This post is for the RPG Blog Carnival about December's subject of 'With a Twist'; the original post (written by Mike Bourke) can be found on the Campaign Mastery website here.
In his original article Mike discusses how often the methods of introducing plot twists in literature and other forms do not work so well in an RPG due to the amount of creative freedom that the players have, he suggests some alternatives and rules for working plot twists into your RPG session.
He also discusses what he considers to be the key different types of plot twists, pretty much covering almost all eventualities that could be required in a roleplaying game; i'm going to retread the ground covered by Mike but I do want to look at a few specific methods that I have used (to varying degrees of success) over the years when it has come to creating a plot twist.
- Playing with Character Identity
Using this method the very identity of the player characters may be called into question; I used this recently in my Numenera game (session video playlist can be viewed here) where the players slowly discovered that they were not who they thought they were but were in fact duplicates or replicants created from the memories of possibly the last original living human, using a powerful machine. This idea was originally suggested by one of the players and was expanded to encompass all of them; when using this suggestion you need to be extremely careful, messing with someone's character can result in tension and bad feelings if you're not sensitive about it.
You also want to make sure that at some point the players can start figuring out that they are not who they originally thought, odd incongruities or discrepancies that hint at the truth being different from what they believed are one method, depending on their true nature then biological discrepancies/differences may also become a factor. Above all try to make it clear that the PC not being who they thought they were, does not invalidate the work that the player has put into creating it and don't just use something like this without a very solid reason behind it, trying to wing a plot when you have revelations like this involved can be a disaster.
Generally this sort of thing works extremely well for personal horror, since we all like to think that our identities are pretty untouchable and that we know who we are, done carefully, revealing that this is not the case can be a good way to not only unsettle/scare players but also to get them to cling more tightly to those things that they know are real (like each other).
- Playing with the Established Reality
Related to the point above but expanded to encompass the game world rather than just the players, in my own game the town that the PCs believed they had grown up in was actually an artifical creation built on top of a huge machine that had fabricated the whole place as a way of saving part of world already destroyed.
Again a word of caution if you decide to do this, playing too much with the established reality can result in the players becoming frustrated and not knowing what they can and cannot reasonably accomplish in the game; if the very fundamental laws of nature (gravity, etc) are not constant then it can be difficult to get a handle on how your character should be reacting; however discovering that the ancient manor house on the hill is actually a cunningly disguised space vessel does not change the basic laws of the setting but it does add a twist when the players pierce the disguise.
- Throwing a different light on established facts
Mike makes the very valid point in his post that the GM should not lie to the players or out and out contradict themselves and I think that this is a good point, even in a game where a lot of things are called into question the players need to be able to trust what the GM says to a certain extent; one way to create an interesting twist on established facts in a game without changing them is to present a different viewpoint from the one that the player characters currently hold.
I find that a good way to do this is via flashbacks; for example, if we are running a cyberpunk game and the PCs are all set to raid the warehouse of an evil corporation who are producing illegal drugs for distribution then perhaps running a scene where the players take control of the production level line workers of the corporation, who know very little about the evil schemes behind the drugs, they're just working to get money for their families or something similar makes it a bit less cut and dried for the players. This shouldn't be overused but a few scenes like this, scattered throughout a game can help prevent the players viewing world as being split into simply goodies and baddies.