Monday, May 30, 2022

Using Misinformation in Play

The Nostromo in Alien was originally
Imagined as an amphibious starship
called The Leviathan. Chris Foss'
Original design was a big inspiration
Over the last month I ran low fantasy gaming as a guest GM for Steven Smith's World of Wierth campaign. My adventure ended in tragedy with one PC grievously wounded in a submersible accident, then devoured by mutant sea creatures before his allies could rescue him. The other two died fighting Deep Ones in the sunken wreck of an ancient spaceship, The Leviathan.

While I run a very action heavy game, and one that can be quite lethal, what really makes my games special (in my opinion) is the way I handle NPC interactions.

I don't expect players to act in character or put on funny voices. But, I at least act out some of the dialogue myself (with voices) where it adds color and flavor. More importantly, I do so where it adds valuable nuance and complexity.

When the right amount of play acting is added to a game, it can be used to control the flow of information.

One of the ways I like to enrich games is to make sure that the Player Characters get information that isn't always correct, is partially correct, or misleading. Obviously, you never want to lie to Players about the world around them as perceived by the PC; that runs contrary to the best practices in the game. But you can include deceptive information by having helpful NPCs be ignorant or misinformed, or by having NPCs with hidden motives intentionally giving incomplete information. 

It reminds wary players stay on their toes and keep them thinking about what they and their characters are experiencing in ways that being too stingy with information -- or making any given NPC basically unhelpful -- cannot.

This past month I used this to great effect.

The Setup

My job for this past month was to handle a loose end. The PC Aeneas had become bound to a cursed trident sacred to the Chaotic goddess of the dark depths of the Ocean, Sliid. This trident was extremely powerful, but would tear at Aeneas' flesh and was slowly converting him into a deep one (à H.P. Lovecraft.) He was told that he could find help at the temple of the goddess of the tides, Xallam.

During the voyage, they ran into a number of NPCs who were willing to share their knowledge, but much of it was a mix of both wheat and chaff.

The Cultists

Aeneas doesn't feel cursed anymore.
In fact, all he feels is the Love of Sliid
Human and human deep one hybrid cultists promised Aeneas that he would be made champion of Sliid, and help them drown civilization to bring a new age of aquatic Humanity, where he would lead armies on the head of floodwaters to destroy the Skarn and convert humans.

For what they didn't tell him was that the champion of sleet is a mindless chaotic juggernaut, an infusion of man, deep one, and shoggoth. That he would have to sacrifice his friends and then his Humanity to become our champion.

Because he didn't know this letter part, the idea of becoming the champion of a goddess of chaos, wielding a powerful Trident and commanding an army of deep one sounded very appealing. To the point where he and his allies had committed themselves to selling their services to the Deep ones if the priestesses of Xallam didn't have a "better offer "

The Guardsman

In the City of Gulfport where the nearest significant Temple to Xallam could be found elite members of the city guard, a handful of retired adventurers and criminal subversives, The High priestess of Xallam and the Baron's privy council were all aware of the Deep One threat, but did not make it widely available knowledge. Both to avoid a panic and to weed out those who might have unsavory connections.

During the PCS journey to gulfport, the same cultists that gave them the dodgy information about becoming the champion of Sliid also gave them very true information about the whereabouts of the barons missing niece, as she had been recently abducted by the Deep Ones, and the cultists are aware of the movements of their deep sea brethren.

When the PCS came forward with this information, they effectively displayed forbidden knowledge. The guardsman immediately informed them that they would be welcome to meet with the Baron, and invited them inside.

What they were not being told was that because knowledge of the Deep Ones is seem to be a confession of unsavory interests, their information would be tortured out of them for further verification and to ensure that they are not deep one spies delivering a ransom demand.

I was sure to use vague wording, channeling the detective from The Love Bug, to give the idea of articulate and intelligent guard with something less than the player characters best interest is heart.

Amusingly, I decided to roll the intelligence score for every member of the Baron's staff that the Player Characters encountered, and apparently the Baron of Gulfport hires for intellect.

It was only when they had passed several checkpoints and entered a doorway that took them straight underground that they realized what was about to happen. In hopes of taking away the guards' incentives to work them over, they decided to conversationally give every last bit of intelligence rather than waiting for a reward. Including naming their sources, and explaining Aeneas' curse and objective

This was a brilliant strategy. With every bit of information offered, including witnesses who could verify it, and useful intelligence on the Cult, the guards had no need to torture them.

Instead the Castellan had one of them hold a device that would explode if a lie was told around it and made them state the veracity of their claims 

Well... That's what the Castellan claimed. In reality it was just a glowing bottle with some phony glyphs. But the PCs didn't know it.

The Priestess

This image from Squaresoft's
Legend of Mana (1999) inspired my
Temple of Xallam, only imagine
impaled sacrifices on the spikes
and it situated on a small island.
High priestess of Xallam, Nella Kadoz, was truthful to the player characters when it comes to explaining how to re-consecrate the trident and break Aeneas' curse. She is also greedy and hungry for treasure, and saw an opportunity to sell blessings and demand tithes from a newly converted adventurer.

This means that she downplayed the risk associated with collecting deep one eggs to break the curse. Nor did she explained fully just how great a threat their defenses would be. She wanted them to throw themselves into the adventure and come back with as much treasure as I could manage.

To her, the worst that could happen is that the PCs might all die, and another cursed object would lost at the bottom of the ocean where it belong

The Adventurer

Erlitor the Undrowned is a mid-level adventurer who retired from deep sea exploration after he crashed his ancient magic device that worked like a submersible. He has more knowledge of the reef and Deep Ones than anyone in Gulfport.

Erlitor wanted his submersible back. And so, he was willing to give a lot of clear and precise knowledge of surviving the reef in order to give them a chance to retrieve it for him. In fact, he has every incentive to be as truthful as possible.

The only information he didn't give was that he had access to a mid-level magic user and a mid-level assassin from his old adventuring party who would help him reclaim the submersible if they retrieved it, but then failed to return it to him. That is simply knowledge that it wouldn't pay to share, as it would put him on the wrong footing with people that he hopes to have a positive relationship with. Or who's greed he can exploit.

The Priest of Sliid

One of the things I set up in this dungeon was an elaborate puzzle door. Beyond it was the pilot of the starship, an ancient astronaut who was being kept young and healthy by the starship, but also kept prisoner in its cockpit by the same life support systems that make her immortal

Following a mix of H.P. Lovecraft and other writers from the collection Shadows Over Innsmouth, and a little bit of the fish biology I've picked up over the last few months, I decided that the high priest of Sliid believed that if he could reach the pilot, he could control the temperature in the tankage unit that they make their home, allowing hundreds of eggs to hatch at once and building him an army instantaneously.

(My deep ones have a mix of live births from human deep when hybrids and eggs from pure blooded deep ones. The eggs have a limited range of temperatures under which they will hatch. Otherwise they can sit dormant for years.)

Whether or not this instant deep one army is actually possible isa final call for Stephen. And it doesn't matter whether it's true or not if that's what the Priest believed. And so it motivated his actions and the way he interacted with the PCs.

He was also grotesquely misinformed on one aspect. The pilot was aware of what has been going on in the centuries that the Deep Ones have occupied the wreck of The Leviathan, and he thinks they are loathsome creatures. If the PCs could get to her and deactivate the safeguards, she would exterminate every Deep One and their pets in tankage, leaving only a few eggs stuck to the wall and the slaves they have kept securely chained up. Everything not bolted down would be sucked into whirling propeller

The Priest also lacked a critical piece of information: while he was able to activate and read an ancient alien tablet then translate it, leaving clues for the players to examine, the pilot has locked the Deep Ones out of the ship's computers. This means that critical clues to opening the door are missing. Because the party includes characters who are not Deep Ones, they could unlock secrets that the Deep Ones couldn't.

While I had initially planned on having this be a bonus for the player characters if they solved the puzzle, when they were captured by the Deep Ones, it became a central focus of the adventure. Thanks to some epic level blarney from Aeneas, the PCs impressed about half of them that Aeneas was the Chosen One of their goddess, but angered and offended the priest. He declared that they would be executed if they could not access the pilot.

And because Aeneas only knew what the high priest had told him, he had every incentive not to open that door.

The Value of Ignorance 

In each case, but the NPC's knew and wouldn't share -- or didn't know -- something that was important had a huge impact on what the player characters assumed and how they made their decisions. Just like in real life.

Making sure that the players have reason to question the NPCs and think about their motives adds a new dimension of completely to the game. It requires the Player Characters to think about and engage with the game in new ways. They don't just have ask what information they have, but they have to ask what information they trust, and look for clues to verify their information. This lets you add a significant amount of depth to the social pillar of the game. And do so without the need of bulky mechanics.

 One does need to be careful, however. If every NPC is knowledgeable but deceitful, or if every NPC is ignorant or misinformed, the players will simply stop interacting with NPCs, driving no value from it. You have to walk to careful line.

That is why I made sure that a couple of the NPCs had every reason to tell as much of the truth as they could, and left out fact that were only relevant in specific cases, like the player characters refusing to return the submarine to Erlitor carrying a specific danger.

And sometimes you really do just want to have a character who knows something and is willing to part with that knowledge for a few gold pieces.


  1. Brian, I am so glad I asked you to take on this challenge, and that you were gracious and ambitious enough to take it on.
    The results of this "little side-quest" will reverberate throughout the Campaign, in ways that I never would have imagined!

    Thank you my friend, for LITERALLY **killing it**.

  2. A great breakdown of who knew what, when. After a few campaigns where I have toyed with this and have had players get frustrated with dubious information I have more or less abandoned any sort of red herrings or lying NPCs where the information is not explicitly telegraphed as 'you are pretty sure he is lying to you' in the moment.

    The key problem I find is that once players get locked into doubting the information they know so much time gets lost to argument between players about where they can even start to assume they know truth that everything bogs down and the fun drains out of sessions.

    Because I want to keep players engaged with the world I mostly feed them truth or blanks. I find my players think themselves into a twisty spiral without me feeding them questionable info - glad to see that "trust noone" conspiracies are still working out elsewhere.

    1. Moderation is the key! I make sure that PCs meet at least a couple of honest NPCs for every one with problem data. And plenty of totally ignorant NPCs who know it, and choose to confess their condition.