7 Plot Twisting Tips – Part I

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0075

  1. Divide An Adventure Into Steps & Twist Each Step
  2. Twist On Three Different Levels: Encounter, Story, Campaign
  3. Look For Ways To Use Magic Or Technology To Create Twists
  4. Combine Two Different Stories
  5. Meta-Game twist: Switch Genres On The PCs
  6. Don’t Twist Too Much
  7. Twist In The PCs’ Favour

Readers’ Tips Summarized

  1. Speeding Up Combat & Use Tape To Protect Index Cards
  2. Three Types Of Campaign Structure
  3. Use Magazines For Wilderness Player Handouts
  4. HeroMachine
  5. Two More Methods For Speeding Up Combat

A Brief Word From Johnn

New Contest: Topic Ideas Requested

My sponsor, FunUSA.com, has given me two more gift certificates and I thought I’d hold a contest that will benefit everyone and would be easy to enter.

There are two prizes:

  • $30 gift certificate (US funds)
  • $20 gift certificate (US funds)

Send in a topic idea that you would like to see covered in a future Tips issue, and you will be entered in the draw. One entry per person, though multiple topic suggestions are welcome.

Your topic feedback about what tips everyone can provide to help improve your GMing or your group will benefit all subscribers because it will help me continue to publish information that’s important to you. Chances are other GMs will be interested in your topic(s) too!

Send your entry to: [email protected]

The contest deadline is midnight, May 26th.

Lots Of Twists

Thank you for your plot twist tips and stories! I’ve got enough for three or more issues, which I’ll spread out over the next few months. I’ll be putting the stories into a single email for those that are interested in reading about other GM’s campaigns. I’ll let you know in an upcoming issue when the email will be available for request.


Johnn Four
[email protected]

7 Plot Twisting Tips – Part I

Check out the original Readers’ Tip that inspired this issue.

Divide An Adventure Into Steps & Twist Each Step

Jim W. submitted this tip and he explains it well:”Always produce something that must be accomplished BEFORE the main plot point the PCs are working on, preferably three or four things. For example, the giant ants are terrorizing the locals and must be dispatched, but first you must find a way to neutralize the poison they secrete before you can get to the queen, but this requires finding an herbalist who has been kidnapped by goblins. The players have a bigger picture in mind, not just an immediate goal.

“Some might call these twists and some might not. I’m keeping the definition pretty loose because I think anything that will surprise the characters and/or players is worth discussing. To get the most out of Jim’s tip, write out your plot or story line as a series of steps and then add a twist or surprise to some or all of them.

Twist On Three Different Levels: Encounter, Story, Campaign

A great way to organize and plan your plot twists is to look at them on three different levels: encounter, story or adventure, and campaign.An encounter twist is a simple surprise that has no intentional affect on the larger picture of things. Its main purpose is to make the encounter interesting and entertaining. For example, the PCs spot an enemy camp and creep forward to scout it out. However, they discover the camp was a ruse to lure them away from the main group and a trap is sprung.

A story twist turns the plot on its head and changes the course of the whole adventure. For example, the PCs’ employer is secretly related to a character and has evil ambitions (Luke, I am your father), or the scientist is actually an android, or the new monster allies unintentionally infect other races with a killer virus.A campaign twist is like a story twist, just on a grander scale. Try to limit a campaign to just 1 or 2 twists, if any, otherwise things can become difficult to manage.

Examples are: the war was secretly started by the *allies* for economic reasons, the recovered treasure turns out to be just one piece of a larger artifact, the prophecy is thwarted, but then it is learned because of that another, even more potentially devastating one, is triggered.

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Look For Ways To Use Magic Or Technology To Create Twists

Create a situation where something is not as it seems by using magic, mental powers or technology as the means. You can orchestrate the twist so that it is suddenly revealed and the players are shocked, or you can turn the scenario into a series of clues and the players are rewarded for successfully deducing the truth (Scooby Doo style).For example:

  • Appearance. The person or thing the PCs are dealing with is cleverly disguised. The characters would never willingly work for a demon, but they would be hard pressed to turn down the humble request of a poor, elderly gentleman on his deathbed.
  • Illusion or virtual reality. (i.e. Star Trek’s holo deck). The whole scene is a sham, perhaps for use as a subtle interrogation or test.
  • False readings. Sensors, signals, or equipment readings are deliberately modified, perhaps to trick the PCs or someone the characters know.
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Combine Two Different Stories

You can have a lot of fun by creating a couple of different story lines and then mixing them together to create a new one with a twist or two.Here’s a simple way you can do this systematically:
Step 1) Create two independent story lines.
Step 2) Determine the “why?” from each story.
Step 3) Switch the why? from each story with the other.
Step 4) Look at the possibilities and choose the best one.
Step 5) Smooth over any rough edges.For example:

  1. The villagers are starving. Why? A monster has settled in the area and is eating their crops, livestock, and food stores.
  2. A nearby wizard in his tower is creating a wondrous magic item. Why? It will magically extend his life another ten years.

Some of the switching possibilities are:

  • A village is starving because a nearby wizard has magically extended his life another ten years. Perhaps the magic item backfired or has a bad side effect?
    • The wizard turns into a monster at night
    • The wizard now must eat five times as much food
    • Food spoils, livestock dies and crops wither in his presence
  • A local wizard is creating a magic item because a monster has settled in the area. Perhaps the monster is a rarity and will be the perfect ingredient needed to create a powerful artifact?
    • The wizard takes the monster for a walk every night and fattens it up on the nearby village’s food.
    • The wizard summoned the monster but it got away.
    • The villagers bought the monster and let it loose near the wizard’s tower to attack and kill the evil mage but the plan backfired.

Meta-Game twist: Switch Genres On The PCs

Bryan S. and David H. wrote in with this tip, and although it isn’t suited for many groups and it technically isn’t a plot twist, I thought you might find the concept interesting or inspiring. You might want to consider using this tip for a one-shot game, or for when some players don’t show up and you need an alternate plan for the evening.What you do is start the session and have the players believe they are playing one kind of game, then have them find out later on that they’re playing another one entirely.

For example, a few years ago I started a new campaign by supplying the players with pre-made D&D characters. We played for a few hours until things became very dangerous for the PCs–it looked like they were dead for sure. Suddenly the PCs found themselves in a spaceship straight out of an H.R. Giger painting. I switched the players’ D&D character sheets with some Cyberspace (Cyberpunk done I.C.E. style) character sheets. It turned out that the PCs were testing a top secret VR project on a space station.

I won’t bore you with the details, but the whole scene worked extremely well.In an upcoming campaign (I hope my players don’t read this!) I plan on starting the PCs out in a modern campaign as FBI agents investigating some illegal mob activities. However, as the story unfolds things get more sinister and soon they’re hot on the trail of an Old One–an ancient demonic horror. I’ll be switching from modern day espionage to Delta Green (akin to the X-Files TV show), a Call of Cthulhu campaign.

I think it would be extremely rewarding to play in a campaign where the whole rug of reality gets pulled out from under your feet–much more effective than if you knew from the start you were playing an esoteric game vs. a true modern day one.A couple of notes on this topic:

  • Universal game systems (GURPS, FUDGE, d20, Metaverse) are best because you can switch genres almost seamlessly (and not give away your plans).
  • Create custom character sheets. In my upcoming Delta Green campaign example, I will be creating generic character sheets that don’t say “Delta Green” in large, block letters at the top.
  • Make sure your players won’t mind the switch. Some people are 100% loyal to a specific genre, and others have strong, negative feelings against certain types of genres.

(By the way, you should check out Giger’s web site HR GIGER for inspiration. Go to the Sculpture and Furniture sections for ideas, cool player handouts, magic/tech item ideas, etc.)

Don’t Twist Too Much

Be careful not to twist things too much, especially the classic twists that deal with relatives, employers and rewards. Players will soon learn to expect twists and there’ll be no surprising them then. Also, your players could become jaded or cynical of your stories, and that’s bad too.Space your twists out. Have stories with no twists, many twists, few twists, twists on twists, and so on.

Do anything within the rules and that’s fair to keep the players on their toes–they’ll thank you for it by eagerly showing up to your sessions!Something else you can try is, after you’ve revealed a major twist, run two or more very short stories or side adventures that have no twists in them, and then run an adventure with another twist. By putting brief, no-twist adventures between major twists you will lull the players’ suspicions just in time to surprise them again.

And by making the side- adventures short, you won’t overly delay the main, twisting plot. However, be careful not to make this a regular pattern as your players are smart and they’ll catch on.

Twist In The PCs’ Favour

Be sure to add in twists that work to the characters’ advantage. These kinds of twists are guaranteed to surprise your players and give them some joy.Also, watch their reactions when you do this. A good measurement of your players’ cynicism and expectations based on their experience with you as GM is how they act when they get something for nothing.Have them stumble over a small treasure pile that has a logical reason for being left unguarded (for example, the thieves and the guardian killed each other).

If the players don’t believe that they can take the loot unmolested, make snide comments about waiting for the other shoe to drop, or simply leave the treasure behind in the belief they’d be better off without it, then you know you’ve set them up or tricked them too many times.Perhaps it’s time to play it straight for awhile and re-gain their trust. And then go easy on the twists after that so you keep their trust. It’s hard to surprise suspicious, over-cautious, and cynical players who have been burned too many times–and that means everyone has less fun.

Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Speeding Up Combat & Use Tape To Protect Index Cards

From Riftalope

I wanted to add a bit more to the tips on speeding up game combat: plastic covered, pre-made, three by five card monsters in a box. One of my area’s GMs has spent his otherwise boring waiting moments in the car (long trains in his area) rolling up basic monsters and popping the index cards into a file box. He gives them a little bit of personality, like smelling bad or foppishness, and slaps clear tape over them. When a game hits a random encounter of something, like orcs, he pulls out the cards and shuffles. A great effect when you wonder how many he’s quietly pulled out.

As the combat goes he can put dead cards back in the box. He’s also ready if we capture one, having a more in depth persona already picked. He found three inch wide tape that you can write on with a pencil at a supply store and got a box of eight. I think standard half inch tape would do if placed over the areas that change. I put it on my character sheets so I can use a pencil on hit points and weapons.

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Three Types Of Campaign Structure

From Marcus Pregent

I run my games one of three ways. I use these methods to bring a more cinematic approach to the games involved. I feel that style is much more immersive and deepens the storytelling. I’m really big on story, not just dungeon crawls or sporadic adventures. Also, there are no “random encounters”. All action scenes are designed around the furthering of the plot, even if that is to illustrate that an area is dangerous.

One method is to use a Book format, where the campaign is structured like a series of novels. Each gaming session is a chapter in that Book and when the Book is done, the campaign comes to a rest, somewhat. Typically this is ended on some major plot development.

Another method is the TV series approach, with each session being an “episode” and with X number of episodes per “Season”. I typically use 6 episode seasons, but more or less could be used. For instance, my Cyberpunk campaign “Firestorm” is run just like it was a cable series. The PCs and NPCs have actors chosen to represent their appearance. This makes it fun, since we all know exactly what that person looks like and allows for all kinds of fantasy casting with no budgetary constraints.

The final method is the Movie approach. This is one short story that takes place over a few game sessions. This is great if a long drawn-out campaign is not to your liking, or you are desiring to play in a given genre or game world. I sometimes get an itch to run a certain kind of game and this method allows me to create a story for only that itch. For longer campaigns, I use the above methods.

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Use Magazines For Wilderness Player Handouts

From Brandon

[I recently sent Brandon a previous Readers’ Tip on using National Geographics for wilderness pictures to get players’ imaginations going (I also recommended the National Geographic CD Rom set for screen capture). Here is Brandon’s response:]


Thanks for the tip-off on National Geographic. If you’ve been using their photos, I would suggest going to a news stand and looking through the photography journals there. Libraries are good for back issues if you find something you like. I picked up an issue of Digital Photographer awhile back and found a plethora of great landscapes in it!

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From Andrew


Roleplaying tips is a great resource for us over worked GMs. Pictures of characters can be a huge help to visualize characters and even better for NPCs but many of us can’t draw. But Hero Machine at http://www.heromachine.com/heromachine.html will draw them for you.

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Two More Methods For Speeding Up Combat

From Belladonna Drake

The last newsletter included tips for speeding up combat, [ RPT#73 – 6 Ways You Can Use Names To Enhance Your Campaign, Part II ] and there are two that I didn’t see mentioned but have been invaluable to me over the course of the past two decades. I don’t know if they deserve mention in the newsletter – but I thought I’d pass them along.

Sessioning Combat

There are a number of ways to do this, but the thrust is to make a single roll or set of rolls for the entire combat scene along with a description of the overall intent of the characters, and then let the game master, referee, or story- teller describe the entire combat scene as one contiguous story without breaks or interruptions, including summarizing how the characters fared in the end (damage, etc.).

Sessioning works remarkably well in one respect, it prevents the heroic character from suffering the slings and arrows of capricious dice at inopportune moments – often very difficult to explain for the game master in the heat of battle.Player: “I missed?? How could I miss? He’s on the ground, I have my foot on his chest, and I know this broadsword better than my own mother!! What the Hell?”Game Master: “Um – well, hmm – y’see – uh – the sword, uh, got hung up in your backpack and uh – damn. Reroll.

“Never fun for anyone – especially the game master.The easiest way to session a combat scene is to have the players each make a single offensive and a single defensive roll – with whatever modifiers taken into account based on ability, terrain, and circumstances – and then have the game master do the same for the opposition.The second way is to create a pool of all the dice that might be relevant to the encounter (combat skills, dexterity or athletics skills, perception and awareness skills, etc.) and just have the players roll the whole lot for their characters.

Assign a benchmark based on the same pool for the opposition, and then judge the combat based on the number of successes over the benchmark.i.e. The monster has a total die pool of 50. Assume half to be successes – 25. Each character must roll their pool, and only the successes in excess of 25 are counted.

So Bork the Wanderer with his pool of 43 rolls 28 successes, meaning he counts for 3 -whereas Allynda Hotpants has a pool of 39, but rolls 32 successes – so she counts for 7 over the bad guy, while Glivver of the Downturned Mouth has a pool of 30 and kisses his parts goodbye with a roll of 15 – a full 10 under the beastie du jour.

Game Master Controlled Combat

This one has been invaluable to me while co-running this online Chronicle, and even worked once or twice during tabletop play. Essentially, the game master makes all rolls both for and against the player characters – simply asking the intentions of each character as the fight progresses – or just at the outset.This allows the game master to do two very important things -keep track of things clearly and easily and take into account things they know about their world that the characters should know but the players may not know or may forget in the heat of die rolling

(‘These creatures spew acid if you hit them at close range for that much damage, your character should have known that – but you decided to attack anyway, so . . . oops.’).And, also prevent sudden and inexplicable changes in tactics in the middle of a fight that come about due to player intention rather than character intention (‘My Warrior ALWAYS goes berserk and charges into battle headlong, fighting in berserker mindset until the enemy is defeated!! Wait – HOW much damage did you say he got hit for? Um – he retreats. Immediately. I don’t care what I said, he’s outta there.’).

Both of these methods can often turn the long, arduous process of roll-respond, roll-respond, into exciting, breathtaking, and enjoyable sessions – though the game master MUST be fair and impartial from beginning to end. Though – aren’t we always? (snicker).