Tuesday, July 9, 2024

Everybody wants to be initiated, nobody wants to be tricked

This is a post about three storytelling techniques I've seen in media - and at the RPG table. 


In initiation stories, the audience is brought into some conspiracy or made privy to an essential secret of the universe. This initiation turns them into one of the elect. 

In The Matrix, Morpheus tells Neo (and the audience) that the real world isn't the real world. Humans are being farmed by machines. The world we know is a shared mass hallucination. There is a prophesy that one human will be the One who can fully overcome the machine world and rescue humankind from their captivity.

There are games like Vampire: The Masquerade that tell their secrets in the opening pages of their introductory narrative. This isn't exactly what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the feeling of giving the players a "Oh. That's what's going on" moment. 

In my experience, conspiracy games like Delta Green's Control Group module can elicit this effect. One or two sessions of the game are played with both the players and player character's in the "out" group. Then, they receive initiation and are told the secrets of the game world. 

It's fun to be initiated. To be in the know. To be told secrets. 

(This feeling is what keeps Q Anon morons coming back for more conspiracy slop. They're one of the smart ones! They followed the clues and did their own research and now they know that Joe Biden is doing the plot of Henson's The Dark Crystal.) 


In revelation stories, the audience is told a seemingly normal narrative. At the very end of the narrative, there is a moment of revelation that changes the context of the entire story.

At the end of Fight Club, you realize that Tyler Durden was a figment of the narrator's imagination.

At the end of The Sixth Sense, you realize the bald guy was Bruce Willis the entire time.

This is a difficult type of story to tell in an RPG format. The fun of revelation stories is in the rewatch. You don't read Gene Wolf, you reread Gene Wolf. Still, I wanted to include this storytelling technique because it felt so close in theme to "initiation." If you have any good examples of this from a mainstream game, let me know.


In apostasy stories, the audience is initiated and later told that their first initiation was false - an apostasy. They're then inducted into the true initiation.

In The Matrix Reloaded, the Architect tells Neo (and the audience) that the story of the One is a false narrative. The cycle of the One is all part of the machine's plan. There have been many Ones. Each One has collapsed the current Matrix, rescued a handful of humans, and restarts the cycle. 

Apostasy is not fun. The audience only has the text with which to understand the narrative world. We know only what the filmmaker/GM is telling us. If they're lying to us, we don't have a way to know that. The revelation-after-the-revelation isn't satisfying. We feel tricked. 

This is all to say:

Everybody wants to be initiated. Nobody wants to be tricked.


  1. As a Matrix hater, I actually never minded the new reveals in Reloaded. It seemed like a pretty obvious, if lateral, move for the lore. But I also had no attachment to the first one so it was probably a lot easier for me to accept.

    Anyway, I agree with the main point. I'm not sure I've ever seen a double twist that was satisfying.

    "The villain Xorn was actually Magneto in disguise!" *plot plot plot, Magneto dies, later writer takes over* "Magneto is back! Yes, he's actually alive, because... Xorn was never Magneto at all! It was a double ruse!"

    "Rey's parents are actually nobody!" *plot plot plot, later writer takes over* "Rey's parents are actually uhhh Palpatine's kids!"

    "Mr. Robot is actually Elliot's dad!" *plot plot plot, wait... just 45 minutes later??* "Actually, Mr. Robot is just in Elliot's imagination!" What a weird waste of 45 minutes of time spent exploring the implications of that first reveal and how it impacts everything we know up to this point, only for it to be immediately negated by a different, more cliche reveal.

    In terms of RPGs, while I've seen a few twists and reveals land pretty well, the one kind I've never seen players enjoy and yet is extremely common is, "you actually were serving the interests of the bad guys all along! You were unknowingly making the situation worse! The Christian-coded gods are evil actually!" I've seen players be perfectly receptive to finding out that they were duped, like if a patron scams them and never pays a reward or if a hireling betrays them or something. Motivates them to seek payback, y'know? But in my experience it actually takes a LOT of player buy-in to convincingly establish a sympathetic side vs a villainous side in a campaign's conflict, so casually throwing that out and asking everyone to recalibrate who the good guys and bad guys are is just frustrating and tiring and feels so defeating.

    1. I like the words you used: "the double twist."

      That's exactly what I was trying to get to (which I haven't made clear enough for some readers - or quick Twitter takes).

      It's not that you can't have a doublecross, or a lying NPC, or a trick, or a "actually...!". The feeling I'm trying to get at is explicitly the "Here, I am telling you a secret about this world. Isn't that cool? WELL I WAS LYING."

      And I've seen it used enough - in RPGs or fiction - to recognize and dislike the trope.

      It's the feeling of like, Lost. There's so many WEIRD THINGS, the authors are so attached to the idea of creating MYSTERIES and not attached to the idea of REVEALING MYSTERIES, so everything they do has to have another BUT WAIT...EVERYTHING YOU THOUGHT WAS WRONG. And it's not satisfying!

      In RPGs its having two sessions in a "fantasy" universe only to reveal it was a FAR FUTURE SCIENCE FICTION UNIVERSE! Kinda cool, right? But wait, no, ACTUALLY, you're just on a holodeck of a ship. WELL NO THAT SUCKS NOW. I kinda DUG the first reveal, and re-aligned my expectations, and now I have to do it again?

  2. Double-twists are so common these days. Frozen, Nimona, you name it. I wonder what kind of mentality these kids will grow up with.

    It's a kind of screenwriting that is obsessed with beats, arcs and twists rather than just telling a story. The kind of approach that outright ruined Rings of Power for me.

    Neither the twist nor the double twist conveys any kind of a meaningful message, other than "trust radicals" or "don't trust" radicals. As a teen I read Jack Vance's Nopalgarth, a novel from the 50's where the character discovers that people are mind-controlled by invisible alien riders (aha! Capitalism is a false consciousness!) but the second twist is that this discovery was itself engineered by a cross-galactic mind-controlling octopus (oho! for is not communism also a false conciousness? Checkmate!)

    Maybe you exempted Gene Wolfe (New Sun in particular) because instead of using clear-cut revelations, he draws back veils in layers and you're never sure where you come to rest. He's never smug about "what you're seeing now is for sure the real truth."

    1. Yeah, I'm talking about a really...specific storytelling device - although the Jack Vance story sounds like it would qualify. Whereas Gene Wolf wouldn't qualify, *really*, because although the "Aha, you thought it was fantasy? It's actually sci fi!" twist sort of exists in New Sun, it's also not the storytelling beat of "Now, let me tell you the truth, o' audience - this fantastic realm in which we've been journeying is YOUR OWN EARTH MILLIONS OF YEARS IN THE FUTURE"