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Using Disinformation for Plot Development

Disinformation is a fancy term for lying via a network for the purpose of achieving some form of gain. Need an example? Just look to the recent U.S. election campaigns and you will be sure to find plenty of them.

In the real world disinformation sucks, but in the gameworld it is merely an annoyance. Just follow this simple formula to introduce disinformation to the PCs in your game, and to have it develop from there into a nice plot point.

First Step: Disinform the PCs.

The general details will be up to you and should be influenced by your game’s setting. The only specific objectives that you must have with this step is to make sure that the PCs have incentive to act on the disinformation, and that the PCs know who the source of the disinformation is.

Example: The local militia tells the PCs that their leader has proof that the nomadic traders are kidnapping local children as part of a slave trade operation.

Second Step: The PCs learn the truth.

The PCs have acted on the disinformation, but as with any good plot there is a twist when the PCs realize that they have been deceived. The revelation does not need to be groundbreaking, but it does need to prove that the disinformation is a lie.

Example: The PCs confront the nomadic traders in a number of encounters, but eventually the PCs are victorious. Unfortunately the final confrontation takes place at a temple of a good god, and the temple elder explains to the PCs that he was paying the traders to purchase slave children to bring back to the temple. The temple’s order then rehabilitated the children and raised them to be free people. The traders were defending themselves believing that the PCs were members of the militia.

Third Step: Leave it in the PCs’ hands.

You have planted the seed, and now the PCs can take over. Let the players decide how they wish to proceed. Will they attempt to reveal the disinformation as a lie to the public, or will they just put their being duped behind them? Either result is fine. The important thing is not how this plot point is resolved, but that you use it to reveal what the players want from the game.

If the players seek revenge against those who deceived them you now know what your next session should focus on. If the players just want to write off the experience as their being duped, well then shelve this plot but keep the deceivers in your back pocket for a future session. A future appearance by the deceivers will most likely spark a reaction in the PCs, but with this second encounter the PCs will have the advantage of knowing who they are really dealing with.

Example: The PCs work out a deal with the temple and the traders to repair any damage that they have done. They forego any pursuit of the militia leader for spreading the false information about the traders, but a few sessions later when they hear that the militia leader insists that all villagers stay away from the recently discovered shrine in the woods the PCs know to be wary.

Not a Complete Plot

The way to use disinformation in your game is to seed potential plots, and not to try and develop a complete plot from the start with it. This way you are setting the stage of the game to be reactive to the input of the players. Plots that develop from player input tend to be more fun than plots manufactured by the GM, so try to provide starting points from which the players can develop the plot even further.

How have you used disinformation in a campaign? Leave a comment below and share how you have used this technique with all of our readers.

9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Using Disinformation for Plot Development"

#1 Comment By The Stray7 On November 26, 2012 @ 12:39 am

This is the general pattern I use for any city-based adventure where intrigue is involved. One variation I use is when the disinformation isn’t malicious–whoever spread the initial plot hook to the PCs honestly believes what they’re being told. It’s one way of making those sorts of antagonists more human–people make mistakes.

#2 Comment By SeeleyOne On November 26, 2012 @ 8:20 am

I did this once with a campaign that started out as just a “modern day earth” setting where the PCs are vampires. After the PCs had a few sessions of being mean little vampires the Earth had been visited by Humans from space, like in the series “V” from the early 80’s (this was before the remake).

I should point out as a side note that I did not tell the players that there was going to be a “switch” in campaigns. I wanted it to be a surprise and I thought that it would be better because it would be more organic that way and the party would not necessarily be designed with the intent to kick alien butt. In this sidenote, I am saying that I effectively lied to the players about what the campaign was about. This killed my campaign so people should learn from my mistake. It is a no-no!

Back to the topic, these space Humans came to Earth and declared themselves to be Terrans. They said that they were of common ancestry and that Earth had been colonized by some of their lost members thousands of years ago. This answered why they looked like Humans, and it also made the populace of Earth more open to friendly negotiation, seeing afterall as we really are like them.

But the truth was that they were in Human suits that made them appear to be Human. There was a lot of fun as things progressed. Some of the PCs, in one case an actual player, were hard to convince of the truth.

It was hard for the vampires when their potential food started being abducted by these “Terrans” who also wanted them as food. It was a lot of fun to have vampires lead the revolt.

#3 Comment By Orikes On November 26, 2012 @ 1:01 pm

I’ve been thinking of doing something like this for a while, but I think it’s very important to use it carefully and possibly sparingly. I’ve seen it done poorly in the past, causing the PCs to being to distrust everyone they meet.

#4 Comment By Nojo On November 26, 2012 @ 3:27 pm

Good disinformation is often mixed with enough useful truth that the entire message goes down like a cockroach in honey. 😉

To add to the example above, the local militia might also tell the PCs about the slaves the traders get the children from.

“They deal with the slavers of Xos, meeting at the abandoned tower on nights of the new moon.”

If the PCs raid the meeting, it’ll be hard for them to see the traders in a good light. They *are* involved in the slave trade, and frightened children might not be able to tell them who was who. The kids would probably not be told they were being bought in order to be freed, that could queer the deal with the slavers.

And unrelated but true information can be useful.

“Since you are helping us against the slavers, we want to tell you about an abandoned mine. It’s overrun with goblins, and we can’t leave our posts to clear it out. They say there is plenty of gold there.”

This allows the players to profit from the news they get from the militia and gets rid of a nasty goblin problem. By the time the players realize they’ve been had, they find themselves already in a profitable alliance with the militia.

#5 Comment By Gamerprinter On November 26, 2012 @ 3:49 pm

For the Kaidan campaign setting handbooks being released in Oct 2013 (following a successful Kickstarter this summer), the BIG difference between the GM’s Guide and the Player’s Guide is the truth of the setting. The Player’s Guide will provide what the PCs think how the world works, while the GM’s Guide maintains the ugly truth.

The Ravenloft setting did this, and I’ve always thought it was great, that not all the setting’s secrets are available to PCs, so their intro to the setting is incomplete, or even completely different than their suspicions. Which is why we chose to do the same with Kaidan (Japanese horror) PFRPG.

#6 Comment By jpmg90 On November 27, 2012 @ 11:47 am

That actually sounds really interesting. I have built a homebrew campaign for Pathfinder, and I have a ton of background history, and the formation of the kingdom, but I’ve never really gotten a grasp on what exactly to tell the players.

I mean I’ve spent on this time building it up, and I don’t want that to go to waste, but what would the players actually know of the distant history of the kingdom. What has been purposely removed from the history to keep peace or what not.

In this setting I did intend on quite a bit of disinformation, and hopefully I’ll be able to pull it off well and make a fun and engaging world.

#7 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 29, 2012 @ 1:54 pm

I like the way you break it out into sections, and leave it in the PCs hands at the end.

For me, finding out who is lying and who is mistaken can be just as fun (and informative) as finding out you’ve been operating on falsehoods. This is one of those times when a [1] can help the party decide the truth of the matter. Otherwise, the party often gloms onto one bit of information, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary.

#8 Comment By Wilbry On December 1, 2012 @ 4:48 pm

Great post Patrick. An excellent example of how to use disinformation as part of the story rather than a simple red herring. The kidnapping nomads engage the players and develops plot depth.
I think too often we can give false information to our players with the entire intent being to fool them rather than evolve the story.

#9 Comment By Patrick Benson On December 2, 2012 @ 10:56 am

I had an incredibly busy week, and I just wanted to say thank you to everyone who commented on this article. Comments are always greatly appreciated, as I write these articles with the intent of starting a discussion first and foremost.