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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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?