This irregular column resurrects lost blog posts about RPGs from Mike’s 2006-7 personal blog on Yahoo 360 and updates them with new relevance and perspective.
One of the decisions every referee has to make is how much NOT to tell the players. To be blunt, the referee has to decide when to lie to his players.
There are lots of ways of concealing material that you want hidden, but ultimately they boil down into variations of the time-honoured themes:
- Outright Deception,
- Silence, and
- an outright refusal to answer.
I have to admit that I’m not very good at this a lot of the time. Sometimes I manage to completely hoodwink the players, but its always a struggle. In part, that’s because I’m a fairly honest person, a good quality; but, to be honest, in part it’s because I can’t always resist admiring my own cleverness when I come up with an interesting twist to the storyline, which is hardly a flattering attribute (Shrug). My players have learned to pay close attention to these little slips, as they can often be used to give them advance warning of events that will take place months or even years later.
Before my players got wise to my little flaws, I used to be able to employ this technique with a great deal more effectiveness.
Half-truths come in many interesting varieties. There’s wrapping a nugget of truth in layers of myth and legend, or telling a piece of the story in a misleading way, or taking a nugget of truth out of context and inventing a false story out of whole cloth based on that misinterpretation, or – my favorite – telling a blend of fact and fiction without having decided yet what the real story actually is, just what it isn’t. You can’t drop hints if there’s nothing to hint at!
This enables me to avoid my vulnerability. The real power of this technique – if not overused – is that it can take advantage of players attempts to exploit failures of the first type, just by deliberatly dropping a hint or two about the false story.
Obviously, once my players began to figure out my weakness for dropping hints and listening intently for them, this technique became far more effective. But there is a downside that manifests if this technique is employed too often: it leaves the players less inclined to trust anything I say as GM. It took me a while to recognize that, and for a while I was actually harming my campaigns as a consequence. In time, I learned the lesson, however.
Another technique is to keep quiet. Just don’t mention it at all, and hope no-one notices. Again, I’m not great at this, but I can manage it by carefully preparing something else to talk about – in advance. This is the technique that is most sensitive to the personal character flaw I mentioned earlier, but when you can manage to simply present the raw facts and let the players come up with their own interpretation, there is always a good chance that their explanation will be related to the truth only in passing.
Sometimes, their ideas can be better than mine; on a few rare occasions I have completely thrown away the facts that they weren’t aware of that contradicted their interpretation of events and reinvented the adventure on-the-fly, especially if I could percieve a plot twist that they weren’t allowing for, with which I could surprise them.
The final method – an outright refusal to answer – is the one that I resort to least-often. It can sometimes mean “I havn’t decided yet,” or “I ran out of time,” or “There are possible implications that aren’t fully thought out yet,” – but it can also mean “I ran out of ideas,” or “There’s a contradiction that I havn’t resolved,” or even (rarely) “I couldn’t be bothered.”
The last is rarely the correct way an outright refusal should be interpreted, but it’s also one of the easiest conclusions to leap to, and it damages one thing that the referee needs for a successful game – the player’s trust.
Okay, that sounds contradictory, doesn’t it? Here I am talking about all the different ways that are referee can lie to his players, and yet the trust of the players is an absolute essential to a game’s existance.
Even employing specific interpretation that justify a silence is inadequate, because the players are always free to disbelieve.
The fact is that this involves a whole different hierarchy of deceipt. The players have to be able to trust that the referee will interpret the rules as honestly as he can; that he will put in the effort required to prepare for the game as best he can; that he will only lie to them when it enhances their enjoyment of the game, and that there is no malice involved. In other words, that the referee’s lies are white lies, and that the truth will eventually be revealed, and that the consequences will be important enough to justify the deception in the first place.
A fifth approach is a variation on the half-truth: refusing to decide on the right answer until the last possible minute. This is an approach that I have employed and even recommended from time to time, and deserves its place in the GM’s armory; but it is not always the best answer for a number of reasons. Consistency is hard to achieve, and it can bog the gameplay down as the GM struggles to integrate the morass of clues that have been arbitrarily thrown out, and worse, I have found that if players realize that you are making things up off the cuff it can also damage their confidence in the game, not to mention its quality.
It’s as though a novel suddenly broke into a number of unrelated short stories without resolving the main plotline that got the reader hooked in the first place, and showed no prospect of ever returning to that main plot. In comics, this happens with out-of-continuity fill-in issues, and these are always jarring, no matter how good the story might be in isolation; and, worse still, there can be plot holes as a result of the broken continuity. Peter Parker’s girlfriend leaves him in the previous issue and he doesn’t even think about her once in the fill-in issue that follows? But the issue after that, he’s angst-ridden about the break-up? Okay, so that’s an extreme example to get the point across, but more subtle character and plot inconsistencies are harder to spot, more likely to occur, and just as disruptive when the players notice them.
Retroactively inserting an explanation can sometimes work, but it means drawing attention to the inconsistency – and, in effect, bets the plot credibility of the campaign on the quality of the explanation. It can be better to accept and ignore the flaw rather than using a lame or half-baked “explanation”.
In general, then, it’s better to have a good reason worked out in advance for behaviour and in-game events. Knowing why people are doing what they are doing, and therefore where that particular plot arc (or plot “loop” as some describe it) is going, at least in general terms, is usually far better and less damaging to the campaign.
These days, I most frequently employ another variation on the half-truth, one that empoys the techiques I developed for the “silence” approach. I learned those techniques as a deliberate way of avoiding the subject so that I could not be tempted to drop hints.
I come up with two plausible explanations for what is going on, based on what the players know so far – one is the truth, and one is a fiction. I continually update the fiction as more information is provided within the plot; I assume that NPCs are employing lies and deception for their own purposes as necessary, and will even introduce NPCs into one of the false plot that never appear in the real one to justify those deceptions as necessary. Whenever I am describing events or the results of PC investigations within the game, I focus on the true story; the rest of the time, I focus on the false. That means that any hint that I drop relates not to the true story but to the deception; and I am very careful to phrase my hints (when I can’t resist dropping one) in the form “It might be that…” or “Have you considered what [NPC] might be doing if he knew about this…” or something similar.
I equivate, and never come right out and announce a hint as a solid fact – not until the point at which the false story becomes completely untenable and the PCs figure out the real plotline.
It’s called “Misdirection”, and it’s been at the heart of stage magic and good mystery stories since I don’t know when. That’s because it works.
And, just to confuse the issue, I will still occasionally employ one of the other techniques described. I will still appropriate an explanation when the player’s version is better than my own. I still drop in the occasional deliberate half-truth or outright deception, or refusal to answer.
Preserving the suspense
I’ve been GMing some of my players for thirty years. I’ve been GMing Most of them for more than a decade. In that time, they’ve come to know me fairly well. They can read my body language, and my facial expressions. They’ve noticed that I sometimes get this knowing, cat-ate-the-canary half-grin when one of my plans is working, or when they guess the truth of a situation – so I practice wearing that expression at other times, too.
They are only just starting to figure that one out.
My players know that I can be counted on to lie when that’s what’s called for – and not to do so when it’s not.
Hey, would I lie to you?