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Jul 12 2012

Red Herrings

The Red Herring

A red herring, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is a clue which is intentionally or unintentionally misleading or distracting from the actual issue.

I’m not a fan of red herrings in my games. Mostly because I’m invested in the Core Clue concept put forth by Robin Laws. Give players the clue but don’t tell them what to do with it. Still, the topic was broached with my friend Drew during one of our discussion about RPG’s and I think it’s worth looking into. Especially since I’m always trying to put more tricks and tools into my GM bag. To do this I’m going to approach red herrings from the idea that I want to seed some in my game and in doing so I want them to be interesting and purposeful. So how do I do that?

I would make sure even a red herring lead to interesting situations even if they are dead ends. Here are some examples of how I would do that:

  • Lead the players into a trap or danger of some sort. Danger always creates drama and if the point of the clue is to steer investigators into a danger that can’t be linked to the primary clue, even better. They can overcome the danger and go back and hit the next lead. The point is there’s something to overcome so there is something to accomplish.
  • Create a mini story with a beginning, middle, and end which has nothing to do with the ongoing investigation but gives the players some sort of closure and feeling of accomplishment.
  • A red herring can be a great chance to show off a part of the game world you wouldn’t otherwise be able to explore. Just make sure with the world building you include something interesting for the players to do.
  • Make the red herring(s) a part of a set of clues the investigators in your story need to sift through. Make sure they have a chance to figure out which clue is the real one and set some detriment to the outcome if the investigators choose the wrong clue. This way there is a consequence to their action or even inaction. This is great for serial killer styled scenarios. The serial killer gives his next set of clues creating a situation where the investigators need to figure out which clue is the right one or someone dies.

A few more points about red herrings in general. Make sure the players can attain enough information to make an informed choice. If it’s all random then there’s not much fun for the players. If you want them to run down a bunch of possible leads make sure the situations you highlight with screen time are interesting and please don’t just use these situations for a chance at exposition. It’s always better to show things through actions and drama in your games than just having your players be related a story by an NPC.

Now I’ve just started wrapping my head around the idea of using red herrings in games again. What do you folks out in internet land have to say about them? I could use a little feedback on this one. Can’t wait to hear from ya and Game on.

Chris “The Light” Sniezak

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