Ask Angry: Ultimate Lie Detectors

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Well, f$&% me running, people have certainly responded to this Ask Angry thing. I should have thought of this a long time ago. It’s so much easier than churning out long, detailed articles. Keep the questions coming and keep me from having to produce actual content.

E-mail questions to, but remember two things. First, always always always put ASK ANGRY in the subject or I will track your IP address and use a computer virus to release flesh eating bonestripper beetles from your USB ports. Second, I wrote the long, overwrought, wordy blog posts. Keep your questions brief and to the point. If you send me more than a short paragraph, you make me worry that you’re trying to take over my awesome website. And then I get violently protect myself. With bonestripper beetles. Also, third (I almost forgot this one), tell me how you want to be credited. Otherwise, I’m just going to call you Skippy McDingus.

On with the question of the week!

Naimed asks:

My monkeys (players) have acquired a helm of telepathy, and the priest has zone of truth. This means they are the ultimate interrogation team. The interrogated person cannot lie, and the helm wearer can look into his thoughts. This creates a problem for me, as I cannot make NPCs lie to them, and so everything is quite straight forward. I cannot do any tricky backstabbing or betrayal stories. Oh, you want to help us? Here, let me pass you through our ULTIMATE LIE DETECTOR. I know I gave them the helm, but they are quite fond of it and I do not want to just take it away because I am not sure how to deal with it, but they are a little paranoid (not that I made THAT many back-stabbing situations, mind you, they are just a little paranoid.) and so they overuse the helm and zone of truth in every conceivable situation.

Sure. You didn’t MAKE them paranoid. They just sort of tripped and fell into rampant paranoia. I’ve heard THAT before.

First of all, let’s get this out of the way. Yes, you did give them the tool. And you made a mistake. Never, ever give the PCs a tool unless you’re okay with them using it ALL THE TIME. The players do not “overuse” tools. You gave them a thing, they will use it.

And it’s not exactly stupid behavior. After all, lies and betrayal can kill the PCs. If they have a means to protect themselves from them, they would be stupid NOT to protect themselves from them. Even if there wasn’t a pattern of lies and betrayal. Because lies and betrayal are the sort of thing that only take a very small pattern of “one occurrence.”

This happens. Every so often, the heroes end up with something that removes a dangerous or inconvenient problem from their lives. Like lies. Or running out of rations. Or any ground based obstacle. That’s called growth. And every GM has the same instinct: sabotage the hell out of it. And then you get into this nasty arms race where you are trying to conceive more and more situations where the PCs awesome tools don’t work and the PCs are working harder and harder to subvert your contrivances. You say it’s all in the name of “creating a good challenge” and “preserving game balance,” but that’s bulls$&%.

Here’s the deal: you can’t lie to the PCs anymore. That’s it. They won that battle. Learn to live with it. You made your bed, now lie in it. And that doesn’t mean never try to lie. You can’t just stop lying. They have to still catch people in lies. Sorry.

Look, GMing isn’t all about challenging the party, it’s also about challenging yourself. That means using the fact that the PCs can detect lies as part of the game and part of the world now. I’ll give you my favorite example. We had this TV show in America called “Pushing Daisies.” The premise was basically the “speak with dead detective agency.” Every week, someone got killed and the main character, who could magically speak briefly with the dead, would ask the victim who did it. And victim would usually answer. But that didn’t solve the whole mystery. In fact, the clues the victim gave were sometimes red herrings, sometimes impossible, sometimes perfectly accurate, whatever. It varied.

So, you’re going to have to step up your story game.

See, I’m going to suggest that the fact that your inability to lie to or betray the PCs is only a disaster because you use that a lot. Even though you insist you didn’t make your players paranoid, you probably rely on lies and betrayal far more than you realize. It’s actually just one tool. One minor tool. Learn to live without out. Don’t run mysteries that hinge on the person lying.

Now, other GMs will suggest you look into all of the limitations of the various spells and devices and make sure you reign in the PCs abuse. But again, that sort of GMing arms race is a disaster. Don’t do it. They won this battle, let them have that.

But DO think about the world around the PCs now that you’ve got these people running around who can read thoughts and detect lies. What do you do, for example, when the king (surrounded by his high level advisors like wizards and generals and whatever) is lying. To you or to other people. Can you even throw down a Zone of Truth in that situation? And if you accuse him of lying, can you make other people believe you? Knowing someone is lying doesn’t always get you very far. Even being able to read their surface thoughts doesn’t get you far.

What happens when the PCs enemies figure out what they can do? Can they get around it? Or even use it to their advantage? Can they prevent it? Fool it? Magento was a great villain (in the movies because f$&% comics) because he had that helmet that Captain Picard couldn’t use his magic powers through. Maybe the PCs need a villain like that.

Or, maybe the king calls on them to start solving problems. Legal disputes. Peace treaties. Whatever. And then they start to discover that people lie for all sorts of reasons. What happens when they find out someone is technically guilty of a crime, but they are lying to protect their kids who will starve and die or whatever? Or the peace treaty negotiation in which both your side and the enemy are lying and it’s going to screw over everyone.

Or, once they get a reputation as lie detectors, some organization calls on them to pick apart a cult of Vecna (or another god) that uses secrets, lies, and betrayal. These cultists are so used to lies and betrayal and keeping secrets, they all protect themselves from them (and from the means to defeat them) as a matter of course. Underlings are told nothing about their superiors. Different cells are ignorant of each other. Then, the mission becomes about finding the useful lynchpin people and ripping their minds out so you can work your way to the top of the organization.

These things don’t subvert or ruin the PCs abilities. They make use of them. They accept them as part of the game and build the game on top of them. That’s far better than the arms race of increasing screwjobs.

12 thoughts on “Ask Angry: Ultimate Lie Detectors

  1. You might also consider that once it becomes generally known that the PCs can tell truth from lies, they are going to get asked to EVERY situation in which someone feels someone else is lying, or could lie, to them. Everything from the big stuff like Angry pointed out, down to the mom and dad who want to know if their kid really DID eat all his vegetables or fed them to the dog instead.

  2. Also, this is the reason why i like Numenera RPG; players can find anything, but is limited at one use. Charges also do the same trick.

    • Meh. I personally prefer to build a game in such a way that if players find a cool thing, they can use it as much as they want. Limit s$&% too much and you create the “but I might need it later” mentality. It’s so prevalent, The Strange even addresses this on page 2 of the book, warning the players to hording cyphers is stupid and don’t do it. There’s always more.

      • Yea, hoarding like an ant is a boring issue. Sure the best thing a GM could do is to not give the party the “campaignbrokerkey”, but is not always possible and sometimes is fun play with randomness and tables. Cyphers do well this job IMO (or magic items with charges), By default i also prefer structure in pg progress.

    • “Here’s your neat power but you’ll never have enough time to use it when it really counts.” Apart from having to build very contrived situations, that’s Screwjob Arms Race territory.

  3. Also don’t forget that truth can be subjective as well. A person can genuinely believe what he or she is saying to be true based off what they saw or how they saw something. Ask 10 different people that saw the exact same snatch and grab purse thief and you will get 10 different descriptions of the perp and surroundings. The key is to find the common ground in all the descriptions. All of them are telling the truth from their perspective. Given that, you could always do a mystery game where yes there are plenty of witnesses but now the PC’s have to actually follow leads based on the accounts given to them that they know to be true due to the helm and zone of truth.

    • I would advise strongly against going with that approach for the same reason I advised against other approaches. It’s an ostensible screwjob. “Yeah, your spell works… but it doesn’t really work.” D&D takes place in the same fictional multiverse as CSI and Law and Order. Witnesses are either lying or reliable. It’s part of narrative causality. Besides, when you get into discussion of a spell that is granted by the gods in a world where alignment is a tangible, measurable thing with a reality, you are in a world where there is an OBJECTIVE TRUTH and the spell will know it.

      No. Stay away from that. That’s a bad path to walk down. That’s Screwjob Arms Race territory and it f$&%s with the world.

      • I should have been more clear, my apologies. Allow me to expand and explain a bit better. Rather then it being trying to block the abilities of the item and spell you are counting on them to use it to get to the bottom of the witness accounts of the situation. They in order to get all the information however will have to talk to all of the witnesses. I was not trying to advocate blocking the abilities or nullifying them but rather counting on the PC’s to use them to full effect on everybody that was a witness and if they don’t they may miss key points of information that could make finding the thief easier and faster. Thus putting a consequence to the choices that the PC’s make in the interviewing. For example only one of the witnesses may have noticed that the thief was an elf and that he was missing a hand, while everybody else may have noticed that he was missing a hand but missed the fact that he was an elf.

        If the PC’s only interview one or two of the ten witnesses there is a good chance they will miss that little but very significant detail that would allow them to catch the thief faster. This what I was trying to state by the truth being subjective, its not that the person is lying but rather they honestly dint notice something that could be a key to completing the objective the party has.

        I do see however how it could be a screw job arms race. I am just a firm believer that if you are going to give the PC’s a tool (even if they abuse it) then you should count on them using it and make its use feel like a reward when they use it cleverly and thoughtfully.

  4. With or without relating directly to this specific circumstance it is an interesting concept to me to have an item like this which is initially considered a simple mind reading device turn out to be intelligent or in some way simply present some form of small simple bias in its interpretations of thoughts. For example, if the helm needed to be imprinted with some form of intelligence in order to even know what thoughts are it could easily present a bias in its interpretation of peoples surface thoughts. It could be imprinted strongly with a specific alignment or maybe something just something simple like really hating peasants and therefore tweak thought “phrasing” somewhat.

    Obviously this can be drastically abused and easily falls into arms race territory (especially if you’ve already presented substantial evidence that the item’s effects are fool proof which, it sounds like, you have), but as a self-contained concept I find it intriguing and so might your party. I’d say at this point if you were going to make use of this concept you would need to give the team substantial time and experience to make use of and appreciate this item’s effects first. As angry says let them have their win. They deserve it.

  5. I would also take a step back to wonder what a world with these kinds things in it would be like.

    If 54 pounds of platinum buys you the power to read minds, and all 4th level clerics and deny you the power to lie, then most people have messengers who must utterly believe what they are saying.

    There might also be cultures which take putting up a zone of truth as a very rude thing, such that their surface thoughts turn to be disgust with the person casting it and thus they refuse to become their ally.

    Also, very rich people with ties to religious bodies should also have this kind of ability. Maybe no one thought of it before now, but the example the party has set could inspire others to use similar precautions.

    • When the PC’s get into a habit of something, I find it good “world building” to take a moment and consider the overall implications.
      In this case, as others have mentioned, if the PC’s use the ability all the time, and the PC’s are known to the world, then the world will treat them differently. They might know what everyone thinks, but no one may want to interact with them. Every time a PC goes to a shop, the shop owner may tell them “I won’t sell to you.” When the PC’s use their ULTIMATE TRUTH POWER!!!!! they learn that the NCP’s are fear the PC’s blackmailing them, or gleaning truths about personal details, like the time the bar keep traded a room upstairs and a meal for some “personal considerations” . . .
      If a PC effectively knows all, are PC’s morally required to act on that knowledge? Do they use it judiciously, or are they just busting everyone for infractions? (The trader sold the guy before the PC’s appeared a worthless potion, but always sell the PC’s the legit stuff and at a discount, no less! What do the PC’s do? Where are my lawful good paladins at? Good luck convincing the rouge or self centered wizard why you should risk telling everyone you have this amazing power because a bar keep is a sleaze ball.)
      In my mind I see an entire adventure (damn near a campaign) based around how much of a THREAT the PC’s are to the status quo. Kingdoms want to hire the PC’s to be diplomats or spies, but then the Kings realize that if the PC’s cease to work for them, their own goals are at risk. And since with power comes paranoia of losing that power, the PC’s have to make a choice. Keep the burden of ULTIMATE TRUTH POWER!!!! and all the consequences that come with it (congrats, all the Kings have put aside their differences and agreed YOU are now the ultimate threat to peace and stability in the empire), or try and hide their skill in order to reduce the negative consequences (shop keeps are wary when you come in, as you have an uncanny ability to sniff out the truth, but most others dismiss it as greedy businesses trying to save face). No need to stop them from using it, just follow the path the PC’s have set.
      Play big person games, get big person problems!

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