Though he had weak lungs, he puffed slowly on the long pipe held between his fingers, enjoying the taste for a moment then smoothly releasing it out of his mouth into the chilly night air. He peered over the stone ledge he sat on, looking down the drop off down the cliff. The heat of the signal tower warmed his bones but made his eyelids heavier by the hour. There were a few nighthawks gliding around on the updrafts over the gorge but the sky was otherwise empty. He took a step off the ledge to the tower side and froze in his tracks. His eyes were following a nighthawk that was moving a bit oddly as if the air streams were shifting. He raised the spyglass to his eye and nearly dropped it over the cliff side edge. That was no nighthawk. It was a dragon, and its movements led him to believe it was severely injured. Whatever was the case, the fort needed to be prepared.
I enjoy giving misconceptions to my players. It’s really an art form to conceive an idea to someone without the realization of another subject. I can tell the players they see two glowing red eyes in the darkness to make them think of something evil is staring back at them, hopefully causing them to attack without really knowing what it is. Depending on how spooked they are or how overly cautious I made them will decide if they bite or not. Just a harmless cow will have red glowing eyes when a light source reflects them in the darkness.
Generally I prefer not to flat out lie to my players because I want them to trust me. I don’t throw them a loop too often, les they begin calling me out for crying wolf every time. The moments have to be right, so when is the moment right? For the most part, you don’t want to pick a moment when it’s irrelevant to the story or situation. I use the “cow in the night” trick at conventions just for laughs, but I would probably not use that in a campaign at home. This is because it’s more comical than I would want, and the result is light enough it may leave a lasting impression in their minds to the next time I try to trick them.
And I use “trick” loosely and hesitantly in here. We as GMs should never truly be malicious. GMs have a reputation of being devious and sometimes sinister through joking, but our goal is to set the stage for an amazing story the players can live in and be a part of creating. Sometimes there is a bit of misdirecting involved, but we should never flat out lie or deliberately cause the players to run their characters into a doomed situation. Let them fall into their own traps. Let them cause their own problems through their actions. Be the Effect of their Cause only.
I give hints and teasers to the players which might cause them to waste time or get into trouble. I give them little pieces of candy to see if they bite. It’s not deception unless you railroad them down the path. Not everything in the world is what it seems, of course, so that glint of light they see down the dark alley most likely isn’t going to turn out to be a good thing to investigate. Yet the greedy character may not be able to resist and wind up ambushed by a street gang. The politician gives the players two options, but hints at one more heavily than the other to be his preference. The shopkeeper treats them well and offers them discounted price after talking about cheap labor in order to lure them away from the child slaves he has in the basement. The wounded lizard man thanks them for healing him and offers knowledge to a hidden burial mound containing riches only to collapse the entrance and wait for them to die.
These misconceptions come to me on the fly. I seldom come up with pre-determined events or encounters that might lead them astray. My notes are focused for the main event of what I am hoping to lay out to the players in full. But knowing that very few games I run will ever run its true course unless I shamelessly railroad them along, I want to ad lib the temptations when I see an opportunity. Sometimes players are not in the mood to bite on bait, and that cannot dishearten GMs. Know there are other moments juicier than that in the future. Make note of the situation, however, because it’s a part of the players you just learned about. That type of temptation wasn’t strong enough to convince them to go a certain way. It was not interesting enough.
And, of course, misdirecting players doesn’t have to feel malicious in a sense of tempting them down another path. Providing optional awareness for them gives players a sense of freedom and avoids the dreaded railroading feeling that no player enjoys. Sometimes when a party bites on a tempting side path, the idea turns out to be more exciting than the initial idea you had for them. Don’t be afraid to go with the backup plan even if it wasn’t in the cards. Sometimes RPGs turn out that way, and most of them really should. When you break away from your notes, at least for a while, you exercise your imagination more, practice on your off-the-cuff creativity, and generate a dynamic, fresh idea that will give you, the GM, a surge when the game may be beginning to feel drab and monotonous.
Alternatively, you can use these diversions and distractions for parties that are becoming too arrogant for their own good. It can knock them down a few pegs and make them more humble in the world you created. Know their weakness. If your party is obsessed with XP, give them a sweet opportunity to acquire what looks like a huge amount. Does the party love money? Use a destroyed wagon that has a semi-covered chest that’s busted open revealing coins. Throw in some illusions or false coins staged to lure in careless adventurers, and just about anything can be waiting for them.
This may not seem much different than using some temptation to subtly but definitely railroad a group from a path they wanted that conflicted with where you want them to go. This is not the case. Deception and Diversion are not the same as deliberate funneling. The idea is to give them opportunities to bite down hard on a trap or misadventure to give them a challenge and bring a sense of danger to your world, not to forcibly shove them where you want them to go. Just like in real life, we are constantly tempted and lured by distractions nonstop. We could go to work, but it’s sure a nice day out for a round of golf. We could go home, but the bar has $1.00 longnecks. We could go to our wedding Saturday, but Roy is catching fish down at the lake left and right. Learn your players’ weaknesses. Pay attention to them when their eyes light up at something you say and make note of it. Then just patiently wait for the right opportunity to throw that Trump Card at them and enjoy the show. Be ready for anything, be flexible when it happens, and you will have a great encounter.
Until next time, lie about your dice roll as much as you can get away with. Thanks for stopping by.