Truth, Lies, and Believability

By | January 20, 2018

Something that is guaranteed to come up every session in some form of the question, “Is the NPC lying?” Many game systems provide some way of identifying truth versus lie, fact versus fiction when NPCs are talking. Forthright does not, for one very specific reason: you can never be certain if someone is lying to you or telling you a half-truth in reality, and putting that in the fiction of the game perpetuates the dangerous notion that such certainty is possible.

I’m a gun for hire, I’m a saint, I’m a liar
Because there are no facts, there is no truth
Just data to be manipulated
I can get you any result you like
What’s it worth to you?

“The Garden of Allah”, Don Henley

One of the talking points of the last year is that we live in a “post-truth world,” where facts no longer seem salient. Racism is back in vogue, politicians routinely deny saying things they’re on record saying, and social media has taken the place of careful journalism. But the sad fact is that the world has always existed in this state, the only thing that’s changed is that people are more largely aware of it, in no small part due to the rapid proliferation of nonsense allowed by the Internet.

George Washington couldn’t tell a lie. The unsinkable Titanic. Everyone used to think the Earth was flat. Einstein failed math. The moon landings were faked. Gypsies (or Jews) steal babies. 9/11 was an inside job. Nobility has a divine right to rule.

The fact of the matter is, fact and fiction has always been fluid throughout the entirety of human history. What has always mattered is whether the speaker is saying something the listener can believe or wants to believe. And we decided to reflect that in the rules of Forthright because it is a game that rewards critical thinking and character development. The solutions are not always on the Protagonist Sheet and what a Protagonist is willing to believe speaks volumes about that Protagonist.

When the villain says he wants to help, and he’s believed, the Protagonists suddenly seem very naive or gullible. But if the villain actually does want to help (as can happen when another, more dangerous villain appears on the scene), then if the Protagonists dismiss him they suddenly seem intractable or short-sighted. This is storytelling. The game wants that to happen, it wants characters to develop in unexpected ways based on the players’ reactions and the Gamescape’s counter-reactions.

But sometimes players aren’t certain how their Protagonists will react. When that situation arises, there is no roll the player can make to help them decide (or determine if they are being told the truth). Instead, they can ask the Guide for the NPC to make a Talk Check (the same way the Guide requests Talk Checks to see how believable the Protagonists are). The Guide will then roll a Talk Check for the NPC and the result of the Talk Check is the same as it would be for a Protagonist:

  • Win: The statement seems reasonable / rational / believable.
  • Exchange: The statement might be reasonable / rational / believable, but more proof is needed or the speaker will need to make some type of concession.
  • Setback: The statement doesn’t seem reasonable / rational / believable.

But never true. Never false. Because you only find that out much later, and there’s a story in the learning.