Stepping Stones: Telling More Interesting Lies
“Oh what a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive…”
–Sir Walter Scott
Lying to someone in roleplaying games often goes something like this:
“I want to convince the guy these are not the droids he’s looking for.”
>roll roll roll< "I win!" It's simple: you have a goal and you roll to achieve the goal. It's also boring. Worse yet, it doesn't give the player anything interesting to do. Even if you roleplay telling the lie (and use something like a Virtual Roll) you’re still just saying what you want the person to believe (“these aren’t the droids you’re looking for…”) and then rolling for it. How interesting is that?
Resolving a direct lie with a die roll also reduces the would-be victim to a (literally) two-dimensional caricature: they either believe the lie or they don’t. Forget about a nuanced or interesting reaction based on their personality. It’s a litmus test, not roleplaying.
So what if we take that option off the table? Let’s arbitrarily say you can’t roll to make someone believe your main lie. Instead come up with a different lie — a stepping stone — that will (hopefully) pave the way to convince them of your real lie, then roleplay from there.
I can’t roll to convince the chamberlain to give me an audience with the Duke, but I can roll to convince him I’m a visiting dignitary from Carpathia and then try to persuade him to give me an audience because of that.
I can’t roll to make you think your partner betrayed you, but I can roll to convince you I saw him talking to Fez Mumbo last night at the casbah, and we all know who Fez Mumbo associates with…
I can’t roll to convince you the harmless butler is trying to murder you, but I can roll to convince you that he was a practicing physician in Berlin until he performed a series of ghastly experiments and was confined to an insane asylum. After a clerical error led to his release he changed his name and fled all past associations, eventually adopting the guise of a humble man-servant. If you watch closely you may notice the nervous tic he takes pains to conceal, doubtless a sign of his lingering psychosis…
What makes a good starting lie?
– It can’t refer to or directly imply the main lie you’re going for — that’s too easy.
– It should make the situation more interesting and give everyone more to talk about. A stepping stone lie generally creates more details than a direct lie, because you are trying to say some things just to insinuate something else. There may be lots of unplanned side effects of those details as the game continues, but that’s part of the fun (“You’re a Carpathian noble? Death to the tyrant monarchy! Free Carpathia!”).
– Making up stuff is good, but incorporating known facts is better. If you know there’s an army marching into town tomorrow, use it in the lie. If you know the governor has a gambling problem, use it rather than making up a totally fictional character in your lie. Adding lots of detail also tempts the fates by making it more likely the whole house of cards will come crashing down — the sign of a truly daring liar. Kudos to you sir!
Hopefully you’ll never roll for the main lie at all. Once the stepping stone lie is accepted, the situation should take on a life of its own and reactions will fall into place from roleplaying.
By coming up with a stepping stone lie, you are really making up details that you think would make the person believe what you wanted them to believe in the first place. What would it take to make a person think the butler was out to kill them? They’d have to think the butler was a very different person than they thought, and so on. You’re making the logic of your lie explicit, making it easier for anyone else to figure out how their character (or NPC) would react to it.
You don’t have to use this technique for every lie — save it for the ones that you want to play out as part of the plot. The juicy bits. On the other hand if you use it for small lies you may find all those fictitious details chasing you around as the game goes on (“But you told me you were with the bishop last night!”). Which is awesome trouble to be in.