Twists in Games

Every one loves a good twist in a story.  Think of the way that you reacted to Sixth Sense and Fight Club.  Movies that model the twist really well stick in your mind.  They are the stories that you relate to and you can always remember the twist.  Pulling this off in a game takes a lot of planning to do properly.  To keep the blindside from being guessed can be very difficult to do as most gamers are a tricky bunch.

You will need to plan well for a successful tw
Of course you could just buy a game or module that is already made with this style of twist in mind.  There is little else to do but sit back and watch the players squirm as the reality of things hit them.  I can think of a couple of different games that do this off the top of my head.  Call of the Cthulhu is a game where your characters, generally run of the mill people, become involved in the dark and mysterious portions of our world only to find that the dark and mysterious corners are filled with the alien and uncaring.  This game is really set up well for introducing a twist that blindsides the players and there are many adventures made for it that do just that.  The other game I can highly recommend for this style of twist is The Demolished Ones which is built on the FATE engine and contains multiple twists in the plot that will keep your players reeling to the very end.

But you want to create your own personal twist. What are the things that you must do to pull this off well?  The first thing I would strongly recommend is forward planning.  I have in my time introduced one, maybe two such twists game mastering by the seat of my pants (ie spontaneously) but when I sit down and plan the twist things tend to do a lot better.  Mind you, with planning you can often over prepare and cause the players to guess the twist before they even get there.  I have had that occur several times.

When place to start is to determine what the twist is that you want to portray.  Let us start with the time honoured tradition of the snake in the grass.  A traitor amongst the group.  This is one of the most common twists that we GMs love to use as a plot mechanic and because of that fact players tend to be very suspicious of NPCs that they do not bring in to the group.  I will hypothetically plan to bring this traitor in amongst my Traveller game, but I will go one better than a traitor, I want the group to be infiltrated by one of the heavy hitters of the Red Pirates that they have recently caused quite a stir amongst.

There are three things that I would need to do to bring this character into the group and have the group accept them.  The first point is find an entry for the character.  The second point is how do they gain trust with the crew so they no longer expect (and they will expect) them to be a traitor and finally once they have gained that trust, at what point do I reveal the twist.  This style of ruse or twist is a long term twist simply by the nature of having to build that trust.  If I were attempting to build a plot where the players find out that the mastermind of an evil plot is not in fact the mad Mage whom they had been pursuing.  Instead they find it is a darker puppet master that has already ensconced himself in the local village planning would be completely different and the twist could occur relatively quickly.
I give an example for my Traveller game but this can be
translated into any genre

It happens to be that the players have just found themselves in possession of a merchant ship with space for 5-7 crew and the inability to actually fill the entire number of crew slots so it may be that they will be looking for a navigator, engineer or some gunners for the new ship.  It is unlikely that these positions will be filled completely from the current player selections so I could (and remember players in my game this is a hypothetical to illustrate the point not that I would ever do it ) slip the traitor in with false references and a good representation of skills.  This would get them on board the ship and enable them to start building the trust.

Trust would be built based on the role that they took on in the group.  The traitor would definitely have some weapon skills, and the skills that they need to fill the advertised role.  They would present with some ideas about some efficiencies that they could implement and also be keen to attend to anything that the main crew become involved in.  After all, part of the reason for them to be on board would be to gain more information about the group and their current activity to determine if it will interfere with the plans of the pirates.  Also the traitor will be seeking ways that they can efficiently depart the ship and sabotage their efforts even further.  All this time they will also be seeking ways to ingratiate themselves with the crew.

Any time that the NPC has the chance to save a player or improve a dire situation the NPC will come forward.  They will take the longer term view for their role on board ship as the travel that they take may move them far from Red Pirate territory.  Hopefully over time with some good role playing and some tense situations the players would begin to rely and trust on the opinion of the NPC.  As you can see, this plan is definitely for the long term!  You could introduce the reveal earlier but the players will be expecting it.  It may even take four or five gaming sessions before you are ready to spring the reveal.
Just when they least expect it!

Foreshadowing is a great technique to use too.  Introduce some games that centre around deals gone bad.  The group find a floating ship that was lured off system for an exploration mission and one of the crew double-crossed them, stealing vital parts of the engine and making off with valuable information.  Or the group happen across a merchant trader in a ships boat that was the victim of a mutiny and the players help them get back her ship.  These things offer opportunities for the traitor to prove themselves in numerous ways whilst foreshadowing what would actually occur to the players at a later time which is great for storytelling.  If the players think back over the story arcs that lead them to the twist they will literally slap themselves silly for missing all the pointers.  Try not to overdo the foreshadowing or make it blatantly obvious or they will pick up on it.  Make sure that the foreshadowing episode is not the one straight after hiring them on either or it will take even longer to build the trust up!


When you are ready to spring the twist you will want to have a good encounter in mind for the occasion.  An encounter that will leave the players stunned at the transformation.  For my example it has to be a point where the traitor can get away and damage the players plans in the worst possible way.  If they are the navigator perhaps they provide the wrong navigation details leading to an empty portion of space where the players would not have enough fuel to power another jump, but in this case they would need an escape route.  It would be much more likely that the traitor would have been in communication with the Red Pirates and organise a rendezvous at a point that the navigator launches them into.  Being a pirate they could seek to take the ship from the players and leave them stranded.  Maybe they just want to kill another Captain and in the middle of a heated battle the Traitor sees the chance to turn the tables and leave the players in disarray again!

Don’t leave it unresolved though.  For a good twist it has to slap the players in the face.  They have to realise that they were played and the long game was one they initially suspected perhaps but disregarded.  Consider the turning point in every James Bond movie where the mastermind delivers their killer speech of what their plans are and how the MI6 is always one step behind?  They give up the plot to the players and not I only does it slap them in the face but it also gives them some information to work with or a hook that they can chase up.  

You can see that producing a twist can take a lot of planning.  At times when you are gaming you may see an opening to drop a twist spontaneously.  I would advise against this as some times it may look like a great option but the backstory to the twist may actually not be all there and the players may be left a little bewildered to what is actually occurring and why it occurred.  It is always a much better option to give a lot of thought to delivering a twist.
The Traveller crew have had a run in or two with the Red
Pirates!

The final point I would also stress is if the players unveil your twist, run with it.  Do not railroad them into the twist.  If they are clever enough to do the research on some strange goings on and it leads them to uncovering the truths before you get to spring the surprise, reward them for it.  They have earned it after all.  Make a big deal about how they foiled the plot or found out the secret etc.  Make them realise that they have done very well because they have.  If there is a way to tangibly reward them (magic items, loot, contacts) then do it!


Twists require a large amount of care and attention to pull off well.  Plan, organise, work out the key points that are needed to set up the twist you want to present and then go for it.  Some twists will require strict set up whilst others will be a bit more free form but just go for it.  Give it a go, if the twist occurs it will be a very memorable game for all involved!  Until next time, keep on rolling!

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