Verisimilitude is critical in a role playing game in order to facilitate the suspension of disbelief and players (and GMs) getting into character instead of viewing events from a meta-perspective. Believability is hard-won at the gaming table and subject to constant attack by game mechanics and real-world distractions like side-conversations. More difficult still is the situation in which the GM has to be unconvincing without further eroding his hard-won verisimilitude…
Think about it for a moment. We ask our players to accept all sorts of fantastic and improbable events and condition them to do so. All of which works wonderfully until the time comes for an ill-conceived or poorly-executed deception to enter the picture, because that is what the character responsible would attempt in the in-game situation.
It’s a very hard line to walk, being both convincing and unconvincing at the same time!
The usual situation
Most of the time, the GM works hard at being convincing. We provide well-chosen descriptions of scenes and events, are careful to employ logic in our shaping of events and consequences, strive for consistency in our characterization and roleplay, and we establish narrative foundations that foreshadow important developments. We want the PCs to feel that they are part of the game world, and we want the players to be able to immerse themselves in their roles as PCs, living vicariously in a world that is brighter, more adventurous, and more fun than the “mundane world”.
A lot of advice over the years, both here at Campaign Mastery and at other gaming blogs and magazines, has been aimed at achieving this plausibility, so much so that a recent article considered the question of How and when to lie to your players – it’s not stated explicitly in the title, but the implication is that the article will suggest ways of doing so successfully. In other words, how and when to lie convincingly to the players.
…with the occasional flaw
One of the many reasons for these serious efforts to be plausible is so that the players will ignore the occasional flaw or lapse, and just keep on playing. Ninety-nine times out of 100 (or more), any contradiction between plausibility will be inadvertent, and the game will proceed far more smoothly and enjoyably if players simply accept the situation on its face and keep on playing.
Note that Plausibility is not the same thing as “realism” – but that’s a subject for another time.
Overall, then, your game will be better if your players become accustomed to swallowing the occasional inconsistency. But that only makes it harder for the GM when the objective is to offer a deception that the characters are supposed to see through. This article is intended to offer methods of being unconvincing at the character/role-play level without compromising plausibility at the player level. Being two opposite things at the same time is exceedingly difficult, but with the techniques I have to share, you will have a better chance at pulling it off.
And here’s the contradiction: if you can succeed in being unconvincing in the right way, you will actually enhance the plausibility of the campaign, because in the real world, we have the conflict between people trying to be credible and others attempting to penetrate to the truth – and sometimes succeeding.
But it gets even harder
In the real world, we assess people’s expression, their body language, the content of their statements, and consistency with known and believed facts and biases, and with the past history of both the speaker, the organization (if any) that they represent, and the events that they are speaking about, in assessing their credibility.
A number of these elements are completely absent or compromised in an RPG setting. Most GMs are not top-of-the-line actors, and even some great and popular actors have limited expressive ranges. Everyone is usually sitting at a table, limiting the range of choices of body language – and, because of the differences between the game world and the ‘real world’, many of the indicators of deception may be present entirely innocently. The fact that players (and GMs) normally have an at-best incomplete understanding of the game world and character histories compromise everything else on the above list.
So, if it’s hard to lie convincingly, it is even harder to lie unconvincingly without compromising the campaign.
Scales of Deception
It’s probably worthwhile taking a moment to reflect on the four degrees of deception that are likely to come up in game terms, and that fall within the scope of this article, simply to put the needs and techniques into context.
The Tall Tale and other personal stories
At the small end of the scale we have The Tall Tale, the Little White Lie, and other personal lies – everything from the sales pitch of an obviously-untrustworthy salesman to the lies of a husband or wife having an affair. The purposes and intended effect of these deceptions may vary, and the emotional context certainly changes, but ultimately, these are all personal lies, told by one person to one or more others, often with no support.
This level also includes most cases of self-deception, itself a very broad field.
The Big Deceptions: Con men & Addicts
One step up we find the more expert con-men and the lies they tell to separate people from their money. These lies are generally expected to come under scrutiny and are designed to withstand a reasonable level of suspicion.
Some readers may be more surprised by the second item in this category, but any serious reading on the subject will reveal that addicts frequently evolve or establish elaborate deception methods to hide their addiction, and usually in such a manner that they can even lie successfully to themselves about the problem and/or its scale even when confronted by others who have penetrated the deception.
See, for example, the following:
- The Five Stages Of Addiction from The Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors (AIPC);
- Honesty and self-deception, an article by Jon Penoi, MPH, LADC, at addictionblog.org;
- The excerpted introduction to Addictive Thinking – Understanding Self-deception by Abraham M. Twerski, MD (PDF Download, 34.8Kb);
- Alcoholic Behavior and Alcoholism Denial, both articles at The Alcoholism Guide.
A potential third contender in this category are the “big stunts” of professional magicians. Hollywood special effects at their most effective are also beginning to approach this standard, insofar as they are becoming (at their best) indistinguishable from the images actually present at the time of filming.
The Bigger Deceptions: Intelligence Games, Politics, and Military Surprises
More elaborate still are the deceptions practices by intelligence agents, by the deceptions perpetrated by Politicians to gain office, and by Militaries to conceal the scope or purpose of their operations and immediate intentions for tactical or strategic benefit. The deceptions that took place in the Africa campaigns for and against Rommel during World War II, the extraordinary deceptions practiced in support and preparation for the D-Day landings; the list goes on and on. Political deceptions are well-supported when they succeed because those who benefit acquire power which can be used to affirm and reinforce the deception; elect a crooked politician once, and you put in place a political machine which will re-elect that politician (and more besides) and is extraordinarily difficult to dislodge. And, as for the intelligence games, I think nothing needs be said…
The Biggest Deceptions: Masterminds and their plans
But now we leave the real world behind and enter the realm of the comic book, the adventure novel, the soap opera, the video game, and the RPG – the only places where hoaxes of this magnitude exist, outside of conspiracy theories. I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about these here; instead I’ll refer interested readers to my earlier article, Making a Great Villain Part 1 of 3 – The Mastermind.
The Epic Deception: The confidence of the GM
Okay, I said there were four and this is a fifth. There is one deception in an RPG that outranks all these others, though it isn’t actually relevant to this article – the deception that the GM always knows what he’s doing…
Is the speaker trying to be convincing?
In most of these cases of deception, the person perpetrating the deception is trying to be convincing – but there are one or two notable exceptions. The first is the Tall Tale, where the deception is intended to be short-lived, for entertainment value only. The key to success in this case is to keep making the story bigger and more improbable every time someone swallows the story so far.
The other exception is a subtype of several types of deception – the double-bluff. In this circumstance, the fraud is deliberately intended to be penetrated, usually because it is serving as a cover for a deeper deception. The techniques offered below work very well for this type of deception.
The Failed Deception
Which brings me to the Failed Deception itself. There are eight techniques which can be employed singly or in combination to convey the message that a deception is being unsuccessfully attempted by an NPC (I had a ninth, but by the time I had these eight listed in my rough draft, it had been lost from memory).
The simplest mechanism is simply to have the player make a roll against a skill or appropriate stat and tell the player (if its successful) that their PC thinks the NPC is lying. A more refined version has the PC roll to spot or observe some flaw in the deception without actually presenting them with a conclusion already drawn for them. This approach works, but it’s totally unsatisfying. Something more subtle is needed; do that right, and the player may state that he is looking for the hidden strings, justifying a game-mechanics check to actually penetrate the deception. But there will need to be something more than mere cynicism involved to achieve that justification.
The Devil Is In The Detail
This technique works when the fiction violates a truth known to one or more players after that truth is confirmed in-game. That first step is essential, because the players don’t know (and may not remember) everything they need to about how the game world works.
For example, the player may know that the Eiffel Tower is 324m tall (1063 feet), including the radio antenna; or that the Empire State Building has 103 stories; or that the music of The Star Spangled Banner comes from a bawdy English drinking song (To Anacreon in Heaven). That doesn’t mean that the character knows the fact; and it certainly doesn’t mean that these facts are true in the game world. If, for some reason, the GM needs the Eiffel Tower to be 330m tall, or wants a 104th floor for the Empire State Building, or wants to have the Anacreontic Society appropriate the music from a Time Traveller for their drinking song, he is entirely free to redefine the facts to suit his needs.
So it is essential that the GM has any key information delivered to the PCs by an NPC even though the player might know it already. Only then will the player know that the fact, as he knows it, also applies to the game world, and hence when the details of the deception contradict that established fact, he can start to question the deception in character.
The more the details don’t add up, the more obvious the attempted deception becomes – if you know the truth of those details.
The Contradictory Note
Another technique that can be useful is to give a player a note or handout specifying some information reasonably prominently which contradicts key elements of the deception. This is actually trickier than it sounds; it’s easy for the information to be too buried or too obvious, and neither is helpful to the twin objectives of being Unconvincing as a character while keeping the game Convincing to the players.
The problem is that the “obviousness” has to be decided in advance; when employing a “live” delivery mechanism, i.e. an NPC speaking in-game to the characters, you at least have some feedback as to how far you need to go.
On the other hand, a note or handout will retain its information between game sessions, while memory is more fallible. That can be a vitally important consideration.
Finally, there are a couple of hybrid approaches that can be used:
Use a note to kick-start roleplay in which the information is revealed, possibly after several scenes. The note then serves as a reminder of the information. I like to use this when the information is esoteric, like the volume of a klein bottle, or the calculus of infinities.
A general note leads to some roleplay which leads (eventually) to the discovery of a significant fact in play, with the key information being then communicated in a second note or handout as the climax of the day’s play. The first note serves as a reminder of the importance of the contents of the second, and that importance is emphasized by the extraordinary hurdles the GM put the players through in order to get it.
Uncertainty in expression
Using tone of voice to show that an NPC is unconvinced gives the Players license to be unconvinced, as well. It will usually be the case that the skeptic is a different character to the one attempting the deception, though there will be times when a character will attempt a deception while unconvinced of its likelihood of success or the need for it, and this will make his “performance” unconvincing.
Magic Words & Affirmations
There are several key words that can be incorporated into a statement which can undermine the credibility of the statement in a wholly credible way. These words are: Rumor, Speculation, National Enquirer, Fuzzy, and Vague. At all costs, avoid words like “unbelievable”, however.
Another approach that can be very successful is to have someone quote an absolutely plausible source or statement and then affirm it far more strongly than is reasonable – repeatedly. Over and over.
This is an application of reverse psychology, because players are well aware of the the notion that “any lie repeated loudly enough and often enough becomes accepted as the truth” – it’s one of the fundamental tenets of propaganda, at least in the popular zeitgeist (I’ve never studied propaganda, so I can’t be sure). And since propaganda seeks to disguise a lie as the truth, any statement made in this fashion is automatically thought to be false, no matter how plausible it sounds.
The Personality Conflict
Having an NPC – or the GM himself – act massively out of character creates a conflict between the credibility of the personality and the image being projected during play. This personality conflict then undermines the credibility of anything said while in this distorted-personality condition – but only if it is not something the character would normally keep secret.
Paradoxically, anything that is revealed that would normally be secret is actually rendered more credible, because it is assumed that the speaker is in some condition of diminished self-control – be it alcohol, drugs, hypnotism, a stroke, or for any other reason. So this technique needs to be placed in context carefully and in advance.
The contrast of details
This technique is simply to keep the deception threadbare, employing vague generalities and a general lack of detail. This is one of the most effective approaches, because it takes advantage of what the GM does normally to enhance the believability of his campaign to contrast with the deception.
While especially effective with spoken dialogue, this works in almost every form of content delivery.
The contrast of roleplay
The GM can carefully change his personal mannerisms to create a contrast to the in-character deceiver and his out-of-character running of the game. While this is never enough to be unconvincing in itself, it can often provide the last nail in the coffin of a deception that the GM wants to be penetrated.
Being Convincingly Unconvincing
It’s always going to be difficult to be Convincingly Unconvincing without damaging the credibility and believability that the campaign relies on, and it’s not something that is likely to come up every day. Most of the time, a campaign is better served by keeping the campaign plausible enough that players will ignore (or at least forgive) the occasional discrepancy. That demands extraordinary measures to project cases where the GM wants the players to pick up on the clues to a deliberate deception. This article may not be the last word on the subject, but it should leave GMs better-prepared the next time they have to try to deceive the players – without trying too hard.