Today we’re going to talk about little white lies, and whether they can enhance your game.
A lot of this will depend heavily on what type of game you’re running, the attitudes of your players, and the investment of everyone involved. I have heard a lot of people talk about cheating to allow player survival in environments which would be narratively unsatisfying to allow them to die. If you begin a dramatic chase scene and a player critically fails his jump check and tumbles off the back of the airship to his death at the very beginning, that’s not the thrilling and climactic scene anyone had envisioned. A DM is well within their rights to fudge the numbers there a bit, or make up a save, to keep the game running and to allow the player to continue with their story. I wouldn’t, and I prefer games that don’t, but that’s a matter of person opinion. I’m the DM who has allowed chickens to murder or cripple a number of PCs over the years, because if they hadn’t started it it wouldn’t have happened, and I fully believe in luck and consequence. But I respect that that is a matter of personal opinion, and I can have another post later about lethality in campaigns.
I should also specify that for the purposes of this article, lieing to the players constitutes any action by the DM that they can and should pretend they were planning all along, but was in fact made up on the spot. Anything from from the PC from the earlier example landing in a support gondola, taking him out of the chase but leaving him alive, to the throwaway NPC maid having the key to the vault at the base of the Inn because the players have gone completely off track and you don’t have an adventure otherwise. Even a villian swooping in at the last minute to snatch victory from the heroes or the one room they didn’t check being loaded with guards counts, but those are not my favorite examples.
The first question we need to answer about lieing, is WHEN it is acceptable to lie to your players. The only universal answer to that question is that lieing is OK when something happens in the game that the DM didn’t expect and that isn’t fun for the players. If the players are traipsing through a carefully crafted mystery, but they’ve somehow missed every clue and decided that they need to travel hundreds of miles away to consult a sage, and you know logically all the mystery will be done by the time they finish, then have the sage be in town for their daughter’s wedding and you’re back on track. The classic example of this is sending thugs hired by a villian to fight the players, and having them have a clue back to the villain on there person. And when I says ending thugs, I should clarify You, the DM, are sending the thugs. A gang of hired killers after the players and a group of muggers out looking for easy marks both point the players at the local crimelord, and the Players will likely care much more about the dungeon you spent all that time designing if orcs keep coming out of it and trying to take their stuff. Personally, I like to have a few floating encounters planned out that I can toss at players when they’re getting disastrously off track, and I just insert them wherever is thematically appropriate.
If you aren’t too worried about the sanctity of your game world as you designed it, you can even lie about big things. If the players interpreted the clues wrong and they’re looking for the ancient temple in the swamp instead of on the mountain? That’s fine, it’s in the swamp now. Did they bypass that dungeon you laid out for them at level three but they’re board at level eight? Upscale every encounter and now it’s the local dungeon of a new town. It was always there, and they won’t know that it wasn’t. Again, I prefer games where it’s possible to end up grid searching a forest for clues because I’m too thick to figure things out on my own, because I feel a lot more accomplished when I do figure it out, but I’m a little weird.
Even in very narrative driven campaigns, though, this can go too far in the direction of catering to the players. Resist the urge to let them have everything, because never having the chance to fail doesn’t create drama. Don’t take away things they won through accident or skillful play, because they deserve their achievements. Remember that it’s a shared story, and resist the urge to exert absolute control. The balance is going to be different for every player and every table, but that’s OK.
So now we know when, but how do you lie to your players? The answer is “seamlessly”. I have always been a proponent of DM screens, because I think the flexibility of being able to keep information hidden is important. Even more important is to make a show of carefully selecting some dice, rolling them, and then telling the players whatever should have happened. It may have been a while since I’ve been surprised at the table, but even the most predictable player can throw you a curveball, and then you need something to buy yourself time. Players should always feel like what is happening to them is a cohesive part of the story. If you tell them they did something unexpected, that you didn’t plan for, then the immersion these games create is compromised, and they know you’re off the rails. Characters can be surprised, villains can be surprised, but you should be prepared. Whether it’s extremely clever or catastrophically stupid, if you’re allowing it as a choice then it’s a part of the game world. And anything that has been allowed as a choice should be able to be integrated into the world without too much trouble. If you let them hurl a handaxe at extreme range and they managed the three needed crits and dropped the campaign archenemy five levels too early, then the world needs to cough up a conceivable replacement, not an excuse for why it didn’t work. She had a son who is following in her footsteps, or her organization, which appeared to be a cult of personality, is following her ideals. As long as the players trust that the world is built on logic and is larger than their characters, you can make this happen.
So lie to your players when it would hurt their enjoyment and you don’t have a plan, and don’t let them know you’re lieing.
And, as an added tip, every time you have to lie to the players, figure out what happened and make sure you have something prepared for that in the future.