Telling Stories: I’m not calling you a liar

Yes, I know, it's a horrible logo. I'm not always good at those.If you’ve never played Dragon Age II, you missed out on some great lying.  The whole story is told with the framing device of Varric Tethras being interrogated, and his interrogator knows full well that Varric is a liar.  What she has to do is sort out which parts are outright lies, which parts are exaggerations, and which bits are the truth.

This, I think, is the goal of pretty much everyone who roleplays a duplicitous character.  And it’s hard to get to that point, because you need to be a liar who’s just trustworthy enough that no one knows where the lies start and the truth begins.  It’s forever a fuzzy line, and while no one can quite trust your character they also can’t discard the possibility…

It’s hard to reach that point, though.  Much more often, you just wind up with a character who no one trusts and quite possibly isn’t a whole lot of fun to play.  So how do you make a better liar?  How do you make a character where everyone knows they’re lying, but everyone still wants to hear what they have to say?

So, you know, if you're reading this and you roleplay with her, well, try to forget?

I realize this is also sort of a playbook for half of the things I do in roleplaying with this particular character.

Embrace ambiguity

The first tool in any interesting arsenal of lies, of course, is that you don’t need to outright deceive.  Sometimes you can cloak just as much in unclear answers.

Answer “yes” to either-or questions.  Reply to questions about what you did without specifically confirming or denying.  Give half-answers.  “It’s a long story” can be used as a reply for almost any question, and if the other person is interested in hearing it, you can always say you’re not interested in telling it.  Or if you do tell it, you can make it clear that you’re leaving out details or being purposefully vague.

The key here is that nothing your character says or does is obviously untrue.  In several cases, it’s totally true but provides no actual information; in other cases, it could be true but lacks any identifying markers to make that clear in either direction.  Leaving a great deal of the lifting work for determining truth or falsehood to the listener helps cultivate the image of a character who isn’t necessarily forthcoming with information, however relevant they might be to the situation.

Lie as little as possible

Eventually, yes, your character is probably going to lie.  I’ve been playing an intensely duplicitous character in Final Fantasy XIV for four and a half years now, and she hasn’t outright lied yet.  But that partly demonstrates the virtue of lying only when absolutely necessary.

There are many flavors of liar: in the aforementioned character’s case, she’s a liar who does not, technically, lie.  But she will do everything short of outright lying, relying on odd wordings, blending metaphors, and omitting valuable information in order to craft a specific image that may have little connection with objective reality.  The important thing, though, is that the result is that her deceptions remain plausible.

Remember, part of your goal here is to keep others guessing about where the lies are and where the truth is.  If you have a group of peanuts and cashews, it’s easy to find the peanuts if the cashews are a distinct minority.  Making your statements be mostly true means that those lies tend to get overlooked by the same logic, since it’s much easier to assume that your character was telling the truth completely this time rather than picking out the one or two lies in the group.

Or, you know, be honest.

We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful what we pretend to be.

Make the lie indistinguishable from the truth

You have, I am sure, heard variants on the phrase “reality is unrealistic” before.  This is because it’s true.  Reality is under no obligation to be believable, and so it’s not unheard of for something totally unbelievable to happen in reality.  Like a Roman emperor who appointed a horse as a member of the Roman senate.  Or how Lord Byron brought a bear on a college campus as a pet.  Or that time that a fox was officially recognized as a CEO in Switzerland during the 80s.

One of those statements is, in fact, not true.  (I leave it to the reader to figure out which one.)  But at a glance, they all look equally plausible and believable.  If you find out that one of them is true, it makes the other ones sound more plausible, simply because the truth seems to support what’s going on.

Put more simply, you want your lies not just to sound believable but fit into a pattern.  No one believes the various stories Calvin tells about aliens appearing in Calvin & Hobbes for good reason; they’re obviously implausible.  But the lies he tells that are plausible, on the rare occasions it comes up, are usually still unbelievable because they don’t fit with that’s already been observed.  The best lies your character can tell are the ones that the listener wants to believe in.

Keep them immediate and small

The last point of call here is actually the most specific to roleplaying, insofar as lying about your past doesn’t make your character an interesting liar.  It just makes you yet another character with a hidden past.  Sure, the character might be lying, but you can have an otherwise upright character lie once without it making the character an inherent liar.  Dragon Age: Inquisition has an entire character based on this principle, even.

You want the lies to be immediate, which functionally means that they should be about things characters will care about now, not eventually if ever.  Lying about your character’s favorite food?  Pointless.  Lying about why you want to dive into a dungeon works, though.  Heck, it doesn’t have to be an outright lie.  If you say that the inhabitants are a threat to the nearby town, that could be totally accurate, even if you’re more concerned about the treasure waiting at the bottom.

For that matter, that’s why they should be smaller lies.  Yes, you’re clearly deceiving people, and yes, you shouldn’t.  But so long as your lies seem small, it’s easy to write them off as the price of doing business.  And it means that when you let out a large lie, people might just not look closely enough to see the seams.

Next week, I want to talk about the tools for character fixes, from the powerful retcon to the equally powerful option of ignoring things.  The week after that, let’s talk about tone policing roleplaying and why it’s a really shitty thing to do.

About expostninja

I've been playing video games and MMOs for years, I read a great deal of design articles, and I work for a news site. This, of course, means that I want to spend more time talking about them. I am not a ninja.

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