Worlds of Design: Plot Twists vs. Deux Ex Machina

Plot twists in a story can surprise the reader, but they need to be believable, to derive from what came before. Deux Ex Machina, on the other hand, is poison, breaking immersion and possible annoying the players.


Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

... a huge, unheralded, clunking great twist that hasn't been planted or set up or earned – the dreaded deus ex machina – can be deeply unsatisfying." Ashley Pharoah

When I GM I don’t plot stories for players to participate in, though there are overall story arcs. Instead I create interesting situations and let the players write the story. So I'm not telling RPG GMs how to write their story (if they do). But I am pointing out something that can help make or break your story. Remember, a key element of game design (and GMing) is surprise. Players frequently take pleasure from being surprised. What no one wants is Deus ex Machina.

Deus Ex Machina​

Deus Ex Machina, as defined by

an unexpected power or event saving a seemingly hopeless situation, especially as a contrived plot device in a play or novel". Literally, "god from the machinery." In Greek theater, actors representing gods were suspended above the stage, the denouement of the play being brought about by their intervention. (Google)

The key is "contrived." To the perceptive reader or viewer, it's obviously something made up by the writer to save a hopeless situation. It isn't something that arises believably from what went before.

The more effect the change/Deus Ex has on the plot—the bigger the deal—the more likely the event will be seen as unacceptable, as Deux ex Machina.

Standards have certainly changed during my lifetime, so that typical audiences now routinely accept what would have been called Deus ex Machina 50 years ago. The "big reveal" has become major ammunition for TV (and film) writers and directors. Clearly, it's a lot harder to create believable (or at least plausible) plot twists, than it is to use Deus Ex Machina.

Plot Twist​

So what's an example of a good plot twist?
Suddenly finding that Darth Vader is Luke Skywalker's father.
It felt right somehow, didn't it?

Here's an example from a fantasy book I recently finished, about some female children growing up together in serious circumstances. Soon after the heroine arrives, someone warns her that one of her new friends isn't trustworthy. The friend is clearly enamored of money, and years later, she talks about how money "floats" everything else (money talks), while friendship is a tricky thing. So when the friend betrays everyone else at a dangerous juncture, for money, it is a plot twist, but not so surprising for anyone who's been paying attention.

This is different from foreshadowing. "A warning or indication of (a future event)." There you want the reader/listener/viewer to recognize that something will happen. Whereas you want plot twists to be unanticipated and uncertain.

Using Plot Twists in Your Campaign​

With tabletop gaming, plot twists can be harder to manufacture because what may be hinted at in a game may never be discovered by the players without some game master intervention. Some games and plots will lend themselves to plot twists more than others. And of course, it’s possible game masters change their mind, the players change course, or what might not have originally become a plot twist changes into one because of how events play out.

Players don’t know the game master’s intent, and plot twists run the fine line between what’s scripted and what’s possible. A few hints here or there help establish the illusion that it was all planned, like remarks from NPCs and fragments of information in ancient written documents. Or inscriptions in dungeons and other buildings. (Of course, they can mislead as well.)

Finding (or not finding) certain treasure items may have the effect of hinting at a plot twist. Even the types of monsters you run into can be a hint to future surprise.

Your Turn: How much does Deus ex Machina worry you in RPG play?

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Lewis Pulsipher

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

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