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Lies My DM Told Me
The Dungeon Master Experience
Chris Perkins

This regular column is for Dungeon Masters who like to build worlds and campaigns as much as I do. Here I share my experiences as a DM through the lens of Iomandra, my Dungeons & Dragons campaign world. Even though the campaign uses the 4th Edition rules, the topics covered here often transcend editions. Hopefully this series of articles will give you inspiration, ideas, and awesome new ways to menace your players in your home campaigns.

If you’re interested in learning more about the world of Iomandra, check out the wiki.

MONDAY NIGHT. Trouble on the high seas! Mind flayers are attacking coastal settlements and ships, and the adventurers are preparing to assault an illithid nautilus—a ship of mind flayers—to rescue the prisoners aboard. Imazhia, an NPC dragonborn priest of Bahamut who receives prophetic dreams, offers to cast a ritual on the characters to grant them resistance to psychic damage. The players readily accept the gift before teleporting aboard the nautilus, knowing they have their work cut out for them.

Aboard the enemy vessel, the heroes find themselves taking a lot more psychic damage from the mind flayers’ attacks than expected. Something is clearly amiss, and it doesn’t take a wizard to realize Imazhia has lied to them.

Her ritual has actually made them more vulnerable to psychic damage, not more resistant!

I lie to my players all the time. Or rather, my NPCs do.

I never lie to my players “out of game.” In my role as DM, I’m always honest, lest the players walk away from the game table in frustration and never return. But “in game,” I like to feed my players a tasty mix of true and false information. It adds to the campaign’s realistic texture.

Imazhia, the dragonborn priest, is a special kind of villain—the one who pretends to be helpful until the evil Far Realm entities in her head set out to confound and destroy the adventurers. Early in the campaign, Imazhia died aboard an exploding ship and was raised from the dead by her fellow priests. The players saw her as a casualty of a villainous plot, unaware that the villains who sabotaged the ship were actually doing them a favor by taking Imazhia out. After returning from the dead, Imazhia became one of the heroes’ most trusted advisors, using her dreams to guide their actions and steer them away from the monstrous threat posed by the mind flayers. By the time the threat became too great too ignore, the heroes trusted Imazhia more than most other NPCs in the campaign. Surely a psychic priest of Bahamut who’d died and come back from the dead would never deceive them.

In the real world, people speak untruths for many different reasons. Maybe they believe what they’re saying is true. Maybe they are lying because they’re in denial and can’t face the truth. Maybe they’re hiding the truth to protect someone (or something). Maybe they’re lying out of guilt and fear of discovery. Or maybe they’re lying for the cheap thrill, just to screw with you. The less-than-honest NPCs in my campaign deceive for all of these reasons, to the point where my players must constantly judge the words against what they know about the individual speaking them. It makes for some very interesting roleplaying, let me tell you!

In addition to the myriad reasons for not telling the truth, there are good liars and bad liars. My campaign has both. Imazhia is an example of a good liar, and it doesn’t hurt that her words are bolstered by a priestly demeanor and the holy symbol of Bahamut hanging around her neck. I try to limit the number of really good NPC liars in my campaign to a handful, since it takes time for players to hack through the web of lies, and frankly, too much of a good thing can be a bad thing. On the other hand, my campaign has no shortage of bad liars, and in some respects they’re more fun. The players don’t have to work nearly as hard to cut to the truth, and a bad liar makes for great comedy.

Feeding false information to player characters is something that’s been part of D&D since the early days of the game. Old adventures such as module L1 The Secret of Bone Hill had those marvelous “rumor tables” that encouraged you to roll dice to determine which rumors the characters knew. Some of the rumors were true, some false. I once ran module L1 for some middle school friends who learned, via the rumor table, that the Baron of Restenford was chaotic evil, and so they decided to attack the baron’s castle. Never mind that the baron was actually chaotic good. They stormed the keep, slaughtered the guards, executed the baron and his family, and made off with some fine suits of armor and tapestries. Pelltar, the baron’s wizard, finally set them straight, but the damage had been done. I decided to use the misunderstanding as a springboard for a follow-up adventure in which the heroes tracked down the source of the false rumor and discovered an evil thieves’ guild seeking to gain a foothold in Restenford. In hindsight, that was a pretty clever idea for a 15-year-old!

In the intervening 25 years, I’ve become quite the practiced liar. Whenever the characters arrive in a new village, town, or city, I pepper them with local rumors—some true, some false. As any practiced liar knows, the secret to adding rich layers to any D&D campaign is the aforementioned happy blend of truth and deception. If all of my NPCs lied to my players all of the time, that wouldn’t be a fun experience for anyone. Similarly, if the NPCs told the truth constantly, the players would take everything—including my campaign—at face value. In the real world, drama is natural outcome of humans trying to ascertain what’s true and what’s false, and the emotions and confusion that come when humans are dishonest with one another. Why should the drama of my campaign be any different?

Lessons Learned

I love the roleplaying opportunities that arise when players attempt to deceive monsters and NPCs in my campaign, and as they say, turnabout is fair play. When it comes right down to it, there are basically two kinds of untruths your NPCs can tell the player characters:

  • Deliberate deceptions

  • Unintentional misinformation

When in doubt, tell the players things that are true. Even the old D&D adventures tended to have more true rumors than false ones. Players don’t like to be constantly deceived any more than they enjoy swimming in shark-infested waters. However, when the time comes to deceive them, don’t let your evil NPCs have all the fun. Even good and unaligned NPCs have reasons to lie, and your campaign world is full of shamefully misinformed benefactors, inveigling politicians and court jesters, and good people who harbor dark secrets.

Basically, you need to ask yourself, why would the NPC say something untrue? If the NPC has anything to gain from deceiving the heroes, then you have just cause to lie on that NPC’s behalf. However, in some respects “unintentional misinformation” is the more interesting way to go, since the characters are dealing with an NPC who is sincere (and therefore harder to threaten with violence). Recently in my Monday night game, two characters were killed by a death knight wielding a soul-draining sword. An evil-aligned NPC named Osterneth said she had the means to free the souls trapped within the blade and, in the process of trying to set them free, accidentally destroyed the sword and souls contained within. Some of the players felt confident enough in their characters’ high Insight skill checks to believe Osterneth was being sincere, and she truly was. The lesson: Even the DM’s all-knowing, all-powerful NPCs make mistakes sometimes, and it’s harder for players to justify killing an NPC who speaks honestly.

Let’s take a little test, shall we, using another example from my Monday night campaign: In the world of Iomandra, wood is rare and highly prized for shipbuilding. Talia Winterleaf, whose father owns a wood-trading consortium called the Winterleaf Coster, has bribed a clan of frost giants into attacking an iron mine owned by the Ironstar Cartel, a rival consortium; Talia did so in order to prevent the cartel from finishing a prototype iron ship that it hopes will impress the Dragovar Empire enough to win a lucrative shipbuilding contract. The heroes learn of the plot, confront Talia, and threaten to take down the Winterleaf Coster unless she pulls the giants out of the mine. Talia does as they wish and promises not to interfere with the Cartel’s shipbuilding operation any further. It’s also worth noting a minor complication that works in the party’s favor: Talia has genuine feelings for Kithvolar, the party’s elf ranger (played by Jeff Alvarez). So the question is: Is Talia lying?

The jury’s still out, but in this case my instinct is to say no—she’s speaking the truth. The players already have sufficient cause to believe she’s dishonest, and thus it’s more surprising that Talia will be true to her word. Also, her feelings for Kithvolar help to tip the scale in the party’s favor, and her fondness for the elf ranger would realistically impact her decision. But don’t worry—I haven’t gone soft. Talia can’t speak for her father or the rest of the Winterleaf Coster, who will no doubt continue to make the players’ eyes roll with their sinister business practices.

Next week, we discuss what to do when a character dies suddenly and leaves behind untold stories and unfinished business. The campaign marches on, but will it ever be the same?

Until the next encounter!

—Dungeon Master for Life,
Chris Perkins

Poll 09/01/2011 Results:

1. This week’s poll questions focus on the magazines. First, we’re exploring various themes for upcoming issues of Dragon and Dungeon. Which of the following theme ideas excites you the most?

Which of the following theme ideas excites you the most?
Dragonlance revisited 13.4%
Ravenloft revisited 8.8%
Everything on this list! 7.9%
Planescape revisited 7.7%
Greyhawk revisited 7.3%
Spelljammer revisited 6.7%
Eberron revisited 6.2%
War campaigns 5.6%
Nautical campaigns 5.2%
Gods and primordials 4.7%
Dark Sun revisited 4.5%
The Feywild 4.4%
Mystara revisited 4.1%
Demons and devils 3.1%
Secrets and intrigue 3.0%
Underdark campaigns 2.9%
Constructs and artifice 2.4%
Nothing on this list! 1.1%
Skullduggery 0.9%

2. The next submission window for Dragon and Dungeon magazine proposals opens in approximately one month (October 1 through November 30). How many article and/or adventure proposals are you likely to submit during that timeframe?

How many article and/or adventure proposals are you likely to submit during that timeframe?
0 65.7%
1-5 29.8%
6-10 2.3%
20+ 1.5%
11-20 0.7%

The Dungeon Master Experience: Poll 09/08/2011

 Hey DMs: When was the last time a non-evil NPC lied to the player characters in your campaign?  
Last session, in fact.
Several game sessions ago.
It’s been a while.
I honestly don’t remember.

Christopher Perkins
Christopher Perkins joined Wizards of the Coast in 1997 as the editor of Dungeon magazine. Today, he’s the senior producer for the Dungeons & Dragons Roleplaying Game and leads the team of designers, developers, and editors who produce D&D RPG products. On Monday and Wednesday nights, he runs a D&D campaign for two different groups of players set in his homegrown world of Iomandra.
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