Practiced in the Arts of Deception: The Art of Lying in a RPG

It’s a new year, so obviously we should talk about the tricky subject of duplicity in your roleplaying game (RPG) campaign.  …New year? January? Named after Janus, the two-faced Roman god?  Well, hopefully I won’t have to write an article soon on how to do overly esoteric literary references and baroque shout-outs in your campaign.

Anyway… there will be, of course, many minefields in the average gamemaster’s (GM) career; and one of the easiest minefields to go tap-dancing in is in how to properly put one over on your players. And make no mistake: your players will want you to put one over on them, as long as it’s done properly.  Gamers like to have a bit of a challenge in their campaigns — albeit a very carefully calibrated bit of a challenge — and that implies the occasional amount of wool being pulled over people’s eyes. Besides, there are few things more satisfying than being caught by surprise and in ambush, and then winning anyway. But to get that, first you need the actual surprise and ambush.

Unfortunately, pulling that off can be tricky for a GM. The first thing that he or she will need to watch out for? The temptation of seeing the campaign in terms of “players versus GM.” Admittedly, a lot of people like this paradigm, and I’m not saying that you can’t run a successful campaign where the GM and his players are locked into a zero-sum mindset where one side will win, and the other side will lose. I am saying that thinking in those terms may tempt a GM to cheat, and change things around on the players when the players aren’t looking. That works until the players notice, and then the players will proceed to slow play down by obsessively writing everything down*. Assuming that they forgive the GM for it at all, of course.

Fortunately, that sort of thing is rare. What is alas not so rare is taking advantage of player uncertainty about just what their characters can really do. Imagine this scenario: your party enters a room. In the room is a box.  In the box is a vicious monster.  If the players open the box without being prepared for it, someone will be amusingly inconvenienced.  So, you mention nothing except the fact that there’s a box there, and then somebody opens the box, and then somebody gets inconvenienced, and then the complaints start.

Now, here’s the thing: some of those complaints will be justified. For example: does your monster breathe? If so, did you let the players make a hearing check to hear that breathing? Or one to smell the smoke rising from one corner of the box, or a sight roll to see that the box was glowing cherry-red from the monster’s body temperature, or what have you? Probably not, because you wanted a player to open the box.  Which is fine: but that player’s character is almost certainly an intensely cautious (it’s not paranoia when your fear of being killed is perfectly rational), skilled professional who would have checked out the stupid box first, and never mind what his idiot weakly godlike controller thinks.

See where I’m going with this?  A lot of these articles I write are about proper communication, because I’ve been generally lucky to be in campaigns where having that between the player and the GM is a given… and apparently that’s not all that common.  I know that the gaming subculture has endless number of somewhat admiring stories about killer GMs who manipulate the players and make them do his bidding, but I wonder just how psychologically healthy that type of campaign really is.  The entire situation seems awfully passive aggressive, honestly.

So… always give your players what they need to figure things out. And let them make dice rolls to get hints and clues whenever you’re not absolutely sure that those rolls aren’t justified.  Besides, if they flub those rolls, then you can tell them anything you like and your players won’t get mad. You’re not trying to deceive them, after all; you’re just telling your players exactly how badly their characters have assessed the situation.  Completely different thing, practically speaking.

*I understand the call to take amusing but vicious advantage of the players’ inability to take good notes. But just be aware: one of the advantages of nobody taking good notes is that you can easily mutually retcon stuff that happened previously so that everything all suddenly makes sense now.  You’ll miss the ability to do that, once it’s gone…

(Artwork created using multiple images.)