On Reader Mail, The Lying NPC

Ryan writes:
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"A situation arose where players found themselves in a game between two NPCs accusing each other of wrongdoing. A player asked, "What do I roll to see if one of them is lying?" I tried to further describe details about the NPC's actions so they could make a better decision. But ultimately I was wondering if I just should have identified the liar to them.
How do you handle this kind of a situation where NPCs lie to the PCs?"

First, thanks for writing in. This is a great question!

In a system like Pathfinder, resolving such a situation is based on character skill and a contested roll. Easy, but in my opinion, kind of uninteresting. You can, of course, hide the result of the roll from the player, but that goes against the idea of character empowerment that is a strong characteristic of the game. If you spend the points. . .. Also, pretty much every player will ask to sense motive, and that substantially improves the odds of success.

But what about B/X, or in Ryan's case ACKS? How to resolve the situation then?

Who's the Liar?

I would handle this like I would handle any question about future action the player character might take. I would remind the player of all the information that their character has access to. I would then talk to the player about likely consequences of choices, and then I would respond to their question with "You don't know."

Now this is assuming that the situation is ambiguous. Often the player characters have encounters and the encounter rolls end up with the opponent saying something that obviously isn't true. But since the players are receiving their information from me, and many of them are sort of in the job of hearing a lot of lies, much like police or famous actors, I just tell them "It's pretty clear he doesn't have access to a huge hoard of treasure." Adventurers are easily able to spot obvious lies.

However, if the situation is truly ambiguous, then after I make sure that the players have been explicitly told all the relevant information. Then, it's up to them to make a judgement call. That's the player skill part of the game. It's an opportunity for them to make a choice based on their interpretation of data that matters, and can be a high point of a game.

Ryan, I hope this gives you some confidence when handling situations like this in the future, and I welcome my readers to leave comments on perhaps how they might handle such a situation in a way that rewards player skill and supports player agency.

Have a reader mail question? Like to know how I'd handle a difficult or complex situation in game? Feel free to contact me on G+ at +Courtney Campbell or email campbell at oook dot cz

Hack & Slash


  1. Also, what do we do in real life when we don’t know who to believe? We ask questions or look for evidence to try to clarify things. And this is exactly what the PCs should do. Of course, sometimes you’re forced to make a decision without being able to gather any more information, and—again—the PCs do what we do in real life: They make the best guess they can with the information they have.

  2. I remember reading about a study done a few years ago in which people who described themselves as being 'good' at telling when other people were lying by reading mannerisms, etc, were asked to identify when other people in the research study were telling lies and the results compared to people who described themselves as having no particular talent for detecting lies. The people who said that they had a talent for detecting lies actually did worse than the people who said they had no talent for it.
    Of course, with all such studies YMMV and researchers are famous for fucking around to get grant money, but the suggestion that people who pride themselves on their ability to detect lies really might only have a talent for decieving themselves is interesting.

    I guess if it were a game and one of the NPCs were lying and one were not and it was important for the players to figure out who was telling the truth, I would want to have a clue in there somewhere... so if players were careful and considered all of the evidence, they could figure out, logically, who the liar was. Or they could use a 'detect lie' spell or similar. I just don't find setting up a situation like that and having a player roll a d20 and then telling them, "You know the NPC on the left is a liar because you rolled an 18," to be very fun.

  3. I tend to take "Sense Motive" literally and describe what kind of motive the NPC has and how they're engaging in the conversation. Then, I let the players decide whether they're trustworthy or not. I recently had a case where a villain parleyed to be let free in exchange for information. The party wasn't sure if he was trustworthy and asked to do Sense Motive. I replied, "You're certain he's so desperate as he'll do anything -- ANYTHING -- to escape."

  4. Personally I take things like one would in a video game. The player can sense motive any statement of an enemy. However it causes a cumulative -2 on any other sense motives against any of their other phrases, on the same NPC, for 24h. This is due to them focusing intensely on one statement. It's a risk/reward system that allows nice and strong rolls for intuitive players, but punishes trial and error.


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