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In the D&D 4e game I run, I am planning on soon having my players go to the Feywild on an adventure. Something I'd like to try to pull off during this is to have a subversion of expectations. Basically, I'd like to have the players come across a very peaceful-seeming village of gnomes. However, after spending a little bit in the village, the players will realize that the gnomes are actually evil and vicious: they are cannibals and demon-worshippers who lure travelers in to kill them.

My question is, how can I pull this off effectively? I'd like to drop subtle hints about the gnome's true nature, and I'd like to have the realization come about gradually and naturally, rather than hamfistedly.

How can I hint that a seemingly peaceful group is secretly murderous? How can I hint at their true nature, and make the dramatic reveal effectively?

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    \$\begingroup\$ Answerers: If you're going to suggest specific ideas, please let us know how they've worked at your table when you've done similar things. We shouldn't be just generating ideas, but instead making recommendations for tactics that have been successfully used at gaming tables you've been at or seen. \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 6 at 18:45
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    \$\begingroup\$ I agree that the question is more open-ended that it should be. A possible way to rephrase it would be: Which are the most effective techniques to foreshadow an event to come? and then provide the example of a secretly evil village. \$\endgroup\$ – Aventinus Feb 6 at 19:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Yeah, this is probably just overall too broad to be answered. (It's my question, but I agree with you) \$\endgroup\$ – mprogrammer Feb 6 at 21:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ We've managed similar narration technique questions before. This is a real practical problem someone is facing that can have good quality subjective advice provided. There's going to be varied solutions, but we're going to lean on folks to provide citation rather than spitball ideas. Please help us out by enforcing our good subjective citation expectations & downvoting answers that aren't well founded in indications they'll actually work until they're edited to include them. \$\endgroup\$ – doppelgreener Feb 7 at 14:29
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There are numerous ways of achieving this.


However, before posting my answer I would like to emphasize the following personal opinion:

It's OK if your players miss your hints

Some comments mention that dropping hints is difficult in role-playing because most of the time the players won't get them unless you become too obvious. I totally agree with this statement, however, I believe that this is perfectly fine.

In art (books, movies) this is called foreshadowing. The point of foreshadowing is to NOT to warn the reader/viewer that something inevitable is coming, rather, foreshadowing exists so that, in retrospect, the reader/viewer finds the revelation totally acceptable. If there's no foreshadowing the reveal appears to be nonsensical or the result of bad writing.

In other words, it's ok if your players miss your subtle signals because they will appreciate them later on.


Now, to the actual answer. The best way to foreshadow a big turn of events is:

Anomalies

For example, the village looks like it came out of a fairy tale, yet, if the group looks closely, they will find out that some things just don't fit. For example:

  1. A disturbingly evil-looking knife in the house the mayor.
  2. A statue of their deity which doesn't look really nice.
  3. A series of jars containing something unspecified.
  4. There are no elders/children/men/women (pick one).

Why Anomalies Work: A Personal Experience

I was playing a Viking campaign a few years ago. My PC was a Cleric of the Grave Domain and his deity was Hel, the Goddess of the Underworld. My PC was following Hel's commands religiously, however, during the course of the campaign, some things were "off". For example, at some point, my cleric decided to build a Spear that would draw powers from the goddess herself. After the expected quest, I asked my GM whether the spear deals necrotic damage. He said that the spear deals poison damage. OK... I didn't pay too much attention.

Then, after speaking with a few other Clerics of Hel (my PC used to be a hermit so he had never encountered one of them before) I learned that Hel never takes a life nor gives life. To kill or save a person's life is forbidden. Death is the only sure thing after all. However, my PC had assassinated 12 people in the past and saved a few others because Hel herself instructed him to do so. Now, this was definitely weird, but, because I acted like a classic player that won't take a hint, I simply thought that these clerics are obviously frauds and my PC is the true follower of Hel.

You may have guessed where this is going but, yes, Hel wasn't Hel. It was Loki (because of course it was). My PC had spent his life worshiping Hel only to find out that he was a Cleric of Loki all along. And the hints were there but I ignored them!

Now, the important takeaway of this personal experience is that I may have missed these obvious hints but this is OK because, after the big reveal everything made sense and I couldn't be happier about it. The anomalies were super effective in an (un)intended way. Therefore, in my personal experiences, anomalies are very effective from a narrative point of view.

If someone wants to read more, I have written a blog post about this and how it was my all favorite moment as a player. In there, I describe several other things that were "off" for the rest of the PCs and how they made the big reveal even greater.


Apart from introducing anomalies there are a few other techniques. I don't have personal experience with them, however, both are classic TV tropes:

Everything is perfect. Too perfect.

Everyone in the village is extremely happy with their lives. Everyone has the perfect job, the perfect family, the perfect friends. Unhappiness is almost unheard of.

This a classic TV trope in fantasy and sci-fi. There are several episodes in Star Trek for example where the crew meets a utopian civilization only to realize that things are more sinister than what they look like.

An unknown element

If not a classic TV trope this technique is definitely being used in a multitude of fantasy and sci-fi stories. The idea is that there is a name/event/place/object that's shrouded in mystery. Examples:

  1. The gnomes are excited about a celebration that's coming soon, yet, when asked, they never reveal what the celebration is about. When the celebration begins, the group discovers that it is the annual summoning a demon.
  2. The gnomes speak of their great deity but the group has never heard this name before. It is later revealed that it is another name for a known demon.
  3. There's a place that it's absolutely forbidden for the group to visit. It is later revealed that this is their sacrificial ground.
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the opinion piece at the end. I think that foreshadowing too often gets confused with warning the players about upcoming events. If you need your players to pick up on the hints to progress the story the way you want, it isn't really foreshadowing (in the same way that you shouldn't need a reader to pick up on hints to understand the foreshadowed twist in a story). \$\endgroup\$ – DoctorPenguin Feb 7 at 12:18
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    \$\begingroup\$ Heh, "everything is perfect, too perfect" - the Stepford Doppelgangers. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Feb 7 at 15:39
  • \$\begingroup\$ To be clear, it seems like we're saying the same thing. In your example, you also didn't notice the clues. The difference is that you were okay with it while me and my players ended up with a nothingburger :) \$\endgroup\$ – NautArch Feb 7 at 15:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ @NautArch Yes, this is true. I guess my answer can be summarized as follows "Here are a few ways of doing what you asked but if your players fail to notice them that's ok!" and your answer is more like "You can try it but be aware that it may most likely fail because that's what players do". The question still is very open-ended and the answers rely on personal experience :) \$\endgroup\$ – Aventinus Feb 7 at 15:53
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There really aren't any specific things

Unfortunately, providing clues is one of the hardest single things that a DM has to do. And I've found there are no ways, besides being so obvious that you lose the impact of what you're trying to do, that will work for any given group of individuals.

The problem is that if you're being subtle, there's a very good chance your players won't pick up on it. You can try providing many subtle clues, but then that starts to cross over into obvious territory. But even then, you'll be surprised at how they still won't notice them.

You can try to do it via description and roleplay

One way to try and handle this in your descriptions of the physical things around them. Give them sinister vibes. Or in the the roleplay interactions with the villagers you can use language and tone to convey distrust. You can also be more obvious and suggest insight checks to see if they pick up on anything. Or use their passive insight against an active deception from the villagers.

But either way, you may realize you need to be obvious if you want the reaction, but then you'll lose the slow reveal.

It's just a really difficult thing to manage narratively with a group of people. And what works for one group and one DM's style will definitely not necessarily work for another. You've got to gauge your players and how they respond to the clues you're providing.

See below for my experience in attempting to do this.

When hints and foreshadowing fail

Unfortunately, my experience has been that more often than not players do not pick up on subtle hints.

The big difference between the use of foreshadowing in a book or movie experience vs a roleplaying game is that if the active players don't pick up on the clues, then the storyline around them fails.

I once tried to create a scenario on a ship where the crew was under the influence of someone else. Had the players picked up on my clues by interaction with the NPCs new storylines would have emerged. Instead, the clues were completely missed and being told about them after the fact just led to an "Oh, well" moment. It was a non-event for the players to not have the opportunity presented, and it was a bummer for me to not be able to tell the story I was planning.

It was just a missed opportunity and a learning experience for me about foreshadowing and collaborative storytelling.

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Clue the players in more quickly than the characters

In my experience, if you're too subtle with clues about this sort of thing, your players may miss them entirely. They probably have some other objective in mind and may only be half paying attention to your narration of what they assume is a quick resupply opportunity. This is especially true if you play this story out over multiple sessions or across breaks for food and other activities; players are likely to forget about little details that their characters noticed quite recently in-game.

Instead, when I run situations like this, I like to hint extremely aggressively to my players that something is going on, but withhold information from their characters. So, for instance, when you describe the village for the first time, really ham up your narration of how peaceful everything seems. Maybe even consider saying something along the lines of "everything seems perfect... too perfect?" to really drive the point home. Your players are probably genre-savvy and like figuring things out, so they'll be engaged and paying close attention to future details. But their characters don't know anything yet, and have no reason to actively investigate or avoid the village. Repeat this basic technique as you describe interactions with the villagers, exploration of particular spaces, etc. Maybe start allowing the characters to make insight checks, but don't give them more than a "weird feeling" unless they roll very high.

Once your players are engaged in the mystery, there are now two potential payoffs. The first occurs when the characters wise up and realize what the players have known all along, that something isn't quite right. This can be surprisingly satisfying for both a player and a GM- it's kind of like watching a character in a horror movie slowly realize the situation they're in. Second, once the characters are actively investigating, they still have to find out the actual details of the situation, which will come as a satisfying surprise to the players as well.

My experience

As a DM, I often use variations on this technique when the players and characters need to solve some mystery, and I find that it's usually much more effective and fun than trying to make things genuinely difficult for the players to figure out. In the campaign I'm currently running, one of my players is playing a particularly stupid and inattentive PC. I've often let her discover crucial plot-related information, which she usually fails to properly convey to the rest of the party. This provides a lot of fun roleplaying opportunities for everyone, while also clueing the players into certain details that their characters may not yet fully understand.

As a player, I was once in a situation very similar to the one you present, where the DM accidentally revealed part of the surprise. We were investigating a mysterious city that we believed was somehow connected to other magical happenings, so our characters were already expecting something strange. Near the beginning of the investigation, the DM showed us something on her laptop and we all immediately noticed that all of her other tabs were stat blocks for Yuan-Ti. We all had a good laugh, but the accidental reveal actually made the rest of the investigation more fun; since none of our characters would possibly have known about the Yuan-Ti, we had them pursue wildly incorrect hypotheses while inadvertently stumbling further and further into danger. And when the reveal finally came in game, there were still plenty of other elements to it that still came as a surprise to the players.

Of course, this technique will rely on a degree of buy in from your players. If you have problems with aggressive meta-gaming, it probably will not work. But if they are more invested in collaborative storytelling than "winning", I have found that it works really well.

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With any "secretly something" plot, there is a 50% chance the players will figure it out on the first sentence. There is also a 50% chance of them inventing a evil that is not there. And a 50% chance of otherwise breaking the plot, like jsut not staying there long enough to notice anything.

The main deterent to make sure they stay on track wtihout railraoding, might be to make staying on good terms with that village is somewhat mandatory. If it is in a deep enough wilderness and the heroes have limited survival skills - like limtied ability to get rations. Personally I like Thea 2 rules: The nearby environment is extremely hostile. But villages are founded around a totem. And between the totems magic and the number of people, most of the bad stuff at bay. Make it a unmoveable stone in a dangerous forrest, and it would entirely make sense why that village exists there, without raising questions about how they are so (seemingly) nice and can survive in the environment.

D&D does have issues getting any survival pressure up with some classes. There are a bunch of spells that would simply utterly sidestep any attempt at creating surival pressure:

I think 4E has less of what I would call "gamestyle ruining utility spells". Possibly even none of them. The Forrage use of Nature is afaik the only way to get food.

It was really a good idea of my GM to put a 4E campaign into Dark Sun, a setting were survival is very important. 3.X would have been just a Druid or Cleric away from having survival be a non-issue.

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