Five red herrings – secret clues and badly-hidden hints in session write-ups
A: You actually missed my last session, which meant you missed seeing how the group got on at, and escaped from, the masquerade at the (suspected) necromancer’s house.
C: Right. But I got to read about it in the recap you did of the session, which was fun. This is something we both do—we write up a summary of what happened in an episode for everyone who missed it and for everyone who needs a reminder. We also do ‘items gained’, ‘XP gained’, that sort of thing. They’re meant to be 500 words but often end up being 3k or longer.
A: To be honest, I often write them more for me than for you guys. Some of it’s because I want to check with my players that I’ve understood things without being so obvious as to ask, ‘Which one of you took the cursed object?’
A: The recaps give players an opportunity to jump in and correct me—they can be like, ‘No, he was going to pay us 150 gold, not 100, for the kelpie hearts.’
A: But they also say things like, ‘It’s me and not Petra who’s carrying the beautiful, beautiful, definitely-not-hexed crown.’ Then I know exactly who needs to make a Will save in the night.
C: True. Although I also think they give information to the players too, which can be tough. You know that players will look for clues in the recap; if you’ve already foreshadowed something in-game or made reference to something important, it would make sense that it would also be in the recap, but—especially now that you’re repeating it for a second time—you run the risk of drawing attention to it. As any DM will tell you, if your players sense that something is significant, they’ll fucking hyper-fixate on it for hours. It’s a tricky line to walk.
A: Yeah, you want it to be there so that later on, when they claim to be surprised by something, you can be like, ‘Excuse me, five recaps ago you met a mysterious woman under the bridge who made reference to it.’ But equally, you don’t want it to be obvious that she was making reference to it.
C: Exactly. You have to mention it in the spirit of fairness.
A: And sometimes you almost want to make sure they picked up on it.
C: Yeah, you don’t want to have mysteries that they can’t solve because you never gave them the clues. Then it’s no fun if they don’t get it.
A: Sometimes players also miss clues—you say the important fact but a character dramatically rolls a one for something else completely and they’re distracted and you’re like, ‘Wait, you didn’t listen, it’s Glinda you need to find.’ You can gently remind them about it in the recap: ‘Remember, it’s Glinda.’
C: But they can also read too much into some things. And that can be the case with unimportant things too. I’m sure this has happened at least once in your actual game—you’ve described something which is relatively insignificant and for whatever reason your players investigate it constantly when it’s really nothing. Sometimes a rug is just a rug.
A: And they always seem to roll a Nat 20 whenever they’re investigating something really unimportant. I feel bad being like, ‘Guys, it’s a room. There’s nothing here. I’m sorry, you wasted your best roll to learn that there’s no secret doors.’
C: That happens to me a lot as a player.
A: But to return to writing the recaps, part of the reason they’re so long is because I know that we have suspicious players—
C: I would say ‘discerning’ players—
A: —so I like to hide the important moment in amongst unimportant ones. If you mention the name of one NPC, you need to slip in others to distract from the significant one. Probably one in ten sentences is important; the other nine are just there for padding.
C: It’s like writing a book, especially a mystery, where you have to pepper the moments throughout. If you draw too much attention to them, it becomes too easy—but if you make them impossible to find, it feels unfair. In a game that’s about figuring things out and working as a team to basically solve challenges, you need to give them the right tools in the right way.
A: Although with a book, you tend to spend the first few chapters setting the situation up, knowing that the big reveal will be in Chapter 10. In D&D, you don’t know when they’re going to figure it out.
C: That’s true.
A: Sometimes it doesn’t go to plan because no one asks the obvious question or they miss something and you’re sitting there waiting for a reveal which doesn’t happen.
C: Everyone just chases the wrong lead for two hours. That’s happened to me.
A: Yeah, or your villain rolled a Nat 20 on Bluff so everyone assumes he’s innocent and it’s very awkward, especially if the players don’t discover that he was lying until much later. Like, if he’s revealed as the big bad next session, it’s fine, everyone’s like, ‘Oh shoot, Steve got us but now we see it.’ But if that doesn’t happen, Steve just keeps going and then eight sessions down the line he’s revealed and everyone’s like, ‘But we asked him,’ and no one knows about the Nat 20 and you just look like a really evil DM.
C: That’s true! I add notes in my own recaps just for me so that I have a point of reference for moments like that.
A: That’s a good idea. I also have the opposite problem, where I’m anticipating the big reveal to take place in Chapter 10 and then the players stumble on it way earlier.
C: I’ve had it in my game where people will be theorizing out-of-character and, like, every dog has its day—sometimes someone is right about a big reveal and you have to try and not give away that you’re freaking out. Usually they immediately move on and forget about it, though, unless you give them a reason not to.
A: Ragannbaomme really is an octopus in disguise?
C: Ha, no, as an example, Ragannbaomme is—well—anyway. The whole thing is tricky; it’s basically a microcosm of what a lot of DMing is: ‘Give them enough, but not too much’. You never want to spoil a riddle for somebody—you want them to figure it out themselves.
A: But I’m also often like, ‘I had six more clues planned.’ I want everyone to solve my puzzles, but they should remember to fall for red herrings first and they just so often don’t!
C: They have to do all the steps before they can unmask your villain.
A: Everyone spots my villains super early.
C: My game also has characters appearing and being like, ‘Well hey guys, what’s up?’ and everyone’s immediately just saying, ‘Fuck this guy, he’s a villain,’ and half the time he is.
A: Just because my tall and incredibly handsome guy drank red wine and looked villainous—
C: And made dramatic toasts with sly smiles across the ballroom—
A: —everyone was like, ‘He’s the villain.’ It’s just unfair. You weren’t fooled by his superb double-bluff—‘Clearly I’m not the villain because look how obvious I am.’
C: To be fair, in your game the obvious people often are the villains.
A: There are a lot of villains in my game, and they are normally very dramatic people. But that’s because, when they’re people, you just fight them, whereas when the enemies are fantasy monsters you’re like, ‘Is this an indigenous species? Is it endangered? Should I worry about it?’
C: What—I’m a druid, I gotta protect that environment. You shouldn’t be killing just for the sake of killing, but if it’s an invasive species…
A: That’s why there’s necromancy—because I know the druid wouldn’t like it.
C: I guess druids think of the undead as essentially being an invasive species.
A: Everyone else in the party is like, ‘Oh no, the undead, they’re wanting to destroy us and stuff,’ and Weyrholm is like, ‘If they’d just stick to small islands where they could control the ecosystem…’
C: I feel attacked. I guess I’ll save my tripartite thesis on different druidic practices and how they’d relate to the question: ‘Is the nonmagical world the extent of ‘nature’ or is the expanding, extraplanar scope of the world and the things within it ‘nature’—and how that relates to undeath’ for another time.
A: Please do.
C: I’ve just realised that the second we post this, all our players are going to be paranoid about the recaps. And they’re going to be sniffing out all that they can even more now.
A: Unless this is all a double-bluff. I’ve stressed that my villains are really obvious so that no one thinks twice about the kelpies you killed in order to sell their hearts. Or is this a triple bluff? Now you’ll worry about a vengeful druid alliance coming for the SJWs and ignore my obvious villains. Or a quadruple bluff—kelpie necromancers in disguise!