On Misdirection


When it comes to GMing, I’m a magician at heart. I love the reveal, that moment when the curtain is pulled back and the whole adventure snaps into focus for the players and it isn’t what they thought it was. The twist, when the villain’s hooded henchman puts a bullet in his back and smashes the reliquary they were chasing because they hold the keys to an ancient Prussian war machine hidden beneath the castle. If horror is about hiding something under a sheet and daring them to pull it off, adventure is about whipping off that sheet to gasps. Better yet is when they’ve figured it all out but don’t trust it, waiting for that last piece of evidence that confirms their theory and let’s them go “Aha! I knew it!” Everyone wins. But getting there can take a bit (or a lot) of misdirection and this is the month to talk about it.

Top hat and wandBut first I’m going to talk about magic tricks. The keys to any magic trick are managing information and winning the trust of the audience. They know you’re going to pull a fast one on them. You’re not wearing that top hat for nothing. But they happily participate, because being tricked can also be fun. It creates mystery. With that trust you can do a lot. Get someone down on a table to be sawed in half, for instance. The actual trick is just about managing information. Sleight of hand, card tricks, stage magic, even hypnotism and pickpocketing are all about knowing things that the participant doesn’t and carefully managing what they do know. At the gaming table, you have a lot of advantages here. Almost everything they know is going to come from you in one way or another, and you already have a great deal of their trust.

What misdirection isn’t is railroading. It’s not dozens of false paths and only one real one. It’s the art of getting people to look where something isn’t. For example, a magician who needs you not to see what’s going on with the cards in his left hand isn’t going to point and shout “Look over there!” or level a gun at you and command that you look at the ceiling. He’s going to flourish, talk, and otherwise draw your attention by doing something that seems more interesting than a boring pack of cards in his left hand.

Misdirection should always serve the reveal. The joy isn’t in watching the players go the wrong way, but in laying the groundwork for a revelation that will excite them without being abrupt. Of course the prince was manipulating the vizier, but they hadn’t put it together because the assassination plot in the alchemist’s guild had seemed more important. All the signs were there.

There are two parts to misdirection, as there are two parts to anything in an rpg. You can use misdirection on the PCs or you can use it on the players. I recommend both. Listening to your players and talking with them about their characters can give you a sense of what motivates their characters as well as what motivates them. Knowing what drives them will help you use some simple techniques to nudge them in directions. I have two simple techniques I like to use for this. 

1. The Red Herring

The key to the red herring is remembering that even a false lead should lead somewhere. Just because it’s false doesn’t mean players should finish it feeling like they’ve been duped. After all, if you feel tricked, your instinct is to find the person who tricked you. Most rpg characters are empowered with swords and laser-vision, making that finding uncomfortable for any would-be trickster. Make it a full-bodied adventure and take that opportunity to try and foreshadow some things to come. The classic “Badguy tricks the good guys into removing his enemies” is a great example of a red herring that’s both constructive and leads to a good reveal.

They need to be tailored to the PCs though, additional investigating for suspicious PCs, the promise of treasure for mercenary ones, etc. That’s the really tricky part of any misdirection, making sure your mark goes for it without them knowing that they’re going for it. There’s an art to enticing them without things seeming too good to be true that I don’t have space to discuss here.

2. Priorities

magician with cardsAnother method of misdirection is rearranging priorities. You don’t need to introduce a lot of new hooks for this, merely emphasize one thing over another both in character and out of character. The goal of this is to rearrange what matters to your players and put it in the order you want. A stage magician does this by pointing to the handsome man next to his volunteer’s empty seat and asking “Is that your boyfriend? Husband?” A whistle works well. People look where he’s pointing, buying him time to perform the mechanics of the trick. The audience’s priorities shift from watching the show to getting a look at the seat. Similarly, a simple “I’m just putting the finishing touches on the Library of Doom. It’s gonna be awesome” is usually enough to get a player more inclined to hit that adventure rather than another.

Those are just some simple strategies. There’s a lot more you can do with misdirection. But what’s the point of it, really? You’re in control. You’re the GM. It seems like a lot of artful messing about when you can just be straight with players and have a straightforward game. But there are some things you just can’t get in a straightforward game. You can’t get the reveal, that awesome surprise when a mystery comes together. It’s also hard to have a mystery without some misdirection, and can be a great method of pushing characters into making hard choices. Misdirection lets you nudge the direction of your game without forcing anything, as well. The players are still making all the choices. Finally, misdirection is the only thing that can create the terror of the ordinary. It’s manufactures uncertainty like nobody’s business, and that’s your business. When everything looks straightforward, the knowledge of your past misdirection can make your players incredibly suspicious, making choices a lot tougher without creating a strictly adversarial game. They’re not worried you’re going to get one over on them, they’re worried about nuances that they’re missing. I’m running long and have to run along, but leave a comment telling me how you’ve seen misdirection used well or poorly in games.

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