29 thoughts on “Question: Red Herrings.”

  1. Aaron Griffin that’s the root of my fear, buy I guess I am also afraid that handing them everything removes challenges.

    …Maybe if I drop some consolation treasure on the wrong path…

  2. You’re playing to find out, right? I mean if you go into a session saying “the cook definitely murdered the mayor, and here are the three clues they’ll get”, you’re not really playing to find out.

    Maybe the PCs focus on the mayor’s daughter. And they investigate and talk, and it starts to make sense. “Shit,” you think, “this is better than the cook, let’s go with it.”

    Or maybe they never go to the kitchen to investigate so they don’t find the right clues. Instead they interview guards and children and shit. “I did see Old Miss Crankle outside early this morning. She’s the mayor’s cook,” they might say. You never made this clue up ahead of time.

    Or maybe… Eh I think you get it. The point is, you should be playing to find out, not just what the PCs do, but what the world does too, using your own form of internal logic. Create situations without solutions and let the solutions come out of play. This way there’s no such thing as a red herring.

  3. Matt Horam For me it’s less about the treasure and more about feeling railroaded. For example, here’s how I use red herrings:

    Classic fantasy vampiric murder mystery. Let’s say they’re interviewing suspects.

    First interview passes, they get clue #1.

    Second interview fails, I use “reveal an unwelcome truth” and tell them the interviewee clamors about how the little 11 year old niece is a bloodthirsty killer.

    Here’s where they follow the red herring on their own volition. They can shift the process and investigate the little girl or discount the child as a murder suspect.

    All I’m looking for is a 6- to “reveal more truths” or “use their resources,” such as killing their third interview. Those two moves are my favorite because I have a poor poker face. Much easier to tell them what they’d rather not hear than try and conceal what’s happening.

    With their 100% truthful discoveries, it’s up to them to solve the mystery. With or without herring.

  4. Aaron Griffin I totally love doing this most of the time.I guess I’m wondering if there is still a place for the actual maps around the blanks?

    Let’s say I have mapped out two entrances to a place, and one exit, leaving the majority of the structure blank for us to discover in play. Is there still a place in DW for us to give players a safe, obscured door and a trapped, obvious door, both placed by defensive architects? Especially if the characters just read a poem which cryptically infers the existence of the safe, hidden door?

    Is it still okay to pre-determine small solutions, on the rare occasion?

  5. Aaron Griffin​ This. And if a red herring becomes an interesting story twist in the moment (maybe on a 6- roll), then go for it. But I wouldn’t plan them ahead of time or use them in a way that makes the players’ hard work feel wasted. Blades in the Dark specifically forbids the GM from using a twist to take away the players’ just reward for a score, and I think the same principle applies here.

  6. You don’t know what’s gonna happen at the table, right? You’re open to interpretation and mishaps and moves, yeah? You de facto cannot offer red herrings… that implies you know what everything means and you’re misleading the players. But odds are you don’t know.

    In play, what would be a “red herring” if this were premeditated fiction, is just a GM move: revealing unwelcome truths, or making the party backtrack, etc. Surprise! Someone rolled a 6-, and now all along they were chasing their tails! How do you make it not suck? Your move puts them back on the right trail! The vampire was the kindly noble all along! Your prince is in another castle!

  7. Alfred Rudzki Oh, I could re-frame my herring as an allowed move all day. I was just worried my players might curse me for something I see as them jumping to a hasty conclusion.

  8. Saul Alexander I totally agree. Thoughts:

    What if the setback is 5mins of re-thinking?

    What if, by avoiding the 5mins of re-thinking, they end up in way deeper?

  9. Aaron Griffin, are you saying you never decide what happens offscreen until it’s narrated in play? How do you make moves offscreen?

    I do make moves offscreen, and I make decisions during prep about things happening offscreen—past or present—that the players do not know about and may not find out.

    I reject the idea that making such choices is somehow not playing to find out what happens. Playing to find out what happens is following the characters, revealing dangers and opportunities wherever they are, and making moves that build tension until they make choices that utterly change the situation.

    They might follow a “red herring” when it comes to a single thread of the whole gestalt, but The Adventure is whatever dangers they find and the hard choices they make on the path where our attention follows them. Dungeon World does not let up just because you took a fork in the road.

  10. That’s “draw maps, leave blanks” as well as “ask questions and use the answers” with a little bit of “think dangerous” thrown in.

    Prep as much as you need to – no one can tell you what that is – and make sure to leave questions (leave blanks) you want answered (ask questions). And when what happens in play doesn’t fit your prep, tear it apart (think dangerous) and improvise.

    What you prep on a sheet of paper isn’t fact. The game is played in everyone’s minds, not just yours. It needs to be used at the table to be fact.

  11. Aaron Griffin: “Exploit your prep” is one of the four things the GM is supposed to be doing at all times during play.

    “By the book” prep includes decisions about Fronts, including cast, dangers, and grim portents. It can also include making maps, though sparsely. Maps may include locating some resources, problems, threats, and opportunities that the GM knows about before play begins.

    The game even says you can use old school dungeon modules—provided you find some blanks to fill in during play. Dungeon modules include a lot of decisions about people, places, and things. You still don’t know whether the players will befriend the boss monster and turn it against the village, or one-shot it with a Wizard Ritual prepared on a beach 1,000 miles from the dungeon, or any other detail about how the players will interact with the powder-keg of dangers and opportunities you show them, and so you can still play explicitly and only to find out what happens.

    From other threads, I understand you only prep Sorcerer-style bangs. But Dungeon World offers and implies scope for more prep than that. I’m sure the game is capacious enough to swing with just Sorcerer-style bangs and not much more, but it’s also capacious enough to handle Exploiting the prep of GMs who follow the actual frameworks and implications of Dungeon World.

  12. Aaron Griffin, I do agree with you that nothing is canonical until it’s narrated at the table, though. The Fronts and stuff the GM has on deck might just be an undeveloped wavefront that collapses into something completely different. I often deliberately ask the characters questions at the beginning of a session to spike my own prep.

  13. On the other hand, I might say in my prep that the Imperial capital is on the Southern continent. The heroes can wander the Northern continent all they want, and they are never going to bump into the Imperial capital—baring 5th dimensional colocation, magical transport, dream travel, or some other fantasy shenanigans, which can’t be ruled out.

  14. You can’t take one piece of GM advice – exploit your prep is literally just a paragraph that says “sometimes you’ll know things the players don’t and you can use this to choose your moves” – and ignore all the other stuff, like the next page that says “Don’t plan too hard or the rules of the game will fight you”.

  15. I know about the herring, and it’s less than 1% of the 20% I prepped. I guess the point of the OP was mostly to see how they’ve worked out for people, but I’m more than happy to explore the discussion of whether or not one should use them, ever. I am using this one tonight and I’d like to thank you all for giving me an idea to improve it and somehow not making my doubt worse.

  16. The players a lot of times make their own red herrings and persue the wrong thing you don’t need to add to the fire and confuse them more I don’t feel.

  17. Most of my games are all about red herrings. Since I predominantly use a pool of tokens to show how well a group are proceeding through the game, the players can often tell when something isn’t quite right just by looking at the pool of tokens and how well they think they’re going. That in turn leads them to explore new avenues, provide alternate hypotheses, and not get too set when I state that something has ended up being a dead end.

  18. For those playing at home, the Red Herring was taken gracefully, the treasure coveted, and the only thing I messed up was later on and still proved to be sorta fun…mostly. All in all, a good session, full of memorable moments and at 6th level, they have the divine artifact they need to save the world. Now, to use it…

  19. Aaron Griffin, I didn’t mean to overstate my disagreement. I agree that Dungeon World works best with drastically less prep than many other games. I am not arguing for encyclopedic setting information, or inch-by-inch mapping of every element of the dungeon or setting. I am not 1974 D&D telling you to draw at least 6 maps before play can begin.

    But the page-count on prep in Dungeon World covers a lot more than 1 paragraph.

    Half of page 175 is about how to prep for the notoriously low-prep First Session, including this: “What you bring to the first session, ideas-wise, is up to you. At the very least bring your head full of ideas. That’s the bare minimum.” It goes on to say what more than the bare minimum might include, and it doesn’t indicate a maximum.

    By and large, the First Session section supports the outlook you’ve described: It’s clearly implied that whatever prep you bring, even if it’s more than the minimum, is flexible, and you should be delighted to throw it out in a moment when the connections developed through character creation rule it out.

    Or, you can tell everyone that you really want to do something with this lightly-sketched scenario, and ask them leading questions that point them in that direction. That is supported, and you can still follow all your directives for a First Session (178–180).

    Anyway what else? The topic of prep comes up again on 181, but the chapter on Fronts (183–201) really gets into it: A series of decisions the GM makes away from the table: decisions making sense of what has gone on so far, decisions about people, organizations, and powers, including their motivations and their evil checklists. It’s nothing like a Pathfinder adventure path, but it does involve establishing facts about the world.

    The chapter even defines Fronts as “secret tomes of GM knowledge”, which means the GM knows some stuff before “finding out” at the table. It’s perfectly legit to put “Who killed the mayor?” as one of your Stakes questions. But it’s also legit to lay out the mayor-killing cook as a danger.

    The chapter on steadings (203–217) also strongly implies making decisions away from the table. Like Fronts, the seeds of steadings are planted first in actual play before being fleshed out. I’ve taken to asking the players to give me the details about their own steadings (210–213), so that part can easily take place at the table. But all the stuff about updating the campaign map is for the GM, as needed, outside of play.

    The monster-creation rules (223–226) also strongly imply that you will sometimes be making monsters away from the table. They give you a framework for doing it at the table, but it definitely doesn’t suggest that doing it at the table is the only way.

    The words on custom moves and adventure moves in the Advanced Delving chapter give the GM more optional prep to exploit at the table.

    Finally, the Adventure Conversion rules (382–388) offer possibly the most comprehensive prep to exploit. Converting an old-school adventure involves deliberately expanding the map to create more unknowns, but it also gives loads your prep with knowledge about dangerous situations and opportunities you will exploit if and when the players find them.

    They don’t go to the chapel in Death Frost Doom and find out that it’s just a retirement home for hobbits.

    I admit: In my experience, each of the prescribed details for Fronts and steadings are optional. Custom moves and adventure moves are optional. They have all grown on me, but I don’t touch every single one between every single session.

    However, it’s definitely possible to know some stuff about the setting and still play to find out what happens.

    Maybe they don’t give a crap about the mayor-murdering cook and they let him kill again and again, as you tick of your grim portents. In that case, another danger or opportunity would certainly come into view, and become the focus of their adventure.

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