I LOVE Twists.
The unexpected, dramatic, gut-turning revelation that things are not as they seem, and indeed haven’t ever been that way. The realization that you’ve been working on an incorrect assumption for months, and now you have to swivel your entire worldview to this new concept. The jerk in the gorget when you learn a deep secret, the kind that everyone else has forgotten, and you have to decide what to do with this newfound knowledge.
Many of my favorite works of fiction – books, movies, shows, and games – use the Twist as a major plot element, and in all these cases, the twist itself follows a similar form. The normally feel similar to a dramatic turn – sometimes, the twist is even the climax. But porting the concept of a twist over to a tabletop RPG isn’t so easily done.
In traditional media, the creators controls every bit of information that the audience has access too. The audience can’t announce “I want to go look behind that curtain”, they have to wait for Toto to pull it open. But at most RPG tables, the audience is hardly an audience at all – they’re as close to the story unfolding as anyone else, and their hands are all over it. The narratively satisfying reveals that a great book or movie can give can’t always be replicated in an RPG – but many of them can.
Let’s take a very common example, because I don’t want to legitimately spoil things for any readers – we’ll discuss the Twists surrounding Darth Vader. The way that I’m using the word, I think we can spot two clear Twists –
- Darth Vader is actually Luke’s father.
- Darth Vader betrays Palpatine.
There are some smaller elements of his arc that are kinda twisty, but let’s focus on the big ones. These twists are big – they’re dramatic, they’re powerful, and they’re so iconic for good reason. And we can totally steal their form for use at our RPG tables because of the form that they take –
- A twist of information.
- A twist of feeling.
There are other twists that we can’t (or shouldn’t) really use. Some Twists are blatantly nonsensical. “I was the killer the whole time!” falls apart if the alleged culprit was with the party during the murder. Twists of providence tend to fall flat. “But then a god appears and kills him!” isn’t so much a twist as it is clumsy railroading. Twists of reversal are also difficult to execute – “The goblins have been the good guys all along!” and similar flipped expectations tend to feel like traps for players. There are some twists that are so contrived that they’re also playing with fire – It Was All A Dream, It Is Actually Modern Times, This Is Just A Simulation and so on. So to summarize, good Twists are
- …grounded in known information.
- …predictable from those facts.
- …integrated with feelings.
So how can we actually do this at the table?
Widely, I use two kinds of Twists in my game.
Firstly, we have “I’m So Clever” Twists. These are usually about deep, formative secrets in the nature of the player’s world. Sometimes, they’re about the player character’s backstories, or the backstories of people they meet. Sometimes, they’re about the nature of truth. The important through-line that ties this category together is that I know the Twist long before the player’s do. And I really do mean Long.
The second type is “You’re So Clever” Twists. These can cover the same topics as the above, but more often they deal with characters – specially, those characters’ motivations, backstories, and feelings. These are Twists that I learn about as the players do. Sounds crazy, right? I believe that my greatest strength as a GM is my improvisational ability – and being able to bring that power to bear on the Twist may seem nonsensical, but it is actually a powerfully validating way that I build a world alongside the players.
Setting up an I’m So Clever Twist is way easier to do because all it fundamentally requires is being a bit clever and a bit patient.
So let’s say that a character shows up and says “Hey, my character is named Luke. His parents died when I was young, and my aunt and uncle raised me.” In that moment, or at worst shortly thereafter, I decide that no, actually Luke’s dad didn’t die. He’s Darth Vader.
Now, I know that their dad is Darth Vader. And the player does not. And for as long as possible, it will stay that way. I don’t have to tell them that fact, so long as I know it and it is true. What does that mean at the table? Well, it means that the wise mentor NPC who knows the truth about Darth Vader is going to say some cagey things. It means that some inconsistencies in my father’s death may crop up. It means that Darth Vader, when the player characters meet him, may act differently than they expect.
The key is that the Twist exists in the world, even if it doesn’t yet exist for the players. It has real, visible impacts on the world around them. When Darth Vader meets Luke, he knows – and I play him like he knows.
Each of these impacts – these hints, basically – are breadcrumbs that lead the player closer to the truth of the Twist, but don’t necessarily give it away. What I’m looking for is that singular moment of reveal – Search your feelings. You know it to be true. And for that to work, it has to be true, and the player has to know that it is true.
I could totally mess this up – for example, if a trusted NPC declared that they had killed the player character’s father. Or if Darth Vader had a long, widely known origin story. Or if I introduced an NPC groundskeeper who buried the alleged father. These things are worse than just misdirections because the players rely upon the GM to dispense truth. Even if NPCs lie from time to time, the GM is still the arbiter of reality, and if reliable or trustworthy NPCs are consistently caught in lies, it undermines the verisimilitude of the entire world. It makes things seem farcical – everything is a lie, nothing can be trusted, and there’s no point in trying to figure things out.
Imagine that Luke’s player interrogated his father’s alleged killer, only for her to announce that she never saw a body, although she did hit a single blaster shot – a potentially fatal wound. Imagine if Darth Vader’s origins were mysterious, or to take it a step further, disproven with a little investigation. And imagine if the grave is disinterred and found to be empty. These details are realistic and grounding – they entrench the Twist in the fiction of the world.
The Twist is true – and the player can search their feelings to know it is true – and so it will work.
Setting up a You’re So Clever Twist is an entirely different process.
It is a process of remembrance, care, and improvisation. The fun part about these Twists is that they let the player’s ideas works their way into the story in a purposeful, deeply-rooted way, even if they develop in a matter of seconds.
So Darth Vader defeats Luke, and in his moment of triumph, refuses to kill him. Instead he declares – “I am your father.” The party gasps, they connect the dots from the previous hints, they curse Obi-Wan’s ghostly memory, and so on. The story continues. Later, Luke ends up in a deadly spot. Palpatine is going to for-sure-for-real-no-rezzing kill him. Luke’s prone, stunlocked, and getting chain-stunned by Palpatine’s admittedly bullshit high damage lightning rolls.
And Luke’s player looks to me and asks “Can I still talk?”
“Sure, kinda. The lightning wracks your body but you can choke out a few words.”
“I just want to gasp ‘Father…please…'”
You’re So Clever. Luke’s player, that is, is so clever. Darth Vader betraying Palpatine and intervening would be awesome. It would be dramatic. It would be a powerful scene. And it gives me a good excuse not to zap Luke to smithereens because I balanced Palpatine under the assumption that he would bring the rest of the party. I wasn’t even considering this turn of events – but now, I need to. A door to a more exciting, satisfying, interesting conclusion has opened a crack.
So I think back. Is there any established reality that makes this impossible? Now, note that things my players don’t know don’t have to be true, but normally I won’t change them – they are baked into the fabric of the world, and unless it is worth it to change them, I’d rather leave the world as-is. But thinking back on everything my player’s know, I can’t see a reason that Vader turning would be impossible.
Then, I think carefully. Vader turning would be great drama, but is it the best thing for the story? Is letting Luke die, then having a bereaved and conflicted Vader come to the party more impactful? Should Vader actually kill Palpatine, or just interrupt him and give Luke a chance to save vs. stun? Since You’re So Clever Twists happen in essentially “real time”, I like to take a moment to consider if they’re really a good idea.
Finally, I improvise. Whatever was true before, now Vader is sufficiently strong and conflicted to bodily hurl Palpatine to his demise – but at great personal loss.
So to summarize this long-winded example and ground things at the RPG table –
For I’m So Clever Twists:
- Know the truth of the world that your players don’t know.
- Integrate those truths into your world building and NPC behavior.
- As kernels of information reveal themselves over time, note if your players are connecting the dots.
- Set up the dramatic stage for the Twist, and execute on it.
For You’re So Clever Twists:
- Listen to the player’s ideas and theories until you hit upon an awesome one.
- Decide if that idea is possible in the world’s fiction and desirable for the fiction going forwards.
- Congratulate the player on revealing this Twist as if it was previously and has always been true.