This, from the folks at Gnome Stew (which I hope I never have to eat), is an interesting post about NPCs who tell lies. It’s short and to the point, so naturally I have to complicate it with some of my own thoughts.
“I always lie!”
One danger you can run into with lies is too many. Use lying as a form of characterization instead of a way to trick the players. People lie about things that are meaningful to them, either because they want something or because it embarasses them. What people are willing to lie about says something about them.
Am I lying now? How about now?
The article says this implicitly, but I’d like to make this explicit: give the PCs a chance to detect an NPC’s lies. Most of the time.
This may mean rolling your favorite system’s equivalent of Insight behind the screen so that PCs can’t see it. It may also mean that you do this whenever they’re talking to a named NPC of any importance; even though you’re ignoring the rolls, you don’t want the players to notice that the only time you’re rolling dice behind the screen is when they talk to the magistrate.
Sometimes you need an NPC’s lie to stand up, though; otherwise the plot is much more interesting. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with simply fudging it or declaring that what the NPC says is convincing.
Use those sparingly, though. Not everyone that lies is good at it, after all! And it sets you up for a scene where the PCs manage to catch the guy in a lie, which makes the PCs look cool.
Finally, don’t forget that that lie detection doesn’t have to be binary, either. Maybe you do actually roll the PCs’ Subterfuge/Empathy/Insight skill against the dissembler who kicks off the campaign, but instead of giving it all away if the PCs succeed, instead give them a clue or a chance to notice that not quite everything is on the up-and-up.
Some possibilities include:
- giving the PCs something to file away for later (“He twitches a bit when he speaks of his brother”);
- something that will make sense in retrospect (“He told that lie because he already knew the army had lost”); or
- give a crucial clue for the PCs blowing the whole thing open (“What do you mean the Duchess of Almarade has been dead for ten years?!”).
And now I should get back to working on either another blog post or Er-Eret. :P