Some of you already know what the Payoff is. It's that moment where there is a stillness in the air, where nobody is really breathing, where nothing is really happening. It's that moment where all of those days (or weeks, or months even) of planning finally come to fruition. It's that moment where your players are stunned for a moment, but then start to grin and nod their heads. One will mummer "cool" and another will give you that approving nod. The Payoff is an odd combination of surprise, plausibility, and all-around coolness. The Payoff is that moment where you've committed art.
Some of you already know what the Payoff is. It's that moment where there
is a stillness in the air, where nobody is really breathing, where nothing
is really happening. It's that moment where all of those days (or weeks, or
months even) of planning finally come to fruition. It's that moment where
your players are stunned for a moment, but then start to grin and nod their
heads. One will mummer "cool" and another will give you that approving nod.
The Payoff is an odd combination of surprise, plausibility, and all-around
coolness. The Payoff is that moment where you've committed art.
The Payoff works in many ways. It can be that moment when a player opens a
door and discovers who the master menace really is. It can be that moment
where a player finds a codex and finally deciphers the writing on the wall.
It can be that moment your loyal NPC is revealed to have been a no-good
traitor all along. The Payoff can be anything.
Making the Payoff happen, however, isn't easy. In my experience, it takes a
lengthy amount of planning and a lot of patience. A nice, juicy plot point
can easily be ruined by impulse or flat-out stupidity.
I spend a lot of my RPG time as a game master these days. As a game master,
I try to design the best games I can. That may seem like a silly
statement, but I've spent enough time playing games that were bland and
uninspired -- I'll never understand why some people play RPG's. Rather than
settle for mediocrity, I strive to make my games memorable and enjoyable. A
lot of that success (when it's achieved) depends on the Payoff.
Here are a few suggestions on how to make the Payoff work.
Suppose there is a NPC named Bob. Up front, Bob appears to be a nice,
amicable fellow. Bob is introduced to the party in Game 2. But little do
the players know, Bob is a lackey of the Master Menace and has been planted
to spy on the players and thwart their efforts as best he can. Now if Bob
up and betrays the players in Game 3, there's no real impact. They haven't
had a lot of time to get to know Bob so why do they care if this NPC
suddenly turns stag on them. Maybe they'll be a little more stringent when
they pick up strays in Game 4. But, other than that, Bob's existence was no
big deal. However let's suppose Bob saves Player Two's hide in Game 3.
Then, in Game 6, he offers to walk Player Four's dog. And, in Game 18, he
helps Player One get elected as president of Olympus. By this point, Bob is
one of the gang, a real go-to guy who's there for his buds in a pinch. But,
then, in Game 20, when the players go to confront the Master Menace, Bob
tries to stab Player One in the back. Are the players shocked? They should
be! One of their best friends just pulled a Judas on them! That's an
impact and it may have dire ramifications. Player One may grow to distrust
everybody. Player Two may sink into a depression. Player Four may become
over-protective of the dog.
Okay, so Bob becomes a traitor in Game 20. Everybody is shocked. In fact,
they might be too shocked. Sudden twists of events might surprise your
players, but it also might make them paranoid or incredulous. Player One
may go through the rest of the campaign doubting everybody since Bob became
an out-of-the-blue traitor. Player Two, while shocked, may be annoyed
the Bob situation doesn't make total sense. If Bob never acted like a
traitor, then it may be hard for some to swallow he was a traitor. To
get closer to the Payoff, you have to lay down a few hints. Maybe Bob was
caught rummaging through Player Three's backpack in Game 7. Maybe Bob was a
little too ruthless with that enemy soldier in Game 12. And maybe he copped
an attitude with Player Four in Game 17. If the players had enough reasons
to have a degree of suspicion about Bob's true nature, then maybe they'll
turn to each other and say "well, there was always something not quite right
about Bob." Foreshadowing can diminish the shock value of the Payoff, so it
should be done in subtle doses. But, I've learned it's usually better
to foreshadow and establish credibility rather than turn everything upside
down at the drop of a hat. Plan your Payoff, don't improvise it.
Okay. So, Bob is traitor and that really shook everybody up. At this
point, it's probably not a good idea to make Jane a traitor in Game 22. In
fact, you probably shouldn't introduce the traitor concept again in this
campaign or the next. You might can revisit it three campaigns down the
road, but it's something that should be handled differently each time. You
don't want to become the game master that always sneaks a traitor into the
game. The are plenty of other things you can do to achieve the Payoff, so
never rely on just one thing. The Payoff is very much a "use it, don't
abuse it" type of thing.
As kinda stated in Point 3, you don't want to use too much of a good thing.
What you use is really up to you and the tastes of your gaming group. For
example, maybe a player discovers he's the long-lost descendant of a
Hero King. Or maybe he discovers he's the lost son of a Demon Prince and
maybe that's why said Prince takes a keen interest in his adventures. Maybe
your group is involved with time travel and a player ends up becoming one of
his own ancestors or the ancestor of his arch-enemy. Maybe your best friend
had a gender change. The Payoff has endless amounts of variety.
Fun Factor / Common Sense Factor
Last but not least, there's the Fun/Common Sense factor. Don't
throw something stupid at your players. For example, if you're running a
Shadowrun campaign, don't have Boba Fett appear as the Master Menace. The
Payoff is the moment where all of the players get giddy and yelp "awesome."
It's not the moment where they groan and tear up their own character sheets.
The Payoff can be a wonderful thing if cultivated and nurtured. It can add
an extra oomph to your game and make your players look forward to the next
game. It can be the thing that keeps your games from being mediocre. Sure,
it take some practice to get it right and you won't always get it right --
I've fumbled more than one Payoff. But, when it works, it's a thing of