Plot twists and surprises are a hallmark of narrative storytelling, but they can be tricky in a game environment. An author or GM doesn’t have complete control over when a plot twist will reveal itself, depending on the actions the PCs take. Clever players can also put the pieces together earlier than an adventure anticipates, causing some issues with planned events and NPC actions.
So how do you deal with these in a game? Let’s dive right in.
Clues and Hints
One strategy is to not leave any clues at all, but rather to let your players experience a crucial plot twist they never saw coming. Though this gives more control over when and how a turn of events occurs, it can sometimes feel forced. If there’s been no indication that this was coming, no foreshadowing of any kind, then a plot twist can feel artificial.
I recommend putting in subtle clues that most players probably won’t figure out, but make perfect sense when the players look back at them. These sorts of clues should seem often out of context or overshadowed by some larger plot point. If the PCs are chasing down a murderer and find a bloody dagger and a torn note in a soaking wet coat, they may fixate on the exciting dagger and note. Later when they find out that the murderer is a gillman, the wet coat makes sense.
When writing this sort of thing, I like to add the clues after I’ve decided on the plot twist. I’ll figure out what “the big reveal” is, then go back through various scenes and encounters and try and color them just a shade differently so they go unnoticed the first time, but will look like obvious clues in hindsight. For example, before revealing that I am transgender, I weaved some information about gender identity into the sample adventure I put together in the first several Craft (Adventure) posts. Feel free to go back and check them out if you haven’t already.
The way you reveal a plot twist is very important to how your players will react to it. Think of it this way, if someone has a secret crush on you then the way you find out about that crush will color the way you feel about it. Most people are going to be creeped out if they find their name in a heart within someone else’s notebook. However, if a mutual friend drops some hints about someone liking you before finally spilling the beans, you might be excited or curious. If the person who has a crush on you drops hints themselves before finally confessing their feelings, you might be elated as you’ve had time to warm up to the idea, even if subconsciously.
On the other hand, there’s treachery. Use this sort of plot element sparingly. If you use it too often, the players will start to get paranoid of every NPC you throw at them. Even though you, as the GM or author, are just trying to make a dynamic story, you can end up causing all sorts of grief. Unhappy players are not going to want to play your game or buy your adventures much longer, so really try and avoid full on betrayal.
If you feel you must do it, make sure the character is quite sympathetic. They should have a great reason for the betrayal, something the players and the PCs can empathize with. For example, if their hireling pulls a knife on the PCs and literally stabs one on the back because their “an evil murderer out for revenge,” then the PCs are just going to assume every NPC might be an assassin. However, if the hireling turns out to be a member of the fey court just trying to see if the PCs are trustworthy, they’ll probably forgive the fey even if she did steal and eat all of the rations.
Powerful Ally in Disguise
If you’re tempted to make the hireling a disguised silver dragon who’s guiding them on their quest, then make sure they have a good reason for hiding themselves and a good reason to go along with the PCs, especially if they don’t help with any of the encounters. Like above, the disguised NPC might be trying to decide if they can trust the PCs based on their actions and wants to just be a fly on the wall for a little while.
When disguised NPC gives the PCs a quest or task, make sure whatever the heroes need to do is something the NPC couldn’t do by themselves. If it’s a silver dragon, perhaps the area they’re asking the PCs to go to is warded against dragonkin, so the dragon cannot enter themselves. Just make sure the reason a powerful, benevolent being is in disguise is justified.
Had it All Along
One popular tactic is to hide an important plot item with the loot the PCs receive. Just be careful about which loot the PCs sell; make sure they can get it back somehow. If they end up trading it in for gold to buy potions, make a note that they bartered that signet ring to the alchemist in that last town so they can go back and get it, once they realize they need it.
When the time comes to reveal the importance of the item, try and make the revelation something the PCs get to do actively instead of being told what to do. If you leave increasingly obvious hints, they’ll eventually figure it out and pat themselves on the back for being so clever.
Change of Plans
In home games, it’s ok to adapt to the players. If they have a good idea that’s better than the one you came up with, roll with it if you can. They’ll feel smart, have fun, and no one will be the wiser. In plenty of home games I’ve had players “figure out” a far more interesting plot than I had worked out. I just smiled, shrugged, and said, “You could be right or you could be wrong; you’ll just have to see.” When the time came and I used their plot idea, they’d turn to me espousing that they knew it all along!