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With A Twist

So it’s Blog Carnival time again, and (as I explained last week) this time around, Campaign Mastery is hosting. The Subject is “With A Twist” which means anything about Surprises, the Unexpected, Plot Twists, etc, is fair game.

I kicked the month off with an article on Surprise, and this time around it’s Part One of a two-part exploration of the Plot Twist, which will be followed sometime very soon with Part Two. Later this month, I have two more up my sleeve (if it all comes together). But more on that a little farther down the track.

In the meantime, let’s take a good hard look at Plot Twists, and why they are often much harder than it seems they should be – and what can be done about the problem…

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Pretzel Thinking – Eleven types of Plot Twist for RPGs, Part 1

The Plot twist is amongst the hardest literary devices to employ in an RPG setting. The main reason for the difficulty is that so few of the literary techniques used in literature, TV, and movies, can be applied to the RPG environment.

The wikipedia page on the subject that I listed a moment ago lists 11 plot twist mechanics, and for one reason or another, not one of them can be translated directly to an RPG.

Some are unfair to the players, some require a non-linear sequence of events which is much harder to pull off in an RPG without being both obvious and clumsy about it, and some are simple last-minute solutions to mysteries that lead to an unexpected perpetrator. No matter which one you look at, they all suffer from one problem or another that makes them unusable in an RPG.

If there is no past art that we can draw upon, then the GM has to go beyond known techniques and find his own methods, then refine them through failure and painful experience, getting it wrong more often than right.

Do we really need plot twists?

Plotlines keep the game interesting beyond the simple mechanics of “see monster, hit monster”. Without the capacity for surprises and unexpected developments, those plotlines become predictable and less interesting – in other words, starts losing their effect. Predictable quickly becomes dull, and dull quickly becomes “Let’s play something else.”

At the same time, you can’t just have all sorts of crazy stuff happen at random just for the surprise factor. That, too, quickly becomes predictable, and it also excludes the opportunity to have fun exploring the world because it simply won’t make sense.

So you need the world to be sensible and predictable, up to a point, and then for a surprising development to shine a new perspective on the past and create a new context for future events, reinvigorating the game’s plot potential.

And a surprising development that changes the interpretation of events and lends unexpected significance to the plot is what we call – a plot twist.

Ground rules

Having determined that the recognized literary techniques for plot twists don’t work in an RPG environment, but that plot twists are a necessary part of any RPG, then we have to find new techniques, ones that take advantage of the nature of an RPG instead of fighting it. The place to start is by laying down a couple of ground rules that our techniques will have to follow. It is violation of these ground rules that excludes the traditional plot twist techniques – in fact, the following eight rules were generated by working backwards from the question “what’s wrong with this?” as applied to those traditional techniques.

  1. The GM cannot hide or distort facts that the PCs should be able to discern.
  2. The GM cannot lie to the players, though he can mislead them, or let them mislead themselves – but beware of Confirmation Bias.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. Ideally, the plot twist should make the PCs world richer, more detailed, and more substantial.
  6. 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.
  7. 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.
  8. 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).

Types Of Plot Twist

With those rules defined, we can turn our attention to types of plot twist suitable for RPGs, how to create them, and how to implement them effectively.

I stated earlier that, since the literary plot twists don’t work, it would be necessary for a GM to find his own methods and acquire proficiency in them on his own. Over the last 33+ years of gaming, I have matched the official eleven with eleven approaches of my own:

  1. The Instinctive Twist
  2. Emergent Opportunism
  3. 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.
  4. Key Fact Substitution
  5. The Figure From The Shadows
  6. Lurking Opportunities, Hidden Significance
  7. Predestined Failure
  8. Pointillism And Context
  9. Multi-track Planning
  10. Dust in the wind
  11. More Than Meets The Eye

Now, without explanation, some (most?) of those will be meaningless, though some may be obvious. There’s something to be said about each of them, though, so let’s start looking at them in detail:

Twist One: The Instinctive Twist

The most basic sort of plot twist is the one that is achieved by the GM deciding that the players are too on top of whatever the situation happens to be and deciding to throw a surprise monkey wrench into proceedings – “They’ll never expect this!”

With the exception of novice GMs who try to plot-railroad a twist into their adventures, this is where we all start learning the art of the plot twist, and many never go beyond it.

Like a player making an instinctive move in chess with the aim of surprising an opponent, this technique is instinctively complicating the situation for shock value and rationalizing it afterwards. It’s biggest flaws are that sometimes it can’t be made rational, and is never very well thought out, so it often creates opportunities for the players to exploit. In fact, one player I once knew used to deliberately provoke his GM by emphasizing the predictable aspects of the game in the most irritating way possible just to create these opportunities. Players claiming that something was predictable after the fact should be taken with a grain of salt! If the GM in question had not risen to the bait time and time again, and simply stuck to the situation he had so carefully crafted to challenge the players, his adventures would have been more successful and entertaining.

If, however, a player is successfully predicting what’s going to happen next, either verbally to the others, or simply through preparations for whatever they expect to encounter, the temptation to throw an unscripted and unplanned complication into the works, no matter what it does to the plotline, can be overwhelming. While this can work in the short-term, the better long-term solution is to get better at crafting plots that have built-in plot twists.

To be honest, my strike rate with this type of plot twist is about one in three. Quite often, they make things more “interesting” in the short-term but do long-term damage to the campaign; and about one in ten can’t be rationalized because they contradict something I had forgotten but the players haven’t. But, every so often, your instinctive creation of a complication that you haven’t thought through will succeed on all fronts.

I got a lot better at doing this when I learned to swallow my pride, admit that the plotline was not delivering the excitement that it should have, and calling a five-minute break to give me time to come up with a plot twist and think it through at least somewhat. Similarly, when the players do something unexpected, or manage to shortcut the plot into a place that the GM hasn’t prepped, you will have more success at coping if you give the players credit and call a break to assess your options.

I should make it clear that I plot at two levels simultaneously – I know what the NPCs’ ambitions and goals are, and how they are going about achieving them (that’s one level), and I know how I expect the PCs to learn of the NPCs actions and what I think they can do about it. Whether or not they actually follow the path to success that I perceived is irrelevant and completely up to the players. On rare occasions, I’ve had to breadcrumb the route to my solution rather than letting the game come to a complete standstill, but this is rare – and something I only do when I’m convinced that the PCs would not be as lost as the players are!

It’s a long-held maxim of my gaming that where there is one solution to the problem confronting the PCs, there will be more, and any of them are acceptable. This makes it much easier to respond when the players go off the reservation or think outside the box; all I have to do is make sure that I have something interesting for the rest of the day, and that whatever I come up with in the way of an unexpected development does not invalidate the solution, ie fail rules 6 and 7.

As I have become more skilled at plotting in this way, I have found myself relying on this technique far more infrequently. I still have it in my toolbox if I need it, but it is very much a last resort. The other techniques described in this article are better.

Twist Two: Emergent Opportunism

I try to keep track of what all the PCs enemies are up to; this is easier in some campaigns than others. It’s especially hard in the Zenith-3 campaign because a superhero campaign (by its nature) has so many villains!

An adventure is essentially one of two things: either it’s an NPC doing something that should trigger a response or reaction from the PCs, or it’s an NPC reacting or responding to something the PCs have done (on some occasions, it’s both at the same time). I can’t predict what the PCs will do with any certainty (though I can make educated guesses); but I certainly do know what the primary villain of an adventure is up to. Every time I plot an action by an NPC, I briefly run down the mental catalog of other NPC enemies in play (whether the PCs know about them already or not) and ask four questions:

  1. Does this create an opportunity for the second NPC to advance his agenda?
  2. Does this pose a threat to the second NPC’s goals?
  3. Can the second NPC gain a future advantage by becoming involved in the plotline?
  4. Does the second NPC have a personality that would mandate their involvement in the situation?

If any of these questions are “yes”, then I have a potential plot twist, and I move on to a second set of three questions:

  1. Will the second NPC acting in the current situation harm my long-term plans for either of the NPCs (or for any others)?
  2. Does the second NPC have a personality that would regard any risks in their involvement as unacceptable?
  3. Will their involvement in the current situation make it more interesting?

If these indicate that the second NPC would not get involved (for whatever reason), I create a rational reason for them not to do so, despite the potential gains and/or compulsion to do so, if I haven’t got one already. If it’s something trivial like “didn’t learn about it in time” then I usually don’t bother recording it in time; if it’s anything more interesting, I do.

But if the stars align, the second NPC can be written in as a plot twist. Note that it will usually qualify as one because of the keyword “interesting”, and especially in terms of the dynamic of the relationship between the two NPCs that either exists or will develop in the course of the encounter.

I’ve had second villains turn up and seize control of a situation, leading the original villain to ally with the PCs to undo his own plot. I’ve had a second villain turn up and fight the first for control of the situation because only one can benefit from it. I’ve had villains revealed as each other’s arch enemies. I’ve had second villains turn up and tell the PCs, “He [first villain] must be stopped, even if it means we must work together to do so!” I’ve had second villains get involved indirectly because something they are doing is making the current situation worse, or because the current situation is making what they are up to worse. And I’ve had second villains turn up and say, “Your plan interests me, but I believe I have identified a flaw. Why not do [x]…” (this is especially galling to the players if they had been planning to exploit that flaw!)

Every one of those examples would qualify as a plot twist!

In addition, even masterminds make mistakes – and not all villains are masterminds. If the combination promises to be interesting enough, that can be enough reason to involve the second villain even if (logically) he shouldn’t. The real killer is question 5 – if that’s a “yes” then I won’t do it, no matter what.

That disposes of the preplanned NPC actions. The other part of the picture comes from PC responses to these preplanned NPC actions, and to unplanned NPC reactions to those responses. As decisions get made in-game, I use the shortlist of second characters who might get involved to quickly assess the same eight questions, usually without even needing to articulate them mentally. It only takes a second or so to make a decision about bringing in a complication at a future point consistent with the time it would take the NPC in question to make his decision and act upon it. Never neglect travel time!

This technique relies upon the fact that an RPG can have a wider pool of villains than the cast that appear to be involved at the start of an adventure; unlike a novel or TV show, where this would be considered a dues-ex-machina (introducing a character who had not previously appeared in the story), this draws upon the wider setting possible to an RPG.

Twist Three: Inverted Identities

Another fairly obvious technique is for the characters participating in the plot to exchange roles within that plot unexpectedly. Since there are multiple roles within the plot, this option contains a number of subtypes to consider. To understand them. we first need a system of classification (to make sure we don’t miss any). Fortunately, this is fairly simple.

The Conflict Triangle

There are three basic roles in any encounter – the good guy, the bad guy, and the person the bad guy is trying to harm or has harmed, assuming that we have a more complex situation than one simply attacking the other. These roles may be occupied by a single individual, an organization, or a group. Any change of roles implies an exchange with one of the other points of the triangle or there is no explanation for the conflict between them, and certainly no conflict to resolve in the rest of the plot. That means that there are six basic inversions to consider.

The Role Of the PCs

But wait, it’s more complicated than that. Where are the PCs? Are they occupying one of these roles, or are they bystanders trying to understand what is happening, and deciding how to intervene? In particular, are they occupying the Hero role?

The triangle gives six options, and in two of them the hero changes roles. If the hero role is not reassigned, it makes no difference whether or not the hero is one or all of the PCs; so in fact we have eight options. Rather than duplicate a lot of the discussion, however, I have chosen to ignore the additional variations except when they matter.

Variation 1: The apparent villain is a hero.

This immediately calls into question the motivation for the conflict between villain and victim, with the implication that either there has been some misunderstanding which got out of hand, or the victim is actually a villain (a double-exchange). Since there is no change in the status of the hero role, upon this revelation taking place, an uneasy alliance between former villain and PCs is likely to ensue; however, if the PCs have already attacked, they may also be recast as villains in the plot, without even knowing it. One way or the other, however, this exchange collapses the Conflict Triangle into a straightforward conflict.

This would seem to violate our fifth rule, but that is not the case on closer examination; it creates moral ambiguities, expands on the concept of hero and villain as transitional roles in at least some cases, renders an NPC into a more complex and complete character, signaling greater importance for that character in the future or more of the same. Far from simplifying the game world, this adds moral depth and shades of gray to it.

This is therefore a great way of taking a morally simple (or even simplistic) world-view, which is often part of some genres, and adapting that genre and world-view to a more modern, cosmopolitan audience.

Variation 2: The apparent hero is a villain.

This takes on two quite different meanings if the PCs are filling the hero role or if they are bystanders.

Hero Role:
The PCs are doing something that seems to be the right thing to do, but for some reason it’s not. That usually means that the apparent villain is actually filling the hero role, and the apparent victim is another villain, but that doesn’t have to be the case – the villain and victims might also be filling their allocated roles. This creates a situation in which the PCs and the villains are unwitting rivals for something the victim has or knows.

Things get more interesting when the PCs aren’t occupying one of the three roles. It means that the actual situation is a rivalry between two villains, and regardless of what the PCs do about the situation, one or both will be disadvantaged. If one can capitalize on the disadvantage to his rival, he will win the prize with the help of the PCs – putting them in a position where they hand an advantage to an enemy, and have to undo their mistake. Or perhaps both will be disadvantaged, and the PCs will end up with the prize – without knowing what it is or what it can do, a potential time bomb.

Variation 3: The apparent victim is a hero.

At first, this may look like a fairly straightforward option, but there are a couple of subtle nuances. Heroes, after all, come in three sub-varieties: they are either the PCs’ antecedents, the PC’s peers, or the next generation (or a wannabe) coming along to make them feel old. The first shines a light on campaign history and is a great way to deliver additional background to the players; the second introduces a potential rival, or a potential NPC member of the group, which is always a handy thing to have on tap; and the third can be either a great way to make the players feel the passage of time within the game, while boosting their confidence because there is a new generation coming to take their place if the worst happens, or is an additional source of worry if the victim is actually a wannabe hero. Of the two, the peer is the weakest option, unless one of two circumstances apply: (1) the victim is someone with a personality that immediately irritates the PCs, sending the encounter down the rivalry route, and potentially eventually turning the hero into a villain; or (2) the victim/hero is a genuine peer who is getting the tar beaten out of him, to the point where he may be forced to retire for a lengthy period of recuperation if not permanently, it shows the power of the opposition to the PCs.

This inversion focuses on campaign continuity, no matter which variation you choose. The campaign will always be a little bigger afterwards.

Variation 4: The apparent victim is a villain.

An interesting moral problem for the PCs in some genres: what do you do when someone is beating an enemy to a pulp, as in, there is serious threat of permanent injury or death? Is the villain a hero, and anti-hero, or a villain? This is one of the most straightforward of the variations, and almost inevitably casts the PCs in the hero role while making it unclear what the heroic thing to do is.

Variation 5: The apparent villain is the victim.

Closing in on the final variation, but before we get there, let’s consider this interesting situation. This is a perfect swap in role between villain and victim, and is clearly the result of the victim having picked on the wrong target, who has turned the tables by the time the PCs show up. The reasons for the conflict will vary from case to case, but the PCs are obviously cast in the position of the hero and may be unsure about who to help – or may help the wrong party.

Variation 6: The apparent hero is the victim.

Our final variation is a tricky one to work out. But that only makes it potentially more interesting. It’s clearly a case of the original victim having turned the tables on someone, in the same way as Variation #5, but on whom? Is the person who was initially serving as the hero now the victim? That would describe a trap for a vigilante, perhaps. Or is the original villain now the victim? That would describe a situation in which a vigilante has drawn a villain out for disproportionate punishment.

A fourth corner to the triangle: the witness

Did I say there were only six, sorry, eight variations? There aren’t. The whole situation can be complicated endlessly by way of the witness – a witness who spots an opportunity (becoming the villain), a witness who is threatened for what he has seen (the victim), a witness who leaps in to try and help (the hero). It’s easy to end up in a situation in which no-one is exactly who they appear to be at the moment the PCs come across the situation.

A general lesson

And that gives a clue as to how to handle plot twists in general. They are usually situations which had a beginning that the PCs didn’t see, and which are prone to misinterpretation or manipulation through a deliberate act of deception by someone. If you remember that part of the story happened “off camera” and do nothing that contradicts the truth of what occurred in that preliminary time-frame except through subsequent lies and deception, anything else is fair game – until the time comes to reveal the truth, of course!

And that, unfortunately, is where I ran out of time. In part two, I’ll look at the remaining eight types of plot twist (yes, we really are about half-way – well, maybe 40% of the way – through!)

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