That’s Not How That Works
When I started running D&D games, I was running them for a group of people that had been playing for years. We had all read the rules, and we knew how to operate within them. Craving something a bit different though, and realizing that doing the unexpected always ended up making the best memories, I decided to bend some rules and shake things up. I’ll preface this by saying that all of these suggestions were successfully used; the players were excited at encountering something totally new each time. Here’s how I did it:
- I bought a new book as soon as it came out, Libris Mortis. This book had new monsters and game mechanics they had never seen. Easiest way to surprise players is to buy a book they don’t have, and tell them that they are not allowed to access the book while you’re using it in your campaign. (This, to me, is like telling someone not to open their Christmas present until December 25th… they can ignore you, but they’re just ruining the fun for themselves)
- I used rules that were meant for monsters, on the PCs. I used the monstrous hunger rules (meant for different varieties of undead) when I made a character addicted to human flesh. I also allowed a character to gain a “monster only” feat after they had an epic encounter with a deadly beast. By taking rules/abilities that players (as opposed to DMs) don’t often bother reading, you find content they didn’t know was there. How many players would even know what you were talking about if you said, “You have gained the frightening ability of a krenshar!” (Please don’t do that one specifically. Gross.
- I, on occasion, have used rules differently than they are meant to be used. The most memorable example was when I presented my players with a porcelain bowl of water (ok, it was a toilet) filled with a pure, still, clear water. The bowl was covered in rime, and sitting at the bottom were two severed, cupped elven hands, perfectly preserved, holding a ring. When a player put their hands in the water (even with gloves on) they immediately took a ton of cold damage, and made a reflex save. If they succeeded this reflex save, they had drawn back their hands too quickly, and their hands snapped off.
I’ve said it before, you should not break the rules until you fully understand how they work, since following the rules most of the time is what will make these moments so special. You also never want your players to feel like they can’t understand how the game works. Make sure that there is value in all the time they’ve spent playing and learning the game. That being said, there is no harm in reaching back into some older versions of the game, or even different roleplaying systems completely, to find a little rule or two that no will ever see coming.