With A Twist
Campaign Mastery is hosting this month’s Blog Carnival. The subject I’ve chosen is “With A Twist” and anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, Plot Twists, etc, is fair game.
The Carnival started with an article on the rules interpretation of Surprise, and last week I posted the first part of this exploration of the Plot Twist.
In this part, I take up the cudgels and look at the fourth through eleventh different types of plot twist I’ve come up with for RPGs…
The Plot twist is amongst the hardest literary devices to employ in an RPG setting, as explained in part 1 of this two-part article, because none of the literary techniques are appropriate to an RPG application. That means that new techniques are needed, preferably ones that take advantage of the nature of an RPG instead of fighting it.
Last time, I developed eight rules that plot twists in an RPG should follow:
- The GM cannot hide or distort facts that the PCs should be able to discern.
- The GM cannot lie to the players, though he can mislead them, or let them mislead themselves – but beware of Confirmation Bias.
- The plot twist has to follow logically from the combination of the facts observed by the PCs and other facts to which they were reasonably not privy, but which will become clear in the course of the revelation of the twist.
- Characterization should be consistent within reasonable normality. That means that a character can pretend to be something they aren’t, but this should be detectable unless they are consummate actors; outside of a deliberate act of deception by the character, their personality should be consistent, however complex.
- Ideally, the plot twist should make the PCs world richer, more detailed, and more substantial.
- The Plot Twist must not required the PCs to behave in a manner dictated by the GM. Misguided PC behavior based on incorrect understanding of a situation by players is fine.
- The Plot Twist must not take away the PCs ability to do something about whatever situation they are in, and should not confine PC actions to a single subsequent path.
- The key to a good plot twist is the surprise factor. The plot twist must not only maintain the surprise but deliver it as a “punch” at the right time. The perfect plot twist will drop player’s jaws in surprise (I’ve managed that about four times, which shows how hard it is).
And then offered a list of no less than eleven plot twist varieties that were designed to work in an RPG:
- The Instinctive Twist
- Emergent Opportunism
- Inverted Identities
- The villain is a hero.
- The hero is a villain.
- The victim is a hero.
- The victim is a villain.
- The villain is the victim.
- The hero is the victim.
- Key Fact Substitution
- The Figure From The Shadows
- Lurking Opportunities, Hidden Significance
- Predestined Failure
- Pointillism And Context
- Multi-track Planning
- Twist Ten: Dust in the wind
- Twist Eleven: More Than Meets The Eye
Finally, I looked at the first three types in more detail, especially the many variations on the third type, Inverted Identities. But that’s where I ran out of time – so let’s pick right up where I left off…
Twist Four: Key Fact Substitution
Describe a situation – what happened, and why people did what they are believed to have done. These are the key facts of the situation. Using such a situation as the core of an RPG adventure involves the PCs discovering these key facts, either before or after the situation has reached its ultimate conclusion, and acting upon the situation, one way or another. Some of the key facts may not be revealed but must be surmised by the players in their roles as the PCs. It follows that the minimalist description of the adventure is that same list of key facts, in chronological sequence, with an indicator of when the PCs are to get involved and when events will reach their conclusion. Of course, the PCs involvement should change the outcome, or the outcome should change the lives of the PCs, or both.
Creating a plot twist is as simple as choosing one or more of the key facts and replacing them with something different, while retaining the appearance that the original key “fact(s)” were correct until the moment of revelation. In other words, Circumstances or villain design lead to a key fact being incorrectly reported or assumed. Revelation of the true fact creates the twist.
This is really easily done using a table in a word processor, one divided into two columns. In the left-hand column, you list the apparent key facts, one per row. Where any fact is not going to change, you merge the cell that contains that fact with its neighbor to the right. Where a fact is to be replaced, you enter the “true” fact in the right-hand column. Simply reading down the page then gives you a summary of what seems to have happened, and what really happened.
Of course, it’s not quite that simple. You need to justify the illusion or deception or whatever the cause is of the misapprehended fact. This may require inserting additional rows into the event structure.
If you change a character’s motivation, you also alter how that character might act in future events. It’s also always useful to review the events and characterizations as they are perceived by each individual involved, because if one character changes, they way others react to that character might also change. You need consistency of characterization throughout.
This approach is one of the simplest techniques for plotting a mystery, so that deserves special mention. A similar approach, listing events as each character reportedly perceived them, is also one of the best tools for solving mysteries – which also merits highlighting.
Twist Five: The Figure From The Shadows
An RPG is bigger than any one adventure. No matter how serial in nature the campaign might be, it is nevertheless a larger tapestry than one isolated story. The fifth type of plot twist takes advantage of this broader tapestry by bringing in a third party at the climax who has been orchestrating events to create an opportunity for themselves.
In a self-contained work, this is unacceptable, and viewed as cheating the audience or the reader. In an RPG adventure, it is entirely fair, and actually enhances the game most of the time. Of course, this violates the “serial” nature of some campaigns, so it should be used sparingly, but it’s one way for serial campaigns to nevertheless have a bigger picture that is not static, evolving over time.
It’s a big game world out there. Why should the players (and, by extension, the PCs) be the only ones who take advantage of the fact?
But there is an even greater significance to this type of plot structure, because even in the most serial of game structures, the characters should always behave as though there had been a yesterday before they got involved in the adventure, and will be a tomorrow. Any other assumption immediately makes them two-dimensional, no matter how complex, deep, and rounded they might be.
Twist Six: Lurking Opportunities, Hidden Significance
This method concerns the meaning of events, the reason things are happening. What appeared to be coincidence, chance, or simply unrelated to events, turns out to be all-important, and the reason things are happening is something completely different to what it seemed. To avoid anticlimax, this is almost always a development in the direction of greater significance.
This type of plot twist can be difficult to plan unless you start by putting the cart ahead of the horse. Work out what’s really going on, and who is really behind it all, and then find ways to conceal the truth (the best way is for the true villain to deliberately emulate another villain’s M.O.) Once you have done so, look at the gap that’s left and deliberately choose something to fill them that looks plausible. Then go through the plan and look for ways to make that plausible item look right, look even more plausible.
At least half of the adventure, from the point of view of the PCs, should result in them undermining that plausibility, so it’s important to make a note of as many “tiny details that don’t fit” as you can.
Opportunism and Threat Response
A variation on this approach is through opportunism and threat response. Let’s say that you have three established antagonists in the campaign, and another lurking in the wings. Every time Antagonist #1 does something, or the PCs do something about him, the other three should not only look at ways to profit from the turn of events (even indirectly), while also examining the situation for possible threats to whatever they have going on. They should then act accordingly.
The same is true of any Allies the PCs might have, and any neutral opportunists. The more well-stocked with lively, interesting characters that a campaign is, the more certain it is that at least one character will see a potential opportunity and another will perceive a threat, and both will act accordingly to complicate the situation. Paying attention to the speed of information is vital in all such cases – it makes no sense for anyone to act in response to an opportunity that existed three months earlier; instead, you should extrapolate forwards to a best guess of the current / future situation that will result, and examine that for opportunities.
The logic is not quite the same when it comes to threats. A threat that existed three months earlier might still be a danger today; or the threat might even have caused a reversal at the time, the news of which has not yet reached the person making the assessment. Accordingly, there is an immediate need to act, regardless, and to act in three ways at the same time:
- Find out what the outcome was, and whether or not remedial action is possible even at this late date;
- Assume that the threat has befallen, and immediately begin taking steps to compensate / prepare;
- Review all other operations and operational needs that might be placed at threat under similar circumstances and make preparations as best as is possible to deal with such threats.
Nor should these assessments (both pro and anti) be restricted to those not involved in the adventure already. All those participating in the adventure should similarly be reviewed for both opportunities and threats.
There is little that is so pleasurable to both players and to GMs than a character who does unpredictable things when the right clue is figured out and it all suddenly makes perfect sense!
Twist Seven: Predestined Failure
This is a hard one to pull off. It requires the villain to have made a mistake before the PCs even got involved in the plot, that at the last moment, is shown to make the failure of his plans inevitable, or his victory at best, Pyrrhic.
In order for this plot twist to be effective, everyone – villain, PCs, and onlookers alike – have to be convinced that victory is at hand. That’s hard enough to do, but the trouble doesn’t end there; next, the PCs can’t feel like fifth wheels, and the plot can’t be railroaded at any point, and has to be seen not to be railroaded. In fact, ideally, the actual act that unknowingly undoes the plans of the villain will be something that the PCs have inadvertently done or changed, something so apparently trivial that neither they nor the villain are aware of it.
And that’s the key that unlocks this particular variety of plot twist. Start with some minor trivial act by the PCs and then come up with a chain of events – “for want of a nail” stuff – that transforms that trivial act into something of epic significance. Once you have that chain of events – and you may need several tries to get it right – you then need to hide it, disguise it, wrap it until the very last minute with a seemingly inevitable victory on the part of the villain. It’s this need to disguise what is going on beneath the surface that means you may need to redo your chain of “true events” time and time again.
A slower, and somewhat more difficult approach is to build your plan up a bit like growing a tree – you do part of the roots, then part of the canopy (the part that shows), then a bit more of the roots, then a bit more of the canopy, and so on. This sort of step-by-step approach means that you don’t have a clear and simple construction of “what’s really happening” to follow, but it means that if a step can’t be concealed by the “canopy” you only have to go back and change that part of the “roots” growth – in the long run, it can save time and effort.
A hybrid approach is also possible, constructing a slightly vague and generic “real story” skeleton which is then used as a guideline to the “tree” approach, and this is the technique that I usually employ when creating this type of adventure.
Employing a third party
It’s absolutely critical that the deception be complete on both sides. This is often most easily achieved by employing a third party behind the scenes, a rival who is conducting a very well-planned operation to take down a rival, an operation that will ultimately be successful. That gives you a character pulling strings behind the scenes to make sure things turn out the way he wants, burying facts, providing misinformation, and manipulating everyone else involved. Quite often, when I use this approach, I will use a prior adventure to establish the bona-fides of the apparent villain as a credible threat to the PCs and/or their ambitions, so they will be minded to see his attempt at a comprehensive victory as being just as credible. When the sting is revealed, and he is ruthlessly crushed or brushed aside, it immediately elevates the true villain as being even more dangerous than the first threat was; I know from experience that this one adventure can build up the threat posed by the real villain as much, if not more, than three or four appearances of any other sort.
If this is the real purpose of this adventure from a metagame campaign standpoint, then it becomes immediately worthwhile to spend three or even four times as long as normal in plotting the adventure, crossing T’s and dotting i’s.
To be honest, the work involved makes it hard to otherwise justify this variety of plot twist, but – like all such – it only has a limited repeatability when used as a one-trick pony. Even though it entails undesirable overheads, you have to occasionally use this plot twist variety at a time when you can’t justify it, just to keep it available and useful when you do need it.
Twist Eight: Pointillism And Context
Think of each plotline or adventure in a campaign as a single dot on a canvas. The style of painting which employs this technique is called Pointillism, and you can see an example of it above. Only when many of these points are viewed collectively does a larger pattern become revealed. The points, meaningless in isolation, quite literally come together to form a “bigger picture”.
Things are a little more complicated when it comes to real-world adventures rather than abstract conceptual entities. Each adventure has a meaning and a structure all it’s own, and it is in the spaces in between that there is room for the color of the “dot”. Zoom in and you can see this texture and complexity; zoom out and the big picture still emerges.
It’s the equivalent of a photographic image in which each apparent pixel of color is really a microdot containing vast amounts of additional information.
It used to be thought that this was also an analogy for reality; you had the macro-world dominated by physics, you had the atomic scale of molecules and chemistry, and the subatomic world of particles beneath that, and so on. Even the macro-world was broken into layers – there was the layer at which Gravity was relatively insignificant, easily overcome by one of the other forces, and a larger scale of planets and solar systems in which something close to parity was achieved, and the still-larger scale of galaxies in which gravity was all-important. Even today, when we know better, it is often simpler to assume this simplified view of reality in order to solve problems.
Another way of looking at it is a form of abstract steganography, but one in which it is the buried image that we see all the time and not the larger picture. The detail usually hidden in steganography is overt, and the image that is hidden is the broader one. This is also analogous to the old-school dot-matrix images which used alphabetic characters to create an image – something now known as ASCII Art.
RPGs actually perpetuate this mode of thinking as a tool. A bigger picture is an emergent property of all campaigns, either explicit and deliberately created or a subconscious manifestation of the GM’s thinking and plotting processes, and always shaped by the players through the actions of their characters.
Many plotting techniques for campaigns employ this technique to link subplots that are otherwise unrelated to the main plot into a broader narrative:
- Campaign Background
- Lays the foundation for the bigger picture
- Adventure #1
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 1
- Adventure #2
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 2
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 3
- Adventure #3
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 4
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 5
- Adventure #4
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 6
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 7
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 8
- Bigger Picture noticed for the first time but still incomplete
- Adventure #5
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 9
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 10
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 11
- Subplot = Bigger Picture part 12
- Bigger picture forms a coherent image for the first time
- Adventure #6
- Bigger Picture complicates the main plot or otherwise takes a secondary role to the main adventure
- Adventure #7
- Bigger Picture forms a Main plot element
- Adventure #8
- Plot focuses directly on the bigger picture
A campaign may have several of these bigger pictures going on either sequentially or simultaneously. It is even possible to have several such bigger pictures combine into a still larger narrative structure. That’s the level of complexity of plotting for my Zenith-3 campaign.
Way back when, I wrote an article called “Back To Basics: Campaign Structures” describing the step-by-step evolution in complexity of plotting that was possible, from the simplest possible structure all the way through to the Zenith-3 level of complexity as part of a series looking at some of the fundamentals of the art of DMing. The image to the side is an extreme scale reduction of my color-coordinated campaign “map”, updated to show just how far the campaign has come since we started play in January 2012 – not as far as expected, but there are two things to note in that regard: Not all adventures are the same size (the pace picks up considerably the farther through it we get), and the players spent half this playing year pre-empting an adventure that wasn’t supposed to happen until much later in the campaign (actually, a pair of adventures). Even without taking that into account, we are more-or-less where I expected to be after 24 months play, so only about 20% behind schedule of what was planned to be a seven-year campaign (with three years margin for error and additional adventures along the way). Taking the pre-preemption into account, we’re actually 33% behind schedule but will make up half of that when we reach the point where the Thanos War was supposed to occur.
I’ve wandered slightly off my point, which is that the techniques described in that article are exactly the same as the abstract example given above, and therefore show you how to create this sort of plot. There are even a couple of examples in the series for you to look at. Here’s the complete list of the Back-to-Basics series of articles:
- Back To Basics Part 1: Adventure Structures
- Back To Part 2: Basics: Campaign Structures
- Back To Basics: Example: The White Tower
- Back To Basics: Example: The Belt Of Terra
- The Echo Of Events To Come: foreshadowing in a campaign structure
And here are a couple of related articles that might be useful:
- Directed Plots, Undirected Narrative, and Stuff That Just Happens
- Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part One of Two: Campaign Seeds
- Been There, Done That, Doing It Again – The Sequel Campaign Part Two of Two: Sprouts and Saplings
- Top-Down Design, Domino Theory, and Iteration: The Magic Bullets of Creation
- Amazon Nazis On The Moon: Campaign Planning Revisited
- Growing Plot Seeds Into Mighty Oaks
- The Pattern Of Raindrops: A chessboard plotting technique
- Race To The Moon – a lesson in story structure
(If parts of this list look familiar, it’s because I refer people to these articles almost every time this subject comes up).
Getting back on-topic:
Manifesting these plot structures into a plot twist simply requires an adventure which has been deliberately designed to appear self-contained and unrelated but whose outcome will be radically changed by the revelation of the pattern. The greatest difficulty is hiding the pattern from the players while being true to the ground rules laid out earlier; the best technique for doing so that I can offer is the palimpsest, where you embed a layer for the PCs to penetrate and a still-deeper layer to use as the campaign-scale plot twist.
Twist Nine: Multi-track Planning
This type of Plot Twist is relatively easy to implement, but it suffers from a fatal flaw, which will become obvious when we get to it – though I’ll point it out, nevertheless.
There are three distinct phases to the planning of this plot twist.
Start by planning a fairly straightforward plotline up to the point at which the PCs will be compelled by circumstances to act in some fairly obvious way. Next, assume that whatever that obvious action is, it will be the exact wrong thing to do, if only the PCs knew the full circumstances.
Next, decide exactly what it is that the players don’t know that justifies the description of “the worst possible thing to do” – this will usually be “playing into the hands of the villain” or something similar, but there’s room to get creative here. Finally, go backwards through the events leading up to this point looking for what has to be altered in terms of those events to accommodate both outcomes – thereby determining what clues there will be to the impending plot twist. These have to be either pieces of the puzzle that don’t fit, or that can be subsequently discovered.
Having revised the lead-up to the plot twist, it’s then a simple job of plotting your way forward from the point of critical mistake, through to the moment of revelation (NOT necessarily the same thing!) and thence through to the resolution and conclusion of the plotline. After all, you now know everything that’s going on and how the situation has been manipulated to influence the PCs into a reasonable mistake that benefits their opposition.
So, did you spot the huge danger that this entails? That’s right, it all hinges on the PCs being predictable. And if there’s one word that GMs should use with caution when describing PCs, it’s “Predictable”.
There are two solutions to this particular problem of predictability, and GMs can use either or both at the same time, as they see fit, and as in-game circumstances dictate.
If the PCs behave in some manner other than expected, there can be only three outcomes. They can move in the direction of discovering the manipulation, they can simply jump ahead to a later point in the chain of logic the GM expects them to follow, or they can move in a completely different direction.
The GM, for his part, has two choices: he can attempt to nudge them back in the direction they were expected to follow, or he can simply go with the flow while thinking about how the orchestrator will react.
Predictability solution one:
If it isn’t going to be absolutely catastrophic, choose “go with the flow”. If that means the PCs don’t fall for the manipulations of the villain, so be it – the players will have earned the high-fives they will exchange when they learn the significance of their discovery. And if it cuts the adventure short, that just gives them more time to celebrate.
Predictability solution two:
There are times when going with the flow will upset more important apple-carts. In which case I recommend junking the elaborate deception that you had planned, and going with the flow – up to a point (Trust me – it will all make sense in a moment). When you get to the point of revelation, ie the last possible point of going with the flow, you reveal one of two plot twists: Either the original overt agenda that the PCs were expected to follow is now the hidden plot of the villain, or his secret plot is still in operation, but instead of the cover that he had thought up, the PCs (and the players) have contrived their own. The point of revelation comes when one of these two is just short of being unstoppable.
Explaining the multi-tracks
This plotting technique develops two competing theories as to what is going on and why it is happening and who is behind it (and so on), one overt and one hidden. Both predictability solutions add a third track, one generated by the PCs. It’s up to the GM which one is what appears to be going on, and which one is what is really taking place; and he doesn’t have to decide until the last possible moment. Until then, he can simply keep his options open and let the PCs do as they will.
I advocated a similar approach (explained somewhat differently and in more detail) in an article I wrote on mysteries in RPGs a couple of years ago.
In essence, you could synopsize this technique as deliberately choosing events that can have two different meanings, one overt and one covert; at the moment of revelation, you reveal the covert as being the true plotline and the overt as a deception or error in judgment.
NPCs are fallible
It often helps if you prepare the ground early on in the adventure. Have an NPC not known for their logical thinking suggest the “covert” interpretation of events, only for the idea to be poo-poohed by another NPC who is usually much stronger (in the PCs estimation) on deductive reasoning. Don’t make either too obvious, or too easy. If the evidence keeps piling up, but they encounter reverses and difficulties in obtaining such evidence, the PCs will put much more stock in the theory than if it walks in and sits down at the table.
Players are used to the GM speaking ex-cathedra, and therefore expect NPCs to speak truthfully most of the time – at the very least, to get rolls to notice that someone is lying. So practice your deception (refer The Hierarchy Of Deceipt: How and when to lie to your players) and disguise any necessary rolls as something else, or make them before the game starts.
Twist Ten: Dust in the wind
Player thoughts are like motes of slightly-sticky dust, flying this way and that in the wind. Occasionally one will connect to another and form a close bond, and from these speculations, players will develop a theory as to what’s going on, either within the adventure or within the campaign. This may or may not accord with what the GM had intended to be the explanation for the events in question. To use this as the foundation of a plot twist, the GM needs to do five things:
- Listen to the player’s emergent theories and superficially conform with them – or at least, not contradict them until he’s ready.
- As the moment of revelation approaches, the GM makes the assumption that the players are wrong.
- He then evolves an alternative explanation for events that is radically different, noting any events in past adventures that contradict this new theory.
- He then invents or contrives an explanation for those contradictions that is plausible – usually an act of deception or manipulation by the real motive force.
Important: the moment of revelation should be the 11th hour for whatever the motive force is trying to achieve, leaving the PCs with just enough time to scramble to a solution.
The similarities between this approach and the second “Predictability” solution for Twist Type Nine are fairly obvious, so there’s little more to be said about the actual mechanics.
However, this twist has a couple of advantages, most notably that you don’t have to worry about lying to the players – which is a good thing if you aren’t good at deception. Instead, it harnesses the power of indecision.
Twist Eleven: More Than Meets The Eye
Try this sometime: Do a rough outline of a straightforward plotline. About half-way through it, pick an NPC who is unique to this particular plotline and decide that they are not who they seem to be. Don’t worry about who they actually are, yet – instead, look at what this implies for their contributions to the plotline. If the results are trivial, pick another NPC instead, or in addition to, this ringer, and repeat the process. There is little that is more fun for the GM than two NPCs both trying to deceive the PCs for their own purposes and in total ignorance of the other! Eventually, you will find an NPC who has a profound effect on the adventure if they can’t be trusted, or if they haven’t been telling the truth.
Once you’ve identified the rotten apple in the barrel, look at what their position within society; assuming that they took this disguise for a reason, what might it be? What does their employment/position give them access to? Information, Opportunities, Power, Security? Who would most like to have that benefit/advantage? This enables you to narrow down your choices as to who the NPC really is.
I once ran a Super-spy adventure in which eight NPCs figured prominently – and each of them was secretly a double-agent for someone else. Ostensible allies were actually enemies, ostensible enemies were secretly in cahoots, and the PCs job was to identify the triple agent amongst them who had killed a ninth agent. Everyone was acting at cross-purposes, sabotaging both their own efforts and those of everyone else. And each of them got it into their heads that the PCs were about to blow their covers. Four of them (independently) sabotaged the PCs car, two of them presented genuine credentials (blowing their covers to the PCs in an attempt to prevent the PCs asking the wrong person the wrong question), and two presented forged credentials (attempting to persuade the PCs not to blow non-existent covers). The triple-agent/assassin they were chasing ended up being identified as a mole for still another agency, one the PCs thought had been shut down…
The Final Twist
Sometimes, just to keep my players on their toes, I’ll set up a situation in which it seems like there is going to be a plot twist, and a fairly obvious one – then NOT deliver a plot twist. I even occasionally challenge myself to see how many different plot twists I could hint at and then not deliver in a single hour’s play – my record is twenty-three, but the circumstances were unusual. The more paranoid your players are, the more fun you can have with this non-twist.
However, most of the time, you will need some sort of plot twist on a regular basis. This would get awfully predictable and problematic if there was only one or two ways to skin that particular cat – so it’s a good thing there are so many different ways to twist the plot in an RPG!
Whew! Sorry for the delay in posting – the layout threw up some unexpected headaches at the last minute. The way the side-by-side images look is not at ALL the way they were supposed to, but my limited knowledge of stylesheets proved inadequate to the look I was trying to create.
On a completely unrelated issue, the usual schedule has posts due at Campaign Mastery on both Christmas Day and New Year’s Day. I’m not sure yet how I’m going to handle that – so there may or may not be something special in people’s Christmas stockings!