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It's Not Just A Game!

Politricks 2: In-Character

by Coilean mac Caiside
Sep 05,2002

 

Politricks 2: In-Character

NERO [New England Roleplaying Organization, a LARP], has as its motto "Be All That You Can't Be." Some games, on the other hand, do not invite "Do/Be All That You Can't Be," but "All That You Shouldn't." I have been able to identify three main factors by which this takes place:

What I term the PCP Effect; dissolving morals and conscience and fear of repercussions. Granting the superior power to enforce that attitude. Providing an entire reality they can freely explore.

I feel that RPG's should encourage realistic behavior, with an eye towards equally realistic consequences; this doesn't prevent any of the "unrealistic" actions taken in RPG's such as Feng Shui, it simply ensures that the characters need to account for any possible responses which might occur [as a result of their actions], to the extent of seeking a course of action that will minimize or prevent those consequences. This can be as simple as implementing

Cause-and-Effect on a Social level

Cause is often effect - or was. An Effect may become the Cause for the next Effect[s], and so on, with the GM handling the cycle until the campaign ends or the Effects and what they Cause move beyond the [chronological] scope of the session. Yet, since not all Effects becomes Causes in turn, the GM may need to insert a few more Causes into the cycle [which is not entirely self-perpetuating], to keep events moving. These Causes could be "Not Of Player[-character] Origin," and the Effects neither expected nor anticipated.

In a more specific sense, if they are rude to or hit that guard, he will hit back, and it will hurt, and he may even turn out to be more powerful than they are - as well as more of a bully than the PC's were trying to be. If they can't handle what trouble they already encounter, maybe they shouldn't go picking a fight with the Guardsman for no good reason; if the guard is a swaggering bully however, he may decide to start trouble with them just because he wants to beat someone up.

But remember, it doesn't matter if picking a fight is what the PC's are trying to do . . . it only matters if the Subjective party, the guard, thinks so.

Truth in Politics "You can't handle the truth!"

A political style of campaign could be considered just another battle[field], waged with different weapons; with two important differences:

1) Less falls to the roll of dice. Much substance is removed from a political exchange if a player simply rolls their skill against the NPC's and says "Okay, I won that vote." or "He tells me everything he knows." Many hack-and-slash games have a complicated combat system, which affords players much to do in a single combat - preventing the fight from being resolved with the roll of a single die, and giving them the illusion of much more happening. In a political game, you may involve as much or as little complexity as you desire [without any hard-wired system mechanics telling you exactly how much this can be], which leaves the limits set by your [players'] ability to roleplay. Roleplaying an interaction out leaves room for compromises like "I conceded my vote to him, but now he owes me a favor in the future." and "I told him everything I knew, but carefully structured the order of it to shape his thoughts into a misleading picture of things." The GM can arbitrarily set this, but this forces the GM to always be coming up with such factors personally, and cuts the player off from it. Roleplaying instead of rolling dice allows PC's to have a personal hand in shaping [Side] Effects into Causes.

2) On the political battlefield, information is the weapon of choice, not force. Information is being manipulated to control more information [possessed by different people].

Lost somewhere in that mess, however, is the Truth. In a war where the truth is often valued only for it's ability to persuade other people, for true power lies in convincing other people - what they can be made to believe in, not what is - what, one might ask, is the point of having a Truth?

The GM is the players' main channel to the gameworld. She is their sight, hearing, smell, touch, and taste; she controls their perceptions. She, at least, must share with them truthfully; she must be trustworthy.

The focus on this adherence to the Truth can cripple many campaigns; and not just "political" ones. The GM, in trying to convey to the players - accurately - what is going on, relates the knowledge [given out by NPC's, and revealed by other non-player facets of the world] according to relatively few criteria; for example, whether it should be known by the PC's or not. If not, it is far simpler to just not give any information at all. Simplicity is often it's own reward. The players, in turn, expect that whatever they hear from the GM is gospel truth. Since the GM should not only be roleplaying the static, fundamental points of the world, but the people and fluid aspects of it, this is unrealistic - the two are often quite contradictory.

Take, for example, a path through the woods. It meanders three miles northwest from the town, before turning towards the stream two miles north; once there, it follows the bank for a half mile east to the ford, and on from there . . .

The players are in town and wish to navigate the woods. So they ask around and discover that there is a map - unfortunately, the map was drawn 30 years ago by a non-cartographer, before the floods came and wiped out the ford to the west. The map isn't to scale, is woefully out-of-date, and only given to ignorant foreigners who were stingy with their money [ha, ha]. Or the group could ask someone for directions, and receive confused descriptions of the trail that still fail to match up to their closest approximations of the idea. The GM could just say "You lose half a day's travel figuring out poor directions."; but that's just as arbitrary, and leaves no room for the ingenuity of the players to come into it, influencing the course of events next time [when the Cause is visible, they can plot how to adjust the Effect].

The static, fundamental point here is the geography; when the party is physically there, they can look around and say "Yah, here is the river, the big rock is thirty feet from the trailbend," but the maps handed out can change over time and people may misremember the route. Information is less likely to be accurate the farther removed from the original site those reporting are - both topographically and chronologically.

The important point here is that the GM acts as not only the gameworld, which can be "truthful" in direct manifestations of itself; but as everything within it which represents [aspects of] the gameworld, and these may not be fully accurate representations. The players cannot, alas [however convenient it might be for them to do so], deal with only the direct gameworld; they must often interact through proxy. And it is these layers of truth which, by forcing PC's to interact remotely with the gameworld, can be exploited to manipulate them [it's not just the players controlling other NPC's, after all; it's the other people deceiving the PC's for their ends]. Take, for example, this situation:

A king. Absolute ruler of all lands. He lives his life out in complete luxury, never leaving the confines of his room. His kingdom's Seneschal lives in the adjoining room, and comes in regularly to report on the progress of his plans, and give new information to him. True, the Seneschal could give whatever orders were desired, as the sole Voice of the king, but then would have to juggle what was really going on with what the king was doing. The king has a mind to shame Machiavelli, and can easily discern when he is being lied to - if he even suspects that something fishy is going on, he can grab the Seneschal and shake it out of her. So a committee outside is appointed to fake spies and messengers; all of whom enter into the Seneschal's quarters, and deliver completely convincing reports on the status of a fictional kingdom. The committee is also occupied mainly with simulating the behavior of an entire culture, to make the Kingdom seem realistic to those inside the rooms.

Also entertaining and manageable, so the kingly 100th-level fighter/mage/thief inside doesn't get bored or decide to personally intervene, and walk out to find he never took over after all - the old rulers just fooled him. A warning - springing this kind of surprise* on your players, as a means of speedily introducing doubt into their minds, may have the additional side effect of making them paranoid about Reality. If you elect to take this course, be prepared for the players to investigate every detail for the next few months, in the effort to be absolutely sure that everything is as it seems.

* To clarify before going further: the above situation is nothing more than an example of the possibilities I was trying to illustrate. It can be used, true, to remind your players that all is not certain - but only in the same sense that I look at "The Game" or "The Man Who Knew Too Little" and think, gee, those would make nice campaigns to play in.

Truth in Character

The question gets asked sooner or later, but nearly instantaneously in a political campaign - "Do I believe what that person is telling me?" When asked by NPC's, some games provide built-in mechanics for determining this; with a reaction roll, and/or by checking the speaker's charisma. When asked by players, it can be left up to their discretion, with an Intelligence/Wisdom/Perception check, at the GM's option [or, rarely, when supported by the system], to reveal lies. Not that these checks are made [or fumbles are risked] when lies are not being told - the Perception is just a passive, activates-on-actual-lies-only [not symptoms of them] ability. Such methods, however, presume the Truth to be far more common than it has any right to be, and are not terribly realistic.

The many ways in which information can be manipulated requires a more detailed definition of "Truth" and "Lies" than the simple "either/or"; herein are introduced a set of ways in which specific manipulations can be discerned by keen minds:

1) Empathic.
2) Able to;
        perceive facial cues
        perceive fluctuations in the voice
        read body language
        sense pulse rate, heartbeat, etc.
3) Telepathic.

There are several qualities which players might be allowed to take:

1) Emotionless.
2) Afflicted with:
        a permanent smirk affixed to the face
        a toneless voice.
        uncontrollable nervous tics or twitching of the muscles.
        unusual metabolism
3) "Roleplayer's Syndrome" - imagines themselves to be in highly
improbably situations, and plans out how they would have executed
anything they hear of being attempted.

Also keep in mind that any of the tell-tales under #2 can be controlled by some people, and that telepathy [in order to bypass cognitive differences] may need to tweak the telepath's mind just enough to actually understand the character - which is fair grounds for forcing the player to listen to an entire diatribe on what the character believes and why [as opposed to just seeking out the "incriminating evidence"], and then force a Saving Throw to avoid temporarily adopting their beliefs. Also, torture is a form of finding out the truth - but it may not stop until the character has some up with something believable and/or what the torturer wants to hear.

Truth in-Action!

Why bother with personally convincing someone, when you can get an outside [objective] force to confirm your claims? Be they witnesses who observed the entire incident, or a neutral magical judge [Truth spells], an external vote in your favor can work wonders. Alas, getting that to work might be the miracle . . .

Witnesses [the "Ask them, sir - they saw the whole thing!"] may not matter if said witnesses know better than to get in trouble "It was these newcomers started the fight, our guards were just minding their own business!" [personal awareness of their own cause-and-effect; they still have to live here, after!]. Any PC's who try to claim the guard started it will be taken in for trying to cause trouble in town - namely, badmouthing the guards [especially if other witnesses claim the opposite story]. Who is going to be trusted - the [armed] strangers new to town? It sure won't help their cause if they react violently towards the townspeople who have failed to corroborate their side of things.

But there's always the infallible Truth spells, right? Even if the local constabulary doesn't have a cleric/mage/psionicist around capable of casting an equivalent, the party can always supply one! But that raises more trust issues - the party-member can claim to have "detected" whatever they want. How are the locals to know that person isn't just sticking up for his friends and saying they're innocent, pretending to invoke powers? Trust, of a sort, can be achieved by proving the spell works on another guard, of course - but then he's just an evil telepath, unjustly invading the minds of others and lying about the results when convenient! He might claim that the spell evaluates truth without sharing any information with him; but then, what's to say the spell he's casting isn't a "Control the Pretty Lights" one? Likewise, he might state that it automatically delivers a shocking pain to anyone who tells a lie, however minor; and this can be considered no better than the aforementioned torturer who "interrogates" people until they give an answer he likes.

And, even if you can bypass that pesky trust issue, you still have to deal with the fine points of what the spell itself does. It may be simple to just say that, if you get a roll against it, and make it, you may do whatever you wish - otherwise, you spill your guts. However, this just makes truth spells far too powerful; ideally, they should just be a way of narrowing down possibilities, with the true work still done by roleplaying. I have presented, with this in mind, a list of different effects:

Detect prevarication. "Umm . . . ahh . . . no, I wouldn't say that as such, more of a . . . "

Detect concealment of all the information. Give them just enough of the truth to satisfy, keep the really dangerous parts secret

Detect outright falsehood. "You deny being sent to assassinate me by my own second-in-command, you say?"

Detect purposeful intent to deceive (memories may contradict). Structure what you're saying so you guide their conclusions. You may also temporarily misremember something, and neglect to correct yourself after telling them. Does their spell check against your memory of the event, or just whether you believe it right then?

Then there are the other ways a spell might work:

Detect whether an entire statement contained one of the above, as opposed to identifying the statement. "I rode here on Molly, my horse, to trade turnips at the market here."; did you walk some of the way, is her name Molly, did you really come to trade turnips?

Prevent outright, instead of Detect. Speak straightforwardly, tell everything, speak truthfully, or try to communicate the answers accurately.

Detect/prevent truth instead of lies. "Well, sir, he may have ridden here, his horse may be named Molly, he may have come to trade turnips, or he may have come to trade at the market - one of the above, our spell isn't made to isolate specific truths."

Judge the absolute factual content of the information (Universal Truth). A spell of this order would be the equivalent of a Divination spell; you ask someone a question, and their knowledge of it is compared to what actually happened. An answer of "I don't know," would of course be sufficient, since the version of events given by the subject would not conflict with Actual events.

Then there are the four important things to consider when dealing with someone's own truth:

Context. The personal view of one's own actions; it's rather prejudiced, and naturally, there will often be drastic differences between the view on the inside, and the view from the outside.

Ignorance. Simply not being aware of a "fact," which makes it easy to disagree about something.

Failure to fully consider implications. A person might not have always fully contemplated everything at their disposal, from every possible angle; they might do so normally, but not have had the time yet [or been distracted when the opportunity was originally present]. While rational, their motivations might not have been as up-to-date as everyone else's, though now that certain questions are being asked, the person might find themselves considering these matters - even as they are being questioned.

Semantics. The context of the questioning. An interrogator might ask the same exact question at two different times, but due to the preceding questions, be interpreted by the listener as meaning two different questions, and thus might give two different answers. With the third, they might even give two different answers to the same exact question [but at different times during the same interrogation].

So, even when the spell itself works, there is still plenty of opportunity for deception. For situations where a single spell or skill already covers all this, and you do not wish to add more, I recommend the following method:

Do not check it, even secretly, when different forms of deception are employed, to see which ones are revealed. With a good enough spell, or a high enough skill, most of the intrigue is removed straight from the game. Allow the spell/skill to be used towards a single form of deception - and always roll for it, whether or not that type is present [fumbles can be fun]. Also allow the spell/skill to be used for additional forms of deception - but each must be announced in advance, and apply a cumulative penalty for narrowing down the possibilities this way. There is still a fairly good chance of covering all angles, if the characters choose their methods of deceptions according to personality and the PC's have gotten to know them through roleplaying. But, in a d20 system, for example, the Sense Motive skill would be at a -1 penalty to detect two forms, a -3 to detect three, a -6 to detect four, a -10 to detect five, and so on - rolling at full penalties for each.

In Closing

Insofar as handling the complicated questioning sessions on the player level, I advise getting a good voice recorder and taking a record of the entire conversation, to be transcribed later. Unless one group has access to a means of immediate playback, why should they have access to it? Likewise, although one might use paper to convey the questions/answers back and forth, this allows the one being so interrogated to have more time in answering, and the ones asking the questions to study the answers in more depth [after the fact]. Use the record to check, from a player's point-of-view, whether or not the character was speaking truthfully [or whatever the spell required :)]. Do this before any attempts to "force" the character to answer "truthfully" are made.

Next Time: Conflict.

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What do you think?

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  • (The Final) Conflict by Coilean mac Caiside, 20sep02
  • Politricks 2: In-Character by Coilean mac Caiside, 05sep02
  • Politricks Part One: Out of Character by Coilean mac Caiside, 21aug02
  • Why All Adventurers Are Chaotic Evil by Coilean mac Caiside, 07aug02
  • Secrets: I'm No Tattletale! by Coilean mac Caiside, 17jul02
  • Dualistic Anti-Munchkinizing Solution by Coilean mac Caiside, 03jul02
  • Wargaming and Historical Reproduction by Coilean mac Caiside, 19jun02
  • Other columns at RPGnet

    TQo0~^DҒt< ek&Ǿ$\۵ZFȃuwݝIŃU QYir2HR2.u3MFoعq]4#A`pP5(b& )b)ⰾp7(i<[-2gL#5[f g?*rVGf8*)s'+20ϟ̑F}KB<7wSL\gbvm9WiRބYŜvd y0'p2I_Fc2>#o A )VL[Qk?3`)<У[(*W.JH ?tXCt谙 X:@ \0w ~LqĤE-rFkYœj4q 5AQ6[AxG [>w|?( fХθY䝛$c=_qNĦoǸ>O_|&/_Mi7"宥CЧk0dӷLh;TmuCGU-!Ul{ h<\bQX.~"O2*yPcz!ŠGg