Red herrings, in case you don’t know the literary trope, is a misleading clue. Something that intentionally or unintentionally clouds an investigation. Sounds like fun, hell it is fun when you read a detective novel and get to watch Sam Vimes or Harry Dresden have that light bulb moment that they’ve been led down the garden path . However, these concepts are more challenging in a DnD game and I’m going to explain why.

Feet of clay is full of red herrings and is all the more fun for it.

In a story that’s crafted for us to read/watch/listen too we get the advantage of being thrilled by confusion, both our own and the characters. We scratch our heads over what the possible implications of a dead mouse at the scene of a murder and if perhaps, the killer was that man we met only last chapter who always travels with a cat. The red herring gives us more to think about and hides the actual villain from us, stretching out the final reveal so our hero has time to get beaten up, fight back and kick in a door or two.

In DnD the players are the hero, they are the ones scratching their head and when a clue proves to be false it’s them who perhaps get frustrated. Sure they can have fun kicking in doors and getting into fights but if they realise that they’ve just invested hours into a dead end it takes a strong soul to not feel a little cheated. There is also the potential threat that some players believe that if they just keep pushing that the truth will reveal itself. Sending you further and further away from the actual answer. While I often can adapt a story when players head the wrong way it’s not ideal and sometimes it’s just not possible.

I once had players spend a number of sessions heading halfway across Sonoro to discover they were had completely followed the wrong clue. I gave them a clue that I expected to drive them to go to a major city. While I obviously had one in mind as long as they went somewhere with a decent population the plot could’ve continued. So following a little red herring I’d unintentionally sewn in they headed off. To a secluded monastic island.

Convincing them this wasn’t their target meant their characters spent a month of game time, which I hand-waved away in one session, running around establishing that mcguffin was definitely not here. We did have a great time following the red herring, people got hung from the masts of ships, the party were hunted by a coven of hags and they even ended up meeting an elf that was at least a thousand years old, who answered a lot of questions. It wasn’t a bad part of the game but when they did finally get back they’d completely lost track of their goals and forgotten half of what had driven them across the planet.

Red herrings though can add a lot to an investigation, not least introducing the idea that the DM can mention something in passing that isn’t directly plot relevant. To avoid any disaster these red herrings need to be quarantined, building a limitation on both the amount of the players time they can consume and that the should always be a ‘this is a red herring stamp’ that you can have narratively appear. Some irrefutable proof that lets the characters know that it’s time to disregard that information. Those limits mean you can help redirect the story when it’s appropriate and before the players run to far with it.

These are just my thoughts, and don’t let these words stop you from doing things your way. Red herrings remain massively popular in writing because they’re a real world problem and because they offer a lot of potential for fun. As a DM you’ve just got to make sure that your players get maximum enjoyment out of the distraction before they start using it to fuel up HMS Tangent and blasting themselves out across uncharted waters.

 

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