Take Ten: Bluff
From David Newland
Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #312
- Take Ten: Bluff
- A Brief Word From Johnn
- Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
A character with skills is a character with options. Often overlooked and underused, skills can change the game with a single die roll. Skills add meat to the ability score bones of a character, developing their persona and creating heroes that are memorable and playable. Presented here are ten takes on the D20 skill, Bluff.
Bluff is one of the handiest skills an adventurer can have, made even handier because it’s an opposed check skill (against Sense Motive). Most monsters (provided they’re intelligent) and minions (ditto) are highly vulnerable to a good bluff, having neither impressive wisdom scores nor many ranks (if any) in Sense Motive. The trick is making the bluff believable. Keep the lies simple and the details realistic, and your opponents will be hard pressed to call your bluff.
Not everyone is the ultimate killing machine. For those who find themselves in the thick of combat with long odds, a good bluff roll can even the score. Though it costs a standard action to set up (or only a move action with the Improved Feint feat), using a bluff to feint against a humanoid opponent negates their dexterity bonus and allows a striking rogue to use their sneak attack ability to maximum effect. Creating diversions (standard action) with a bluff, followed by a hide (move action) roll can get a hapless hero out of trouble in one round. And when there’s no way out, it’s always worth a shot to say, “look behind you,” and roll the dice. Hey, it works in the movies.
Add a different set of combat challenges with NPC rogues who dart in and out of combat using feints and diversions. Arch- villains should find the Bluff skill particularly handy for last-minute exits and strategic retreats. A well-stocked lair of villainy should contain a variety of diversionary aids, such as smoking cauldrons, pyrotechnic spells, swirling curtains, or rumbling boulder traps, each of which can add +1 to +5 to the villain’s Bluff roll when they try to escape.
Turn Foes Into Friends
The toughest guards, the safest strongholds, and the darkest secrets are no match for a convincing cover story. Bluffing helps PCs sneak past security, tease out confidential information, blend in with a crowd, or convince enemies they are allies. While the simplest way is to bluff through checkpoints and patrols, with a little effort a wily PC can trick an NPC into revealing the location and numbers of guards, traps, treasure, exits, and obstacles. With enemies like these, who needs friends?
Allow a PC to try to talk their way past a situation, but don’t let it all rest on one Bluff roll. Make them acquire disguises, props, or passwords to successfully pull off a good bluff. A well-told lie can hinge on the slightest detail. “Say…why are you all dressed in green? We’re the Black Hand Gang!” Getting the details right leads to more detail and further deception.
- PCs search for a traitor-in-the-ranks who can help bluff them past security.
- PCs keep enemy agents under round-the-clock surveillance, hoping to hear a password or spot secret hand signals.
- PCs beg, borrow, bribe, and burgle uniforms, insignia, and standard-issue weaponry.
- PCs will have to leave behind or smuggle in their beloved magic weapons and armor when in disguise- an adventure in itself.
I Know Kung Fu
If you can’t convince an enemy you’re their friend, try convincing them you’re their worst nightmare. Sure, you’re trapped in a canyon surrounded by plate-armored hill giants with nothing but a spoon, but that doesn’t mean you won’t be the one leaving that canyon alive. There are many ways to appear bigger and stronger. Basic lying includes the time- honored “I know karate” and “we have you surrounded,” as well as assuming false (and powerful) identities, such as a wealthy nobleman, accomplished artisan, or royal emissary.
Bangs, clangs, whistles, stomps, and other sound effects, put to good use, create the illusion that a small band of five is an army of 500, that a dragon lurks around the corner, or that a ghost haunts the halls. Add in a few parlour tricks, some prestidigitation or minor illusions, and a champion bluffer becomes a mighty wizard, a spirit of the forest, or a messenger of the gods.
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander. Terrify your PCs with chills, both imagined and real, until they make a Sense Motive check.
- Goblins aim rune-covered sticks at the PCs. Are they magic wands, or graffiti-covered branches?
- A grumbling old lady in the town square gives the PCs the evil eye and mumbles strange phrases under her breath. A witch, or a curmudgeon?
- Draconic shadows on the wall are kobolds crawling past a bonfire.
- The wind moaning through a tunnel mimics the wailing of a banshee.
- Just when the PCs believe all the warning signs are mere bluff, that is when the real monsters appear…
When there’s bartering to be done, there’s bluffing to be done first, in two flavors of snake oil: either inflate the value of your item, or downplay the value of theirs. With a good bluff a tree branch becomes a staff of power; a priceless heirloom is portrayed as a piece of junk; an ink stain on a map is the X that marks the spot; a tired old nag is a champion racehorse. Just be careful to know who’s bluffing whom, or it may be you who gets the wrong end of the deal.
A con works both ways. Unless the PCs have good Appraise skills, they’ll need others to determine the value of their loot–others who can bilk them of all they are worth. NPCs can swindle the PCs out of money (“Those coins aren’t real gold, they’re fool’s gold, mate.”), valuables (“The bloodstains will never come out of that silk. I’ll give you a few silver for them.”), and magic items (“It’s a magic axe all right, but it’s a cursed magic axe. I’ll take it off your hands for 500 gp.”). This has the potential for all kinds of mini adventures and role-playing opportunities as the PCs try to find honest dealers and trustworthy fences.
To their constant surprise, adventurers often find themselves on the lam. Suspicious townsfolk, ship captains, and servants of the law will probably ask PCs all sorts of awkward questions, like, “Where were you the night of the robbery?”, “What was your relation to the deceased?”, “Is that sword magical?” or, “Are you a half-orc?” A healthy number of ranks in Bluff can save the adventurers from the inconvenient and life-threatening situations that may follow an honest answer.
Adventurers tend to stand out in a crowd and make the crowd curious. Challenge them to come up with convincing explanations (be sure to write their excuses down to bedevil them with their own words later on). Award positive or negative modifiers to their Bluff roll for their explanations. Even with a successful bluff check, it only means that the interrogating NPC(s) believes them, not that they’ll be left alone.
When it’s the PCs turn to search and pursue, an NPC’s clever bluff can create a quick misdirection, a costly red herring, or even a fatal trap. Again, even with a successful Sense Motive check, the PCs have only noticed the lie. Discovering the real truth may entail surveillance operations, breaking and entering, questioning contacts, conducting research, or any other scene the GM has in store.
Manipulate Friends And Influence People
Reluctant warriors. Obstinate allies. Suspicious noblewomen. The most challenging adversaries can sometimes be your allies, patrons, lieges, lovers, or partners. When you fail to persuade, bluff instead. An eager apprentice dogs your trail? Send them in the wrong direction to “scout ahead.” A duchess insists on wearing her jewels to a thief-packed ball? Ask to borrow them for “cleaning” so they may out- sparkle her rival’s adornments, then make a switch with counterfeit stones. An untrusting baron refuses to lend you his army? Convince him his enemies are fast approaching his border, but you have a plan. You do, right?
A single Buff check shouldn’t determine a person’s reaction any more than a single to-hit roll should determine the outcome of a melee. NPCs should raise questions and doubts, making the PCs lie again. Each lie adds a cumulative -1 penalty to the Bluff check for the PCs to keep their story straight. Alternatively, give an NPC a 5% cumulative chance each day to learn new information proving the PCs lied.
Becoming a noble, with the accompanying castle, army, and loyal subjects, is the dream of many adventurers. Then they discover being a ruler means having to rule. And as any politician can attest, governing often means bluffing. As ruler, you have to work with allies you don’t like, placate guilds and churches with policies you don’t favor, give speeches you must later deny, make promises you intend to break, and find scapegoats for when things go wrong.
All are more easily accomplished with a bit of evasion and subterfuge, but they’re still not a cinch. It can make one long for the good old days of slogging through dungeons.
In the rarified atmosphere of a royal court campaign, PCs have a whole new set of challenges. Bluff checks become the new form of combat, a verbal melee against all challengers, as the heroes peel away the layers of mystery and intrigue.
- Wage a public relations battle for the hearts and minds of the populace.
- Search for a traitor within the court ranks.
- Use diplomacy and deception to keep rival nobles at bay.
In a pinch, Bluff can take the place of, or sometimes aid, a Gambling, Perform (acting), Sleight of Hand, Intimidate, Disguise, Diplomacy, or Forgery check.
Depending on the circumstances and the PCs’ role-playing, impose a -2 to -5 penalty to their Bluff check when used as a substitute for another skill. In general, let common sense prevail. If the PCs are trying hard and thinking fast, cut them some slack and assign a -1 penalty modifier. If they’re not, cut them down to size and penalize them with a -5 to – 10 modifier. When they protest, tell them you’re not bluffing!
Bail Out Other PCs
There are times when your fellow PCs, with great style and aplomb, make their checks in Diplomacy, Intimidation, Disguise, Forgery, or Bluff. There are times when they don’t. And when the palace guards unsheathe their swords, when the fence summons his thugs, when the orc army pierces your disguises, or when the royal vizier is being a royal pain, that’s when you step in and, with your own Bluff check- now much more difficult due to your friend’s error– attempt to salvage the situation.
Each time a PC is caught in a lie, impose a cumulative -5 penalty to the next Bluff check. If the PCs are frequently caught lying, the consequences should ripple outward through the campaign world. Soon, they develop a reputation as cheats and liars. Their credit is no longer good and their stories no longer believed until they come up with a better bluff.
Embellish Previous Lies
Once you start lying, it’s hard to stop. People question. Facts resurface. Evidence lingers. And the lies pile on. One of the more important reasons for a good bluff skill is that, once used, it has to be used again and again. Keep notes, keep the lies simple, and try to keep your story straight.
Each time a PC bluffs a specific NPC, add a 5-10% cumulative chance the NPC notices a discrepancy and asks questions. This doesn’t necessarily mean the bluff is uncovered, just that the PCs will have to work harder to keep their deception airtight.
- The Royal Watch returns again and again to interrogate the PCs about a crime, each time asking more and more questions to “make sure they have their facts straight.”
- A merchant asks questions about where and how the PCS acquired some suspicious merchandise.
A Brief Word From Johnn
Correction: Chat with Johnn – June 16
Last week I posted the wrong date for my upcoming online chat. D’oh! It will be June 16, Friday evening. Any and all are welcome to swing by to say hi or ask questions. Exact time is still TBA.
I received this note last week and thought I’d pass along the message:
In a recent posting of your Roleplaying Tips site, a subscriber suggested gamers make use of script characters from the Ithkuil language which I created. The particular posting is on this page:
Please note that all material from the Ithkuil website, including the script is copyrighted. The terms of usage are clearly stated at the bottom of each page of the Ithkuil website. Persons may utilize any material from the Ithkuil website, including characters from the script for their own non-commercial use, as long as they post an attribution to me and the Ithkuil website. Thanks.
— John Quijada
Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters
Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!
Cultural Cuisine in Roleplaying
From A. K. Brown (and Family 🙂
Just for fun I would like to share something we use to enhance our game sessions: cultural cuisine.
My husband and I have gamed for over 15 years, and have been running solo campaigns for each other for as long as we’ve been married (10 happy years and counting :). We both take great delight and effort in creating unique and interesting characters, fleshing out their backgrounds as much as possible, from the clothing they wear to the kinds of cultural traditions they grew up with and observe to their hobbies to the kinds of foods they like.
While this may seem trivial to some, not only has it provided us with many terrific plot hooks, but it’s also introduced us to cultures and concepts we might not have learned about before taking the time to research them for our games.
One of our favorite ways to add variety and atmosphere to our game sessions is cooking a meal inspired by the culture of the PC to eat during the game.
For example, my husband has been running a 3rd Ed. Forgotten Realms D&D campaign for me. My PC is a Fire Genasi sorceress/fighter whose family originated in Calimshan. She was raised by her uncle in a village on the south-west border of Thay, hidden from the Red Wizards in a small temple of the fire god Kossuth where her uncle served as the local high priest. The only survivor of the village after the Red Wizards annexed her province, she makes her way as a glass merchant (and an agent of the Harpers), selling and adventuring from her bow-top wagon as she travels with her familiar and two NPC companions along the trade roads of western Faerun.
For those unfamiliar with Calimshan or Thay, their cultures are very similar in theme to Morocco/North Africa and Egypt. So, we chose to research Moroccan recipes, then took a trip to a local grocery called Trader Joe’s for cous-cous, flat bread, several kinds of hummus, and their wonderful Tagine sauce (a spicy Moroccan sauce served over the cous-cous). We followed this by preparing Turkish-style coffee (a very easy recipe, and surprisingly tasty!) to have with dessert. Not only did we have an excellent, inexpensive, and healthy meal, but the spicy scents and flavors of the food proved to be a great sensory enhancement to the game as we played.
We’ve tried similar theme meals with other campaigns: Chinese or Japanese cuisine during Oriental adventures through Kara Tur; Italian/Mediterranean cuisine while campaigning in Sembia; Celtic recipes (right down to a wee dram of single malt scotch with dessert–we are adults, after all! 🙂 during a campaign in the Moonshae Isles. The possibilities are endless for modern or medieval fantasy theme games, and the meals don’t have to be expensive or complicated. We’re a small family on a tight budget, so we try to keep things simple and nutritious, and try to get a few days’ worth of leftovers too.
Just as appropriately-themed music can enhance the mood of the game, so too can an appropriately themed meal We hope this might inspire other gamers, and if there are others out there who already like to do this as well, we’re always interested in swapping recipes!
A Great Source Of NPC/PC Images
From Andrew Goff
Those who really got into the Baldur’s Gate (1 or 2) and Icewind Dale games already know it’s pretty easy to find a lot of great images already cropped for a good upper body/head shot by visiting websites catering to custom portraits for those games. Given the genre of the games, you can already be sure the pictures are good for most fantasy games.
One such site is: Ironworks Gaming
Use Dream Lapses For Time Bombs
From Brian Stewart
As I see it there are two different types of time bombs: an event that changes the game, and an event that wrecks the game.
I am more than happy when things go wrong and I am thrown a curve ball. Most of my players feel the same, but there has been some friction in the past, and we’ve lost some good characters through negligence. I have to admit that, in my games, we have had 4 disasters over 5 years of gaming, my dark ages of roleplaying, and I almost lost some great gamers.
The solution I came up with was the dream lapse. My dream lapse woke the players a few days before the event that destroyed the game. To maintain the challenge level I changed much of what happened over the next few days—new events and monsters. I also increased the rewards so no one felt cheated.
Let me know if you have any questions.
Tips On Encouraging Roleplaying
From Dariel Quiogue
Choose a PC’s ability that the other PCs will need to rely on, and build a situation around it. I especially like looking at the language skills of PCs, then having the only PC with a specific language be the one to do the talking in an encounter. Since I like having major travel be a part of my adventures, my players’ characters keep ending up in exotic locations where only one of them can talk to the locals.
Another possibility is to have the PCs bump into a relative or friend the same age who keeps “remembering” cool and fun things they did together. Let the rest of the party meet this NPC. The friend or relative could be used to highlight a unique skill or ability of the PC, or be a background element that could prove useful in the adventure ahead.
Half-breed PCs can be especially interesting. They stand between two worlds, but aren’t completely part of either, making for a great hook. The half-breed PC makes a great “bridge” character, but he’s also got to deal with the problems of not being a full member of the community.
For example, a PC is the child of a barbarian mercenary and a woman of the town. In an adventure, the party visits the tribe of the PC’s father, and only the PC knows their language and their customs well enough to parley successfully. Problem is, he also has to deal with issues, such as why his father became an outcast from the tribe, and proving his own worth. (Though I’d only play this on a player who I think is mature enough-themes of prejudice and alienation are not comfortable for everybody.)
Another fun NPC type to roleplay against is the kid. A child or adolescent NPC could “adopt” a PC as friend/confidant, rolemodel/mentor, protector, or even as surrogate parent. One of my most fun campaigns centered around a boy who would grow up to be a great hero of the tribe; the PCs’ challenge was to mould him into that person.
Also, you can adapt an NPC according to which players react strongest to that NPC. Sometimes I promote a minor NPC to semi-regular guest star status because one or more players were stimulated into roleplaying more in encounters with that NPC. Or, if I notice a player was stimulated by some behavior of an NPC, I make the NPC repeat that behavior.
An NPC might have an ability or item that is important to the adventure, but she isn’t aware of it, or doesn’t know how to control it. The NPC comes to like or trust one of the PCs, and they end up exploring that secret talent together. For example, in one adventure an NPC had an innate ability to control fate. The PCs discovered it when she dragged them to a casino, and then they got more involved with her because they suddenly realized why the villains were hunting the girl. The players had a lot of fun with their characters in the casino and their efforts to get the girl to test/display her powers.
Another way to adapt an NPC to be more engaging to a player is to give that NPC a common interest with the PCs. For the fighter, perhaps the NPC is into collecting weapons; for the bard, the NPC is a music lover and likes to talk about music and famous bards of the past.
Also, watch out for your players’ comfort levels and emotional state during the game. For example, if an NPC’s words or actions disturb a player, you could concentrate that NPC’s attentions on another player’s character instead. Or if a player just came from a bad day, he might not be comfortable doing intense roleplaying–you could focus on him another day.
I especially enjoy it when important personages of the game world show recognition or approval of well-played characters. This need not be elaborate or even have immediate concrete benefit; the recognition is an in- game/in-character way of the GM to say “Well done!” For example, in one game set in Celtic Britain, our characters purified a sacred wood through a combination of good roleplaying and skilled combat; when we were through, the GM narrated to us a vision of the god Cernunnos appearing and giving a nod of approval–just that, but realizing the gods had been watching and approved was a good feeling.
I also try to take new or shy players aside, away from the table, for roleplaying one-on-one scenes with them. Sometimes the newbie is afraid of making a mistake in front of other players, or the shy player gets a case of stage fright. You can ease such players by doing a one-on-one with them, then bring in another player and let that player do a one-on-one with the new player also by introducing their characters to each other, in character.
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