RPT#136 – The Art Of Providing Evasive Answers
A Brief Word From Johnn
PBeM List Delayed By One Week
To date, I’ve received a half dozen or so listings of subscriber PBeM/Internet games for other Tips subscribers to hook up with. I received a couple more late today, so I’m going to delay the listings by one week to give some extra time for people coming back from holidays, etc.
Johnn Four email@example.com
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By Johnn Five
The spirit of this article is meant to help GMs add elements of mystery, imagination, and creativity to their games. The players must decrypt the evasive and mysterious messages they receive from NPCs and use their imaginations and creativity to root out the truth. GMs must be imaginative and creative as well to deftly handle character questions while roleplaying NPCs.
Evading answers without angering or frustrating the players is a skill, but one that’s fun to practice and hone. Use the tips and techniques below to become a kung-fu parley master!
- Evasive Answers Are Useful GM Tools
This week’s tips originally started out as being part of a horror issue, but when I got to the “evading answers” tip I realized this was a topic that deserved an issue all to itself.
Evasive answers are perfect for horror campaigns because they help create confusion and a feeling of “the unknown” at the game table. Both of these emotions are good for producing a fear response in players. (Note: sometimes they also create an aggressive or angry response, so be careful, watch your players, and veer away if this starts to happen.)
My best reference for evasive answer examples is the X-Files TV program. Characters are constantly avoiding direct answers, which leaves the tense viewer grasping for understanding. This in turn enhances the show’s conspiracy and horror elements. Next time you’re channel flipping and you come across the show, watch for a few minutes and listen to the Q&A.
You can also read transcripts of the show here: http://www.insidethex.co.uk/ Do a search for “?” to jump to the questions. I found a few good evasive answers near the beginning of this episode: http://www.insidethex.co.uk/transcrp/scrp101.htm
Evading answers has more uses than for horror or conspiracy campaigns though:
- Tricky or cagey NPCs (i.e. villains)
- Divination spells
- Creating prophecies
- Establishing authority (i.e. law enforcement NPCs)
- Stalling so you can think
- Use Evasive Answers Wisely
Evasive answers are best delivered in-game through NPCs. Player-to-GM questions should always be answered honestly without evasion when regarding:
- What the PC sees
- Rules questions
- Where the PC is (relative to other PCs/foes/items)
You are the eyes and ears of the characters and it’s important that this type of communication isn’t abused, else it’ll ruin players’ fun.
However, NPCs (including monsters, items, entities, and anything with intelligence that can communicate) are fair game!
Other good times to be evasive:
- When answering obvious questions
- When avoiding out-of-character questions made in-game
- Avoiding clever questions by players designed to trick answers out of you 😛
It’s bad to be evasive when giving descriptions or narratives. This relates back to being the “eyes and ears” of the characters. If you want to place and hide clues in a description (i.e. traps, threats, treasure) you’re better burying that info in the middle of your speech and watching yourself for “tells” than being overly vague or evasive.
- Use Metaphors & Similes
Dictionary.com defines metaphor as a word or phrase that ordinarily designates one thing that is used to designate another, thus making a comparison. For example, “a sea of troubles” or “All the world’s a stage” (Shakespeare).
That web site also defines similes as a figure of speech in which two unlike things are compared, often using the words like or as. For example, “How like the winter hath my absence been” or “So are you to my thoughts as food to life” (Shakespeare).
I think of both writing techniques as creating a code or a puzzle, and that makes them perfect tools for providing evasive answers. The idea is to answer PC questions indirectly through metaphors and similes and to let the players figure out the meanings for themselves.
Example: the PCs confront a careless rogue who was too engrossed searching for a secret door to notice the PCs sneaking up on him.
Leader PC: What are you doing here?
Rogue: A keen eye is the portal to success.
Rogue: I seek to follow in the footsteps of others. What are you doing here?
PC: That’s our business!
Rogue: Secrecy locks the gate to friendship, fellow seeker. I am Meren, a traveller and curiosity enthusiast. Well met!
Here’s a recipe for metaphor creation:
- Choose a noun (i.e. sword)
- Pick another noun you’ll use to compare with the first noun (i.e. dog)
- Now link the two nouns together. (My sword shall dog my foes.)
An easy way to craft similes is to use a formula and plug- in the blanks when roleplaying:
Formula 1: The __________ is like a __________ i.e. The Duke is like a disease.
Formula 2: The is as __________ as a __________ i.e. The dragon is as mean as a pint of orcish ale.
Creating metaphors and similes is normally a simple task; however, it becomes more difficult when delivering them on- the-fly from behind your screen! Solution one is to create a bunch of likely replies ahead of time for such things as insults, challenges, upcoming encounters, and upcoming NPCs.
Doing this leads to solution two: practice. Unless you’re a natural poet, it’ll take some practice to think fast and be creative while under roleplaying pressure. It can be done though, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun trying.
Metaphors and similes also help create mood and atmosphere. Just use examples, words, and nouns that match the effect you’re trying to achieve. For example, if you’re running a horror session, use blood, death, pain, insanity, and other horror laden language in your evasive answers.
A final tip: this is not an English lesson. Who cares if you don’t structure your metaphors and similes perfectly? The point is to create challenges and puzzles for the PCs and to hopefully entertain yourself in the process. Have fun with this type of roleplaying and let time and practice hone your parley skills.
- Answer With A Question Without Being Cheeky
Questions are great devices for evading answers because they can reveal information at the same time as they request it. They can also guide people to answers without directly revealing them. The key is to avoid being flippant or cheeky to prevent player frustration or a break in game atmosphere/mood.
The best question-answers are like riddles where the solution will give the PCs the answer they want. That’s the difference between a good question-answer and a cheeky one– a cheeky response just throws a PC’s question back in their face and doesn’t lead to a satisfying answer.
Question (from the situation described in Tip#3): What are you doing here?
Potential good answers:
- What is it that all adventurers seek?
- What needs a key but cannot be seen?
- What does rock and stone have in common with eyes and windows?
- What are you doing here?
- Why do you want to know?
- What’s it to you?
- What do birds do in the Spring? (Too nonsensical)
- Answer Two Steps Ahead
Often, you’ll know what answer the PCs’ ultimately want, but they might start with some warm-up or indirect questions. This lets you be evasive by thinking forward and providing answers two or three steps ahead of the characters’ questions, much like a good chess strategy. While this will give the characters an answer they eventually want, because of the unexpected sequence the answer becomes an evasive one.
For example (from the situation described in Tip#3): What are you doing here?
Potential good answers:
- The secret door leads to a passageway. (1 step)
- I have the key. (2 steps)
- It’s in this room, I know it. (2 steps)
- The passageway leads to great treasure. (3 steps)
- The jade idol is in a smaller room than this one. (4 steps)
If you can keep two or more steps ahead with your answers, the characters *will* eventually learn what they want to know, but the journey will be much more interesting!
- The Half-Answer
Let your answer reveal only part of the whole picture. This gives the PCs some of what they want but will also make them work for the rest and/or hook them in further.
Half-answers are often borderline cheeky, so be careful of angering players. The best approach is to deliver half- answers with confidence and not to smile while doing so. A smiling GM could be mistaken as a smug GM and that could ruffle players’ feathers. Deliver NPC replies as seriously as if they were providing a full answer.
A half-answer can also be a red herring where the NPC reveals a fact of seeming importance but which really isn’t. The non-player character sacrifices a small detail in order to save the big picture.
Half-answer examples (from the situation described in Tip#3): What are you doing here?
- There is a secret door somewhere on this level. (Hides the fact that the NPC knows the door is in the room.)
- I’m looking for a way out of here. (Hides the fact that the way out of the room leads to a treasure room.)
- I’m looking for treasure. (A vague answer, yet true.)
- Ignore The Question
When the PCs ask a question, have the NPC ignore it and move on with the conversation. This is pretty rude, and some PCs will be tempted to unsheathe their weapons and start shooting/hacking, so be careful.
An improvement/variation of this technique is to delay the answer. Remember the PCs’ questions and answer them after a minute or two of ongoing parley. This is a partial evasion and creates interesting parleys once the players learn what’s happening and they figure out how to compensate. This technique represents more of an NPC personality quirk than a standard answer evasion method though, so use it sparingly.
- Use Body Language
This is a great technique that embodies the age old advice of “show, don’t tell”. Pretend, for a moment, the NPC is mute–how would they answer the PCs’ questions? Among other ways, they could point, gesture, mime, or use other body language. These answers will engage the players’ imaginations and problem-solving skills because body language is an imperfect communication method that’s open to individual interpretation.
A classic example is when an excited PC asks two questions in the same breath. The body language evasive answer response would be to have the NPC just nod a ‘yes’. The dilemma to the PC is, was that a yes to both or just one of the questions? 🙂
An even more evasive answer would be a brief nod accompanied by a cryptic facial expression, such as a frown or grimace. The players will wonder what question was being answered and if the NPC is disturbed by the answer, the questions, the PCs, or something else.
- You’ll Need A Plan B
Even when you’re a pro at providing evasive answers, a few will always backfire whether because you made a mistake, the PCs misinterpret the answer, or the players want action/combat. The characters will draw their blasters, unsheathe their swords, or call in a nuclear strike, and the NPC will need a plan B if they want a chance to escape with their life.
Example Plan B’s are:
- Give a full and complete answer quick!
- Ask the players to make intelligence or skill checks to let them know the NPC is actually giving them clues or partial answers, and it’s not the GM screwing them around.
- An escape plan.
- A means of summoning reinforcements.
- Leverage, such as hostages or critical knowledge that will die with the NPC.
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- Pictures Of An Amazing, Real Life Gaming Table
From: Daniel Davis
I wanted to let you know that I finally got images of my handmade game table up!
I took some of the information from one of your earlier issues (Issue 57 and a couple of others, I believe) and implemented many of the ideas presented when we built it.[ http://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue57.asp#r1
- Close quarters
- Mood lighting (built in) with dimmers
- Raised miniatures section, at eye level
- Dry erase table surface
- Built in GM screen
- A computer for music and reference. (I use Agyris.net in this very way, as I can’t fit it into binders anymore!)
- Dual levels to keep food and other distractions off of the main surface
We also added some ideas of our own:
- A secret message delivery system (MDS) for passing notes to/from the GM
- Built in speakers for music
- Several storage areas for paper/books
- Dice rolling pits (to keep dice off of the floor)
- Individual cork bulletin boards for more storage (each player has one)
- Glass writing surfaces with a nook beneath for campaign handouts
- Distinct, individual player stations
- Built in miniatures case
- Internet Gaming Tip: Use Cut & Paste
From: Sage N.
I disagree about the “frugal typist” point last issue. [ http://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue135.asp#2 ] If I’m going to be typing things out, I am going to use all the strength of the written word to give long, detailed descriptions with symbolic nuance that I just can’t convincingly do if I were talking.
It really is best to type out many pages of flavor text before the game, and paste them to the chatroom or whatever. Long, long, long descriptions appear in an instant! Yay! 🙂
- The H.P. Lovecraft Library
For CoC fans out there, check out this great Cthulhu resource site: http://www.gizmology.net/lovecraft/works/
- Mixed Party Levels & Party Leadership
From: Patty R. [re: http://www.roleplayingtips.com/issue134.asp ]
You mention having a leader-follower relationship with the more powerful PCs as the leaders, but what about the other way around? Social status and power is not always equivalent to adventuring level.
- A young nobleman wants to try his hand at adventuring, so he (or his over-protective parent/guardian) hires the party of more experienced PCs to protect him. The lower-level nobleman is in charge, but the higher-level fighters, mages, etc. still have to stand between him and the monsters. With some parties, this could be a better way to go than having the weak characters be hirelings because hirelings are often a little too disposable.
- The church assigns the PCs a mission that requires a representative from the church to accompany them. This representative could be a 1st level cleric who is well- connected or perhaps has a key skill or piece of knowledge. The church is in charge of the group. Therefore, the church’s representative is in charge of the group. Again, the higher-level party members must protect him/her, but they must also respect him/her as their leader.
- The newly-created 1st level thief is the guildmaster’s nephew, so if the party wants to be in good with the guild, they’d better do what the little squirt tells them to.
These situations work well when you’ve just lost the character who was the party’s defacto leader. Certain players will be better and more comfortable at leading the party than others, so it’s sometimes best to allow them to set up even their low-level characters with reasons to lead.
- Tape Recorder Tip
From: I. C. E.
I find that I am often driving when an idea hits me, so I keep a small tape deck in the car to talk into when I have ideas. Then I write them down when I get home.
As I come up with things though, I often need names or numbers. Since I am driving I cannot roll dice and/or look- up names on lists or in books, so I have used these things to help out:
First, when I need to come up with a name of a location, I look at street signs. As I drive down the street I will take a syllable from two or more signs and put them together in different ways.
Example: Continental Drive and Orchard Street might combine to make a planet called Orent, Chartal, Conard, Entor, etc. I look for sounds that might go well together and mix them up.
I use this while I am sitting at the game table as well where I will think of two streets and make up a new name.
By using different themes you can do the same thing. i.e. trees, rocks, body parts. (I still get flack from my group from when I named a villain Abdominos, but it worked and we were off and playing again.)
License plates on the cars I drive by also are useful when I need to name machine parts. i.e. Robot LHG-726, or starwind x2732–a stardrive part.
Plates are also like having a 10-sided dice on the road. Need a number? Pick it off the license plate of that blue car over there!