As a GM, one of the things I find most puzzling is the negativity some players have towards red herrings (a false clue or something else that distracts the party from the adventure). I find red herrings very useful and appropriate for the types of games I like to run (usually intrigue, investigation, or solving mysteries in general) and a way to enrich the adventure beyond moving from Point A to Point B to Point C in a logical line. While I’d expect the players to be annoyed when they chase down a false lead, I wouldn’t expect them to demand that I stop offering them. To me that seems unnatural.
I can only presume that what players really hate is the wasted time, or the feeling that the GM is just playing for time by throwing random stuff at them because she isn’t ready for them to move onto the next plot point just yet. Sometimes this is baked into the game – side quests being a prime example – as the group isn’t ready to move onto the next plot point until they’ve gotten some more experience under their belt. And sometimes it’s just player confusion – players forget particular plot points between sessions or gloss over something that their character wouldn’t, leading to a lot of lost time as they charge down the wrong path.
Over the years I’ve come up with a few guidelines when I use red herrings. I thought they might be useful to share:
1. Challenge the character, not the player.Â In spite of appearances, a mystery adventure is not a battle of wits between a GM and her players; it’s a battle of wits between the adventure and the characters. If a player seems to be missing something that his character would not, clue him in. Don’t be afraid to correct a player if she obviously misunderstood the information you gave her.
2. Recap the salient points.Â If the session starts mid-adventure, I always offer a recap that summarizes the adventure thus far and reminding the PCs of the clues they’ve uncovered and the leads they’ve already chased down. This is also a good time for me to make sure that Point 1 above is being followed.
3. Red Herrings should be short.Â In television mysteries, a red herring rarely lasts more than one scene, as the investigators confront a possible suspect only to learn that said suspect lacked means, motive, or opportunity. Similarly, I don’t let my players chase down the wrong lead for very long. Blowing 10 or 15 minutes of a session on a red herring is much better than most of the session (heck, I’ve had games where red herrings lasted multiple sessions!).
4. Red Herrings should teach something.Â I’m sure that one of the reasons players dislike red herrings is because they feel stupid for following them, especially if they don’t gain anything from it. I always try to give them something useful, whether it be to rule out a certain class of suspects or offer an additional clue that may help them narrow the search. Side quests also fit in here, as they give the PCs the experience and additional support they need to face what’s coming next.
5. Own up to your mistakes.Â Sometimes the players end up burning through false leads because I got something wrong – I forgot to hand them a clue or I changed something in the adventure while it was in progress. In these cases, I’ve found that it’s better to confess the error and work with the players to move things forward rather than try to conceal and fix my mistake behind the screen while the players wander aimlessly.
So how about you? Do you revel in red herrings or avoid them like the plague? How do you incorporate red herrings in your adventures? How well have they worked? Have you ever let a red herring go on for too long?
Red herrings are, in my opinion, one of the dullest ways of enriching a mystery adventure. A much better way is constructing the adventure in such a way that multiple paths and approaches are possible to begin with, without any of them being a red herring. A good read is the Three Clue Rule by Jason Alexander (http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/1118/roleplaying-games/three-clue-rule), and also Node-Based Scenario Design (http://thealexandrian.net/wordpress/7949/roleplaying-games/node-based-scenario-design-part-1-the-plotted-approach).
Also, point number 1, about challenging the characters and not the players, is not necessarily correct. The most important question in any role-playing game is “what are the players doing?” Not the characters – the players!
If the ones being challenged by the mystery are the characters and not the players, then it isn’t really a mystery adventure – it’s a mystery story told to the players by the GM. And naturally enough, when the players are merely being told a story, the thing they want is to hear its end, to discover who the murderer was. That is why they hate red herrings. If you want it to be an actual game, and not just a guided tour through a museum, there needs to be something else for the players to do, and you need to plan accordingly. If you want it to be an actual mystery game – a puzzle for the players to solve – then you also need to plan accordingly. There is some room for red herrings in both, though – in a story, they can work if the story is good; in a game, they make the puzzle harder, although, as noted in The Three Clue Rule, they run the risk of making it too hard.
I’ve never really enjoyed red herrings as a GM as they waste so much damned time. Time is in short supply.
The Red Herring is, for me, the bane of Call of Cthulhu. For some reason the game’s designer(s) felt the red herring was a spiffy and tres boffo feature rather than a bug.
I’ve found that in my Delta Green game the players come up with their own red herrings like nobody’s business. Letting them spitball a reed herring for a few minutes is par for the course. A half hour even, if the idea is entertaining. The problem is shutting them down when they get too invested in a crazy idea.
Smaller ideas that can be subsumed into my overarching story are okay, usually, but I don’t run the Trail of Cthulhu-style “no main plot until the players invent it” improv-heavy style of game. My games have a story that has already happened (usually) that the players need to put together in order to fix whatever is going down today. A whole cloth adventure, not hints and DIY plot.
I work hard to ensure that story in the past is well-formed and logically consistent, and provide hands-on, high-realism clues to help the players stay in character and in-story. If there’s a gun, I provide a (toy or airsoft) gun. If there’s an old, crumbling deed, I make one. They are on a railroad, but the scenery is top shelf and they can ride the railroad in any fashion they desire.
So I’m not shy about having a player realize “we missed something” or “this doesn’t feel right” as they are falling asleep if they are going off the rails bigtime. Rather that than allow them to play for hours on some daft theory one of them concocted from meta-game info and hot air.
Complete stone wall? One of them will dream vividly of a clue whose importance was missed.
I also provide a large whiteboard for spitballing and pulling together the notes each player has made as play progressed. You’d be surprised how much fun the “CSI Phase” is for everyone and how much real progress from even the most tortuous plot can be made in short order.
I introduced it a few years back and it was just about my best idea ever for sorting out player confusion and reducing Player Invented Red Herrings.
For me, points 3 and 4 from the article have particular resonance.
It’s not about whether to have red herrings or not, it’s about how you use them. Spending (a lot of) time following a false lead only (!) to find out that it leads nowhere is no fun for the players. Having to go back to square one after investing time and brains is incredibly frustrating.
However, the actions of the players, undertaken while following the red herring, can move forward the plot. For example
– Having investigated a possible suspect can lead to that person being proven not guilty
– The time the players spent following a false lead can be used by the murderer to kill his next victim, further escalating the situation and leaving new clues
– A falsely accused NPC might plot against the PCs in order to defend himself, thereby further complicating the situation (and, as we all know, complications are the salt in any story)
In my experience players will not consider their time wasted in those cases. As many red herrings are, in fact, created by the players and not the GM, I sometimes find it impossible to bring about any of the above. Then I try to keep the red herring as short as possible and will indeed correct any misunderstandings on the meta level.
Yet, I do not agree with the statement “challenge the character, not the player”. Player sense of accomplishment is caused by moment of insight, when they put together all the pieces – not by a successful smarts-roll. For the very same reason I tend to be veeery gentle with meta-level clues.
I am not a fan of red herrings in general in an RPG. I think the only exception where planned out red herrings are acceptable is when they follow the “TV Crime Procedural” model noted in the article. Basically, a very short side path that leads to no more than a scene or two, and preferably with the players learning something useful (even if that information is who definitely didn’t do it).
My experience is players are plenty good at making up red herrings all on their own. However, even with those, I personally don’t let them go on too long – maybe a scene or two to see where they are going, and then wrap it up with a handwavey narration like “you investigate this lead for several more hours and turn up nothing,” possibly with a recap of the things that they already know.
I think most times when investigations go off the rails in an RPG it is because of a collision expectations and understandings. The players interpret the words of the GM in a way that the characters probably wouldn’t interpret the reality of the world around them. When that happens, it is the GM’s responsibility to reign the players in and make sure that they actually understand what the characters have experienced. The GM is the only window the players have into the world – if the GM allows the players to go down a rabbit hole based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the game world, that’s on the GM.
This post nails it for me. I find myself doing the same thing you do in your second paragraph more and more these days, and usually because the players can’t make a proper connection that day with the game world and go all “Horror Fantasy, Anything Goes” in the thinking.
I think Red herrings are great as long as they are used in a way that set’s up , and does not detract from the adventure. Many times in our group a Red Herring can get the party to interact in a way that they might not in a strictly linear adventure. This is especially true if not all members of the party agree on a specific course of action. The bickering and, perhaps deal making will make for a more natural and realistic adventure. The end game will also seem more real and “final” if most other courses of action have been exhausted . Of course there are some GM’s ( Walt) that delight in spinning the party off on a wild goose chase and reveling in the chaos and confusion that follows. Not to mention any names ( Walt) These games can be both fun and frustrating for entry level players , but for the experienced RPG gamer the chance to match wits with a sadistic veteran game master( Walt) is why we don’t go out on Friday………….Maynard