How much should you try to surprise your players?
On the one hand, you don’t want the story to be too predictable, and for everything to always run the same way. You want to keep the players on their toes a bit, otherwise you’re just running the same battles over and over, and they’ll always know which way to turn, and there won’t be any point negotiating because they know exactly how to influence the character.
On the other hand, the players need some consistency. They need to have some idea of what will happen and how things might pan out so they can make plans (particularly the strategists). They also need some coherence to the encounters – if every encounter is a different monster or twisted in some weird way, you’d better have a good explanation for the story-tellers. If they’re fighting goblins in one room, why would they suddenly encounter dwarves in the next and a dragon in the third? And having got their head round goblins, they will be prepared for goblins in the next room too, so won’t approach it appropriately for the dragon.
Also, there should have been some clues as to what would be coming. The goblins will have a very different lair to the dragon, very different left-over bones, different cavern size, different tracks. The dragon, being larger, would have wider-reaching environmental effects and should have been telegraphed long before they actually reach the lair.
I suspect I have a tendency to tweak things too much so that every encounter is different, and not to make the clues clear enough. Since I know the whole world, it easier for me to anticipate and to spot the clues that I know I’ve put in there. For the players who don’t know the extent of the lair and might not be listening at the crucial time when I drop the hints into the descriptions, it might all be too subtle. It’s not a novel where they can flip back a few pages and check. And they only have the information I give them – no additional information in the style of Sherlock Holmes. And of course, they’re not Sherlock Holmes with his vast training on what is significant, they’re just ordinary people.
So when creating scenarios, I need to remember to put in clues and foreshadowing, and paint the clues big so that they can pick up them and feel the triumph of working it out and then being prepared for the encounters when they come. The fun comes when they overcome challenges, not when they’re baffled.
Tomorrow we have “Triumph” and “Calamity” combined.