Tuesday, August 18, 2015

D&D: Anatomy of a Slow Reveal

Last week’s article on sea stories seemed to be popular, but judging by some of the comments, I got the impression that folks maybe would have preferred to know less about planning adventure stories and more about making stories that pay off in play the way they feel in the GM’s head.  To put it another way: How do we surprise our players with an ending that they probably should have seen coming?  This, to me, comes in the form of a twist ending, often as part of a slow reveal.

Twist endings are nothing new, of course.  O’Henry is perhaps the most famous writer known for his last-minute twists, but the genre—if we can call it that—is all over TV these days.  In fact, a lot of so-called mysterystories are actually slow reveals.  A true mystery, like an Agatha Christie novel, gives the audience—in this case, the Players—a legitimate chance to solve the mystery alongside the detective given the clues that the detective has found during the course of the story.  A slow reveal is different.  Although we may sometimes call it a “mystery”, like “The Mystery of Malvern Manor,” reality is that the slow reveal doesn’t play fair.  Instead, we’re doling out clues at a predetermined rate such that the true scope of the “mystery” is only visible at the end of the adventure.  As an example, Avengers: Age of Ultron could be considered a slow reveal.  Ultron’s ultimate plan makes sense given what we know of his character—he’s been considering mass extinction since his first appearance in the movie, and he makes several references to comets and to the end of the dinosaurs over the course of the film—but despite the obvious foreshadowing, there’s no reasonable way to predict what his plan is going to be until we see the flying city lift off from the ground.  By contrast, a typical episode of Scooby Doo introduces a handful of potential villains alongside a handful of would-be clues, and if you’re paying attention, you can generally figure out whodunit and why long before the gang actually unmasks the monster.  Both story types work, but they’re different structures.  As writers, GMs, or what-have-you, we have to know what we’re writing before we start if we want the structure to come out right.
Building a Twist
Fringe was so great.  I miss it.
When I write a slow reveal, I like to start with a premise and work outwards.  Then, if I want to really mind-fuck the audience, I’ll sometimes come up with a lie to go along with my premise.  This is particularly effective because, as we discussed last week, audiences are trained to look for certain storytelling clues in fiction.  One very common, very effective literary technique for describing personalities or events in straightforward terms in fiction is via discussion between third parties.  For example, if I want the audience to know that Tom is trustworthy, I might have Sam and Dave talk about Tom in a way that shows his trustworthiness.  Audiences buy this intrinsically because that’s the way they’re trained by modern fiction.  However, in reality people lie.  Maybe Tom isn’t trustworthy; maybe the reveal is that he and Sam are in a conspiracy against Dave.  In the real world, folks are skeptical, but in fiction, tricks like that are often shockingly surprising.

Let’s run through an example.  In The Demon’s True Name, the party must enter the Temple of the Moon in order to learn the true name of Orcus, the lord of the Pits of Tartarus.  When I ran this for my gaming group, I started it with a lie.  I had an NPC named Karissa tell the group that because she was the only remaining descendant of Tauriel, the Elf-Knight, she was the only one who could communicate with Tauriel’s ghost.  This was not even remotely true, but in fairness, poor Karissa didn’t know any better.  So when the group entered the temple and Tauriel’s ghost began possessing Karissa’s body, it left the group completely flat-footed.  They’d gone in expecting to have to protect Karissa from undead minions while she communicated with her long-dead ancestor because that was what she told them to expect.  Instead, they found themselves in a social encounter with an angry elf-spirit.

That’s a twist based on an NPC’s honest mistake.  It’s totally realistic and yet also quite surprising in execution.  There are many other ways to do it, of course, but the key is finding a way to use misdirection that’s still fair to the audience.  We’re not changing the premise of the story in mid-stream; we’re allowing the audience to draw potentially false conclusions because they have no way of knowing all the facts.
Don’t Open on Background
It’s a common problem for novice writers.  Beginners frequently start with world-building, and if that’s where you start, it takes a Hell of a lot of discipline to resist the temptation to explain everything all at once.  Since the whole point of the slow reveal is the pacing of the revelations, giving away information up front defeats the purpose of the story.  Worse, this particular style of pacing is a bit unusual.  Archetypical storytelling follows the ABCDE format, in which case we open with a goblin ambush and then have an NPC come along to explain the quest’s background to the party.  Where the slow reveal is different, then, is that we don’t get the full background until the end of the story.  Instead, we make our Players—our audience—work for it.

An ancient temple to Orcus!
Let’s continue our example from before: Orcus wants to take over the world, and the PCs have the job of stopping him.  We open with the “story starter” The Demon’s True Name, but we want to come up with some twists and/or slow reveals.  At the end of that “story starter”, what is it that the Players don’t know?  It could be anything, so now we brainstorm:

1. There’s another threat to the world that only Orcus can save us from.
2. Cultists want to end the world, and Orcus is their means.
3. Orcus wants to turn us all into zombies.
4. Orcus is at war with another god, and the Mortal Realm is their contested battlespace.
5. Orcus doesn’t want to take over the world.  Instead, there’s a third force who needs the PCs out of the city, and this thing with Orcus is just a convenient MacGuffin.
6. Orcus has joined forces with Ares to overthrow the gods of Mt. Olympus.
7. Orcus is not actually the lord of the Pit.  Instead, he is the Pit’s most famous prisoner, and he’s been wrongly imprisoned since time immemorial.
8. Warlocks of the Far Realm sense an imminent Cthulhu invasion.  Desperate to prevent the end of the world, they believe their only chance is to try to channel the powers of Orcus to stave off an even worse catastrophe.
Some of those are good, right?  Given what the PCs know at the end of The Demon’s True Name, any of them are possible.  But how do we build a story around one of those plotlines that leaves out some of the essential elements until the end of the story?  

First we need to decide which of the plots to use, and then we need to brainstorm (again) to come up with some complications that fit the facts.  This is important.  All other factors aside, the complications need to fit the reality of the rest of the story.  That said, they don’t necessarily need to make sense immediately, nor are we required to explain why things are happening right off the bat.

If I’m writing this for publication, I’m probably going to use either #4, #7, or #8.  #4 is good because things start out bad, but then they get so much worse once the Players realize that there’s another, equally dangerous factor involved.  #7 is good because it’s so weird and unexpected.  You mean, I should have been on Orcus’s side this whole time?  #8 is similar.  In a way, it’s kind of a combination or #4 and #7, which is probably why I like it so much.  However, #5 is by far the simplest in execution, so for the purposes of this article, that’s the one we’re going to use.  Orcus doesn’t really want to take over the world.  Instead, there’s a third force who needs the PCs out of the city, and this thing with Orcus is just a convenient MacGuffin.  We’ll call this third party the Worldbringers of Ascension in honor of an obscure group in Brandon Sanderson’s Mistborn series.  I really like that series.

So.  What can go wrong from here?

1. When the PCs survive the Temple of the Moon, the Worldbringers send mercenaries to try to kill them again.
2. Sensing that Orcus is not truly a threat, undead minions from the elf-knight Tauriel assail the PCs to prevent them from making a terrible mistake.
3. The Worldbringers assassinate Karissa.
4. The Worldbringers’ plot succeeds while the party is out of town.
5. The Worldbringers gain the ear of the government and convince the local governor to declare the party outlaws.
6. The Worldbringers gain the ear of the local church and convince the high priest that the party is actually in league with Orcus.  This is why the PCs went looking for Orcus’s true name.
7. The Worldbringers kidnap the party’s families and sell them into slavery.
8. In desperation, the Worldbringers make a deal with the actual cult of Orcus, convincing them that they can bring Orcus to the Mortal Realm in exchange for help with their nefarious scheme.
Let’s pick three and then build our story.  I like #1, #2, and #6.  With this in mind, here’s our plot:

Open on Action.  Karissa comes to the PCs with this story about the Cult of Orcus.  The PCs have no way of knowing that she’s not nearly as well informed as she thinks she is.  We then open with the scene at the Temple of the Moon.
Conflict.  Having secured Orcus’s true name, the PCs start heading back to the city to put a stop the cult’s plans.  Perhaps we also have a side-quest at this point that has someone from the Worldbringers send them off on an unnecessary but dangerous tangent at this same time, preferably one that involves ambushing an unsuspecting cult of Orcus.
Development 1.  Plus, now people are trying to kill them.  Interestingly, these people wear the robes of Orcus’s cult, but none of them carry holy symbols or seem to know very much about Orcus himself.  They don’t cast infernal spells, and in the entire group, there’s only one holy book of Orcus.  That book has obviously never been opened.
Development 2.  Worse, now there are undead elf spirits trying to kill the PCs.  What the Hell?
Development 3.  The party finally reaches the city, only to discover that the Worldbringers have denounced them as cultists of Orcus.  This looks bad because the party is now carrying the holy book of Orcus that they took from the mercenaries in Development 1.
Background/Reveal.  Using the influence they developed in the last scene, the Worldbringers make their move against the government.  The party learns or realize that Orcus was never the main issue; that really, theWorldbringers just needed them out of the way.  
Resolution.  There’s a big fight, and the Worldbringers are defeated.
It seems obvious, right?  That’s only because you could see how the pieces fit together from the very beginning.  Your players won’t have that advantage, and it’s highly unlikely that they’ll expect that the entire premise of this plot is a hoax.  Instead, they’ll see a slow reveal that comes across in a way that’s totally unexpected.  They may begin to suspect that something weird is going on fairly early, but as it is, there’s simply not enough information for them to realize how or why they’ve been duped until the very end.

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