Like all art forms, RPGs have elements which make the experience unique from other art forms. The one I am referring to (taking advantage of the storytelling dynamic that exists between GMs and players), is what allows for some really special moments.
This ability to play with the narrative expectations of the audience is not exactly unique to RPGs, nor is a new, but it does work in a very particular way. The human mind is geared to expect some sort of resolution when it comes to storytelling. If you ever wonder what it feels like to have that sense messed with, just think of how one would feel if one of these happened in a story (movie, book, game, etc.):
- A sympathetic hero(ine) is established as an idealistic but directionless protagonist. They lose everything when a marauding villain kills their family, and they spend the next five years training and learning maturity from a wise mentor figure. Then, after years of training, they go to the town where the villain lives, intent to defeat them after years of waiting. Then suddenly, a passing cart loses control at the top of a hill and comes crashing down, crushing and killing them without even any dramatic emphasis.
- A story about a happy village of cartoon bears takes a tone shift mid-way through and becomes a story focused on dealing with one of the bears succumbing to a prolonged illness, while still maintaining a chipper lightness of tone despite having many tearful bedside scenes.
- Or perhaps an action film which follows all the usual beats, save that it fades out to credits after the final “gearing-up” montage before the final shootout. Try this with any typically-structured film, and something deep in the brain reacts poorly.
Though admittedly there could be strong merit in the above examples if they were non-interactive mediums like books and movies (which are more about “presenting” a story than “creating” one), in gaming one tends to abide by the rules ancient human storytellers followed: we trust the storyteller to weave something, perhaps alongside our input, that will be satisfying.
I would argue that one is more likely to get a negative reaction in “live” storytelling when a story is not resolved in an expected way. There is an element of trust in RPGs where the players assume that the GM, unless they are purposefully being vague, will be at least slightly honest. Not all GMs are totally honest, but even the trickiest GM has to be truthful and consistent or else players will lose their minds. A GM can’t just lie about what the likely consequences of actions will be; such GMs tend to not be GMs for much longer.
And THIS is where we mess with players; that they assume you are telling the truth when you say something in total earnestness. This is a fine line to walk, and can’t be done all the time, but it is a neat trick in certain cases.
The campaign where I tested this was one where the characters were (unbeknownst to them) being subtly mind-controlled by a mummified mind-mage.
The secret lay in a specific type of interaction:
Player: “What about the passage ahead?” (or other possible direction of progress)
GM: “You feel it’s probably the right way to go.”
Player: “This situation feels suspicious… is it supposed to be?”
GM: “You don’t think so.”
The assumption that the GM is an arbiter of universal “truth” in the game, rather than an interpreter of the characters’ perceptions, is where the subtle game can be played. Players can be tricked into assuming that the GM is being totally honest, when they are really expressing the biases of the characters.
And this went on for many sessions, until the players began to catch on that all the actions I was suggesting were putting the characters in danger, despite their characters expressing desires otherwise. Once they noticed, I let them play around with how their characters were noticing that their goals were not coinciding with their feelings, and eventually they broke the control.
So long as the balance is maintained between railroading and allowing the freedom that the medium calls for, then you can get some really great moments out of (light) betrayal. Just drop enough hints that you can claim it was “foreshadowed.”