While running the first adventure for a group of new players, I noticed something questionable about the ending. The adventure was a published adventure that Wizards gave out two years ago at Free RPG Day to promote the Dark Sun setting. The adventure is really well put together; the players fight in the gladiatorial pit and investigate a murder that happens shortly after. They’re trying to impress a group known as the Veiled Alliance, who the governor that tasks them with solving the murder is a known member, and the end comes and they find and capture the murderer. And then, the adventure breaks down because the man responsible for the murder is a member of the Veiled Alliance. Yeah…
What. A. Twist.
This made me wonder: what is the proper use of the twist in Dungeons and Dragons?
I think it only really works when this sort of thing is at least plausible. When you have a twist come out of left field it kind of ruins the effect. A proper twist is a surprise, but the kind of thing where when you look back it makes sense. Think about the end of the Sixth Sense. Throughout that film, the viewer is given countless hints that Bruce Willis is dead. Now, compare that to the end of Saw, where you have to justify pretty much everything about that situation. Which do you find more satisfying? The hinted at turn in the story or the sudden jarring change? The reason, in my opinion, that the Sixth Sense is better is because you given all the information, but lead to believe it’s not about Bruce Willis.
My favorite twist is to have a trusted (or sometimes not so trusted) NPC turn on the party. But I never just have this happen. I always give them subtle hints, but keep them on their main task. It’s not about the weird problems they’re having with this NPC, it’s about stopping their antagonist. This works because I use a red herring.
A red herring, for those who don’t know, is a false lead. In the Sixth Sense, Haley Joel Osment is the red herring. You’re lead to believe this movie is about the psychologist trying to help the boy. But, the movie is really about the boy helping the dead man. A good twist can’t exist without some misdirection. When planning a big shake up for your players, don’t be afraid to lead them astray. If you have them thinking one thing and blindside (with proper set up of course) with another thing they may have not been expecting, their minds will be blown.
But, be careful. Two things to keep in mind here. One: too many twists will frustrate and confuse your players. Two: players love being rewarded for being smart. If one of your red herrings is well set up and your players are really buying into, change your plans. Your players will eat it up.