Time to go deep...
The fourth question of the 2015 RPGaDay Challenge was 'Most Surprising Game' My answer to that is question is here.
That question was poorly worded in my opinion.
Is it asking what game that I purchased surprised me? What game I ran or played? Is it asking about the setting, the rule mechanics, a single session's story, a campaign, or what? No clue. I answered as best I could.
Today's question is so much better as it asks 'How', as in 'in what way', has a game surprised me. This simple change makes me really think back on the games I've read, run, and played and consider which ones unexpectedly changed my thinking about RPGs.*
I'm constantly surprised by games to a certain extent. Not the eyes bulging out kind of surprise that makes you yell "WHAT THE...?!", complete with the ellipsis and exaggerated punctuation though. I'm talking about being unexpectedly impressed by what gaming can do. I've seen it bring people together, create moments of levity, moments of sadness, and a much needed release of tension and pressure. I've used it to teach English, to teach teamwork, and as a purely creative exercise.
If I had to pick one game that surprised me more than any other [and trust me this isn't easy], it would have to Star Trek. Specifically Star Trek, The Role Playing Game by FASA, but all Star Trek gaming is included here for the purposes of this explanation.
In my early Star Trek campaigns, which I ran more like a universe that people lived and worked in and not a TV show, I first discovered or perhaps first realized that tabletop RPGs could be about more than fighting villains and saving the day. Sure, we had that but we also had moments of discovery, investigating mysteries, and getting to know who the PCs and NPCs really were. Star Trek, far more than D&D and my Superhero games, featured truly three dimensional characters with more than cardboard cut-out friends, relatives, and enemies.
It was one of the first games I ran wherein the players and the PCs liked the NPCs so much they were willing to protect them at risk of injury to themselves. Not in a vague 'Protect the Innocent People of This City' way you see in some Superhero RPGs, but in a direct, personal way.
I will never forget my friend Dave's Chelonian Chief Engineer trying to evacuate Main Engineering before a section of the room exploded, when the NPC Asst. Chief told him to go to the bridge. The NPC knew someone had to stay behind to activate the shielded doors that would protect the rest of the ship and contain the blast. Dave's PC said he would do it, as the NPC had a wife and a child. Besides he was the Chief and it was his duty to stay behind. The NPC insisted he be the one to do it as Dave's PC was the only one who could get the ship fully up and running after such a devastating incident and the ship was still under attack. Basically, if the PC saves the NPC the whole crew could die. After a brief altercation between the two friends, the NPC pushes Dave's character beyond the door frame and seals himself and the blast inside the chamber.
Dave almost cried. The other players needed a moment. Everyone was worried about the NPC's family.
That had never happened before. Not quite like that. Not to that degree.
I am happy to say it wasn't the last time something like that occurred.
That first time though...I wasn't definitely surprised.