When you watch an episode of CSI, Law & Order, or NCIS you know that by the end of the show all the loose ends will be tied up. The villain will be captured, the conflict resolved and the story wrapped up nicely. This formula for procedural story-telling is gratifying because you know that it’s going to be self-contained. There’s rarely an expectation that you’ll need any more than a rudimentary knowledge of the story coming in and that when it’s done you can walk away satisfied that no questions were left unanswered.
D&D adventures usually follow a similar procedural approach. The DM sets the stage, introduces the conflict and the villains, and after a few encounters everything is resolved. The exception is a long-term home campaign where the DM creates a much larger story arc, but even when this is the case the stops along the way are almost always resolved as quickly as they happen.
This is not to say that procedural story-telling is a bad thing. If it’s what everyone expects and it makes all the participants happy then by all means keep doing it. But if this is the way your game has run for as long as you can remember then perhaps it’s time to leave some details unresolved. After all, real life isn’t usually anything like the procedural shows we see on TV. There are always loose ends and things left unresolved.
One way to add some dangling threads to an otherwise self-contained story is to throw in a few red herrings. These are story elements that sound enticing and may in fact be thrilling to play out, but have absolutely nothing to do with the larger story arc. In some cases they make for interesting side trek adventures and in other cases they fall flat because they are truly nothing special.
By using a few red herrings in your campaign every now and then the players begin to understand that not every NPC they meet is either an ally or villain in the heroes’ story. Some people have their own stories that the PCs are in no way attached to (unless they choose to attach themselves to them). Once you’ve established precedent for using red herring and introducing irrelevant characters to the story, it allows the DM to introduce important NPCs (heroes or villains) without shining a giant spot light on the new guy.
The Unattainable Prize
Where red herrings are designed to intentionally mislead the PCs, sometimes they’ll learn about actual tangents or story elements that are absolutely true but are simply unattainable at this time. Most players assume that everything they encounter is within their ability to defeat because that’s how D&D works. While I usually agree that this is how things should work I do think that every once in a while there should be something beyond the PCs’ reach. It reminds the players that their PCs are not the most powerful beings in the game.
For example, in a previous long-term campaign my DM laid bread crumbs hinting at a doorway that led to another world (which we later discovered actually led to an underdark world that was otherwise inaccessible in this campaign). For weeks we followed clues and gathered information until we finally made our way to the chamber with the door. We knew that once we reached the door we’d have to face off against the guardian, an incredibly powerful golem. For an entire gaming session we fought the giant construct only to admit defeat. We simply weren’t powerful enough to get past it.
The DM told us that even though he knew we weren’t powerful enough to defeat this foe he felt it made sense that the heroes would find out about it at this point in the campaign. We had to learn the hard way that as tough as we thought we were there were still some forces that were more powerful than us.
In the games that followed this defeat we took the story in a totally different direction but we constantly talked in-character and out-of-character about going back some day to defeat it and find out what was beyond the door. In this instance the dangling story element spurred us on and motivated us to earn the XP needed to level up and equip ourselves with items more suited to defeating this unbeatable foe.
It took about six months of real-time and another five levels before the PCs again took on the challenge of fighting the golem. This time we were victorious, but it was still a very difficult encounter.
The DM never encouraged or discouraged us to follow-up on this story thread. The players used the knowledge that we gained during out first fight to determine the approximate power-level of the golem and it was totally left in our hand to decide when, if ever, we wanted to return. The DM told us after the first encounter that he was ready to proceed with that tangent of the campaign whenever we managed to get past the golem and through the door, but he never forced our hand in the matter.
By introducing some threads into your campaign that don’t get resolved immediately you give the PCs options. How they choose to pursue those options is what makes the game fun. In some cases they may overlook an important element because they believe it to be a red herring, while in other cases they may expect a course of action open when it is not. Challenge the players’ expectation of how the story works. Follow procedural story-telling style if that’s what you enjoy, but consider adding those loose ends more frequently just to keep things interesting.
How often do you introduce completely irrelevant aspects to your campaign just to give the story a more realistic feel? Do you think that using red herrings is just a waste of time and detracts from the point of playing D&D? How would you handle players who get frustrated or angry that they can’t defeat everything they face off against?