In celebration of the City of Mist Core Book PDF becoming available next week (!), I’ll be posting some of my favourite side-bars from the book. This one, about the all-too-frequently misused red herring, is from Chapter 5: Behind The Scenes.

Full disclosure: I am the editor for the book, and this is of course posted with Amit’s (the creator) blessing. The art is from the book as well.

Red Herrings

A red herring is a misleading clue that points the crew in the wrong direction, that is, to a dead-ended investigation path. A red herring can enhance a case by complicating it and making it harder for the players to crack; however, it must be used with caution, keeping certain caveats in mind.

A cold red herring, one which really does lead to a dead-end, should be revealed as such in the location it is found or in the location it points to (that is, shortly after it is found) to avoid frustration. Otherwise, you may create an entire investigation thread that amounts to nothing. While in reality investigating a possible lead may certainly come to a dead end, cinematic investigations tend to weed out the cold red herrings quickly. Furthermore, from a game perspective, your players may be disappointed if they spend a session or two investigating a direction that ends up being completely useless to the story. Unless you wish to simulate a very realistic investigation, it is suggested to refrain from creating dead-ended branches in your iceberg [the model for creating investigations in City of Mist]. Most of the time you do not need to create cold red herrings yourself: the players will often misinterpret your clues and go in the wrong direction until additional clues reveal the truth.

A hot red herring is one that ties back to the investigation or reveals something else of importance to the crew, and is an enjoyable cinematic trick. While it makes the crew believe something false, it also indirectly reveals information valuable to the story. For example, in the above murder case with the Rifts of Thor and Loki [a Rift is a person who’s awakened to their Mythos; like all PCs, and most important NPCs], the Rift of Thor is a red herring; the Rift of Loki uses him to shift the blame from herself. However, even though the Rift of Thor is technically a decoy, he is not a narrative dead-end; in fact, he may be instrumental in the investigation, depending on what path the players take. Another option is to use a hot red herring in one investigation to reveal details from another case.

If you wish to incorporate a hot red herring into your story, try to plant a clue early in the investigation that will make the players misinterpret all the other, valid clues. Later in the investigation, plant another clue that refutes the red herring and restores the players’ interpretation of the clues to the right track, resulting in an “AHA!” moment and revealing a twist in the plot. This way, all the other clues collected by the players along the investigation are not worthless, they’re just temporarily misinterpreted.

City of Mist is a cinematic detective role-playing game, set in a city inspired by neo-noir comic books and TV shows, where ordinary people channel characters from myths, legends, and fairy-tales, gaining supernatural powers at the cost of their humanity. It will soon be available here, and in many other places.