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So I'm a new GM and am running my first campaign. I'm by no means running a terribly complicated game with Elizabethan parlor intrigue, but I do have a few twists that I'm excited to throw at my players. Now in my experience a good plot twist has to be subtly hinted at beforehand and paid-off a ways down the road after the clues are dropped.

A few times now I've dropped what I truly believe to be subtle hints, an NPC's reaction with multiple interpretations, one letter in pile of letters all written out, etc. But every time I do this they cling onto it and guess the payoff, weeks in advance. I'm happy to have players who are engaged enough with the plot to notice these clues, and paying enough attention to the context to make the guesses. But it certainly takes some of the fun out of it if I can't surprise these guys without a trap door or initiative roll.

Clearly I'm doing something wrong, what should I be doing?

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    \$\begingroup\$ I wish all players paid this much attention. \$\endgroup\$ – Ling Apr 16 '17 at 8:32
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    \$\begingroup\$ Do not answer in comments. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Apr 17 '17 at 3:12
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    \$\begingroup\$ As a friend of mine once said "I've never read The Lord of the Rings, but based on that first movie I'm pretty sure the third is going to have a fistfight inside a volcano somewhere in there". \$\endgroup\$ – Eric Lippert Apr 17 '17 at 11:48
  • \$\begingroup\$ When one player guesses the plot, do the others necessarily agree with them? Are there ever situations where different players have a set of ideas about the future plot, only some of which are correct? \$\endgroup\$ – Ray Apr 18 '17 at 0:33
  • \$\begingroup\$ Just curious: Are they guessing the future (i.e. what you have planned as the final outcome)? Or are they guessing the present (i.e. stuff going on behind the scenes / secrets of the NPCs / etc.)? \$\endgroup\$ – colmde Apr 18 '17 at 12:13

14 Answers 14

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You're not doing anything wrong. Having players guess a plot development doesn't mean they know (unless you're confirming their guesses — don't do that, that is doing it “wrong”). It just means they have put together the puzzle and think they know how it's going to work out.

This is fine! They don't know they're right until they get there. And when they do, as a player it's a great feeling to finally witness the plot unfold and think “I knew it!” It's actually its own reward, in many ways, so you don't want to take that away from them.

Let your players have their feeling of well-earned smarts. They will be on the edge of their seats until the reveal, wondering the whole way whether they will be proven right. This is way better than the opposite — and much more common — problem where you have players who never catch any hints or forget important clues.

Also, as a GM you have all the information, and it's easy to underestimate how easy it is to guess the big picture. This is deceptive though, and can lead you to overestimate how confident your players are in their deductions, and to underestimate how much mystery is left in their experience. In reality, as a player it's actually pretty hard to be sure you're right about your guesses. Even when I've been a player and turned out to have guessed 100% right, I have never been sure until the reveal. The GM's omniscient perspective is often misleading.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 this is the difference between players experiencing your plot and having it inflicted upon them. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Apr 16 '17 at 4:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the players always having doubts. That desire to verify their suspicion is really going to pull them into the plot. \$\endgroup\$ – ThunderGuppy Apr 18 '17 at 15:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ And it is SO much better than players WRONGLY deducing your plot and effectively already treating their deductions as truth. \$\endgroup\$ – Weckar E. Apr 19 '17 at 11:38
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Cherish it. Reward them for it, even.

If you're as subtle as you claim you were in your hints, then your players were actively paying attention and putting in significant effort to figure out your plot. There are DMs that would kill for players that cared enough to figure out a single plot thread on their own, let alone the entire plot.

Take it to the ending. Them being right is their own reward. If you change the plot just to surprise them, then you're going to make them not want to bother to figure out your clues the next time around.

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After many many years of gaming, often as GM, I have discovered two immutable truths of game-related plotting:

  1. There is no hint so subtle that players will not notice it, pick up on it, and run all the way to the end of the field with it, in less time than it takes me to get another diet coke from the fridge
  2. Conversely, there is no clue so obvious that players will not stumble and flail blindly in the dark because they missed it.

Truly, it is a law of nature: When I am most proud of my subtlety and sneakiness, that is when the players will see eighteen sessions into the future directly to my Big Reveal. When I am hitting them over the head with a clue-by-four, they don't even notice it.

So in addition to all of the other excellent answers here, I would add this advice: Don't despair, just make the scope of your game a little bigger. Your players are no more supernatural than any of mine have been, and when there are enough things for them to worry about, they will inevitably start missing some things. And you will probably be surprised at the things they miss.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Sometimes, running from shadow to shadow is the least effective way to be stealthy. In other words, sometimes the problem is that by trying to hide or obscure something, you draw attention to it as being important. Regarding point 2, the common thinking is something along the lines of "if I can see something without any special effort, it must not be very special", or "that's too obvious; it must be a trick". \$\endgroup\$ – Jay Apr 17 '17 at 18:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ Our GM gave a HUGE hint to "go this way" but we decided it was a trap and nothing he could do would convince us after that \$\endgroup\$ – WendyG Jan 26 '18 at 15:56
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So long as the players are delighted with their cleverness for solving your mystery, then you’re running a great game.

Let smart players feel smart

Have you ever read/watched a mystery story, and guessed the big mystery right at the outset? It’s not boring — it’s a rush really. You collect the additional clues that make you more sure of your hunch, feeling clever the whole time. Let your players have this feeling, if they earned it.

Definitely do not change the answer to your mystery if the players surmised it correctly.

Guessing the answer doesn’t mean knowing the answer

Don’t assume the mystery is over just because somebody guessed the outcome. And don’t let on when the players guess the mystery — let them wonder if they really are right.

Countless times, I’ve had players guess the answer to a mystery, then lose confidence in their hunch. Sometimes a player with a wrong idea but a stronger personality will lead the party back off track.

Red Herrings

You can toss a red herring or two at the party to make them doubt their conclusions. Misleading clues are a staple of mystery stories. It’s pretty easy to muddy the waters — an unreliable NPC witness, or an artifact that suggests involvement of an irrelevant faction can sow a lot of doubt. Just be careful not to get them too far off base.

Carefully gauge any increase in mystery difficulty

When the mystery is fully resolved, you might want to have an out-of-game chat with your players, to ask if they felt the mystery was easy, and if the next one should be harder. Don’t be surprised if they say no.

If your players do want harder mysteries, adjust the difficulty carefully. I think it’s way easier to make a totally baffling mystery that will just stump, confuse, annoy, and ultimately bore your party.

One technique is to provide early “leads” that have very little information, but provide a direction to investigate. Mysterious disappearances along a particular street of road is an example.

Read or watch more mysteries

If you haven’t done so already, make sure to read or watch mystery stories yourself. Pay particular attention to the early clues given in the stories.

If your players are into mystery stories themselves (and it sounds like they might be, based on their perceptive deductions) you might want to find out who their favorite authors are…and then read something else.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for Red Herrings. I was going to suggest creating another scenario, one that will not be played out, and write a few clues for that scenario to add some doubt and uncertainty to their guesses. \$\endgroup\$ – Leatherwing Apr 17 '17 at 13:23
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I would like to point out that I agree wholeheartedly with SevenSidedDie's answer that you needn't confirm nor deny your player's thoughts and opinions, but I would like to make a handful of additions to that answer.

The first is that in games full of intrigue, knowing things can be just as dangerous, if not more dangerous, than not knowing them and the player's guessing the truth and acting upon it can actually make the game more interesting. The characters figuring out the villain's plot doesn't ruin your story; the minute the villain figures out that the PCs figured it out you can introduce assassins or various other factions. Plus, the PCs knowing the villain's plot does not at all prevent the villain from going through with his plot, and if evidence is needed to do anything just because the player's know that the duke's son was murdered and replaced by a Rakshasa doesn't mean that they can do anything about it - after all, the duke still thinks it's his son!

The second thing you could do is have secrets within secrets. Sure, maybe the Captain of the Guard is secretly supplying information to the Cult of Orcus, but that doesn't mean that he's a member of their cult - maybe he's trying to gain their trust to set up a sting operation, or maybe he's a hedonist and he uses the funds on the black market, thus introducing another faction into this storyline to be followed up on later. Knowing one fact does not mean that you know all the facts.

The point is that plot twists can still be powerful and shocking even if the players anticipate them. Sure, the players know months in advance that the generals are planning a coup d'etat to overthrow the king (even if you wanted it to be a surprise) but that doesn't make it any less powerful when the generals capture and execute the king and put themselves in power - if anything, it makes it all the more shocking because it means that the players know that this is a villain who has bested them once before and more urgent because they know in advance of the general populace the full extent of this threat.

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for "knowing one fact does not mean that you know all facts." True in RL as well. \$\endgroup\$ – KorvinStarmast Apr 20 '17 at 3:06
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One approach not yet mentioned is to get the players to double down. If they think they have the mystery figured out, have them put some skin in the game. Give them an opportunity to bet on their hunch. Nothing breeds uncertainty faster than having something at risk if you're wrong.

It also gives them more opportunities to give you an opening. A player who thinks they know who the murder is may just slide all the way to the big reveal. A player who suddenly finds their character's reputation is on the line might spend more attention, and in doing so give you an opportunity to lay the seeds of the next story arc.

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One thing I would mention is that maybe your players are picking up on you giving more details to something that what would otherwise be mundane - to counter this effect I would suggest throwing out some "false" hints (sometimes a rock is just a rock, even if it appears shiny)

Also worth mentioning is that sometimes you need a good poker face - don't let them squeeze more info than what you intend to reveal via facial expressions or other hints, such as sometimes explaining stuff in more details and other times saying "I can neither confirm nor deny your suspicions"

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  • \$\begingroup\$ This was my first thought as well. Perhaps it's a case of something seeming a lot more clue-y than all the other information, and your players are good at sniffing that out. \$\endgroup\$ – JMac Apr 17 '17 at 10:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yeah, I've gotten better at this. Like writing out each of the letters above and the correct interpretation of the NPC not being the first that jumps to mind. \$\endgroup\$ – SkippyG Apr 17 '17 at 19:13
  • \$\begingroup\$ I know this isn't directly RPG related, but it is mystery and suspense related: I wish crime dramas would sometimes use the "oh i know her" actress not for the guilty person. and it is really fun when you are expecting something to be major because it was so well written and given such importance and goes nowhere, it really throws you at the end. \$\endgroup\$ – WendyG Jan 26 '18 at 16:00
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The answer to this "problem" depends on what you want your players to experience. There are many pitfalls here, but also several opportunities, all of which depend on your play style. Personally, I run a very lose, sandboxy game, so I do not spend a large amount of time in prep for my campaigns beyond actually creating the world itself, so I can change things very easily, and this is reflected in my preferred method.

Let the Players "win"

Say your players figure out your twist. Let them use their knowledge, prepare for the twist, and come out ahead. Be sure to play up the villain being incredulous that they figured things out (or whatever feels thematically right). If your players work hard for a solution, and get it right, they should receive a reward. However, do not at any point tell them they figured it out. Let them be uncertain up until the last moment. This will help prevent any tendency towards metagaming.

Change the narrative

Just because you planned something to happen doesn't mean it still has to. Maybe the maid that let it slip the Baron has really pointy teeth and never comes out in the sunlight is really just lying....or maybe she is actually one of the vampires trying to throw your party off the trail. Then when your party shows up, equipped with garlic and wooden stakes and finds that the Baron is actually a werewolf, they learn a lesson in believing everything they hear. It is your world, there's no reason you can't change things.

It is also important to remember that NPCs aren't necessarily reliable narrators, and may have many motivations to misleading the PCs.

Sow doubt/Red Herrings

Just like the players heard the original rumor, perhaps other hints and rumors pop up. Make them question and try to verify the rumors they have heard. Heck, maybe the BBEG is spreading rumors that would aid him in defeating the party (Villain needs McGuffin of power, so he spreads a rumor that the McGuffin of power is the one weakness he has).

In any case, find a medium that you and your players both enjoy. It is frustrating as a DM to have your plot twists guessed every time, but it is also frustrating for the players to never gaining a leg up because the things you figure out are never right. There should always be a "reason" why the rumors they have heard don't match the reality, or a reason they have guessed wrong, even if that is only known to the DM.

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    \$\begingroup\$ But, don't discard an intricately planned scenario for some hastily hobbled one simply because your planned ones are cliché. \$\endgroup\$ – can-ned_food Apr 23 '17 at 5:31
  • \$\begingroup\$ @can-ned_food I agree completely. It is always important to remember that, while you are required to do more than the players as a DM, you are also there to have fun. \$\endgroup\$ – Marshall Tigerus Apr 24 '17 at 13:12
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I don't generally run an RPG campaign like a story with a plot. By having things unfold in unpredictable ways according to the changing situation, there is no plot to guess, and if the players guess well what is likely to happen, it just means they are being clever, which is generally a good thing.

I suggest relating more and more to your campaign world as a place whose events could turn out any number of ways depending on what happens during play. And where the players can figure out things super-quickly, or ignore clues and situations altogether, and different things will happen, and can all be fun however it turns out.

Even if you are a player who will always prefer to relate to games as plots, I think it's still valuable to never count on any specific thing happening, or any specific pieces of information being found, understood, or remain mysterious. In a game with other players, those things are naturally hard (and I would say, undesirable) to control without forcing things. Instead, think of what would happen if things go differently, and how those variations can be interesting.

Edit: Your comment changes what I thought you were asking about a bit. I would add then that I would look at how it is that it's even possible to guess accurately, and see what you are doing to telegraph the significance more than you meant to. For example, if you mainly or only drop hints that are relevant to the focus of your campaign, then try adding many other details and rumors that are about other things that may or may not be relevant or even accurate. Look at how much detail you give your hints as opposed to other things the PCs observe that aren't intentional clues to something focus-relevant. Look at how far each clue goes to explain a situation - if a clue only says one part of the story, or even a misleading part that leads to other information if followed, then that can help, too. Just plain building a bunch of interesting details into the world that don't come with explanations can make it so there are various interesting things to describe and explore, and only a few of them are clues to some intentional plot. The first adventure module for the first RPG I GM'd started out with a huge list of rumors, only a few of which were in any way relevant to the adventure detailed inside. Most of those just gave some relevant context, but weren't really clues about the adventure. Several were relevant but led in the wrong direction at least at first. Most were irrelevant, and many were just wild rumors that probably weren't true. Eventually I developed a similar style for detailing campaigns, where I just make an ongoing habit of detailing stuff and figuring out what's going on the in the world and various details about it. Then if I ever give intentional clues about something, they tend to blend in, and if a PC guesses what it's all about, that's a good result. I've had some very clever players over the decades, so I've learned to only give clues that I'd be happy if they actually figured out, and also to celebrate and support unexpected success when players pull them off.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Absolutely, I don't have a predetermined plot that is destined to play out as I see fit. But I have a bunch of characters who are try to achieve certain goals, some of those goals are directly tied to what my players are trying to achieve themselves. So when I say "my plot" I'm both referring to the narrative element as well as a charters literal plot, as in their plan to reach the goal that drives them. The players can drop everything and leave, or kill off important characters. It would just be out of character for them. \$\endgroup\$ – SkippyG Apr 17 '17 at 19:26
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SkippyG Oh I see, thanks. In that case, I added some more thoughts that might be helpful. \$\endgroup\$ – Dronz Apr 17 '17 at 23:31
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As well as the above, assume players have different skill at guessing where you're going, and plan for it. So once you have your plan, look again for some twist or hint that you can plant in the first or second session and never touch on again, but at the very end the players will go "ohhhhh..... Remember how in one of the very first sessions....."

It doesn't have to be earth shaking, so its easy to do this. Really good authors do it - JK Rowling virtually had to plot the 7th Harry Potter book then weave hints into the early books.

You don't have to be that extreme, but having something that is deliberately too subtle or minor to get attention except when at the end and looking back at "what else fits in"..... the feeling you outsmarted them will add a smile to good players even as they guess the main plot correctly.

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Clearly I'm doing something wrong, what should I be doing?

Well, if you aren't getting the result you want then I suppose you are "doing something wrong" in that sense.

I agree with everyone else that there's no real harm in what's happening, but it's likely that you are in fact "telegraphing" your clues a little more than you intended to. So for an extreme example, if they look through a bundle of letters and you only tell them the contents of one letter, they know pretty well that it's because that's the Clue. If most of the people they meet have no name or real characterisation, then can spot the "real NPCs" a mile off, and so on.

Therefore, you can introduce more irrelevant information (and even red herrings) if you'd like it to be less obvious what The Clue is. One technique to do this is to first decide on a false plot, then decide what Clues this would generate, then work out how the true plot could nevertheless generate those same Clues (in addition to other Clues, of course). This allows the players to reasonably come to the wrong conclusions early, and realise their error later when they get more of the picture, and still feel at all times that they're doing the intelligent thing.

Just don't let this get to the level of punishing players for being smart and engaged.

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Like answers above, I agree that having players figure out your twist in this kind of game is not a disaster; it means that your world has consistent rules and that players are applying them, which is much better than players feeling like your world-building is made up on the fly to support shocking swerves.

However, if you're hoping to be able to fool players, you can do what I do when I'm running mystery games: I keep my intended twist in mind, and then seed clues that suggest a different twist that doesn't contradict the world. I can do my clue dropping behind the fake twist, and as a bonus I often get that scene in many crime procedurals where characters say 'well, if this fake twist didn't happen, they why did this real clue happen?'

If you use this, you have to make sure you have a scene where players can try and confirm the fake twist, and doing so should provide players with enough information to work out the real twist, up to and including straight-out telling them. You want your players to see your fake-out as a cunning ploy they had an opportunity to see through and not the GM messing with them, especially if one of your players actually does see through it but doesn't share their suspicions out loud.

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First of all, I'll agree with others that this is probably a good sign overall, showing that your players are invested in the story and paying attention.

One technique you might consider comes from the D&D 3.5 Dungeon Master Handbook: you can create a more complex narrative by interleaving two or more unrelated adventures. For example, suppose the players are working for a baron to find a magic stone needed to remove the curse that has plagued his family for three generations. Unbeknownst to them, some members of the cult of vampire worshipers that they broke up a few months back have gathered together and sworn revenge against them. At various stages during their quest for the magic stone, the players might be attacked by the cultists, even though they have no connection to the magic stone and might not even know what the players are looking for. This could make it harder for the players to figure out what's going on, because they won't know which clues are related to which adventure.

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Having the players guess the plot because they are paying attention is A. good foreshadowing and B. engaged players. Neither of these are a bad thing.

One thing I realized quickly as a DM was that, if you mention a clue, they will notice. What I mean by this, is that if the world around the clue isn't detailed enough, they will realize that the details you put in the clue means it's a clue. To make it more difficult to really spot foreshadowing and clues, there needs to be enough detail invested in other things. For the stack of letters, make sure that most of the others have something similarly important. If it's hints dropped through npc interaction, make sure that there are enough similar interactions that aren't clues or hints. Otherwise, the details you add to what is important to the story will obviously be details that were important to the story.

I like to have an overwhelming amount of details prepared. If the players are going into a haunted wing (currently in there in my campaign) and they go to the town for rumors, there will be a lot of info that just isn't true. It will feel like no one knows anything and like it was a waste of time. Of course they know nothing. They haven't really been there. But then once they are inside, some of the rumors start panning out. Now, when the party sees something that seems like the start of one of the rumors, they have info. It's still a surprise, because they don't know what is real and what isn't.

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