I know I probably use this phrase a lot, but one of the most important things you can do as a DM is to lie to your players. Selectively, of course. Good storytelling often requires that your readers or players don’t have all the answers and it can be incredibly tempting to give them to your players. If they want to know the answer to a question and have their character start hunting for it, sometimes they won’t find the truth. They’ll find a different answer instead. Even if your players are really good at differentiating between player knowledge and character knowledge, knowing the answer they found isn’t the truth with subconsciously alter how their characters interact with it. At the same time, actually knowing that they got the truth when they find an answer will also change their behavior. Like players in the real world, characters shouldn’t always know when something is for-sure true. There are a lot of uncertainties in life and creating a believable world often means maintaining a certain degree of uncertainty in your created world.
This sort of unreliability of “truth” can be difficult to include in a world where there is objective, measurable Good and Evil. There’s literally a spell or magical ability called “detect Good/Evil” and making them relative to an individual’s point of view will completely screw up a game. Paladins, a type of holy knight with powers granted to them by there god, are required to stick to a particular alignment. Good, Evil, Law, Chaos, and Neutrality make up the axes of the alignment chart and paladins are usually held to one particular combination by their class. A lawful good paladin can do what they think is the right and lawful thing but still lose their god-granted powers because it wasn’t actually good or lawful. Making it relative allows for some really murky and difficult play, especially if you have a player who decides to abuse the system.
The thing is, the same stuff applies to “truth.” There are spells for detecting lies, spells for getting answers to questions, and spells for forcing people to only speak the truth. How can that exist in a world where you need to leave some uncertainty? Usually, people relying on the old idea that you cannot compel objective truth from someone, only what they believe to be the truth. They can’t say something objectively true if they believe an incorrect answer is actually the truth. This works well for people without much information or who aren’t generally expected to know things, like the underlings of some dungeon boss or Big Bad Evil Guy. The problem is, these people don’t generally need to be compelled to tell the truth. They’ll often do it just to save their own behinds. The BBEGs, the people who plot and plan, will do everything they can to mislead the players, so they’re often on the receiving end of magical compulsion. If they just give up the truth, though, where is the fun in that? They’re supposed to be a threat to the players! How can they be a credible threat if they just buckled as soon as they’re not allowed to speak falsely or remain silent?
Hedging, double-speak, and misleading information. Being able to tell the truth without giving the players the information they want is crucial to any magically compelled villain. It is, of course, possible for the players to craft a question that leaves no wiggle room, but that’s part of the challenge! This is a test of intelligence and wordcraft rather than of strength and battlecraft. I wrote about this in a post back in February, so you can find some examples there, if you want more. I want to focus on the misleading information portion.
Part of the problem with misleading information is that there is a skill specifically designed for characters to use when they suspect they are being deliberately mislead. Sense Motive, or Insight in the more recent versions of D&D, lets characters get a grasp of what is going on in the mind of whomever they’re talking to. If they ask someone they’re interrogating a question, they will likely use their skill to tell if the answer they got was genuine or an attempt to mislead them. Fortunately, they don’t always think to use it and it doesn’t apply to information garnered from non-thinking sources. The villain’s motives can be sensed, but the journal they happened to leave behind as they fled their lair has no motive. You can’t use that skill on something written down, so the players themselves have to decide whether or not their characters will trust the information.
That’s why I prefer to direct my players to libraries and colleges or universities when they’re looking for information. They have no way to ascertain objective truth or to detect falsehoods when they get them out of a book or as secondhand information from someone studying whatever they are trying to learn about. Or when they learn something from a story passed down through the generations, as related to them by the Bard that just happens to follow the party around to provide backup healing and attack boosts. For oral stories, a good mixture of truth information and outright lies is best, since that’s generally what happens to stories as they’re verbally passed around. No one is trying to be malicious, but enough minor shifts (always to make the story more interesting, of course) happen along the way that a decent amount of information isn’t true. The same happens to ancient history. “History is written by the victors,” so histories tend to reflect well on whoever wrote them and glosses over the actual truth of what happened to do so.
Delivering the information the same way for both instances is key. If your players can tell the difference between what is false and what is true, their characters will know as well and act accordingly. If everything they get winds up being true, they’re going to stop trying to actually think about what they’re learning and simply take you at your word. If too much of what you tell them is false and they can never figure it out beforehand, they’re going to distrust everything you tell them and likely end up doing a different quest line. If you strike the balance just right, they’re going to get immersed in your world as they hunt down more information, try to verify its accuracy, and then figure out how to apply what they believe to be the truth. Hopefully, they won’t be right all the time. It gets really boring if they are, but some characters (and players) are really good at ferreting out the truth and that should be respected. If they’re playing a knowledge-hungry researched and they’ve already learned the lesson of not trusting everything they read in a book, chances are good that they’re going to verify their information before they act on it.
So lie when you can, tell the truth as much as possible, and make sure your players are always wondering which you’re doing. Curiosity and uncertainty are good. Players can thrive in an environment like that.