RPGs is an art that requires finesse and creativity. A well-placed surprise can rejuvenate interest, spark lively discussions, and keep players invested in the story. Whether it’s the sudden return of a vanquished foe, the revelation of a hidden ally’s true motives, or an unexpected shift in the game world, these moments add a layer of depth and unpredictability to the gaming experience. The importance of these well-crafted surprises cannot be overstated, as they are crucial in making RPG sessions not just memorable, but truly extraordinary.

The Essence of Surprise in RPGs

The power of surprise in storytelling, especially in RPGs, lies in its psychological impact on players. Humans are wired to respond to the unexpected; it triggers a rush of emotions and heightens our interest. When players encounter a surprise, it disrupts their expectations, prompting a more intense focus and investment in the narrative.

Narrative twists aren’t just about shocking the players; they’re about enhancing the dynamic storytelling of your game. A twist can be a revelation that changes the players’ understanding of the story, or an event that alters the course of their quest. These moments contribute to a more vibrant and evolving narrative, keeping the players on their toes and deeply engaged in the unfolding story.

This foundation of surprise in storytelling sets the stage for a more thrilling and captivating RPG experience. There are many techniques and approaches you can use to keep your storytelling fresh, dynamic, and profoundly engaging for every player at the table.

Techniques for Crafting Surprises

The Art of Foreshadowing

One of the most crucial aspects of crafting an effective surprise in RPG storytelling is the art of foreshadowing. Foreshadowing is the subtle hinting at events to come, which, when done well, can make the eventual surprise feel both shocking and inevitable. It’s a balancing act: give away too little, and the surprise feels unearned; too much, and you lose the element of surprise.

Tips for Effective Foreshadowing:

  1. Drop Subtle Hints: Incorporate small, easily overlooked details early in the story that hint at future events. These could be snippets of conversations, mysterious symbols, or odd behaviours.
  2. Use Symbolism and Themes: Leverage symbols and recurring themes to hint at future developments without being overt.
  3. Create Parallel Situations: Introduce minor events that mirror and foreshadow larger plot points to come.
  4. Leverage NPCs: Non-player characters (NPCs) can be used to drop hints or foreshadow events through their actions or dialogue.

Types of Surprises in RPGs

Surprises in RPGs can take many forms, each bringing a unique flavour to the narrative.

  1. Plot Twists: These are fundamental shifts in the story’s direction that catch players off guard. For example, in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, what if the players discover the kingdom they are saving is actually the true antagonist of the story?
  2. Character Revelations: These involve unexpected truths about a character, perhaps revealing hidden loyalties or secret origins. Imagine a player in a Shadowrun game finding out their trusted street contact is actually an undercover corporate spy.
  3. Unexpected Encounters: These are unanticipated events that challenge the players. In a game like Call of Cthulhu, this could be an unexpected encounter with a mythic entity that forces players to rethink their strategy.

There are lots of options you can use to add an element of surprise to your games. By employing these techniques and types of surprises, GMs can create a rich, dynamic storytelling environment that keeps players deeply engaged and invested in the narrative. The key is to weave these elements seamlessly into the story, ensuring they enhance rather than detract from the overall gaming experience.

Balancing Surprise and Coherence

Incorporating surprises into your RPG narratives requires a delicate balance. While surprises add excitement and depth, they must also fit seamlessly into the larger story to maintain coherence and believability. The challenge for GMs is to keep players on their toes without veering into a narrative that feels chaotic or disjointed.

Strategies for Maintaining Balance:

  1. Align Surprises with the Story Arc: Ensure that each surprise has a place in the broader narrative. It should contribute to the story’s development rather than feeling like a random addition.
  2. Avoid Overloading: While multiple surprises can enhance the excitement, too many can overwhelm and confuse players. Space them out and keep them varied to maintain interest without causing narrative fatigue.
  3. Prepare for Different Outcomes: Be ready to adapt the story based on player reactions to surprises. This flexibility helps maintain story coherence even as unexpected events unfold.

Using Player Feedback to Enhance Surprises

Player reactions and feedback are invaluable in refining the use of surprises in your RPG sessions. Observing how players respond to different narrative elements can provide insights into what works and what doesn’t, allowing for more tailored and impactful future surprises.

Leveraging Player Feedback:

  1. Observe Reactions: Pay attention to how players react to surprises. Are they excited, confused, frustrated? These reactions are key indicators of the effectiveness of your storytelling and can inform how you continue the narrative.
  2. Encourage Open Discussion: After sessions, ask players what they thought about specific surprises and plot twists. This direct feedback can be incredibly useful for future planning.
  3. Incorporate Suggestions: Be open to player suggestions and incorporate their ideas where appropriate. This not only improves the game experience but also makes players feel valued and involved in the storytelling process.

Surprises should enhance the narrative, not detract from it, and should always serve to deepen the players’ investment in the unfolding story.

Maximizing Engagement Through Surprise

To keep your sessions vibrant and engaging, it’s essential to keep your surprises fresh and unpredictable. Here are some tips to ensure your surprises always have the desired impact:

Tips for Fresh and Engaging Surprises:

  1. Mix Up the Types of Surprises: Avoid relying on the same kind of surprise. Alternate between plot twists, character revelations, and unexpected encounters to keep players guessing.
  2. Timing is Crucial: The best surprises are those that come at just the right moment in the story. Pay attention to the pacing of your narrative to find the perfect opportunity for a surprise.
  3. Connect Surprises to Player Actions: Surprises that stem from players’ decisions or actions feel more integrated into the story and add a layer of depth to the gaming experience.
  4. Use Cliffhangers to End Sessions: Ending a session with a surprise cliffhanger can be a powerful way to maintain suspense and ensure players are eager for the next game. 

The element of unpredictability is what keeps players invested in the story. When players can’t predict every turn in the narrative, they become more attentive and involved. This unpredictability not only makes the game more exciting but also encourages players to think creatively and strategize more effectively.


Incorporating surprise in RPGs is an art that can profoundly enhance the gaming experience. By mastering the balance between surprise and coherence, leveraging player feedback, and keeping surprises fresh and unpredictable, GMs can create unforgettable narratives that resonate with players long after the session ends.

Now, we’d love to hear from you! Share your experiences and tips in the comments below. What’s the most memorable surprise you’ve introduced or encountered in an RPG? How did it impact your game and your players?

Leave a Reply