Red Herrings

Red Herrings

Information or potential goals that are designed to either mislead or distract the player

Red Herrings can be deliberately designed into the game to provide alternative gameplay paths as distractions to the players. Some games, especially strategy games, also give players themselves the possibility to create Red Herrings as decoys in order to distract or deceive other players. In these cases Red Herrings are used as parts of players' tactics and strategies.

Example: the player in Medieval: Total War can set up some of the units as decoys in order to lure other players' units into positions where they are vulnerable to surprise attacks. One common tactic is to hide the archers and cavalry on hills covered by trees and use peasant units to lure the opposing cavalry to charge into a position where archers can volley them down while the player's own cavalry charges downhill to outflank the enemy units.

Example: adventure and roleplaying, especially those with mystery elements, use Red Herrings to give players false clues to make progress more difficult and at the same time more interesting.

Example: random wandering monsters in many roleplaying games can distract and in some cases also mislead players.

Using the pattern

Games with Narrative Structures often use Red Herrings to raise the uncertainty of the progression of the narrative and also to create Surprises. Clues, Traces, and especially Helpers can be used as Red Herrings in a game to mislead players. The use of Helpers is one way to provide misleading Indirect Information to players. The other way, naturally, is to let the other players provide Red Herrings in the game. These can be in the form of decoys to help Conceal goals, but can also be Indirect Information provided during Social Interaction. For Red Herrings to work properly almost always require Imperfect Information or Fog of War. It is possible, however, to use decoys as Red Herrings in games of total Perfect Information to give false impressions to other players about a player's true intentions in the game. The same applies to the use of Direct Information: perhaps the only possible way to use it with Red Herrings is to have decoys.


The use of Red Herrings gives the players more potential outcomes and more things to consider while playing the game. This modulation of Anticipation can lead to increased Tension as players are more uncertain about the possible outcomes and, in some cases, can be used to promote Varied Gameplay even at the cost of Disruption of Focused Attention. Careless use of Red Herrings, however, can cause problems with the Right Level of Complexity and might lead to player frustration and to the feeling of loss of control. Red Herrings in some cases can also be used to provide Right Level of Complexity if the gameplay would otherwise be too straightforward.

Red Herrings are potentially conflicting with Supporting Goals in the sense that what to players may seem to be a Supporting Goal can turn out to be a Red Herring.


Instantiates: Indirect Information, Disruption of Focused Attention

Modulates: Surprises, Anticipation, Right Level of Complexity, Narrative Structures, Varied Gameplay, Tension, Conceal

Instantiated by: Fog of War, Imperfect Information

Modulated by: Traces, Clues, Helpers

Potentially conflicting with: Direct Information, Perfect Information, Clues, Traces, Helpers, Supporting Goals