Saturday, February 18, 2017

"Is he telling the TRUTH?" Against Insight/Sense Motive



Man, I am terrible at compiling lists of GM Resolutions, I left off my renewed effort at NPC voices and came to realize today that I also left off my Insight/Detect Lie resolution. To whit, I am done allowing Insight/Sense motive checks to tell when an NPC is lying...

Now, this has been a pet peeve of mine for quite a while, but this year I'm putting my foot down and no longer allow players to declare "Is [NPC] telling the truth? I'm rolling Insight". But, but Zack! You cry, the D&D 5e Player's Manual allows it... and, sure I guess you could read it like that... here it is... the description of the Insight skill (which replaced earlier editions equally terrible "Sense Motive")...
Insight. Your Wisdom (Insight) check decides whether you can determine the true intentions of a creature, such as when searching out a lie or predicting someone’s next move. Doing so involves gleaning clues from body language, speech habits, and changes in mannerisms.
It's right there "true intentions of a creature... searching out a lie..." to which I say, hooey... HOOEY! Continue reading or skip right to the TL;DR


Here's my problem with Insight. Players don't use it when 'searching out a lie' they bald-faced declare "is that a lie? I roll Insight". They don't say "I'm watching how the goblin moves when talking to us" they say "is the goblin lying?". But that's not even it... my impression, from mostly being a GM, is that players don't even want to know if the NPC thinks they're telling the truth but the TRUTH, the meta-game truth as they would perceive it as a player, not as the NPC or even their PC perceives it.

What do I mean? Say the PCs capture a goblin after a long and bloody (or even short and bloody) fight. Said PCs have heard that beyond the goblin caves there is a dragon with a great treasure hoard. They spare this goblin's life (after brutally murdering his friends and family) and then demand that he tell him if there is a dragon in the caves below... Now, never-mind that perhaps this goblin, already brutalized and traumatized at the hands of the PCs might not talk, if he does, there's a good chance that a player will throw down a d20 and say "Insight, is that dirty lying goblin telling the truth?" What's a GM supposed to do with that? Say the goblin said "Yes" and the GM says, you know he's lying. Now the players might not go down further to fight the wyvern below... Or the PCs do go down and find the wyvern and are mad but the GM just says "uh, obviously you only asked about dragons, not wyverns..."

Players when the ask if an NPC is lying see to be seeking the TRUTH the way a video game player might find the truth by consulting a walk-through document, that is, the want to know the exact programming, that if they go into the goblin caves now there will not be a dragon, but if they take a long rest there will be because the dragon will have returned. Or, they want to know the truth as printed in the adventure module, that the dragon has 330 HP and can use its fire-breath twice.

But, in a way, that's all beside the point because do the PCs gain anything from knowing if that random goblin NPC is telling the truth about whether a dragon is below? Probably not. They are probably going to act in the same manner they would have if they hadn't interrogated a random goblin NPC. Absent that random goblin, the players are probably going to make their decision based on resources (HP, rests, time, etc) and it doesn't matter much if that goblin lies and says there's a dragon down below in the hopes that the PCs will go away instead of heading down and probably murdering the remainder of his tribe.

Also, go back and read that Insight description... "gleaning clues from body language, speech habits, and changes in mannerisms"... Now, think about PCs interrogating random goblin NPC after blasting away his friends with fireballs and vorpal swords. Is his body language going to be anything but nervous? He probably doesn't speak Common as a first language and it's likely that none of the PCs speaks Goblin as a first language either, so would they really be able to expertly deduce from his speech habits how truthful he was being? Finally, changes in mannerism? They just met this poor goblin, who is assuredly in shock, are changes in his mannerisms really going to be the clues our canny PCs can use to decipher his truthiness?

But, fucking Insight is printed right on that damned character sheet and the PC has a +7 to it, so they're going to hoist up their favorite d20 and declare "Is the goblin lying? I roll Insight"...

And from now on, I'm going to be the Asshole GM who says, "No, no you do not." Let's look to some other systems for better answers...

Even Lying Cat can't always determine the full truth and you sir are no Lying Cat...

In my last 13th Age session, the PCs ran into an NPC who is described pretty well in the Strangling Sea adventure thusly...
While trying and mostly failing to be subtle about it, their selfappointed spokesman here, the thoroughly drunk but wily swashbuckler Clendennon, tries to learn how they got here.
The PCs quite understandably tried to get information out of him, so I roleplayed as best I could, slurring drunkenly and having Clendennon give confused, vague and shifting answers, all the while focusing more on if the PCs had a boat he and his pals could steal to escape. When a player asked if they could make a roll to determine if he was lying, I said no. I'd like to think that later, when they discovered Inigo Sharpe looked nothing like the muddled description Clendennon gave them, they were not surprised. So, with 13th Age, you can step around the issue because you don't have defined skills, like Insight or Sense Motive.

Or take Apocalypse World, which has the "Read a Person" move... Yeah, "Is your character telling the truth" is an option to spend a hold on, but so are some much more useful options like... "What does your character intend to do?" or "How could I get your character to ___?" so a PC could figure out what an NPC (or other PC) is going to do next or how to get what they want from an NPC. Plus, if you have a Miss you get to ask the question still "but prepare for the worst"... It also specifies that "Reading a person is an investment in time. It means studying them carefully through the whole conversation, noticing changes in their tone, the movements of their eyes and hands, their most fleeting expressions. In play, have the player roll this move only (a) when the interaction is genuinely charged, and (b) when you're going to play the interaction through." So the move explicitly covers the entire conversation where the player might get one to three questions instead of D&D where a player might try to roll an Insight check for every fucking answer the NPC gives (which is admittedly a shitty move that any right-minded GM would call out as bull-shit and disallow, but still, I know I've had D&D social interactions where the same player wanted to make Insight rolls more than once).

Maybe my favorite bit of "what is true" mechanics from games recently is a Bonebonded move from Iron Edda which lets a PC consult the soul of the giant whose bones they are riding...
Consult the Ancient
When you Speak Wisdom, you may choose not to roll and instead listen to the giant’s soul. The GM will tell you two true things and one lie, based on the giant’s understanding and motives.
You cannot use Discern Realities or Speak Wisdom to learn which statements are true. You must decide for yourself.
Let's read that again... "You must decide for yourself." That pretty much sums up how I want to approach determining lies in the Fantasy RPG games. Maybe you'll have a power or spell that has a cost or mechanical effect linked to it (Thomas' Elemental Magic of Zakhara has a nifty 1st level "Fire Truth" spell, *nudge nudge*) or a Paladin who gets to know when people are lying because they suffer from a strict code of conduct, but for the most part my players are going to be stuck having to listen to me try to do a funny voice and determining, based on how I portray the NPC, if they think that NPC is being truthful or not. Maybe they can roll Insight and have a chance to notice that the goblin keeps looking at a particular door, maybe not, but no longer will they be able to shout "I roll Insight, I got a 15, is that damned dirty goblin lying..."

Take another recent incident, where my Shadow of the Demon Vorn players found a thieving murder hobo cannibal camped out in a room. Wazzat, murder hobo, asked to be left alone, promised that he would not harm the PCs and warned them that he had been defecating in another room. A player asked if they could make a roll to determine if he was telling the truth and I said "Nope, you can't roll to figure that out" because, really what's the fun in that? So, one of the PCs, not content, decided to barge in past Wazzat, innocent (okay, far from innocent but willing to let the PCs alone and only loot their corpses if they ended up died, oh, and add their corpses to his larder too, but again, willing to leave them alone) murder hobo, and found Wazzat's hastily covered torso heap, full of evidence that Wazzat, beloved NPC, was truly a foul cannibal. Wazzat attacked in desperation and the PCs cut him down. Now, what would have been different if I had said, as a non-asshole GM, "Okay, go ahead and make a Will challenge" and then told the PC that yes, Wazzat was telling the truth (in so far as he was going to leave them alone until other things conspired to kill them). Would they have believed me? Or would they still have gone prodding into his reeking torso heap? Say that the player failed that check and I told them they couldn't tell if he was telling the truth. He was, in that narrow instance, being honest about his live and let live plan for the PCs, but if they could not be 100% sure of that, would they have decided to just murder him before he could murder them? I suspect the answer is yes...

But, let's be honest, knowing that an NPC is lying isn't really as much fun as figuring it out for yourself by paying attention to the game. Or maybe not figuring it out and getting to, *gasp* discover something fun as you find out that the goblin said there wasn't a dragon because there was a wyvern...

So, not that I have a lot of 5e D&D planned in the near to distant future, but next time I run, I'm going to say, up front, that I won't be allowing players to determine if a NPC is being honest with Insight or with any means short of magical/supernatural. If they still wish, they can make that Insight roll and I will point out details of my roleplaying portrayal of that NPC or perhaps elaborate on a physical description (steely gaze, no sweat, white knuckles) that will help them to determine for themselves if a NPC is being completely honest with them, but by Raggara, I am dine with players grabbing their d20 and declaring that a mere die roll has the power to tell the TRUTH. If this makes me an Asshole GM, so be it. While you, dear reader, are free to try and comment and convince me of the error of my ways, I really can't think of an argument that would be potent enough to sway me from this stance. I'll let this classic Simpsons' quote bolster my point...



TL;DR - In my games, the most Insight/Sense Motive will let you do is have your PC notice something interesting and then it's up to you, as a Player to interpret that. Short of using magic/supernatural powers, I'm not allowing PCs in my fantasy RPG games to determine truth or lies.

3 comments:

  1. How'd I do with that suggestion spell to demand the truth..?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I quite liked that, not only because we had to spend a spell slot (well, not a spell slot, but hope that the Jan could get the spell in a reasonable time) and hide the spell casting, but also because there was that chance that learning the truth could have had immediate negative consequences. Definitely going to have to remember the "you don't want to demand the truth from the NPC because then they will have to immediately attack you" trick for another time.

      Delete
    2. Having used suggestion for the same trick in 5e games, I felt a bit like a hypocrite, but also felt that the DM was letting us get away with murder in that game too (literally, at points)...

      Delete

A Bang & then a Whimper - The Final Dispatch from Parcher's

When we left our rag-tag band of PCs and their 50-60 hangers on (in addition to Pinky's gang, Man also decided to take the 'hav...