This is part of an article written by Johnn Four from Roleplayingtips.com, I thought this was useful not just for tabletop RPers, but for play-by-post RPers too. So have published it here – but you really should read the original post (you’ll find it here).
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.
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.
This is part of an article written by Johnn Four from Roleplayingtips.com, I thought this was useful so have published it here – but you really should read the original post (you’ll find it here). Also if you have some advice on adding plot twists, share them below!