Preparing Red Herring in 6 Easy Steps

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on September 18, 2009

Too often in D&D the party’s objective is spelled out and put in front of them without any significant distractions. PCs do require some direction, but it doesn’t have to be spoon fed to them. By giving them a few false leads every now and then they’re less likely to assume that every encounter is part of the bigger story arc.

A red herring is way to describe an element in a story that is intended to mislead the heroes. In some cases it’s used to shift emphasis away from something important, in other cases is a lead that just doesn’t pan out.

Your D&D campaign isn’t happening in a vacuum. There are other things going on around the PCs that have nothing to do with them or your story. But that’s not to say that the PCs won’t learn about some of these events during their day-to-day activities. As the DM it’s your job to throw a few of these things into your campaign to give the PCs additional options.

If you use red herrings in your game or if you’re interested in doing it for the first time, then you should follow these six rules.

  1. Be prepared, PCs are unpredictable

  2. If you present the PCs with an option, be ready in the event that they choose that option. Red herrings are a useful way to spread false rumours or mislead the PCs, but inevitably someone will decide that the red herring sounds more interesting than the planned adventure and you need to be ready. The party may start entertaining the idea of splitting up in order to keep to the primary objective and follow-up on the red herring simultaneously. This can often be disastrous.

  3. Don’t let them stray too far

  4. For every red herring you introduce into your campaign make sure you have a good way to get the PCs back on track. If they do decide to follow your appetizing red herring it’s important that you can guide them back in the intended direction. And it needs to make sense. PCs don’t like to be railroaded. Don’t just tell them they can’t follow the red herring; use the details already established in the adventure to force their hand (or at least make sure they understand the consequences of following the red herring and not sticking to the plan).

  5. Don’t overdo it

  6. Use red herrings sparingly. If you throw these in for flavour but never intend to let the PCs follow these false leads, then you’d better not do it very often. The PCs will get angry and frustrated.

  7. Let the PCs draw their own conclusions

  8. Listen to their ideas and if you like what you hear, feel free to use their ideas. They’ll be happy they uncovered your secret plan meanwhile you’ve let them write the encounter for you. But don’t forget rule 3. If you use this too often they’ll catch on.

  9. Let the PCs catch the red herring

  10. Every now and then, let the PCs follow the red herring. Actually have an encounter ready and let the PCs complete it. It may not have anything to do with the main story, but it keeps the PCs on their toes.

  11. Bring back red herrings as actual encounters

  12. This is the technique I use most often. I’ll throw a few red herrings into my campaign and see what the PCs do. I listen for the ones that they seem to find interesting and a few weeks later I use it again. Only this time it’s actually part of my planned adventure. PCs hate leaving stones unturned so by letting them finally follow-up the sense of accomplishment is so much sweeter.

Here are a few sample red herrings that you can throw into your campaign right away. Remember that these should not have any connection to the main story (at fist) and are just there to mess with the PCs. It’s up to you to decide if anything overheard is actually true or not.

  1. The PCs learn that a ship arriving in port later that night is carrying some kind of contraband.
  2. While searching a room, the PCs find a loose floorboard under which are a stockpile of old weapons.
  3. A man with a sizable bounty on his head was seen in a local tavern yesterday. Until last night he was believed dead.
  4. A Drow and an Eladrin are performing an exotic dance routine that “can’t be missed.” One night only, they head on to the next town at first light.
  5. Someone who looks a lot like one of the PCs has been cashing in on his name.

As a DM do you use red herrings? How often? As a PC what are your feelings about red herrings in D&D?

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

1 David September 18, 2009 at 10:57 am

Red herrings are a part of real life. But in the game, I find they’re a hindrance to the story, not a help. Players are easily distracted and often draw very unexpected conclusions from information the DM thinks is innocent—more than enough even when it’s unplanned.

On the other hand, sewing a seed for future adventure may be worth it.
.-= David´s last blog ..Giant Chess in Trafalgar Square =-.

2 David the Archmage September 18, 2009 at 12:21 pm

I usually just call these dungeon dressing or side encounters! But spending a little more time to think about it… I haven’t used these too often, but every once in a while it’s fun to do.
.-= David the Archmage´s last blog ..Megadungeon mapping thoughts =-.

3 Aaron deOliveira September 18, 2009 at 12:56 pm

i love using red herrings. my favorite one encompasses Rule 1. PC’s are unpredictible. my PCs entered a town and i had a NPC set up to give them some basic background information about where they were. the PC’s decide that this NPC is a threat so they decide to kick down his door and break into his house and attack him. i didn’t have anything prepared for this NPC other than what he was supposed to tell them. so i decided to make him a vampire to give him some abilities to fend the PCs off with. once the PCs figure out he’s a vampire, they decide to break into his hastily constructed crypt and kill him. so they grab the NPC’s servant and use him as a human shield while they break into the crypt and kill the vampire. surprisingly the servant survives being used as a shield. the PCs just dump him after killing his employer and destroying his home.

i eventually went back and had the servant try to get some vengeance on the PCs later. the funny thing was that they didn’t really remember him.

4 Rook September 18, 2009 at 6:35 pm

Do I use red herrings? Just about every time the PCs “go to the Inn/Tavern”. I love to throw in little bits of info at them to see what they react to. I usually prepare a short list of one-liners that the PCs will “overhear”, unintentionally or not. Some are true, some not and some are, from a certain point of view. I’ll use these rumors to point out new directions for them to explore, lead them to important NPCs, and of course, sow suspicion.

The key to doing this is prepare, prepare, prepare. I always have at least a general idea of what to do should the PCs follow this tidbit or that one. What I really find challenging is when they follow a lead that is totally unrelated to the plot. Most times I can either turn that lead back into the main plot OR bring it to a close so that the players realize it was just a side encounter. And if they don’t, then the mystery plagues them for awhile. But hey, such is Life. Sometimes you just never find out what that encounter was all about.
.-= Rook´s last blog ..My Foray into 4E: The pros and cons of flufflessness =-.

5 Wyatt September 19, 2009 at 12:35 am

I don’t ever really have red herrings because the side trips always have some form of reward or utility even if it’s just XP. Though, my definition of red herring is being “misleading” and “distracting” according to my dictionary, which doesn’t sound like what I do at all.
.-= Wyatt´s last blog ..10 Things You Must Know About The Spirits of Eden =-.

6 Ameron September 21, 2009 at 12:12 am

@David
Sounds like you’ve had some experience with this kind of thing (probably unintentionally). Just remember rule #1: Be prepared. You’re absolutely right that PCs will draw conclusions and do the unexpected.

@David the Archmage
Just remember ruler #3: Don’t overdo it. This kind of distraction can be very rewarding, but it needs to happen in moderation. I agree that this is really just “dressing” but every now and then it’s fun to have it be more than that.

@Aaron deOliveira
Sounds like you handled the situation beautifully. Your quick thinking turned what could have been disastrous into a “normal” encounter. It’s funny that the PCs didn’t even remember. I guess you handled it so well it seemed like just another part of the game and not some unexpected tangent.

@Rook
Sounds like you’re an expert when it comes to this. Your comment echoes my point, just because the PCs are on a quest doesn’t mean that other things aren’t happening all around them. It takes a strong DM to bring PCs back to the main plot if they veer too far off of it. Leaving a few details unexplained is good for PCs. It makes them think in broader terms.

@Wyatt
This is certainly not a story-telling device that all DMs will want to use or even find useful in their game. It has a real risk of steering your PCs in directions you had no intention of having them go. I’m merely sharing a few tips that I’ve found helpful when I’ve used this technique. Thanks for your comment.

7 JesterOC September 22, 2009 at 2:46 pm

Interesting article. On the one hand I think that red herrings should not be used intentionally by the DM, on the other hand I feel that information for the PC’s should not be spoon fed to them. Of course if you don’t spoon feed your PC’s every bit of information, then they are going to have to figure out what the clues to their objective means. And thus more often then not they will come to the “wrong” conclusions.

I think your tips are a good way to help make the “wrong path” entertaining.

8 satyre October 1, 2009 at 12:27 pm

Red herring is a fine accompaniment to any game and Wyatt is right, there is an implicit reward in taking part. I’ll second the part about red herrings being superb ways of setting up future encounters.

Like all good things you can overuse red herring, particularly if your players have a lot of information in the first place. Remember to cleanse your palate after one of these encounters with something relevant to your plot.
.-= satyre´s last blog ..of sapphires =-.

9 Daniel Nicolai February 5, 2013 at 5:43 pm

Most of the campaigns I run will have several Red Herrings, but I try to flesh them out a little bit. I’ve found that letting players run through the whole thing only to get a minimal reward will stave them off.

For example: If they are supposed to go out into the field to fight off the invading Goblins and another option is to go break up a warehouse strike and they pick the strike, I will often have them roll an Intimidate check as soon as they get there, breaking up the strike and getting their meager rewards… then it’s off to the fields where the goblins have set up fortifications and are launching a full assault.

Strangely though.. they’ve taken to going after the Red Herrings more and more often to make it so that when they get to the field it’s a real challenge for them. Which is fine by me!

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