Notes From The Idea Factory: Red Herrings

Last week, we talked about mysteries and keeping them organic. I also mentioned that using red herrings can be a fun way to distract the party, but they should be used appropriately. This week we are going to look at red herrings and other ways to complicate a mystery.

First, let’s talk a bit out the red herring. It is a plot device used to create a false lead that the investigation could follow. From a plot perspective, it is a distraction that can make a simple investigation last longer. However, from a thematic level, a red herring should not be there just to distract, but serve some sort of purpose for the story. Let me share an example.

One of the most memorable red herrings I have ever used was in a mystery I call The Steeple Chase Murders. It deals with a series of thefts and murders in churches in one medium sized town. The first time I ran Steeple Chase was in a game of Heroes Unlimited, in a modern superhero setting. As I was laying out things, I happened to mention a guy who moved to town recently, and did not really interact with the rest of the town at first. Of course the party had to investigate. One hero busts into the guy’s house looking for the murderer’s lair, and found instead a sick old woman who needed 24-hour care, and her son who was trying to provided it by himself.

While this was a fun bit of distraction, and it gave my killer time to strike again, it also acted as a flag to the player, saying, This is not going to be easy; you need to look beyond the obvious.  It worked on another level as well. It dealt with a theme common to superhero stories: the responsibility of power. Breaking into the house without doing all the research needed was irresponsible, and scaring the old woman made the hero think a bit more about his actions for a while.

Another way to complicate a mystery is the divided loyalty tactic. Perhaps a member of the party has a connection to one of the suspects or the victim. A desire to protect someone they care about or persecute someone they hate can be a great way to get the players to create their own complications.

This works best when we take the time to establish the NPC in earlier adventures, and letting relationships develop naturally. Say a party of adventurers has been butting heads with the local city guard and believe some of them to be on the thieves guild’s bribe list. A young officer the party trusts is killed, and it looks like his partner who the fighter does not get along with did it. The party will run with that, trying to prove that their friend was killed by a fellow guard.

There is one way you should not try to complicate matters. It is what I call the unnecessary investigation. This happens when you lay down the railroad tracks creating a path from your victim to the killer, but leave a teleportation device lying around.

When the game Brave New Worlds first came out, my gaming group was into it. Heck, we were all big Pinnacle  Entertainment Group fanboys. I was a big enough fanboy that I broke with tradition and decided to run one of the published adventures for BNW. The set-up was that someone was killing weak superpowered kids. The adventure set up a path to finding the killer by investigating who the kids were, and what connected them. That was how it was supposed to go. What wound up happening was me throwing the adventure over my shoulder about a half-hour into the game.

You see, the problem was the players just jumped right to the end. They said, ”Hey, look, this guy is attacking young people with superpowers in this part of town at night. We are young people with superpowers. Let’s go hang out in that part of town at night, and jump him when he starts shit.”

If we create a mystery where the investigation is not necessary, then the story we want to tell will not get told. Some distraction and obfuscation is good, but it should be there to drive the story, not just make the game longer. Too much is just as bad as too little. Either way you will not wind up with a nice tapestry that tells a story, but instead just a bunch of loose ends.

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