Ask the gamemasters

Lilith Laing asks the GMs: “Recently I started playing in a Vampire: The Masquerade Old WOD game. Even after one session, it is probably the best game I have ever played in (or even run), but I have never played this sort of political game before. Do you, the GMs, have any tips for how to deal with political games like Masquerade, that is, the paranoia and intrigue? Trying to work out who you can trust and what to do when the GM is being obtuse with details and you know something is going on!”

Ask the Game Masters - Johnn

Johnn’s answer:

Hi Lilith, it sounds like you are part of a great game; congratulations. Mike and I have several pieces of advice to help survive a political campaign. I will dive into three tips of my own, then hand things over to Mike so he can supply his counsel.

Separate fact from fiction

Pierce through the lies, deceptions, innuendos and half-truths to focus just on what you know to be true. Stay open to all information, news, gossip, rumors and clues – you want to be a player in the action to achieve your own objectives, after all. But privately hunt down and confirm facts so you can make decisions based upon a solid foundation. Otherwise, you will act on falsehoods, thus making you ripe for manipulation and being used by others while they pursue their own ends.

Three lists

Make three lists and update them every chance you get. Base your gameplay on a strategy of adding information continuously to your first and second lists, and then through roleplay, observation and investigation, promote as much as you can from these to your third list. Such a strategy combined with good organization imposed by the lists will give you an edge over the other players.

List #1 Theories

Record all your hunches, suspicions and theories. These are internal only, just your own mind at work. This information is unproved and untested, so under suspicion. The list is a great tool for eliminating assumptions by writing your thoughts out.

For example:

  • Is Revan allied with Harpad?
  • Harpad’s true motive is claiming Rella as his bride
  • Does Morphid have The Item?
  • Is Allis blackmailing Revan, and if so, with what?
  • I think Salus might be selling information to the Blackguard

List #2 Clues

Players will tell you things, sometimes as rumor and sometimes as fact. So will the GM. Regard everything you have not personally verified as truth as a clue. You decide what clues have the most merit and then prioritize those for investigation and confirmation.

While list #1 contains stuff only you’ve thought up, list #2 is for what everybody else is telling you. Keep these buckets separate so you do not confuse your thoughts from thoughts others put in your head.

It is easy for others to manipulate us. Players can be persuasive with logic, emotion or apparent kinship. Unless you stay objective and on top of what you know for fact versus unverified information, your decisions will get corrupted.

Watch out especially for fear, doubt and uncertainty. FUD. Keep facts separate from interpretation. For example, you might have confirmed Morphid knowns where The Item rests, but he does not have it. Harpad whispers in your ear that Morphid knows where The Item rests and he could use it to cause you harm. Note the insidious assumption being planted by Harpad – that Morphid can access The Item and is able to use it just because he knows the location. But is that true? It would be worth finding out, for if Morphid cannot get to The Item and won’t for awhile, you might have been sent off panicking in the direction Harpad wanted – to stop Morphid or get The Item first, based on your fear, uncertainty and doubt surrounding Morphid and The Item. Tricky stuff, but no so much if you use your lists.

Another trap catches you seeing through the lens of others. You need to form your own opinions and theories and conclusions. Do this by separating fact from viewpoint, and by staying curious and not just accepting the limited information presented to you by any one faction.

For example, the 6 o’clock news covers fires at three locations. The stories talk about evacuations, injured firefighters and the heroics of a few. The next day, typically the analysis period for news stories, you hear reports of arson and conjecture about who the arsonist is and news of a massive manhunt for the arsonist. Day three, typically summary and wrap-up for stories, you get information about how to protect your home from fire, how to stay alert for arson and how to report suspicious activity to authorities. All kinds of tips about fire protection, fire extinguishers, evacuation plans and family safety pour out through the airwaves.

Later in the week a big story breaks – police have apprehended the arsonist! Whew, you can rest easy now and go back to your normal life.

A curious person might think beyond the news and entertainment offered by Channel KAOS on TV. Where exactly were the fires? Did those buildings have any special importance? Who lived in them, or what businesses operated out of them? Who owns those businesses? Were the fires truly the work of one person? What evidence do the police have on their suspect – the news reported an arrest, but that is a far stretch from proof of guilt. What else happened the night of the fires? News stations only have a limited number of camera crews – could be they were diverted to the fires to prevent thorough reporting of other things happening at that time.

If this little storyline was offered in a game, I’d go to the police station and find out who the officer in charge of the investigation is and talk with her. Ditto with fire crews who were on site. And I’d go to the records office to learn more information about the buildings. I’d scan the net for other reports from people of other things happening that night.

I’d even check into the news station to learn who calls the shots, literally. While the whole city was caught up in stories of peril and danger and heroism, perhaps in complicity with KAOS News, a whole other truth could underly the events.

You would put your thoughts on this stuff into list #1, clues uncovered into list #2 and facts verified into list #3.

List #3 – The Truth, As You Know It

That brings us to the final list. Here you write out verified facts. Keep opinions and theories out of it – that’s for the other lists. For each fact, note when you verified it, and who or how you verified it. Note one fact per line. You can group facts, but that’s dangerous, so be sure you also have a way to browse facts unsorted as well.

Review this list often. Challenge your verifications so you do not get trapped into a trap or trick designed to lead you the wrong way. Read each fact and ponder it. Use facts to put items in list #1 and #2 to the test. Use list #3 to see who is lying to you. Use list #3 to stop you from lying to yourself.

Update your lists after every session, and more often if possible. You want to move items from the first pair of lists to the list of facts, else be able to cross them off as you disprove theories and catch others misinforming you.

Create dossiers

Profile every player and character. Like a brief you’d see in a detective’s file, you want an inventory about every player, PC and NPC in the game. Note their biographical information, relationships, abilities, backgrounds. Note their movements and activities. Note their resources, revenues and expenses.

Create a profile for each player and character. Update them regularly. The more you know, the better you can avoid getting caught in others’ webs.

Create a relationship map. Draw a box for each PC and NPC. Connect them as you learn about relationships between them. On the connector lines, make a brief note about the nature of the relationship. In their dossiers, make fuller notes.

Note I say to profile players, too. This is meta-gaming, but it can pay off. Learning two players are roommates, for example, should flag them for priority investigation for collusion, regardless of characters played. Noting player styles and prejudices can help you as well.

Figure out why

Determine each character’s wants and needs. Get clear on why people are doing stuff; get to their true motives. The clearer you are on true motivations and real needs, the more leverage you have. Be sure you understand your own, as well, lest it be used against you.

Prove your theories

The GM will not likely hand you the truth about NPCs or important things outright; you will need to work for it. Do this by gathering as much information as you can, to circle around the truth, until you spot what the truth might actually be. Armed with this theory, figure out how you can prove it and then take action.

Avoid being in reactive mode. By thinking about the campaign and how characters, events and locations relate to each other, you get above the tactics and put yourself in the general’s chair. Then you define your tactics – the actions you take and your approach to taking them – to prove out your theories and execute your strategies. If you stay in tactical mode and reactive mode all the time, you take on the role of a pawn. With your head always down, the others just need to figure out what buttons to push to make you do what they want.

Do not make assumptions. Remain objective so you do not get waylaid or tricked. Avoid being baited, as getting emotional befuddles you, which is what they want.

There is no such thing as trust. In a game of paranoia and intrigue, you cannot trust anyone or anything. The game master can bend reality at will, and PCs and NPCs are subject to their own pressures and weaknesses. Therefore, trust nothing, and test motives and circumstances at all times to see if anything has changed.

Hopefully these tips help. Good luck in your campaign. Stay sharp.

Ask the GMs - Mike

Mike’s answer:

As usual, Johnn’s answers are absolutely great, and give you a lot to work with. So much so that I’m going to restrict myself to a couple of how-to’s that amplify points that he’s made, as everything else is covered!

Detective Work The Scientific Way

The Scientific Method is to observe, generalise, theorise, and test.

  • Observe: Document the information available to you, including your own instinctive reactions and impressions, in short, factual sentences.
  • Generalise: Many of the documented observations will appear to form a pattern. Try to identify and document that pattern.
  • Theorise: Devise one or more explanations for the patterns that you have identified.
  • Test: Devise a test to prove or disprove the explanations by predicting a consequence and then verifying or disproving that consequence.

Applying the scientific method to games of politics:

Make a list of ‘facts’ presented by others, number them. Include notions of your own. These are Johnn’s first and second lists. For each one, ask yourself “What does it mean, if fact ### is true? What does it mean if it’s a lie?”

Try to build up connections between them until you have a number of simple theories all resting on one key truth-or-lie assumption. Number these as well, using a different scheme – something as simple as prefacing the theory number with a ‘T’ will do. Make sure to list under each theory the fact numbers and true-or-false assumptions that have gone into that theory. The list of theories and supporting evidence and the assumptions on which they are based actually falls in between Johnn’s lists.

Note that what I mean by these is something more susbtantial than Johnn’s speculations – something more along the lines of “Nimmick, who is supposed to be my ally, is conspiring with Juicer to blackmail the Svengali into supporting the Concrete Underground Conspiracy, whose true goal is to overthrow the Mason’s Guild, because the Masons are in league with General Mattix in plotting to fix the next Grand Council election”.

As the game progresses, try to anticipate how each situation will develop next IF theory T## is correct. Each time you guess right, that one gets a ‘+1’ added to it’s truth score – a simple tally of how often a theory has proven a reliable guide to what will happen next. Each time you guess wrongly, it gets a ‘-1’. If presented with an invitation to a Nightclub, for example, and the Svengali is also in attendance, you might predict that some information will be passed to Nimmick in the course of the night, and that you are there simply to give him cover and protection against the unexpected.” If Nimmick and the Svengali get into an argument in hushed tones, after which you find yourselves under attack, I would consider the theory plausible (+1) and add to the theory that the Svengali has refused to be blackmailed and has brought in enemies to oppose the Nimmick-Juicer conspiracy.

Each time a fact is proven (by your investigations, or by revelations within the game) or disproved, use your ‘fact list’ to cross off theories that are no longer viable at the same time as you migrate them from lists 1 and 2 to list 3. Don’t get rid of these theories permanently, and don’t leave them ineligible, as the ‘proof’ might itself be faked to mislead others!

After a couple of sessions of scoring theories, a few should emerge as leading candidates for ‘what is really going on’. When that happens, it’s time to consider the differences between them and become more active in trying to verify them. If you don’t want to tip your hand, you should not try and verify the facts directly, but should identify a consequence if theory X is right and try to verify if that consequence is correct. But don’t stop scoring “Truth” scores while undertaking these investigations.

That should enable you to eliminate more of the theories, until you are left with just one. That’s when it’s time to get even more direct, and try to test the theory more directly.

And if you end up with no theories? Then it’s time to question those “proof or disproof” results – starting with those which you did not directly instigate. You are looking for a theory that permits someone to falsify the ‘proof or disproof’ result, restoring one or more of your discarded theories. You will be greatly aided in this by the fact that even if you have disproved it in your own mind, the most likely theory will have continued to rack up “truth” points in the meantime.

Once you know what’s really going on, or think you do, you can start plotting to take advantage of the plots and intrigues to achieve your own ambitions. Until you reach this stage, you should be doing nothing but gathering resources that you can eventually use. Don’t try to run before you can walk!

The Perfect Lie

Knowing how to lie effectively not only enables you to deceive others as necessary, but how to recognise that deceit when you encounter it – and in this type of game, it’s a sure bet that you WILL encounter it! There are only a few principles required, but you should master all of them.

The Gilted Ratio

A perfect lie is one part deception to two parts truth. One of those ‘truths’ should be easily verifiable, if not already known to be true, while the other should be something that is valuable information if proven, but be harder to verify. If you can arrange it, try to get confirmation of the first truth to the target of the deception by some channel that is seemingly independent of you. Get the mix right, and the package will be swallowed whole. I call this the “Gilted Ratio” because while the whole product appears to be gold, it’s really only a shallow coating.

The Bigger The Lie

The more astonishing a statement is, the more it sometimes seems to make sense. The shock of hearing the Big Lie makes people pause to reorient their entire perspective on a subject in order to assess the truth or validity of the claim. If just a couple of things are explained by the statement that were previously inexplicable, people tend to believe it.

Be especially wary on any subject in which it seems unthinkable for someone to lie. If someone admits to have committed a crime, for example, we take the claim seriously, even if it is providing an alibi for a more serious crime.

Beware Of Fine Print

The more details and specifics are included in an assertion, the more we tend to believe it. A sure way to make a deception more plausible is to include lots of facts and figures and details, and most people both know it and tend to go too far in providing those facts and figures, dotting every ‘i’ and crossing every ‘t’. Few people ever think that if something appears to come complete, wrapped up in a pretty little bow, it might be because it has been deliberately manufactured and packaged that way.

Beware Of The Vague

The other extreme is also not very reliable. An assertion with no specific supporting evidence is automatically suspect. So a very clever technique can be to make a deliberately vague assertion that means the exact opposite of what you want people to believe, or to manipulate a third party into doing so. People will immediately deem the pronouncement ‘suspect’ and assume that it’s a lie, when it is actually the truth, or something close to it.

Beware Of The ‘Tell’

People often have trouble lying with a straight face. Try to identify mannerisms that suggest that they may be deceiving you. Looking away and to the left, for example, is often an indicator of falsehood, while looking someone in the eye tends to indicate truthfulness; looking away and to the right is an indicator that people are searching their memories. This is made more complicated by the fact that everyone is lying in an RPG because they are NOT their characters, but it can still be a useful tool when they aren’t speaking in character or recalling character stats. Look online for tips on conducting job interviews, they will be directly relevant!

Beware Of The Poker Face

People often try to keep themselves expressionless when trying to lie, as a consequence of avoiding a possible “Tell” (whether they have one or not). So treat anything delivered in this way as suspect. The best liars are those who don’t change their expression or voice or characterisation while being deceptive. The Poker Face is hard to master, but lying without using it is even harder – and more successful.

Beware Of False Logic and Hidden Assumptions

Bumblebees can’t fly, according to the physics of the pre-1980s 20th Century. Their wings are too small and too slow-moving to overcome the aerodynamic inefficiencies of their bodies, and a number of physicists and engineers said so. Only once flexible wings are understood, where the shape of the wing actually changes on up and down beats, can it be understood why the Bumblebee can fly.

The director of IBM once famously stated that he thought there was a world market for perhaps 12 computers. But, at the time, computers occupied a substantial part of a building, cost the equivalent of billions of dollars, and had less capability than a basic pocket calculator or digital watch. In the early 1990s, the typical family car’s engine had more computer power than was used for the Apollo moon landings. The typical modern PC is superior in every way to the computers that made Cray Supercomputers legendary.

We were once told that the Earth could not support more than 4 billion people. The global population in mid 2009 was almost 6.8 billion. Concorde was going to disrupt the Ozone Layer, melt the polar icecaps, and doom the world. It didn’t. These days, it’s global warming resulting from carbon buildup in the atmosphere that’s going to melt the icecaps. I don’t believe that either, as I explained in a previous post, The Frozen Lands. The moral of these stories is to beware of false logic and hidden assumptions that make conclusions untenable.

Have A Theory and Act as though you believe it

It doesn’t matter what this theory might be, or how accurate it is. Your character’s theory might be that Pixies pull everyone’s strings like puppetmasters, or that the General of the Army is a closet crossdresser, or that the President has been replaced with a Soviet Double, or whatever. The more comprehensive it is, the better. If you can make everything that you say or do reflective of this entirely fictitious “theory”, you will send all sorts of false signals to everyone else, which (a) helps in getting them to lower their guard; and (b) helps you disguise what you are really up to.

The tricky part is figuring out who else is doing so.

Some Thoughts On Dossiers

Johnn’s suggestion about compiling dossiers on everyone is a great one. Here are a few non-obvious items that I would definitely consider adding:

  • What Do They Want? Everyone wants something, has some ambition. Identifying what someone wants gives a solid handle on their behaviour. This also gives a basis for bribery and/or blackmail – by yourself, or by someone else.
  • How does what they are doing get them what they want? People arrange their lives to give them as much as possible of what they want. If someone’s current activities don’t give them what they want, it’s a sure bet that they are doing something outside of those current activities.
  • Who do they Overtly support? This is not necessarily the person they answer to, it might be a principle or an organisation or some other third party.
  • Why? An example: The Chancellor Of The Exchequer usually supports economic prosperity because it brings his office more money, which in turn gives him more power. He will generally oppose anything that reduces economic prosperity because it weakens his power.
  • Does this support get them what they want? Another possible indicator of someone who is saying one thing but doing another.
  • Would covertly supporting someone else get them MORE of what they want? Now we’re getting to the important stuff!
  • Who? There may be more than one candidate.
  • What measures has the character’s Patron taken to ensure their loyalty?

Keep Your Friends Close and Your Enemies Closer

In conclusion, I want to actually disagree slightly with something that Johnn has written. Even in this type of game, there is trust to be had – but never Blind trust. Always consider the possibility that someone you are trusting might betray that trust, and have a secret plan up your sleeve to deal with the consequences and fallout. Make alliances of convenience, and betray them if you must – but try not to do so all the time, as getting a rep for being ‘trustworthy’ only makes your own eventual betrayals all the more unexpected.

Having said that, remember always that this is just a game, but betrayals can inflict real pain on real people. If you betray a character in the course of a game session, make sure you have something to do to to win back the friendship and trust of the character’s player afterwards. Even something small, like “Buy you a soda?” or “Have a brownie?” can have a big impact, underlining that your behaviour toward others within the game is not how you will behave in real life.

And one final point in this regard: We often get into the habit, while playing, of referring to our characters as “I”. It comes naturally, and is generally a sign of good roleplaying. When announcing an act of betrayal, ALWAYS refer to your character in the third person. “Gal-gotha bribes the guard to shoot Nimmick”, not “I bribe the guard to shoot Nimmick”. That little bit of extra distance between the act and the person helps insulate against the game spilling out into real life.

Have fun!

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