On the Use of Unreliable Narrators
I’ll apologize beforehand if this gets a little too academic in tone.
In the realm of post-modern literary criticism, there’s a critical lens known as the ‘unreliable narrator’, where the particular facts given forth by the character in question are subject to evaluation on the part of the reader of the text. Often, this is brought forward by evidentiary analysis of discrepancies on the part of the particular character to determine whether or not his narrative version of events has any bearing on what actually happened.
In plainer English, this is a trend in literature where the story, as related by a specific character, is examined on the basis of whether or not the reader can trust what they’re saying. For a lot of stories, this can form the basis of the twist ending, when the audience either misinterprets what the character says or ignores it as being unimportant, only to later have it revealed as being crucial to understanding how the events of the plot relate. And in some stories, it can serve as an alternate reading of events as related by the text, if one of the narrators is put under scrutiny.
Role-playing games, at their very core, are an exercise in applied narrative technique, some more than others. As I’m sure I’ve just revealed, I’ve got far too much background in narrative theory, which ends up warping my gaming in that particular direction as a result. There’s a lot of academic and practical knowledge of storycraft that informs the choices that I make as a GM and player that would probably be better served in some sort of practical literary exercise. Sure, I’ve had occasion to run some pretty amazing games, but managing to finish that novel I’ve been working on? Not so much.
So anyway… Given that RPG’s are essentially just interactive narratives, how does the unreliable narrator actually fit into this whole idea? Obviously, you can’t have the GM seen as being unreliable, as that’s a whole other can of worms in itself if the players can’t actually trust anything they say. There’s the old axiom of the GM acting as the deity of the game, infallible in every way, since they determine the setting in the first place, and trying to apply unreliability into that undermines nearly everything that allows a GM to actually function.
That doesn’t mean that the NPC’s within the setting have to be reliable, however.
There’s an odd trend that I’ve noticed over the years. Unless a player is expecting to be lied to by an NPC, usually as part of a setting detail (the slimy ne’er-do-well that acts as an informant, the low level criminal that they have to talk to in order to make introductions, etc.), they almost always take the information that’s passed on as being gospel truth. After all, the NPC generally exists in order to pass this information on, so naturally it’s to be trusted.
And as a GM, I’d never thought to have an NPC outright lie to a player character unless it was a scripted sort of event based on the previously noted setting detail. The first time I’d experimented with it was back in early college, when I ran an encounter where the PC’s in a 2nd Edition D&D game met up with a Spectator.
For those who are unaware of the lore in D&D, there are Beholders, which are a brand identity monster for D&D and considered one of the nastiest creatures a lot of parties could run into. They appear as a floating spheroid creature with a large central eye and a number of radial eyestalks, all of which have fairly potent at-will magical powers like Disintegrate and Anti-Magic. And while Spectators are related to Beholders, they’re significantly less powerful and dangerous. Instead of Disintegrate and Anti-Magic, they have Telekinesis and Create Food and Water. Not really the same sort of category of threat.
The players didn’t know any of this. So when they were talking to the ‘Beholder’ in the sewers, it baldly told them that it would Disintegrate them if they stepped out of line. The characters pretty much just shrugged and left it alone, not wanting to deal with that sort of firepower. After all, why would something like this lie to them? It ended up serving the campaign pretty well to have them thinking this, and when the characters ran into the Spectator later on, they ended up hanging out with it as just a matter of course. By not threatening to Disintegrate them, it had inadvertently made them respect it.
More recently, I’ve run into situations in games I’ve been playing where the NPC’s that the characters have come to rely on for information end up running their own agendas, where it’s far more profitable to mislead and manipulate the player characters to specific ends. It’s almost spookily effective, since these characters tend to serve as the main gatekeepers for knowledge and when they offer up tainted evidence, it is almost never questioned. Of course, we’d trust this character; they’ve never led us wrong before…
Strangely, I’ve also seen it backfire in spectacular ways.
For better or worse, I’ve made a point of having the main villains of a campaign never lie to the player characters, even when it would serve them better to do so. Any character that I run as a prime antagonist has no reason to lie about what they’re doing, as they firmly believe that their actions are correct in every way and the so-named heroes are the misguided and troublesome factors in an otherwise beneficent plan. No matter how terrible and inhuman the villain’s actions are, there’s an otherwise strange honor to his character, in that he will never lie about what he’s planning to do.
This ended up backfiring on me in another campaign later on, where one of the main allies of the characters ended up having to lie about his involvement in a larger plot, since he was one of the main motive forces in the campaign world itself. He had interests to protect, and his particular involvement had to be shielded from the PC’s at the point when they first encountered him. The problem was that, with a little bit more investigation, they quickly determined that he’d been involved from the very start. And even though he was one of their best allies that they could have relied on when everything went wrong, they chose to shut him out of their plans, simply because he’d lied to them at one point in the past. They didn’t trust him because of this. In the mean time, they’d largely trusted the villain in the earlier game, even though it was clear that he was behind some truly awful things, because he’d never lied to them.
For my own experience, it’s an incredibly useful technique to keep in mind, as it’s relatively easy to mislead the players when they don’t expect to have a narrator character mislead them. It can also quickly become problematic when they choose to distrust someone on this basis.