I have recently finished reading World of Dew, another pdf from my backlog of books. Tucked away in this game of samurai noir is some excellent advice for the GM. As usual, this advice can be applied to a broad range of games. The hidden gem I want to discuss today is a clever way to add plot twists to any game.
World of Dew
The game is written by Ben Woerner, and is billed a sequel to Blood and Honour. The introduction to the game describes the premise as follows:
In Blood & Honor, John Wick introduced you to a world of the tragic samurai. In A World of Dew, I continue forward along the lines he has drawn to bring glory, tragedy, and honor to the lives beyond those of the samurai. Now you can tell noir tales about the ronin, geisha, gaijin, and more in Old Japan.
Along with the usual trappings of an RPG, Ben introduces a slew of interesting ideas. There is a section on collaborative city-building along with extensive GM advice about style, tone and narrative techniques. For today, I want to focus on a small suggestion about adding a plot twist to your game.
One of the GM tools in World of Dew is the Story Pool, a mechanism allowing GM input into the game. One possibility allows the GM to spend points from the Story Pool to change a previously established fact within the game: instant plot twist.
An established fact which later proves to be false is the essence of a plot twist. Whether this fact is the background of a colleague, the allegiance of a follower or the password into a fortress, the impact is the same. The Heroes now have to change their plans as one element is not what they expected, and the current situation is very different from their initial assumptions. The dressing on this twist may alter according to the genre, but the essence remains. What was once true, is now false, and the Heroes are in trouble because of it.
This final element of the definition of a plot twist is crucial. The sudden change in circumstances must be something which directly affects the Heroes and their story. If the Guard Captain’s eyes change from green to blue, then this is not a plot twist. The alteration must impact directly on the current plot, and by extension needs to alter the situation facing the Heroes.
For a plot twist to be relevant to the game, then it needs to affect the Heroes. To maximise the impact of the twist on the story, then it needs to cause the Heroes to change their plans. Thus, the best plot twists will be the ones where an important part of the Heroes’ plans or assumptions are proved to be false. These are the plot twists which change the direction of the game.
However, thought must be given to how the Players will respond to having the facts changed on them. World of Dew is a noir game, a genre in which betrayal plays a strong role. Players familiar with the source material would be prepared for the type of plot twists Ben facilitates in the rules.
For Players of non-noir games, a little preparation is advisable. The changing of established facts should be one of several tools available to the GM, yet it is best to warn Players how this can happen. It is hoped that Players will make their plans in good faith based upon the situation as they understand it, but be aware that they may not know the full story.
All of the Truth, some of the Time
There can be an assumption in RPGs that information presented to the Players by the GM is the truth. Most of the time, this is correct. Or at least, the information is true according to the perceptions of the Heroes, or the GMC providing the information.
The GM ought to make it clear to Players when a character is outright lying to the Heroes. The subtle body language cues we receive in real life to alert us that an individual is untrustworthy are usually missing in an RPG. To compensate for the loss of these subtle clues, it is down to the GM to over act the lying GMC.
Is this realistic roleplaying? No, probably not. Does it work for the game? Yes, it can. This rather depends upon the style of game you are playing. If there is time, or inclination, to spend an hour roleplaying at the table to determine the trustworthiness of a GMC, then by all means adopt a realistic delivery. In such a game, it is for the Players to decide for themselves who to trust, and face the consequences.
Alternatively, in a fast-paced game, or the police procedural game like my forthcoming Sigil PD, the GM may prefer a less subtle approach. So often in a television series, or a film, it is clear when somebody is lying. This may be clearer than it would be in real life. Why is this? Because the actor is hamming it up to make the lying evident to the characters and the audience. Take a leaf out of this approach, and make it clear to the Players.
False Perceptions of Truth
So, if the GM makes it obvious when somebody is lying to the Heroes, then how should these plot twists be handled. If the Players expect all the liars to be obvious, then there is no scope for the shocking change in fortune. Such revelations usually pivot on some false perception of the truth.
The Scholar told them in good faith the right words to bind the fire elemental, but now they do not work. In this case there is the risk of the Players assuming the GM tricked them.
Twisting the Plot
So how can this technique be used? The simplest option is to make the whole process transparent for the Players. Make them aware of this narrative option early in the game, certainly before you would want to use it. Then, when the time comes for a plot twist, explain why it has been triggered, and talk with them about what to make false.
The change needs to be relevant to the game, involve the Heroes and ought to have an immediate impact. Therefore, the plot twist should alter the current situation facing the Heroes. Learning that they have been given the wrong words of binding seems irrelevant if the fire elemental has not yet been summoned. The time to reveal that particular plot twist is when the Heroes try to use the binding words, only to enrage the fire elemental.
For maximum impact, the twist should make the current situation worse for the Heroes. As a storyteller, the impact of the twist is often clear. Good Players should go along with the change of events, as it heightens the drama and can lead to a greater achievement when the Heroes overcome the odds. A good plot twist can also give the Players a strong motive for revenge later in the campaign.
The best thing about this technique is the way it can surprise the GM too. It is one thing to expect there will be twists to the plot. However, if the exact nature of the twist is left as something to improvise at the table, or discuss with the Players in the moment, then the GM can be surprised too.
Allowing parts of the story to emerge at the table can feel like a risky way to run a game. Yet, this is such a great way for the GM to experience the sort of emerging story enjoyed by the Players. This is a matter of taste, but I do not see why the story should be just for the Players to enjoy. The GM is also part of the audience for the game, and this method is another way of enhancing that experience.
As regular contributor Kenny the Solo Roleplaying Sage would agree, this is a method that can be used for solo play. Make this option one of a series of possible outcomes to be rolled during the course of the game. When it arises, change a salient fact, and see how the new set of circumstances impacts where to take the game. Obviously, this plays up the surprise feature of the technique, but it should mimic the conventional use of plot twists in stories.
World of Dew by Ben Woerner is a great game with some superb advice for GMs. I shall be making use of this technique to alter established facts as part of my forthcoming investigative Sigil PD cycle of tales. I will report back on the effects of this method in our game.
What plot twists have worked in your game? Share your experiences in the comments below.
Something for the Weekend next week: DramaSystem and setting creation