Serve up your D&D with a side dish of red herring


While it might not look very tasty as depicted here, red herring can be the most delicious thing a Dungeon Masters can taste on game night.

An interesting idiom in the English language is ” the red herring,” an idiom defined by the Merriam-Webster online dictionary to describe something extraneous that distracts attention from the real issue. Webster attributes the origin of the phrase to the practice of drawing a red herring, i.e. a herring salted and smoked to a red color, across a trail to confuse hunting dogs. Wikipedia expands the definition of the term as a literary device, citing that methods of “emphasis and descriptive techniques” can be used to manipulate the reader’s impressions.

This post is about how a Dungeon Master (DM) can use this device  to present unexpected plot twists to players.There are two basic ways to employ red herrings in a Dungeons & Dragons campaign: building them into an adventure, and holding them in reserve. Explanations and examples of each method follow.

Building Red Herrings into an adventure

So, all we have to do is travel across the Ashen Plain to reach the hidden shrine, where we can get the sacred spellstaff, which we need for the ritual that seals the rift. And we have to conduct the ritual before Amantineth the Demonwizard can assume physical form. Very well. We leave at dawn.

Well said, brave party leader. But what you don’t know is that Amantineth’s agents got to your sage before you did, and after a disappointingly short period of threatening and torture, the sage agreed to tell you that Amantineth’s spellstaff will seal the rift, instead of saying that the staff is all he needs to assume physical form. And that the hidden shine is consecrated against Amantineth and his minions, so heroes like you have to be duped into retrieving it for him.

Veteran players have a tendancy to cut to the chase when playing an adventure; they know how to ferret out an objective and, since so many quests share so many common elements, a false story that sounds like a standard adventure plot is enough to send the heroes on their merry way. Few players will stop to question if the story they get from such “trustworthy” neutrals as sages, prophets and accomplished clerics and wizards is the whole truth, or even true at all.

Even one small bit of inaccurate information, whether it is provided in error or offered as a knowing lie, is enough to turn an entire adventure upside down for players who feel certain about the story’s trajectory.

Holding Red Herrings in Reserve

They certainly did have an easy time recovering the arrow that is reputed slay the pit fiend in a single shot, the DM thought. They stormed right through the encounters leading to the fiend’s room, and they’re barely even scratched; this is going to be an anti-climax. But then again, the arrow is only reputed to work – what if it doesn’t? Now that would make this an interesting fight…

Most people agree that the DM has a responsibility to provide players with an exciting play experience. While players won’t appreciate being penalized for good play, such as arriving at the fiend’s lair with most of their resources unspent, they also don’t appreciate a boring end to an adventure. Planning  a couple of red herrings to be held in reserve in case the players have too easy a time is one of the DM’s options; it’s better to give the monsters a little boost than to be boring. The important thing to remember is not to be adversarial; your goal should be to provide an exciting encounter, not punish the party for discovering a safer, easier way through your dungeon.

Using Red Herrings in Your Game

Whether the red herrings are part of an adventure plot or an “insurance policy” against the heroes having too easy a time, they are generated the same way. First, examine the plot sequence of the adventure for basic assumptions players are liklely to make. Second, decide that one or more of those assumptions is false, and third, make up the “real story” behind the falsehood and plan your game accordingly.

The number of ways red herrings can be introduced is only limited by the number of ways heroes obtain information. Falsehoods, be they simple inaccuracies, accidental omissions or the deliberate plantings of villainous agents, can be convincingly nested in any of the following:

Rumors, particularly if the false rumor sounds the most reasonable of all rumors presented.

Advice, provided by characters who typically have authority in the field the heroes ask about.

Unrelated details, presented in any form, that players will instinctively try to connect, even if they are unconnected. Telling the players that, for example, the tomb of Amantineth’s mortal love is tantalizingly close to the rift site will probably result in their seeking the tomb, even though there’s nothing there but a marking stone and a skeleton.

The DM can also take a page from the Ancient Egyptians’ playbook, by planting a “pre-looted” treasure room. Tomb builders sometimes included a false burial chamber in their plans, which appeared to be looted, so that the first looters at the site would think the place was already plundered before pushing ahead to the real tomb and its riches.

Like all DM devices, it is possible to overuse red herrings. When players increasingly suspect that your quest leads are always half-truths, discontinue using this device for a while.

Have you successfully used a red herring to enhance the play experience in your game? Consider sharing what happened in a comment to this post.


8 comments on “Serve up your D&D with a side dish of red herring

  1. Anarkeith says:

    A friend of mine had a tavern called “The Red Herring” in his game. So, the next game in our group featured a tavern called “The Rouge Tuna”. Finally, there was “The Crimson Anchovy”. Silly, yes, but we loved those taverns…

  2. ClefJ says:

    I have run very few of these in my travels among my group of players. But one I had created had astonished them all, likely because of its rarity. Previously in the adventure (an original scifi campaign of sorts), we had killed an Emperor who was possessed by his ancestors through an evil circlet.

    Taking the circlet from the emperor, effectively allowing him to die rather than pass onto the circlet, my NPC locked it in his artifact vault for study. Skill checks determined that it was inert, and now just a paperweight. A few sessions had passed with the severity of the main plot pressing on us, when at the climax of destroying an enemy superweapon, my NPC exhibited unusual behaviors. Normally he missed a lot of lethal blows (attributed to my poor rolling), and used stun weapons. At this point he had gradually moved to more lethal weapons and begun to properly end his enemies life.

    At the conclusion and on the moment of victory, my NPC betrayed the party, nearly killing one of them and making his escape. For a while they had thought my NPC went rogue. Soon after this NPC was causing local havoc, and though victorious, the dismayed party discovered that the circlet they had taken still had the evil ancestral spirits within them, and body-swapped with my NPC, leaving his original spirit in the artifact. The skill-checks had not met the target number to still detect activity in the circlet, but I had not let them know this.

    I’m not sure. Would this count as use of a red herring, or just a plot twist?

    • Alric says:

      I’d say the answer to that question lies in your original intentions about the artifact. If you originally intended to mislead the party by deliberately minimizing the importance/danger of the circlet (for maximum plot value later), or if you decided that the inert item would instead affect the NPC as a result of the heroes having too easy a time in the game, I’d call it a red herring as described in the post. If you worked from the assumption that the item was always dangerous but remained impartial when the heroes failed to recognize the danger, letting the chips fall where they may, I’d say it was a plot twist. The defining condition here would be whether or not you intended to mislead, I think.

      Either way, you’ve raised an important distinction between plot twists and red herrings, and for that I thank you.

      • ClefJ says:

        Huzzad, and thank you, analyzing has helped me better understand what a red herring would be! Indeed, it was a plot twist rather than an attempt to mislead. I certainly must try this properly next time!

      • Alric says:

        You are most welcome. And thanks to you for reading my blog, Sir.

  3. […] red herrings, or misleading clues, can serve a wide variety of adventure design functions, they represent false clues for mystery adventure purposes. Hint at more than one possible motive, […]

  4. Justin says:

    Lots of good stuff here. Read through a few of your posts, and they’ve been extremely helpful and inspiring. Thanks for taking the time to put these together! Game on!

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