Monday, August 20, 2012

Lies and Other Social Subtleties

One of the areas of life/stories that RPGs have traditionally had a hard time representing is the social aspect of the game. Oh sure, we've had skills like Diplomacy, Etiquette, Sincerity, Seduction, and Manipulation since the very beginning, but the rules behind those skills seem particularly wonky - especially when it comes to interactions between characters. The hallmark example is usually the intimidation skill. Why do you have to break your character and cow-tow to me just because I made a successful skill roll? Rules wise, because I successfully intimidated you. But just like when one is successfully seduced, the loss of control can feel weird. That isn't what I want to talk about today though. Today, I want to talk about even more subtle things.

Lies! Lies From Your Mouth!
The typical way that a game handles being lied to is with a skill roll. Character A tells Character B a lie, and then both characters roll their relevant skill. If A wins the roll, B thinks that A is telling the truth. If B wins the roll, they get to know if A is lying or not. It is all fairly cut and dry, except that it lacks a lot of the subtly and nuance that can go into lying - and all other forms of manipulation - that we need if we want to do a more social game. The current method has problems on both levels: in game and on the player level.

Player Level
On the player level, whether or not A succeeds at the roll B knows he just made a roll to detect a lie or other form of manipulation. Now, even if the player of B doesn't want to metagame it is hard for him to just discard that knowledge. Nuances in word play will hang in his head, and the player - through no fault of their own - will be looking at what was said with a low level of trust. Especially if he knows that he rolled very poorly and likely didn't know.

A solution for this would be to have the GM make the rolls, but for that the GM has to have the dice pool/modifiers for the players on hand. The players will also hear the rolling of dice and that a lone can trigger parts of the brain into formulating plans. Yes, there are ways around this - random die rolling is my favorite as a GM, especially when I have a GM screen - but they are all work.

Character Level
On the character level it is just weird that there every lie is automatically scrutinized. Think about how many small lies you tell every day. Now think about how many lies you tell that are big lies but people just accept them because they have no information on the subject at hand. People, even PCs, are fairly trusting for the most part. If someone tells them that there is a lich in a tower, they will likely believe that there is a lich in that tower. Unless, that is, they got to roll to detect lies.

Now, true, some characters in fiction seem to always know when someone is lying to them. Those characters, however, are also often very socially powerful characters. They're James Bond or some other very high charisma/wisdom super spy who lies and is lied to for a living. Also, this ability is often one of the defining traits of that character, if not their only major "power" that they have.

A Possible Solution
One of the things I am toying with, especially for my more politically minded L5R game, is to apply the rule L5R uses for forgeries to lying. In L5R you only get to detect a forgery when you, the player, attempt to detect forgery. Otherwise you get no automatic roll for it. Some GMs - most good ones - will make exceptions for characters who are intimately familiar with the handwriting in question, but by and large that isn't a very common thing to happen in fantasy worlds.

I would also go a bit further. Scrutinizing someone for lying would confer social penalties onto the next roll. After all, in Rokugan being suspicious is suspicious in and of itself. It is also rude to doubt the honesty of another samurai. Something like a -10 on all further social rolls (cumulative per attempt) against that person this scene as they get on guard from being scrutinized. Obviously, players can make raises to hide what they are doing (reducing the penalty by 5 per raise). Between the two there is a cost for being outwardly suspicious, and the players have to think about things and call when they want to challenge the truth of something.

Additional Details
In addition to this solution, I do - and would continue - to allow rolls post conversation to get a "feeling" for how things went in retrospective. Probably a contested courtier (politics for those who aren't familiar with L5R) roll against the person they spoke to.

Finally, to facilitate those James Bond type characters there would be an Advantage "Lie Detector" or something that would give the players the chance to roll for any lie told to them as it came up. The low cost version of this (I'm thinking 3 points) would also give penalties to social rolls as you are suspicious by nature. The more expensive version (6 points, perhaps) would not have the social penalty because you are just that smooth.

Your Thoughts?
A lot of my mechanics are geared towards L5R, but the idea of having to ask to detect lies I think is still sound. Having it in place warns the players that you may have NPCs lie at times, and that they'll have to call them on it. You then just have to give cues for when, perhaps, an NPC shouldn't be trusted.

Still, I'm curious as to your thoughts. How have you handled this in your games? Have you tried anything like what I have put forth here?


  1. I've played conmen and social skill heavy characters in a few games, and the GM made this nice and easy by not requiring any roll to successfully lie/intimidate/seduce, but instead let me attempt it and see if I was good enough. I understand that this would be tricky for players that aren't that great at manipulating conversations, but does away with a lot of the problems you're discussing.

    Oh, and never give the players a chance to detect a lie unless they ask for it. I love that rule and it's one I use myself.

  2. One could certainly treat your total current interaction with another character (over the hours & days of your relationship) like an unkeyed map, where you have to search for the lie when you are at the right point of the conversation in order to detect it, unless you get a clue later that would allow you to "revisit" that spot & roll again. With a handful of such blank maps the DM could enter conversation keywords to fill it out.

    & it might be a great item to be able to dig out a year down the road when you run into them again, if they are an NPC.

  3. Both of these are great methods. Though, I tend to shy away from "let the RP cover for it" in some games as it punishes the people who aren't naturally as smooth by giving the others more power, and can enable the kind of thinking that you can use social as a dump stat and just RP your way through it.

    Using relative level from skills/abilities does work well though. At least, the few times I've tried it out.