COROLLARY: RED HERRINGS ARE OVERRATED
Red herrings are a classic element of the mystery genre: All the evidence points towards X, but its a red herring! The real murderer is Y!
When it comes to designing a scenario for an RPG, however, red herrings are overrated. I’m not going to go so far as to say that you should never use them, but I will go so far as to say that you should only use them with extreme caution.
There are two reasons for this:
First, getting the players to make the deductions they’re supposed to make is hard enough. Throwing in a red herring just makes it all the harder. More importantly, however, once the players have reached a conclusion they’ll tend to latch onto it. It can be extremely difficult to convince them to let it go and re-assess the evidence. (One of the ways to make a red herring work is to make sure that there will be an absolutely incontrovertible refutation of it: For example, the murders continue even after the PCs arrest a suspect. Unfortunately, what your concept of an “incontrovertible refutation” may hold just as much water as your concept of a “really obvious clue that cannot be missed.)
Second, there’s really no need for you to make up a red herring: The players are almost certainly going to take care of it for you. If you fill your adventure with nothing but clues pointing conclusively and decisively at the real killer, I can virtually guarantee you that the players will become suspicious of at least three other people before they figure out who’s really behind it all. They will become very attached to these suspicions and begin weaving complicated theories explaining how the evidence they have fits the suspect they want.
In other words, the big trick in designing a mystery scenario is to try to avoid a car wreck. Throwing red herrings into the mix is like boozing the players before putting them behind the wheel of the car.
COROLLARY: NOTHING IS FOOLPROOF
You’ve carefully laid out a scenario in which there are multiple paths to the solution with each step along each path supported by dozens of clues. You’ve even got a couple of proactive backup plans designed to get the PCs back on track if things should go awry.
Nothing could possibly go wrong!
… why do you even saying things like that?
The truth is that you are either a mouse or a man and, sooner or later, your plans are going to go awry. When that happens, you’re going to want to be prepared for the possibility of spinning out new backup plans on the fly.
Here’s a quote from an excellent essay by Ben Robbins:
Normal weapons can’t kill the zombies. MicroMan doesn’t trust Captain Fury. The lake monster is really Old Man Wiggins in a rubber mask.
These are Revelations. They are things you want the players to find out so that they can make good choices or just understand what is going on in the game. Revelations advance the plot and make the game dramatically interesting. If the players don’t find them out (or don’t find them out at the right time) they can mess up your game.
I recommend this essay highly. It says pretty much everything I was planning to include in my discussion of this final corollary, so I’m not going to waste my time rephrasing something that’s already been written so well. Instead, I’ll satisfy myself by just quoting this piece of advice from it:
Write Your Revelations: Writing out your revelations ahead of time shows you how the game is going to flow. Once play starts things can get a little hectic – you may accidentally have the evil mastermind show up and deliver his ultimatum and stomp off again without remembering to drop that one key hint that leads the heroes to his base. If you’re lucky you recognize the omission and can backtrack. If you’re unlucky you don’t notice it at all, and you spend the rest of the game wondering why the players have such a different idea of what is going on than you do.
As we’ve discussed, one way to avoid this type of problem is to avoid having “one key hint” on which the adventure hinges. But the advice of “writing out your revelations ahead of time” is an excellent one. As Robbins says, this “should be a checklist or a trigger, not the whole explanation”.
What I recommend is listing each conclusion you want the players to reach. Under each conclusion, list every clue that might lead them to that conclusion. (This can also serve as a good design checklist to make sure you’ve got enough clues supporting every conclusion.) As the PCs receive the clues, check them off. (This lets you see, at a glance, if there are areas where the PCs are missing too many clues.)
Finally, listen carefully to what the players are saying to each other. When they’ve actually reached a particular conclusion, you can check the whole conclusion off your list. (Be careful not to check it off as soon as they consider it as a possibility. Only check it off once they’ve actually concluded that it’s true.)
If you see that too many clues for a conclusion are being missed, or that all the clues have been found but the players still haven’t figured it out, then you’ll know it’s probably time to start thinking about new clues that can be worked into the adventure.
THE FINAL WORD
Basically, what all of this boils down to is simple: Plan multiple paths to success. Encourage player ingenuity. Give yourself a failsafe.
And remember the Three Clue Rule:
For any conclusion you want the PCs to make, include at least three clues.