Detecting Lies

So, I am about to run a session where the PCs will be potentially be questioning a mouse scientist and his assistant. The scientist will be attempting to evade the truth. The scientist mouse is a fervent supporter of the cause he supports. The assistant is having a crisis of conscious. The scientist is a conditioned liar, his assistant not so much. I have a general idea of how the scientist will answer questions and how far he will go to mask his involvement for current events. Same for his assistant. My questions is about mechanics. How to I handle attempts by the players to discern the truth? I feel like if I immediately start having them roll, it will almost guarantee they think something is up, which is not something I want. If we get down to rolling dice, this almost certainly an opposed roll, but for what? At what point to we get down and dirty conflict?

So, I’ll tell how I might handle the same or similar scenario, but in an overall comment, I do not like ‘Detect Lies/Detect Motive’ in Mouse Guard; I have always stood by the idea of telling the players something is up and the characters sense it, but they do not know what is up. That alters the test but gives them a reason to attempt to find the truth.

(1) Deal with the Assistant: Persuader/Manipulator Vs Will
The players can be told openly, “the assistant seems unsettled and could talk openly about the circumstances, but you should take her/him aside to allow confidentiality.” This allows the players to describe character actions trying to get the assistant to speak honestly, but in this case, have the assistant asking for some kind of assurance that compliance earns mercy and protection. In this test, the characters are using Persuader or Manipulator to sort out what kind of promises they can give to get the truth from the assistant. It might be the first matter to handle or the second matter to handle.

(2) Deal with the Scientist: Persuader/Manipulator Vs Manipulator
Because you have identified the scientist as a conditioned liar, I have determined the scientist will attempt to convince the cloakmice rather than simply refuse to respond or refuse to discuss the circumstance. Whatever the scientist wants to convince them is of no importance, but she/he is trying to misdirect, misinform, and convince. In this test, the characters are using Persuader or Manipulator to sort out what kind of promises they can give or what kind of questions will bring out the truth from the scientist. It is a test, so we’ll see how the dice fall out before worrying too much about what the scientist is purporting.

(3) Create an Exchange: Haggler Vs Manipulator or Will
It is also possible the players skip some of the investigative steps in favor of striking a deal right off, and ignoring matters of the actual truth of the circumstances bringing them face-to-face with the scientist and the assistant. In this case, the characters are using Haggler to sort out some kind of exchange of obligations (such as having the scientist and assistant fix the problem in exchange for no further questions and acquittal of charges); it could be effective in driving the session forward without becoming too deeply embroiled in the truth of what happened. In this test, the scientist and the assistant might be lacking the Haggler skill, so Manipulator is a good means of illustrating they are working to manipulate or intimidate the cloakmice into the agreement; I suppose the use of Will could be considered if the scientist and the assistant are refusing to negotiate or refusing to consider a mutual obligation.

(1) Pass or Fail of the Dice: Dealing with the Assistant
In this case, a pass indicates the assistant breaks down any remaining internal barrier and agrees to an exchange of promised mercy and protection (and maybe a recommendation towards another scientist under whose tutelage this assistant can thrive in a scientific career); the cloakmice have their success and must honor the agreed conversation while learning the truth about the circumstances from the assistant’s perspective (which may yet have flaws). In the case of coward dice, I’d say they get the same Success as above described with being Angry about the truth (as much as the assistant can reveal); however, if the mice were already Angry from an earlier test, I would consider a Twist instead.

(2) Pass or Fail of the Dice: Dealing with the Scientist
In this case, a pass indicates the scientist fails to confuse or confound the cloakmice and ends up caught in her/his own lies while the cloakmice begin to realize the truth (from the scientist’s perspective, which may be flawed). Yet, I might not hold them to much of anything promised from the conversation; the intent was to sort out the truth from the scientist attempting to misdirect, misinform, and convince, so the patrol owes less to a liar who is caught than they might have owed to a guilty individual who confessed (i.e. the assistant). In the case of coward dice, I’d say they get the same Success as above described with being Angry about the truth (as much as they can piece together from the lies); however, if the mice were already Angry from an earlier test, I would consider a Twist instead.

(3) Pass or Fail of the Dice: Creating an Exchange
In this case, a pass indicates success as the patrol and the duo of scientist and assistant find a mutually agreed exchange of obligations as the actual truth is swept under the rug (or most of the whole truth). Both sides uphold the agreement as best they can; the scientist and assistant were nearly caught after all and do not want this issue looked at with any additional scrutiny.At some later time, the issue might come up again and the patrol asked for more details, and this matter might be a cloud over their career. It is hard to say whether it figures into the long-term campaign from my distanced position on the question. In the case of coward dice, I’d suggest using a Twist which will undoubtedly break up negotiations without an agreement leading to loose ends for both the patrol and the duo of scientist and assistant–both sides have loose ends and unanswered questions to get figured out! It’s a risky circumstance!

The Twist
I suggest using a massive interruption like Animal. In all cases, if you need a twist to disrupt the scenario, having an animal to disrupt things will be the most disruptive choice. Depending on the circumstances, Wilderness and Weather might be entirely muted if the scene is in a lab or workshop or some such place. It seems this is a Mouse scene, to begin with, so I would not twist to an alternative Mouse scene.

You might consider Making Everything Worse as the Twist, and I will not argue against that. I just wouldn’t use that. I’d use a Twist that entirely disrupts and sends the patrol, the scientist, and the assistant scattered and scrambling in totally other directions. In the case of a Twist, the scientist and assistant are getting away with everything they know, and probably getting separated from one another in the process. In fact, maybe the scientist will murder the assistant to keep the secrets in fewer mice. The cloakmice are driven into an entirely new scenario that they must deal with having gained as much info as possible but without a clear resolution. So, for my opinion, that is an Animal Twist.

The Truth
You might notice that in each of the three cases, I never really said the patrol learns the whole objective truth; they learn the truth from one specific, possibly flawed perspective. There is not a good test to sort out ‘Detect Lies/Detect Motive/Detect Truth’ in Mouse Guard. You can present the scenario and use meta-narrative to alert the players something is up, even give superstitious in-game narratives like, “you get a bad feeling about this; the hairs of your neck tingle as the scientist explains; this doesn’t sit right with your gut; the assistant trembles like cornered prey when you ask about the concoction,” and hint that the characters have evidence or experience that contradicts what the scientist or assistant is saying. Any of those might seem unappealing, but it will be the best method of allowing players/characters to know if there is something dishonest going on.

The Test
The test should not be whether they can detect the lies or detect the truth. The test is about how they go about trying to find out.

  • If they want to search through the scientist’s diary or journal, that could be an Archivist test; if they want to strike a deal to get the truth in exchange for some service or product, that’s a Haggler test; if they want to search all the scientist’s labs and tables, and closets for evidence, that’s a Scout test.
  • If they believe they have evidence or have a reason to distrust the scientist, they can attempt Persuader/Manipulator as a test.
  • If they have the assistant’s testimony, they can use that to attempt Persuader/Manipulator.
  • If they think that they’ve got a case of evidence and testimony maybe they could attempt an Orator or Administrator test, such as holding a public trial (Orator) or writing a strongly worded denouncement for a magistrate or other authority figure (Administrator).
  • If they feel they have evidence and/or testimony and feel justified, they could use a Fighter test to assault the scientist, or maybe escalate to a Fight Conflict to slay the scientist.

However, if you as GM are leaving them without the information to make a clear decision, while they look for a means of detecting or determining the truth, there’s not an easily applied test for that. The investigation process is a series of tests, but the determination of truth must happen inside the heads of the players by intuition, hopefully with evidence, testimony, and instinct. So, give them info that they can act upon.

I would just tell the players that the mouse is lying, but not tell them about what. They could then persuade or trick him to tell the truth.

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Right. Thanks for this. My thinking on the subject is concurrent with your own. In fact, I think having them roll dice at all is in a sense, giving it away too much. I was questioning if I should let them roll anything and just let them roleplay out. For example, if I say “the scientist says X” one of them may ask “can I tell if he is lying by making an ability or skill check”. I should not allow that roll to be something they “know” if they succeed or “do not know” if they fail. But rather, if there is a test of any sort, it will at best leave them with an impression of their interaction. Your response was insightful and detailed and I appreciate it. Thanks again.

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