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.
Be prepared, PCs are unpredictable
Don’t let them stray too far
Don’t overdo it
Let the PCs draw their own conclusions
Let the PCs catch the red herring
Bring back red herrings as actual encounters
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
- The PCs learn that a ship arriving in port later that night is carrying some kind of contraband.
- While searching a room, the PCs find a loose floorboard under which are a stockpile of old weapons.
- A man with a sizable bounty on his head was seen in a local tavern yesterday. Until last night he was believed dead.
- 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.
- 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?