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NPCs: Filthy Liars

Posted By Martin Ralya On July 15, 2008 @ 1:17 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

There are lots of ways to use NPCs to motivate your players to take a particular course of action (by motivating their PCs, of course), but I’ve recently discovered one that surprised me: lying.

Specifically, having an NPC that they would like to trust — or perhaps have trusted in the past — turn out to be a filthy, lowdown liar.

This is along the same lines as stealing the PCs’ stuff (which is easy to overdo), killing their allies (great, but not to be overused), slandering them in the game world (effective, but not suitable for every situation), but I love it because it’s so versatile. You don’t need much in the way of setup, and it works in nearly any situation — though you should still be wary of overuse, as with any technique for player motivation.

Having a formerly trusted NPC turnout to be a lying bastard will also tend to inculcate a certain amount of paranoia about other NPCs, which is only logical. If you’re not running the kind of game where rampant paranoia is a positive thing, you’ll want to be extra careful about that.

Also, depending on the specific lie(s) and the specific context, it’s likely that revealing the lie(s) will change the direction of your game. Hopefully it’ll change in the way you intend, motivating your players to avoid or hew to a specific course, but there are no guarantees.

Even with all those caveats, though, I’m happy to have found this new-to-me tool. It’s fun to use, it works well and most importantly it seems to be fun for my players, as well.

What do you think of lying NPCs as player motivators? How about player motivators in general? And which are your favorites?

About  Martin Ralya

A father, husband, writer, small-press publisher, former RPG industry freelancer, and lifelong geek, Martin has been gaming since 1987 and GMing since 1989. He lives in Utah with his amazing wife Alysia and their awesome daughter Lark in a house full of books and games.




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9 Comments To "NPCs: Filthy Liars"

#1 Comment By Rafe On July 15, 2008 @ 5:41 am

I think most players would appreciate this kind of dynamic being used once in a while. However, most of my players would wonder why the NPC is lying.

I generally prefer something less straight-forward and motivation driven. For instance, my players’ PCs are heading to a small town that straddles a mountain pass that hasn’t been heard from in nearly a decade. Only 35-40 people remain of the 400 or so who once lived there. The owner of the inn / trade hall is using his rooms as cells, holding patrons there until goblins come to collect them for whatever dark rite(s) they need sacrifices or blood for. (This is one of the reasons no one has heard from this town or anywhere beyond it.) The townsfolk don’t know and don’t want to know what the goblins are doing. All they know is that unless they do such things to travelers and passers-through, the goblins come for them instead (as has happened in the past). They aren’t horrible people; the need and desire to survive this wretched situation has put them between a rock and a hard place. (I got the idea from the Conan story, “The Man-Eaters of Zamboula”.) Now the townsfolk are going to sweat bullets because these aren’t tinkerers, pilgrims, refugees or tradespeople… these are armed and armoured adventurers.

This kind of situation makes the NPCs human and not just “EEEEEeeeevil” for evil’s sake. So a lying NPC is fine… so long as there’s a reason for it. Not every NPC has to be fully fleshed out, but there should always be a reason. If they’re just liars without a purpose, the PCs will just kill that person and why not? The players have no vested interest in providing a reason or even caring since the DM has provided no reason for his lying – the NPC is just a cardboard cutout.

I find misinformation works better than lying; by that I mean rumours and speculation spoken as truth. Regardless, DMs definitely need to shake things up and show the players that not everything will go their way, but my players prefer more roleplaying-driven motivators.

#2 Comment By LesInk On July 15, 2008 @ 6:38 am

I agree with Rafe. You can’t have the NPC lie unless there is a reason. As well, you mention that you used a previous trustworthy NPC that starts lying. There better be a good reason for why the lying is happening, usually in the form of something that has been going on all along behind the scenes.

Once the lies begin the surface, I find an interest set of events start to happen. First, the players become paranoid and stop stop trusting any NPCs. Second, they start reading every smile or gesture of the GM into something that usually isn’t there. Third, they start distrusting each other. In general, the game can take on a whole new atmosphere — especially if as GM you continue to complicate the situation. But be warned, the game may take you to a place you never intended as players start taking unexpected actions against NPCs and even other PCs.

We had one campaign in the past that ended up being lies on top of lies. It was crazy, but it was fun. But as GM, every time I showed up for a game, I knew less and less what the PCs were going to do since they had a week to stew over the last group of lies and build all types of unfounded tangents.

So, in general, lie away, but build up to and give it reason. Otherwise, it’ll just come out flat.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On July 15, 2008 @ 9:29 am

It’s important to have NPCs lie every once in a while, just to ensure that the players realize they are talking to flawed people, not pretty cutouts that the GM speaks through.

On a less dramatic level, you can telegraph that your NPCs are fallible by having them lie about petty things– the white lies that make society go around. That won’t have the motivational force mentioned in the post, but it puts players on notice that they are talking to people.

#4 Comment By Sarlax On July 15, 2008 @ 10:03 am

I play in Martin’s current game of Mage – I know exactly what he’s referring to :P

Lying is a tool that should be used sparingly, not only according to the style of game you’re going for (heroic, paranoid, etc.) but also according to the rules system you’re using.

Almost every game I’ve run is some kind of “people with powers” game, whether that be D&D, Trinity, Exalted, Demon, or Alternity. If NPCs were lying with frequency about big things, the PCs would be likely to verify all the information they started to get, whether it be through supernatural fear, mind-reading, clairvoyance, etc. In other words, a lot of games empower PCs to independently discover the truth regardless of the efforts of any but the most dedicated NPC deceivers.

#5 Comment By happyturtle On July 15, 2008 @ 10:20 am

There are a couple of variations on this I’ve been using:

1. Give the PCs reason to mistrust the NPC, when the NPC is actually trustworthy.

2. The NPC believes he or she is telling the truth, but misleads the PCs in error.

#6 Comment By drow On July 15, 2008 @ 11:51 am

i am reminded of the following exchange, from an episode of DS9…

Bashir: So, of the stories you told me, which ones were true?
Garak: My dear doctor, all of them were true.
Bashir: What about the lies?
Garak: Especially the lies.

#7 Comment By LesInk On July 15, 2008 @ 12:43 pm

Good comments above.

Got another DS9 example (swiped the summary text from http://www.memory-alpha.org):

The Boy Who Cried Wolf

Julian Bashir told Elim Garak the fable in 2371. While Bashir believed the moral to be that lying too much will cause people to never believe a person, Garak believed the moral was to not tell the same lie twice. (DS9: “Improbable Cause”)

#8 Comment By Martin Ralya On July 15, 2008 @ 4:51 pm

Re: Motivation — absolutely: You need a reason why the NPC is lying. I’m not advocating randomly turning a previously trustworthy NPC into a filthy liar; rather, that previously trustworthy NPC turns out to in fact be a filthy liar, which changes the party’s relationship with that NPC.

Oddly enough, I’m watching the first season of DS9 (one of my favorite shows) on DVD right now, and Garak is one of my favorite characters. I saw less and less of season 3 onwards, and I know he gets more awesome later on, so I’m looking forward to that in later seasons (don’t spoil it for me!).

#9 Pingback By Lying liars « Incredible Vehicle On July 31, 2008 @ 8:13 pm

[...] 31, 2008 in Roleplaying | Tags: DMing | This, from the folks at Gnome Stew (which I hope I never have to eat), is an interesting post about NPCs [...]


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