Misdirection At The Table

I use a lot of misdirection in my storytelling as a Game Master and as a player in tabletop roleplaying games. It is incredibly fun to put a bunch of information out there, hiding the important pieces behind less important information by taking advantage of knowing that you can only really tell what information is important in retrospect. I usually try to avoid burying what I’m trying to hide in bullshit, since that tends to indicate there’s something I’m trying to hide and I do my best to avoid outright lying about it because it’s not really fair if I’m just going to deliberately steer people in the wrong direction. It is only good, useful foreshadowing and storytelling if people are given the tools and information they need to start figuring things out on their own. Anyone can lie. It takes real skill to tell nothing but the truth in a way that draws attention away from the things you’d prefer people to ignore.

Perhaps the easiest example is a Dungeons and Dragons character I’ve been playing for a while. Lewis, a devil in hiding, spent most of his time living away from towns in order to avoid being exposed as an infernal being. He still dressed nicely, though, and seemed to be a person of culture who was comfortable in cities. So when the other players and their characters began to dig into his life a bit, they all wound up getting fixated on the disparity between the way he presented himself (as a worldly, knowledable person) and the life he claimed to live (alone in the wilderness). They thought he was lying about living in the woods all the time because they knew there was something there to be suspicious of, so it wasn’t until much later that they eventually started to dig into the other details of his past that were actually either falsehoods or carefully brushed past without ever being firmly answered.

A lot of this worked because the game we were playing put a decent amount of pressure on the characters to get along and events conspired to tie them together (as is the minimum table stakes for creating an adventuring party), so someone who had less reason to get along might have pushed harder initially. The inverse is also true, of course, since I was encouraged to not keep the ruse going any longer than necessary because I was interested in Lewis changing rather than remaining static for a period of the game. I don’t think I really pulled the wool over the eyes of my fellow players, but we were able to build a really interesting set of character moments because the misdirection played out the way it did. They and their characters had enough information to start figuring things out on their own and, eventually, were able to ask the right questions to get Lewis to answer honestly about his past.

As the GM in other games, I have a tendency to put forward just enough interesting and outlandish details about the world that it is up to my players to decide what is important. Most of the time, I used this as a method of expanding my worldbuilding to follow the ideas and narrative threads that interest my players. Once I start to solidly move down a path, though, I use this pattern of information introduction to hide one or two important details in amongst the exciting stuff. One of my players in particular has gotten very good at realizing when I’m doing this and keeping track of everything so that he knows when to either start tying threads together or start pulling things loose. It’s a lot of fun, to introduce things and wait for my players to pick up on it.

At it’s core, the idea behind the majority of my misdirection is to leave a number of suspicious gaps in what is being presented, frequently burying further questions within them so that those I’m attempting to misdirect have plenty to chew on as they try to figure out what’s important. Most of the time, simple layering is enough. If you put a big secret on top of an even bigger one, most people will find the first and decide that was the reason they were investigating. They might never recognize that the completed puzzle is actually just a piece of a much larger one, or it might take them finding a few more pieces that don’t seem to add up right. Sometimes, all you need is one thing that is obviously wrong but for unclear reasons because they’ll seize on that one thing and follow it to its conclusion, forgetting that they never really made sure that this was the only thing to be suspicious of.

I enjoy this kind of misdirection because it feels like building puzzles for people to solve. It’s not fun if I don’t put all the pieces they need on the table, you know? Or if I don’t at least give them clues to follow to find where I’ve hidden the rest of the pieces. I think that distinction is why people seem to enjoy this, or at least aren’t actively mad at me when I do stuff like this. It’s not like I’m doing this to establish my intellectual superiority or to get off on watching them struggle. I want my puzzles solved. I want them to arrive at the correct conclusion. I don’t want to make difficult puzzles, I want to make puzzles other people can solve. That’s half the reason I run tabletop games, after all, to create challenges and watch my friends bust through them. It’s really quite rewarding.

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