How To Twist Your Plots

From Johnn Four

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0677

A Brief Word From Johnn

Hobo Heroes

Just over half of you are rooting for the Murder Hobos in my campaign. That’s about right. They’re bad at being good, but not good at being bad. I think it’s time for them to step up.

Last week I posted this poll. 22% are hoping the villains win the campaign, lol! Well, with three terrible demons now raging and ravaging the land, I think you might be right.

Thanks to everyone who voted.

RPT Omnibus #6 and Exclusive #12 Just Released

Exclusive #12 Clues & Back Stories

Pic of Exclusive 12 cover

Good GMs don’t tell. They show. They let gameplay and character actions reveal the story. But campaign back stories challenge this advice. How do you show the history of people, places, and things important to your adventures?

Exclusive #12 is in response to this tip request about clues and back stories from RPT Subscriber Jamie.

Become a Patron today for as little as $2 to get this 17 page PDF as well as the previous exclusives.

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RPT Omnibus #6 Issues 647-650

Also recently added for Gold and Platinum Patrons is the latest Omnibus. It contains collected and re-edited issues of #647-650 for your offline reading pleasure, plus a bonus article about how to create something I call The But Reversal Technique, which is another type of plot twist, to keep your players on the edge of their seats constantly wondering what’s going to happen next.

Here’s the table of contents of its 126 pages:

  • Brief Word From Johnn
  • Dresden Files & Fairy Tales
  • How to Make Mythical Monsters
  • Focusing the Spotlight
  • How to Motivate Wandering Monsters
  • Monsters Under The Skin
  • GMing Monsters Part 2: Animated Objects
  • One Unique Thing For Your NPCs
  • Six Interesting Hazards
  • Story Overlays: Add More Plot to Your Traps
  • Using Flags in Your Game
  • War-Winning Missions
  • The But Reversal Technique

My designer also sent me the first proof for a print version of Omnibus #6. That’s very exciting to me because I’ve been wanting to get my books into print for ages and it’s been a tough nut for me to crack. If #6 goes well then I’ll be putting all the other Omnibuses (Omnibi?) up on DTRPG and elsewhere.

Get some gaming done this week! Hopefully I get to run another Murder Hobos session Friday.


How To Twist Your Plots

I titled RPT#76 “7 Plot Twisting Tips, Part 1” and then never officially published Part 2, lol. Today I’m doing a refresh of the article and adding a couple of new techniques to help you orchestrate more surprises in your plots, as an unofficial sequel to RPT#76.

I love plot twists. Those gaming moments where shocked players fall off their chairs (well, mine stand up and yell and shake their fists at me). Game surprises make memories we relish as GMs and become legendary stories your players tell others.

My players are smarter than me and they outnumber me. I’ve learned you need to go subtle to execute successful plot twists. If your group is like mine, they’ll talk out loud about permutations and possibilities. It’s guaranteed someone will mention the plot twist I had planned and ruin the surprise. I don’t blame them, because it’s fun speculating, letting your imagination play with potentials, and treating the plot like a puzzle you figure out.

Therefore, I have two new approaches to twists – subtlety and consequences – and both work well. In today’s article I talk about these new approaches and a few other ways to twist your games.

Be Subtle

Give clues about the surprising truth but don’t tip off they’re clues. And play the long game. Traditional advice has you ensuring players pick up your clues and creating clue redundancy in case players miss your first hints. With twists, we go the other direction. We put stuff in plain sight but give no indication it’s special. Keep your poker face on, keep your voice steady, don’t give away anything.

Do this consistently over the course of several sessions.

Then reveal the twist.

This works well. Players assimilate the information but don’t focus or dwell on it because you’ve given no signals it’s special. When players don’t pick up on a detail being special, they don’t play the plot twist guessing game, and your twist remains a surprise.

For example, the villain is the innkeeper’s son. Each time the PCs return to the inn the son is there helping them with their gear and horses and asking them a thousand questions. He looks at them with big eyes and stokes their egos. He says he hopes to be part of their adventure some day. Players won’t think to detect alignment or magic on the boy. Why waste the spell, right? And the child hero-worshipping them puts the PCs off-guard. And the inn-boy mini-trope makes the NPC practically invisible to the party that has bigger problems to tackle. Meanwhile, the villain hears all the details about the party’s secrets and discoveries, he has a chance to look through all their stuff, and he can sabotage things at will.

Watch magic shows. Look at all the ways magicians take advantage of our brain’s awareness and focus limitation. The way they move and talk, keeping you distracted from what’s really happening. When our PCs learn the stable boy is the evil mastermind, they’ll be standing up and shaking their fists. They’ll be focused on the villain now. They’ll want to exact revenge. And they won’t see the next twist coming at them – where the stable boy is actually the bastard son of a PC.

Think Consequences

I suck at chess but I love the game. It was the first thing that taught me to think three steps ahead. (Only three steps? That’s why I suck at chess.) Rarely do people think outside the moment and envision the dominoes of their actions to see what might fall. This includes players. They’re caught in the moment thinking about the game, their character, the rules, their acting, the situation. They’re not thinking ahead.

So, perfect grist for plot twists come from the consequences of their actions. If you don’t see what’s coming as a result of the decisions you make, then it’s all plot twists to you.

The key to this technique is to game the trigger, cut the middle, and reveal the consequence.

Game The Trigger

Run the game as normal. Let players make their choices. Roll or roleplay for success or failure.

This is your standard gaming. I prefer to keep a poker face when bad decisions get made because my players are very experienced. Let the dice roll where they may.

This is a good time to mention I enjoy positive or beneficial plots twists too. For example, if the PCs are just exploring and whack a group of trolls in their cave, then discover later this saved an entire village from the creatures’ reign of terror, that’s a cool plot twist and fun for players. Jaynestown from the Firefly TV series comes to mind here.

So at this point, we’re just gaming the immediate results of character actions. Results are good or bad, in good spirit or with malign intent, it does not matter at this stage.

Reveal The Consequence

I’ll switch the order of the timeline here and talk about the end part, where the twist gets revealed.

Take the characters’ actions and figure out cause-and-effect several steps down the line. Think butterfly effect.

A nice approach involves a sequence of NPC actions and reactions. The PCs do something. NPC A is affected and they react. That reaction affects NPC B, who then takes some action. The ripple effect grows as either NPC A and B escalate actions, or more NPCs get involved.

For example, in my Murder Hobos campaign the PC paladin captured a goblin and made him his squire. Then the party discovered an invisible zombie beholder in a magic pool room and attacked it. They didn’t know it was a zombie beholder, a creature too powerful for them to whack. So the party fled the room and slammed the one-way door behind them, trapping the goblin squire inside.

The goblin squire was sure he was going to be eaten, but he didn’t attack the beholder and the creature left him alone, happy to resume his programmed guard duty. The goblin overcame his terror and got thirsty. He drank water from the pool. It turned out the pool was waiting for a hero to come along and anoint him as The One who would save the land by killing a terrible demon. The goblin was ordained The One and given some cool magic items from a secret compartment in the base of pool’s statue and then released from the room. Oh, and the goblin was granted the zombie beholder as his steed.

The goblin went out and used his demon-finding shiny new sword and killed a few minor demons in the area. He got some good practice in and some experience. Repeat.

A few sessions later the goblin met the PCs on the road. He revealed himself and blew the players’ socks off. As they learned the whole story, they were standing at the table and shaking their fists at me.

The point here is I reacted to gameplay. I let the game play out. I had big plans for the paladin, who was to have drank from the pool and become The One and guide the party into a demon hunting campaign. The paladin was, let’s say, a gritty kind of paladin. An ends justifies the means type. So I figured he’d have loved a zombie beholder as a mount. And the weapons and armour were legacy that would grow in power as the character leveled up. There were other magic items of legacy in the statue as well, for the other party members. But the goblin squire was not interested, and looters later snatched them up from the now defenseless pool that lost all its magic once it fulfilled its mission to ordain The One. Who knows where those items are now? Sounds like more future twists.

After letting gameplay do its thing, I figured the goblin thing out between sessions. The party trapped the goblin in the room. The goblin got thirsty. And so on. I designed the consequences and then revealed them to the PCs for the plot twist.

You can do the same thing. Let the PCs do what they do. It’s guaranteed they’re going to have an effect on your NPCs, plots, and plans. Between sessions, string together three or more cause-and-effect reactions to the party’s actions. Use your storytelling skills here to make the effects interesting. That’s our job – to make things interesting.

Cut The Middle

Now we go back to step two. First, we let the gameplay offer us interesting possibilities. Last, we extrapolate what happens behind the scenes as a result of character actions (or non-actions). In the middle, we let a bunch of time pass without telling the players what’s brewing. I call this Cutting the Middle.

The players trap a goblin in a magic pool room. Several sessions go by and the players don’t hear a peep. Then they encounter the goblin, who’s gained levels and has all this bling and has this amazing story to tell, and it’s a shocking twist.

If I had kept updating the players with news about the goblin, it would have been entertaining, but the whole shock + twist effect would have been lost. If farmers, merchants, and travelers had spread stories about a demon-hunting goblin riding a zombie beholder, my players would have instantly figured things out, gotten a good laugh, and maybe even tried to track the goblin down (and taken his stuff).

But by cutting the middle – letting time pass and having things ferment – then arranging a big reveal encounter, the twist worked.

You can do this by taking any cause-and-effect sequence you’ve figured out, waiting a session or two, then revealing the end point to your players. You can explain the middle however you like later, but the time delay and evolution of consequences from earlier gameplay will create a great twist for you, whether it’s minor or major.

The great thing about this approach is you can make retroactive changes as much as you like up to the moment of reveal. As more gameplay happens, you might see opportunities to make new connections or take your chain of cause-and-effect and vector it into a different direction. That’s a benefit of Cutting the Middle.

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How To Twist Plots

From Max B.

My style of GMing isn’t creating plots/stories from scratch, but taking existing ones and twisting and turning them ad nauseum.

There are (in my experience) six methods of plot tweaking. Let’s take a simple adventure outline (“evil wizard kidnaps a princess”) and see what the application of those methods will give us.

As Is

It’s just a basic plot with cosmetic changes (e.g., names of the wizard and princess, method of kidnapping, place where the captive is held). Okay, it isn’t a tweaking per se, but creative changing of details can make interesting adventures. Must be done with caution though – it gets boring after several repetitions.

Upside Down

One of the major plot elements is changed to its direct opposite. Maybe the evil princess somehow locked the wizard in his tower (and must be in the same tower to keep him locked). Maybe the wizard didn’t kidnap the princess, but instead rescued her from a terrible death, and so on.

How Many Of Them Are Here, You Said?

Too many, actually. For example, ten or so evil wizards compete with each other in an attempt to capture one princess. The evil wizard captured not one, but many princesses. Last month there were multiple captures of princesses by evil wizards, but only one is Really Significant.

Bait & Switch

Imagine the wonder of the PCs when they discover something is absent in the story. The wizard didn’t kidnap the princess, he’s just deluded that he did. Or the kidnapped girl isn’t a princess, but her female bodyguard is (16th level fighter capable to escape on her own, by the way, and bored and angry because she has orders not to). For a really complicated twist, both wizard and princess are impostors – she is a cleaning maid and he’s a wizard’s would-be pupil (and where on earth are the REAL princess and wizard?).

Amateurs, Damn Amateurs!

Something’s gone terribly wrong. The wizard’s servants were so lame they lost the princess soon after kidnapping. Now she’s somewhere in the wilderness/city slums/Astral Plane, and nobody knows that!

For King, Country And Sheer Fun Of It

Humorous story twists are good, if done well. Probably this tweaking method isn’t so great when used alone, but it is when used in conjunction with other ways. For example, what if the wizard kidnapped many girls and ancient custom dictates the savior must marry one of those he saved, and only one PC is noble enough to be considered eligible for royal marriage?

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Divide An Adventure Into Steps & Twist Each Step

From Jim W.

Always produce something that must be accomplished before the main plot point, 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.

[Comment from Johnn: Some might not call these twists. I’m keeping the definition loose because I think anything that will surprise the characters 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 reveal them at the last moment as a new requirement, or add a twist or surprise to some of them.]

Twist On Three Different Levels: Encounter, Story, Campaign

An encounter twist offers a simple surprise with no intentional effect on the bigger picture. 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. Limit a campaign to one or two twists to keep things simple to manage. For example, the war was secretly started by allies for economic reasons, the recovered treasure turns out to be just one piece of a larger artifact, or the prophecy is thwarted resulting in the trigger of an even more devastating one.

Use Magic Or Technology

Create a situation where something is not as it seems by using magic, mental powers, or technology. Orchestrate the twist so its sudden reveal shocks, or turn the scenario into a series of clues and the players are rewarded for successfully deducing the unexpected truth (Scooby Doo style).

For example:

  • Appearance. The person or thing dealing with the PCs is 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 gentleman on his deathbed.
  • Illusion or virtual reality. Using Star Trek’s holo deck, the whole scene is a sham, perhaps for use as a subtle interrogation or test.
  • False readings. Modified sensors, signals, or equipment readings trick the PCs or someone the characters know.

Combine Two Different Stories

Have a lot of fun by creating a couple of different story lines then mixing them together to create a new one with a twist.

Here’s how:

  1. Create two independent story lines.
  2. Determine the Why? from each story.
  3. Switch the Why? from one story with the other.
  4. Smooth over any rough edges.

Story one: The villagers are starving. Why? A monster has settled in the area and is eating their crops, livestock, and food stores.

Story two: A nearby wizard in his tower is creating a wondrous magic item. Why? It will magically extend his life another ten years.

Switching A with B gets us: 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.

Switching B with A gets us: 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.
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Meta-Game Twist: Switch Genres On The PCs

From Bryan S. and David H.

Start the session and have the players believe they are playing one kind of game, then have them find out later on 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 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 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, PCs will start out as FBI agents investigating 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.

It would be 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 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 the late H.R. Giger’s web site for inspiration. Go to the Sculpture and Furniture sections for ideas, cool player handouts, and magic and tech item ideas.)

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 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 player suspicions just in time to surprise them again. And by making the side-adventures short, you won’t delay much the main, twisting plot. However, be careful not to make this too 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 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!

Use Real World Weather Records

From David

I thought I would share a GM tip of mine, that I used in my last campaign, in case others find it useful.

For incorporating the effects of weather I picked a real world region geographically similar to the region of my campaign. I was running the Slave Lords campaign and choose the Gulf of Mexico as the real world approximation of Wooley Bay, because it was similar in terms of latitude and a mostly enclosed sea.

I then identified real world location equivalents of the campaign world. e.g., Safeton = Galveston, Highport = Veracruz.

I picked a real world date in the past and considered that the starting date of my campaign.

Then I used real world weather history to tell me what the weather was during my campaign.

For example, if I considered my campaign to start on 19th March 2014, then the weather at Safeton (Galveston) at the start of the campaign would be warm, humid, and gusty.

The weather history information includes all sorts of useful stuff like sunrise/sunset, moon illumination, and precipitation.

At one stage in the campaign, the timing of the tides was relevant as I had to determine if footprints on the beach below the high tide line were washed away or not by the time the PCs arrived. So I looked up the tide information for that real world location equivalent on the real world date that matched the campaign date.

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Awkward Co-Creation Transitions

From Johnn Four

RPT has posted many times the idea of getting player help in creating the plots and details of your campaign. It’s not my idea – many others have said it before me.

When I think about my own campaigns, though, I don’t do this. And this week I thought about why. It comes down to awkward transitions. My style of game is to keep the players thinking and gaming in-character for as much of the session as possible.

To stop and ask out of character, “Mike, what’s this guy look like?” or “Jason, there is an inn in the village – please give me a name, description, and a couple interesting qualities about it…” is to stop the flow of the game for me.

I try never to say a player’s name during a session, and just use their character name. This keeps me in-character as GM as much as possible. And to rip players out of in-character mode and have them think as players to create game details…well, I believe that’s my job so the group can stay in character as much as possible and have an immersive experience.

So it comes down to awkward transitions for me. I’d like more player co-creation. But transitioning between in-character and out-of-character mode is tricky.

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How do you do it in your games?

From Alex Bender

A GM I had requested each player prepare a 2-4 session mini-arc that could be injected into the flow of the larger campaign. The player would submit the entry and exit points of the campaign to the GM so he could handle the transitions.

During the mini-arc, he would play the PC as true to how he saw that PC show up, while the player was the full GM during that time. If the player wasn’t sure about how to run, or felt rusty, he and the other more experienced players would help out with rule decisions and such.

It provided a great opportunity for the players to experience scenes that would otherwise be outside the box from the GM’s normal toolbox of events.

From Vorona

The Dresden Files RPG has players and GM collaborate at the beginning on the setting and character/NPC prior interactions. This approach helps with staying in character since it is easier to become invested in the story. I also think doing co-creation either before or after (or both) the session could work well, either as separate sections within the session or electronically between sessions for more minor aspects of the setting or story.

From Philippe “Sildoenfein” D.

Ask them about what their character should or could know. You might go farther with things like “Is there anything you instantly dislike in a inn? Because if there is, it’s probably how this inn is. So, is there? What is it?”

What can also work without getting OOC is when a character is not present in a scene give that player an NPC to play, then ask questions to that NPC. Not for everybody, but with the right player, it works superbly.

From Arne Babenhauserheide

I often do stuff like asking “how did you happen to come together here” (skipping several hours of an introduction session :)) and sometimes I let players describe someone from the background of the character.

Also, scientific details are often up to the player who is most proficient in them. Sometimes I’m so direct with that to say “you can’t get in there, can you explain why?” (but that’s a bit dangerous — those who know the science are often also the ones who like solving problems based on that tech, and for that it’s essential that I define it, so they can prod it as environment).

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From Izak Flash

[Comment from Johnn: this is a quick tip I saw on G+ and it gelled with this week’s feature about using consequences for plot twists. So use Izak’s idea as a reminder to think beyond the dice next session.]

Once, my wizard player cast a fireball at a ruffian who was permanently disfigured by the attack.

Lots of screaming and stuff, not just your normal 10 hp off business.

The ruffian went on to go crazy and start a lynch mob/cult around killing the “fire demon” wizard.

Hassled him every time he went into town to resupply.

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Turn Tracker

From Zachary Zahringer

Put it in a sheet protector and use a dry erase marker on it:

Screenshot of turn tracker

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