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Hot Button: The Bait and Switch

Posted By Walt Ciechanowski On September 12, 2008 @ 7:26 am In Hot Buttons,Tools for GMs | 17 Comments

If you’ve gamed long enough, you’ve probably been subjected to the “bait and switch” at least once. The GM has given you the campaign pitch, you roll up characters according to that pitch, and then you find out that the actual game is very different than the one you’ve been playing. Sometimes this is obvious at the start (“this campaign is more about noble court intrigue than combat” followed by three sessions of non-stop combat) or becomes apparent as the game progresses (you create American Civil War Union soldiers for a “historically accurate campaign” only to discover six sessions in that the Confederates are being supplied new weapons by the Sontarans).

Sometimes, the bait and switch can be fun for all involved. I once ran a fantasy campaign set in Dark Ages England (there was magic, but all PCs were human). As the campaign progressed, the players discovered that they were actually playing a historical World of Darkness game, and the PCs were unknowingly bloodbound to the local bishop (and the werewolves they’d been fighting were actually trying to rid the Midlands of vampires and ghouls). The players really enjoyed this, and many were disappointed when it wrapped quickly due to outside pressures.

On the other hand, a bait and switch can be frustrating.  I once pitched a campaign in which the PCs were designing military officers preparing for the USA’s first interstellar flight. They made their characters with this in mind.  During the first adventure, the PCs underwent a battery of tests, including a five-year stint in suspended animation. While they were “sleeping,” Earth was engulfed in a world war and the PCs didn’t wake up for over a century. The players suddenly found themselves in a post-apocalyptic campaign (this was d20, so I ended up rewriting character sheets because of suddenly sub-optimal choices). While the players had fun, it wasn’t the campaign they signed up for and I (rightly) caught some flack for it.

So what say you? Where would you draw the line on the bait and switch? When is it acceptable and when does it cross that line?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.




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17 Comments To "Hot Button: The Bait and Switch"

#1 Comment By Target On September 12, 2008 @ 8:02 am

For me as a player I would want the skill sets to match. I don’t want to be suprised by having an incompatible skill set. In your last example, if my character was a scientist type it could still be viable in an explore and rebuild campaign. But less so in an aggressive mutants around every corner campaign.

#2 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 12, 2008 @ 8:10 am

Target: That’s even truer in d20. There were some “necessary” feats that became obsolete once the genre changed (e.g. Starship Piloting). While I’d realized this, I didn’t take into account that choosing class abilities/feats/etc help shape a character concept in the mind of the player which was then butchered.

#3 Comment By Rafe On September 12, 2008 @ 8:23 am

It’s fine – and often a good thing – when the story is a bait-and-switch’d, but if that or a setting change renders character concepts and abilities obsolete, then there’s a problem.

#4 Comment By Scott Martin On September 12, 2008 @ 9:23 am

Bait and switch involves a lot more mind reading on the GM’s part. Ordinarily you can pitch a campaign, and if the players say they like it, you know they’ll like it. Bait and switch risks you switching from something they enjoy to something they don’t.

Basically, you’re taking a bigger risk but it often turns out well, particularly if you’re the sole GM for the group [so they’re in the habit of following your plots anyway]. Put on your mind reading helmet and take your best stab– if you guess right, it can be fun and memorable.

#5 Comment By BryanB On September 12, 2008 @ 10:19 am

I think that the most frustrating thing for a player in Bait & Switch is when they design their character to get maximum enjoyment from campaign idea A and then their PC is rendered much weaker or relatively useless by the switcheroo to campaign idea B.

It can turn out well, but the “ill-suited” aspect of the Bait and Switch game should not be taken lightly. Example: The GM says that the campaign will primarily take place in the Duke’s Court with political intrigue, court schemes, and power behind the throne type of missions on behalf of the Duke. The switcheroo happens and the characters find themselves trapped in a rival Baron’s dungeon of doom. The player of the Rogue focused his skills and feats on being a social manipulator and a spy.

Since the characters have not developed enough to broaden out their skills a bit, the Rogue is quite weak at dungeoneering. He happens to be the party’s only Rogue because the other players wanted to play low ranking nobles, a priest, and a wizard of the court. While not insurmountable for the group, the Rogue player might feel that he was rendered useless right from the start, not being able to excel at the things he designed his character to do best, based on campaign premise A.

#6 Comment By farfromunique On September 12, 2008 @ 12:30 pm

A bait and switch, to me, is only okay if one condition is met: Are the players going to be able to do what they wanted to when they made their characters?

In the case of the middle ages-turned WoD game, they were still basically the same.

In the case of the too-far-future game, their skills were suddenly not suited to the job at hand.
If your players build combat-centered characters, be VERY wary of throwing too much intrigue at them.

#7 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On September 12, 2008 @ 12:35 pm

Back in the 80’s there was an RPG that I’d LOVE to get my hands on named “Rise of the Phoenix”. The premise was “Characters are technicians, piolots, etc… going up to repair a satilite. Once up there, oops! poorly explained pseudo science happens and when they go back to earth civilization has collapsed and everyone lives without technology or modern conveniences.” I’m a little fuzzt because I’ve only ever read reviews of it but it sounds like if it’s handled well in the system, it has the capacity to be awesome.

#8 Comment By Swordgleam On September 12, 2008 @ 1:42 pm

I don’t think I’d even try to go all-out bait-and-switch. The closest I’d probably get is to temper it; “Your characters are training to go up in the first interstellar flight. But other stuff might happen, so be ready,” as opposed to “The campaign will be about interstellar flight.”

It’s not even the mechanics as much – my players, at least some of them, put a lot of effort into backstory. It can still shape what the character does, but when all the NPCs that the player thought through relationships with are suddenly long-dead, that wipes out a lot of work.

I might have a campaign where the world changes drastically after the first session, but I would probably warn my players. They can design their characters with a sense of dramatic irony in mind – the characters are expecting a life of spaceflight, but the players know better.

I’m sure it can be fun with the right group, but it’s just not something I’d want to try. We’re all busy, so it’s not like if one game goes in a weird direction, we have five others. We all have to make our campaigns work together so we’re not overlapping too much, since we only have so much time to play.

#9 Comment By jrients On September 12, 2008 @ 3:59 pm

I’ve been a bait-and-switch victim in the past. A GM just needs to be confident enough to pitch the game as bait-and-switch: “You’re going to make cowboys but then something weird is going to happen to pull you out of a straight western setting.”

#10 Comment By Walt Ciechanowski On September 12, 2008 @ 4:15 pm

Jrients: I don’t think that it’s always a case of confidence; in both of my examples, I wanted to surprise my players.

Your comment did spark a thought in my head. In my “post-apocalypse” game, it was understood that I’d only be taking the chair for at most 3 months (we were playing weekly).

I’ll throw out another question: How much would the time factor influence what you’d consider an acceptable bait and switch?

#11 Comment By Swordgleam On September 12, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

@Walt: I’d say shorter definitely == better reaction. Bait and switch for a one-shot? Sounds awesome. Bait-and-switch for an epic year-long campaign? Might not go over so well. I’d be more likely to give something weird a try if I knew it wouldn’t last long, and I’d have less invested in a character made for a shorter game.

#12 Comment By Martin Ralya On September 12, 2008 @ 7:05 pm

In a short-term game, bait and switch is fine. In any game, if I trust the GM and they repay that trust by ensuring that our pre-switch PCs are awesome in the post-switch game, too, that’s also fine.

I can’t think of too many other situations in which I’m OK with this.

#13 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On September 12, 2008 @ 9:50 pm

It all turns on the quality of the GM, just as a “bait and switch” movie turns on the quality of the director and actors.

If the GM can hand-wave away all of the dissonance, and allow the players to flex their muscles in new and creative ways, then let’s rock.

But if the GM insists that (for instance, in a suddenly post-apocalyptic setting) nobody in the modern world knows the formula for gunpowder without it being on their character sheet, then we might have a problem.

#14 Comment By rekenner On September 12, 2008 @ 10:38 pm

When you make a NWoD Vampire that’s based on hacking and getting info and has NO COMBAT SKILL for game that’s been pitched as political intrigue and very little combat, but the game ends up being mostly combat … Yeah. That’s not going to be a fun experience in any way. When my combat actions were “Turn on Celerity and Run” or die…

Though, I blame Storyteller being a terrible system for about half of why I disliked the game.

#15 Comment By penguin133 On September 13, 2008 @ 10:10 am

I have played and enjoyed bait & switch games, found them most enjoyable of all in fact ((granted I was the GM of course!), but have never had any complaints? Basically the trick is to slightly confuse players who think they know the game off by heart while not leaving them totally marooned – I am remembering years back, (using Old Style games, by the way), where in one of my best games, a bunch of dyed in the wool Tabletop gamers signed up for a semi-RPG of Mercs in the Congo revolt of the 60s, playing a gang of Mercs trying to rescued marooned civilians. Through a stream of increasingly strange encounters they found themselves forcibly enlisted, along with the Civvies, in a battle between Light and Dark Fantasies using “Remnant” Mercenary armies along with various wierdness and magic, but less than there might have been! They ended up fighting some truly odd forces, a gang of ACW Bushwhackers, Napoleonic French, English Longbowmen (in one never to be forgotten incident a player called in off table Longbow support on HIMSELF!), etc. A Mud monster invaded the Latrine, being despatched by a Belgian lady with a Thompson. Centaur Horse Archers made hay of Orcish Infantry. A Rogue CIA Agent ran a side plot trying to defend his cache of hidden diamonds. The ultimate adversary turned out to be a bunch of SS from the WWII East Front, complicated by the fact that a couple of the mercs were ex-SS. Culmination was a massive firefight in the Mithril mines, run by the SS and a bunch of Nazi-sympathising Dwarves!
Just to demostrate that you can switch-hit players without getting too carried away by the clang of ringing changes!?
Ian

#16 Comment By Roxysteve On August 5, 2010 @ 1:29 pm

How I wish, oh I wish, I’d read this column before I got involved in that Conan game that gradually turned into D&D without the cool parts. Wouldn’t have helped, but at least I would have known I wasn’t alone.

#17 Comment By jacqie On October 27, 2011 @ 9:54 am

Once had a campaign in which we were told to roll up 7th level characters- nobles whose families had been killed. We played a good adventure and then the DM told us we had all lost a level! Turns out we weren’t our characters- we were servants who had implanted memories. The DM’s plan was to take us down to first level adventure by adventure and then bring us back up again.

There was never a second session. We’d designed characters of a certain level and then were told that our designs were going to be totally trashed. Rebellion!


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