See P. XX: Lies as Red Herrings

Page XX

A Column about Roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Out of the box, GUMSHOE’s lie-noticing ability, Bullshit Detector (or Assess Honesty as it is known in more genteel settings) addresses the central problem of its category. How do you give characters in a mystery story the ability to tell when people are lying without short-circuiting the plot? In GUMSHOE the ability works as it does for real-life cops and investigators. You get a sense that the person you’re talking to isn’t telling the truth, but that doesn’t tell you what the truth is.

Sensing that a subject has been deceiving you doesn’t necessarily tell you what’s really going on. In some cases, the GM might choose to supply players with an intuition of the truth on a point spend. In general you want to do this in one of two cases:

  1. The real truth is also a red herring.
  2. For pacing reasons, short-circuiting the plot has suddenly become a good thing.

We’ll get to case 2 next time. For the moment, let’s drill deeper into case 1.

In the red herring instance, you don’t always have to yield the real truth on a point spend. Sometimes you should provide another benefit, or decline to take the point spend when you can’t think of one. You don’t want to make a point spend an absolutely reliable way of finding the real truth where it is irrelevant. If you do, the players can use negative inference, when a point spend doesn’t yield the real truth, that they’re definitely onto something. But if you do let Bullshit Detector eliminate red herring deceptions about half the the time, players will feel that the ability is useful and the spend has been worth it.

For example, your Night’s Black Agents fugitive spies are posing as cops as they try to figure out who assassinated their favorite weapons dealer, Yossi Guttman, at an outdoor cafe. They’re asking a stockbroker who was apparently present at the scene if he saw anything. The businessman, Andrew Chang, says he was preoccupied with a spreadsheet on his tablet the whole time and didn’t notice anything until the victim’s server started screaming. As a standard, 0-point (no spend required) clue, this triggers Bullshit Detector for Ekaterina Lisovenko (played by Anna). According to your notes, Andrew’s lie is a red herring: he didn’t see anything they can use to hunt the killer that they can’t get from another, immediately helpful witness. He just doesn’t want to involve himself, and lies in hopes of cutting short his interaction with them. You’ve added this detail to test the players’ focus on forward momentum as their nemesis searches for their safe house. The longer they spend on false leads, the greater the chances of his finding and skillfully booby-trapping their local HQ. This makes red herring chasing an important exercise, with true stakes, instead of a time-waster. As with any ticking clock, it instills suspense only if the protagonists know that it’s ticking. In true NBA fashion, they’re trying to find the bad guys on their terms, before the bad guys find them.

Andrew has only one reason for lying to investigators, which could be any of the following:

  1. He’s too busy to get involved with a police investigation. (The most likely answer for a frenetically busy person.)
  2. He was at the cafe to meet a married lover who happens to be a local celebrity, and knows that the cops around here sell that sort of juicy information to tabloid journalists.
  3. He was here to meet a partner in a shady business deal, unrelated to Yossi or the PCs’ problems, and fears any kind of police inquiry into his affairs.
  4. He fears stepping forward as a witness against a professional hitman.

Bullshit Detector isn’t a psychic power; it gives its users hunches at best, from a reading of the subject’s tells. For example, trained investigators consider frequent face touching a sign of dishonestly. But it can also mean nervousness, which most of us come down with when confronted by possibly hostile officialdom.

In any of these cases, a 1-point spend could provide Ekaterina a suggested motivation for Andrew’s evasion, one that establishes it as an irrelevant side matter. So as GM you might make a general statement applicable to the case at hand. “You get the sense he’s not being forthcoming:

  1. He strikes you as one of those Type-A sorts who view any intrusion on their time as a threat to be immediately shot down.”
  2. He probably has a secret he doesn’t want the cops to leak to the tabloid press. That happens a lot here.”
  3. He’s holding his tablet protectively, like he’s afraid you’ll look into its contents. They might be incriminating, even if they don’t relate to Yossi’s assassination.”
  4. “Ordinary people hate to become witnesses in murder for hire cases, and they’re not wrong.”

Each of these suggests a separate tack the players might take to get past the lie:

  1. Interrogation: “We’re under the gun here. Not telling us what you know will waste more of your time than spilling it.”
  2. Reassurance: “If this is about some personal thing you don’t want getting out, trust us. We hate reporters more than you do.”
  3. Intimidation: “You’d better spill what you know, or we’ll suddenly get very interested in the contents of that tablet. And they’d better not be related, or you’re toast.”
  4. Tradecraft: “This is an espionage case. It will never see a courtroom, and you’ll never need to testify.”

Any of these could also apply in a case where the witness does have useful information to impart, and the investigators need to overcome his resistance.

If the witness has no useful information, and the investigators aren’t racing against the clock to eliminate false leads quickly, you might let the spend itself indicate that the witness is lying but has nothing useful to say anyhow. “You get him to admit that he did see the hit, but…

  1. … wanted to ditch the scene as quickly as possible so he could get to a meeting.
  2. … was about to meet his mistress, and was afraid you’d tip off the tabloids.
  3. … thought that you’d turn him over to the fraud squad, based on the contents of his device.
  4. … feared getting whacked if he testified.

“However, when you do break through his resistance, his account matches the other witnesses. By lying, all he did was waste your time. Time that nosferatu assassin is surely glad to have.”

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