Whether bluffing in a betting game or attempting to hoodwink an NPC in a role-playing game, there’s no denying that lying can be a lot of fun. Sometimes the only thing that stands in the way of victory is other people’s disbelief.
Lying seems like a logically simple endeavour, but the mechanics used to represent it are remarkably diverse. This suggests that lying is more complex than it first appears.
In a tabletop RPG, players can use lies resourcefully if the situation — and the character they are roleplaying — calls for it. In computer RPGs, verbal responses are limited to the set of predetermined dialogue options written by the game’s developers.
Lying is sometimes included in those limited dialogue options — not often in Baldur’s Gate, but very often in Planescape: Torment — and success is tied to the player character’s statistics. Sometimes those statistics will level up when you succeed at lying, making it more likely that future lies will pass undetected. The character can become a skilled trickster who lies all the time.
Having high social statistics brings other benefits too. Merchants might automatically offer cheaper prices for goods. So by tying lying to those numbers, it forms part of a group of activities both passive and active that give the character various advantages.
The implementation of lying in CRPGs, as with most social activities, has so far been limited. But that could be set to change.
As part of the crowdfund for Project Eternity, Obsidian promised that their planned game would allow characters to regularly evade combat using the gift of the gab. Many fans have responded to this possibility with enthusiasm, and a discussion around lying revealed high hopes for its implementation in the forthcoming game: 40% of respondents to a forum survey said that lying should always be possible, and a combined 58% indicated that it should be possible in limited circumstances, such as ‘when related to facts’ or ‘when related to quests’.
This difference between making lying always possible and making lying possible only in limited circumstances highlights a problem that was discussed at length in that forum thread. A limited implementation of lying could include and appropriately signpost dialogue options that require a charisma check to pass. To apply this universally is illogical; signposting and rolling checks for lies are not useful when the lie rests on the intentions of the player, rather than on the facts of the story.
An NPC can ask the player character to undertake a quest. The player can choose to answer yes or no, but a ‘yes’ answer could be a lie; they don’t really intend to undertake the quest, but for some reason have chosen to mislead the NPC. Later on, the player could choose to complete that quest anyway, despite their original intention to ignore it. The lie has become truthful. Should that lie have been subject to an ability check? Does the lie belong to the character or the player?
If that lie does belong at least in part to the character, then the act of lying about one’s intentions would have required the same skill as lying about matters of fact. The decision to lie would then have an effect on overall proficiency at spinning tall tales, and in turn possibly affect the cost of goods. This leads to a strange model of infidelity, in which the character benefits personally from being pathologically untruthful.
Charisma checks and similar systems mirror something about our own lives. Lying is something that takes practice, as do bargaining, flirting and persuasion, and these activities really do share common skillsets. Given that we need to be good at bargaining and persuasion in order to make a living, why don’t we just all lie all the time?
Liar Dice model
The answer might be found in a different ludic model of communication. Some games’ systems enforce the idea that lying has consequences. In table games, these consequences can come about dynamically as part of the social interactions that emerge from players’ decisions to bluff.
Liar Dice is an old table game that is thought to originate somewhere in South America, and was brought to Europe by Conquistadores. Variants of the game are known by several names, including Dudo and Perudo.
In the version of the game that I am familiar with, each player has an opaque cup with five dice inside. At the start of each round they shake the dice, turn them onto the table and peer at the result under the cup, keeping the dice hidden from other players’ gaze until the end of the round. Each player in turn makes a guess as to how many of a particular face will be revealed under the cups: “five fours”, for example, would mean that out of all the dice on the table, at least five of them have rolled a four.
The tension of the game comes from restrictions about the kind of guesses that players are allowed to make.
While the player who starts the round can guess anything they like, from then on each successive player has to raise at least one of those numbers in their own guess. For example, if the first player guessed “five fours,” the next player has to either raise the projected quantity of dice that have come up as a four — ”six fours” — or raise the number of the dice face being counted — ”five fives”.
If the previous guess seems unlikely to be correct, then instead of raising the guess the player can end the round by calling it. All players reveal their dice, and the result is counted. If the guess being called turns out to be correct, the player who called it loses a dice. If the guess turns out to be incorrect, the player who made the guess loses a dice. The whole process is repeated until there are no more dice left.
Lying plays a core role in the game, because each player has limited information on which to base their guess about how the dice have landed. They can only see their own dice, which might constitute only a small fraction of all the dice on the table. The only other source of information is the guesses made by other players — for example, if every player agrees that there are probably a lot of fours on the table, then it seems likely that every player has fours under their own cup. By disregarding the contents of one’s own cup, and instead making a guess that one does not believe to be true, a player can spread misinformation, making it more likely that someone further down the table will lose a dice.
Lying is therefore very valuable, but it has to be used carefully.
If you are known to bluff all the time then people will stop believing you, and you will lose your influence on other people’s guesses. If you never bluff, then you allow your opponents to have accurate information about the state of the table, giving them a greater chance of getting through the round without losing a dice.
Lying becomes easier the longer you have played the game; you get better at reading other people’s body language, and better at controlling your own. But unlike the core loop of a CRPG, the goal of the interaction is not to improve skills. The goal is to keep your own dice and manipulate other people into losing theirs, and this goal is not served by serial infidelity. A skilled player is not just good at passing off a lie as a truth, but also good at managing their reputation so that their guesses continue to have some influence on other players at least some of the time.
Reputation management comes into play in some online games. Lying can benefit players by allowing them to manipulate others into doing things that are against their own self-interest. Stories about lying and manipulation in MMORPGs came out in my research for the chapter on Phantasy Star Online in Dreamcast Worlds. Released in 1998, Phantasy Star Online was the first MMORPG to be released on a console, and Sega’s lack of experience managing online communities, combined with their inability to patch vulnerabilities in the software due to the Dreamcast’s lack of a hard drive, had negative consequences on interpersonal interactions in the game.
Some unscrupulous players would use hacks to steal from others. Sometimes the theft was facilitated by attacking the other player, something that was not ordinarily possible without interfering with the game’s normal functioning. Two players would band together to go on a quest, and as soon as they got to the dungeon, the one who had hacked the game would then suddenly attack the other and then take the items that were dropped when they died.
Some hacks didn’t rely on enabling PvP, and instead required the use of persuasion. A player might approach another in a chat area, saying, “Listen, I know this sounds implausible, but there’s something in your inventory that belongs to me. Do you mind taking a look?” If the player was naive enough, they would go to the deposit area to open the inventory screen. It was only when the screen was open that it became possible for the hacker account to steal their gold.
Whether this stealing was carried out through lying or through direct attacks, the consequences of both of these exploits were the same: seasoned players kept a list of the usernames of these unscrupulous characters, and would warn other people in the lobby not to join a game with the players on their list. Lying and cheating led to a poor reputation, and this had negative consequences for the rest of that person’s game.
Mars Colony model
While the two examples above rely on interpersonal interactions to enforce the social consequences of lying, the negative effects on a person’s reputation can be represented mechanically in Player vs. Environment games too.
In table game Mars Colony, one player role-plays as a politician, and the other takes on the role of game-master, responsible for all NPCs. Each turn, either the protagonist or an external agency decides on a problem that the protagonist must attempt to resolve: environmental pollution, for example. The process of trying to solve the problem is very free-form, with the two players both contributing to improvising a storyline together. When the politician takes action aimed at getting closer to a solution to a problem, they must roll to see if they succeed.
If a quest fails, the player can choose to cover up their failure with a ‘deception’, to reap the same benefits as a success. This can be crucial to the success of a game, because failures cause points to pool in the politician’s ‘contempt’ score, threatening their ability to keep on working to save the colony. However, each deception adds points to a total deception score; the more you lie, the greater the risk of ruining your reputation later on, as one review explains:
Once a Deception has been carried out it always runs the risk of being uncovered later. If a player subsequently rolls a one on one dice and the value of the current Deception or less on the other dice then Kelly’s lies are found out, and a Scandal erupts.
In addition to being a normal failure all of the Deception tokens go to the Contempt pool and all the Lying points …are exposed for the sham they are. The narration should describe how Kelly is exposed as a fraud and how any cover ups to date are exposed and undone.
In Mars Colony, the consequences of lying are treated entirely mechanically.
The game’s interpersonal interactions are about storytelling, so the consequences of lying do not play out in the interactions between players, but in the results of the character’s actions in the game world. The lie itself does not require a skill roll, but the decision to tell that lie is a strategic one that tests the skill of the player. This model of lying is not about roleplaying a character as they develop the gift of the gab, but about roleplaying a character’s moral decision making.
On being believed
Both of these aspects of lying are equally interesting. Lying as a self-contained activity is a logically simple affair; it is simply a matter of deciding that the player character would benefit from an NPC having a particular belief. But the act of making someone believe something that is not true is not so simple; most people have some degree of skill in detecting lies, and passing off a lie as a truth is no mean feat. Beyond that self-contained activity, a lie has far-reaching consequences, so aside from the skill required to pass off a lie, there is a strategy behind the decision to do so.
Gaming your social interactions quickly becomes a very complicated feat of skill and strategy. Lying is not just about influencing what other people believe about material facts. It influences what people believe about you. When lying is implemented to a greater degree of complexity, role-playing stops being just about who your character is, and starts to incorporate the very difficult question of who other people believe them to be.