DMing 101 – Foreshadowing
Themes and plots are easy enough to run in the open, but it’s no small task to run one in secret while subtly eluding to it so that the great reveal is a moment of realisation, not confusion. Your hidden villains, impending perils and heartbreaking plot twists become so much more satisfying to both you and your players when someone compulsively yells “I knew it!” because it mean that you’ve foreshadowed well.
I’ve been delaying this one because I’ve not had a great deal of practice, and the best examples I have are all from games and films, so I encourage anyone who has had experience of foreshadowing in an RP, good or bad, to share in the comments or on Facebook. For what it’s worth, here is what I have come to learn of how to foreshadow well.
Let’s face it, foreshadowing is supposed to be subtle, it’s not much a hint of things to come if you’re playing everyone the metaphorical trailer. Pick out your details early and have them ready to sprinkle in here and there, for example:
The Hidden Blade: Your villain and his minions are everywhere in the world, and their influence is more often felt than noticed. Let’s take Marvel’s eponymous infiltrators HYDRA as an example, they’ve filled every institution with traitors, and their mark is hidden in locations across the world, many even predate World War 2 and the age of Red Skull. Symbols and hidden agents may not be your thing, perhaps random crimes coincide with the advancement of a notable political figure until the players can’t help but get suspicious. Groups may stumble across sites of bandit attacks with marks of a technology (or magic) that they’d never have obtained on their own, and yet the military have it in abundance.
Doom Approaches: The end of the world is always presaged by signs, portents and lunatics in sandwich boards. The day the dead tear themselves from the grave won’t come completely out of the blue, but it won’t be splashed all over the news. The group may stumble across an ancient text, or hear stories from overseas that are too easily dismissed as stupid rumours until they realise that the quests they have been undertaking have been building to the zombie apocalypse all along.
The Grand Reveal: A werewolf has slaughtered the livestock, a party member is implicated, but not the party member with the blood on his hands. Of course it’s important that the werewolf knows and agrees to play along, but how do you both work together to leave the clues behind? A blood trail to the door is too obvious, but what will the group make of a player who is always too full to eat, who simply cannot share a room with the group? The greatest example of this must be Bioshock, in which you’re being told the twist for the entire game and yet have no idea.
Last week I talked about random encounter tables, they’re also a fantastic tool for weaving in hints at what’s really going on in your world. Those plots that you’re working on in the background can add flavour and intrigue when scattered into the mix, even one or two possible events in a list of twenty can be enough with a sufficient number of rolls. Let’s say that your party are tracking the black market in a future version of Singapore, and while most of their possible encounters in the street are crime gangs, street traders and refugees from Swedish-occupied Britain (why not), there’s a slim chance they might stumble upon a clue to the weapons being secretly developed by the ones holding the purse strings in the smuggling ring.
This method works better in a less planned story that leaves players free to choose their own path until they pick up the breadcrumbs you leave in their path, the best stories are often the ones your players find themselves rather than those they’re railroaded into. You can set up multiple stories if you have too many incomplete ideas, and let your players unravel them through their random encounters whilst trying to resolve their initial quests.
The best uses for foreshadowing are to build intrigue, paranoia or tension. Horror, mystery, or anything with a darker edge can be made more engaging when your players have to work to get to the bottom of things, or when the answer creeps up on them. It can also be a rewarding experience for any group to uncover a mystery or buried secret in a game that was otherwise fairly standard, like leaving an entire plothook as an easter egg.
I reiterate that my experiences with foreshadowing have only just begun, and it’s s subject I open to you. Share your experiences with us down below.