Paranoia: Shattering The Trust – Part I

From Ross Shingledecker (~Acolyte)

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0211

Paranoia: Shattering The Trust – Part I

Click here to read the Paranoia: Shattering The Trust Part II
Click here to read the Paranoia: Shattering The Trust Part III

“Hastur was paranoid, which was simply a sensible and well- adjusted reaction to living in Hell, where they really were all out to get you.”
– Good Omens, Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

According to, paranoia is either:

  1. “A psychotic disorder characterized by delusions of persecution with or without grandeur, often strenuously defended with apparent logic and reason.”
  2. “Extreme, irrational distrust of others.”

For our purposes, we will focus on the second definition (although the first does provide several key words: “disorder,” “grandeur,” and especially, “persecution”).

As far as RPGs are concerned, this type of paranoia can be:

  • In-game: Jon Quickfingers believes that nearly everyone he meets is a police spy, and Jon’s player, Robert, created this trait to have in-game fun.
  • Out-of-game: Robert thinks that the GM is actively trying to dispose of Jon Quickfingers, and he views any info from the GM as circumspect.
  • Both: Robert thinks that the GM is trying to get rid of Jon Quickfingers through a ring of assassins, so the character and the player both act strangely.

As a GM, you can’t force your players to play paranoid characters, BUT you have plenty of tools available to help inspire in them “irrational distrust.” These tools can be largely divided into three broad groups:

  1. Meta-Game Events
  2. Minor In-Game Events
  3. Major In-Game Events


Take care when shattering your players’ trust. They will, at some point, realize that they have been manipulated. Not all of these tactics are appropriate to every group; some may be appropriate only for those with a long gaming history of “evil GM” tactics. That said, some of these approaches are quite benign, and can be used in moderation to ‘spice up’ an otherwise dull session.

Acolyte’s Essential Rule of Paranoia

When employing any of these tactics, you must remember Acolyte’s Essential Rule of Paranoia: “If your players know that you are trying to make them paranoid, your attempts will fail.” Abusing any of these devices, or using too many of them too close together, will alert players as to your goal, which is self-defeating. Players and characters can quickly become jaded against the effects of paranoia. Be careful. Exercise moderation and subtlety, and watch the “irrational distrust” grow.

Part I: Meta-Game Events

This group refers to the actions that you can take outside of the theoretical adventure world. Often, they are the most obvious, and must be used with subtlety.


By skillfully manipulating elements such as light, music, and off-topic conversation, you can weaken your players’ defenses against your scare tactics. Dark lighting and shadows make people uncomfortable, but extremely bright lighting can make people feel equally uncomfortable, often without seeming as cliche. However, this is the least subtle method, and implementing extreme changes will give your players a heads-up.Off-topic conversation is also a useful, if risky, method to open up your players for emotional manipulation. By steering conversation to darker, scarier topics, you can unsettle your players.

A “Hey Robert, did you hear about that rash of break-ins in your neighborhood?” or “Wow, Rob, what did you think about those murder statistics in the paper? Pretty scary, huh?” is usually sufficient.Music, however, is far more useful, not only to set the stage for paranoia, but to begin its creation. There are certain songs that, when played at barely audible levels, make most people disconcerted, especially when the songs repeat over and over again. Listening to Radiohead’s “Exit Music for a Film,” for example, always manages to unnerve me, even though I am expecting the effect.You can also use music to play off your players’ intelligence.

If you play spooky (especially organ) music, most players assume that they have a reason to be wary and afraid. When you play that same music in a perfectly mundane situation (the friendly village, safe in Earth orbit, etc), players assume that something is wrong. When they leap around the corner and you abruptly switch off the music, acting as if nothing is wrong, they start to worry.

Pretend To Know Something They Don’t

Knowledge is the enemy of paranoia. To create paranoia, make players insecure in their knowledge. Most GMs roll dice at seemingly (to players) random intervals to check for random monsters, set up encounter distances, figure out where the pit trap up ahead is, and so on. Most of these rolls indicate negative consequences for the players. It may seem cliche, but you can occasionally roll a die for no other reason than to see them squirm.This applies beyond die-rolling as well. Take notes.

When the players fail to give a coin to the beggar, or choose not to explore a particular solar system, make a show of writing down this “pertinent” info.Your acting abilities can enhance the paranoia tactic of both taking notes and rolling dice. Roll the meaningless die and then wince. Say “ah-ha” under your breath while making that note about the beggar. Don’t overdo this. However, it can be very useful if, immediately after wincing or muttering “ah-ha,” you look embarrassed, as if you didn’t mean to give the extra info away.

Ask Leading, Rhetorical, And Skeptical Questions

This tactic is akin to Regis Philbin’s “Is that your final answer?” It is designed to unnerve people and get them to make mistakes because they second-guess what had originally been the right course of action. These questions can range from “Are you sure you don’t want to check that door for traps again?” to “Do you really want to risk that?” to “You use what spell?”Even if the players go through with their initial decisions, they will be unsure that they chose the right course of action. They will distrust even themselves.

Pretend To Be Scared Yourself

When the characters come face to face with typical evil minions, don’t say: “At the other end of the room are four goblins, just like all the ones you’ve seen before. They charge.”Instead, grimace as if you didn’t expect the characters to make it to the room, shuffle your notes, drag a paper out of a dusty binder clearly labeled ‘Killer Encounters,’ roll a die, wince again, look up at your players’ faces as if you are sorry for the terrible crime you are about to commit, and say in a hoarse whisper:

“Before you are several goblins, and although they appear no different from the ones you’ve seen before, rather than run at you to die on your swords, they stare at you coolly.”Allow your fear to inspire the players’ own, and you’ve started a very nice downward spiral of paranoia.

Ignore Growing Paranoia

This is a vital step in creating paranoia, even if you don’t use any of the other Meta-Game Events. As suggested in the definition of paranoia, the players MUST believe that their suspicion and fear are totally logical and reasonable. Don’t act alarmed when the players order their characters to do irrational things. Smile to yourself and consider it a job well done.

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Tips From Roleplaying Tips Game Masters

Have a roleplaying tip you’d like to share? E-mail it to [email protected] – thanks!

Bard Tips: Archeology And Trivia Contests

From Laura Thurston

I run a D&D 3rd Ed. campaign in which one of the players plays a bard. Here are some of the things I’ve done with his character and the rest of the party. Since a bard usually has the highest charisma in a party, the bard often ends up being the party spokesperson.

Archeology is an adventure in itself, and placing archeological finds in dungeons will keep your PC historians, bards, and mages happy. Other PC classes will find anything that ties into their history fascinating.

Sometimes the dungeon itself can be the treasure. Combining various Knowledge skills amongst several PCs to solve a puzzle is satisfying to the PCs because each contributes their own piece. Bardic Knowledge is useful for that bit of important trivia without which nothing seems to fit together.

It doesn’t take a lot of time or extra planning to add ancient history features into an existing dungeon. Consider who built the dungeon, what it was originally used for, why it isn’t used anymore, who took it over, who abandoned it and why, how many times it changed hands. Then, choose treasures to reflect this. A complete history isn’t necessary. If the PCs seem interested, that history can be fleshed out later and built upon to become the seed of future adventures.

If your PCs meet a group of NPCs, consider including one or more bards with conflicting stories of the same event. Alternately, an NPC bard can talk up a group of NPCs before the NPCs arrive the next day and the PCs know the not-so- nice truth. How to debunk the PR without being seen as jealous upstarts.

The Bardic Knowledge Trivia Contest. I had an NPC bard challenge the PC bard to a friendly trivia competition. Anyone could enter. Non-bards couldn’t roll on Bardic Knowledge, but they did get a straight d20 roll to reflect what they remembered from the songs and stories the PC bard might have performed. All non-participating players could toss out trivia topics. It’s a fun way to pump the DM (me) for info and for me to see what the party was most interested in. What they asked about most will end up in future adventures.

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Ideas On Getting Games Off To A Quick Start

From Michael Anderson

I am a relatively new reader to your ezine, and I like it very much. I wanted to make a comment about the section you titled “A Quick Start” in issue:

RPT#198 – The Session Checklist: Ingredients To A Successful Game Session, Part I

I run a campaign with between 8 and 12 players (depending on attendance), one of whom is almost always remotely connected to us via the Internet. We use a live voice chat program called Team Speak–people who play a lot of online video games may be familiar with this.

It wasn’t my intention to have such a large group, but everyone seemed to want to play when I started my world. Sooo, I have learned a lot of techniques for keeping a big group on track. Getting a “Quick Start” is one of the most important ones.

What I find works best is to inform the players before the game day, usually via email, that we will be starting exactly at noon on Sunday. With this in mind, I can usually get started playing by 12:30 ;).

I also make it a policy that any player who has not done all of the accounting work for their character by start time (raising levels, and all that that involves) must play with their character as they were at the end of the last game session.

I make it a point to arrive by 11am to get everything set up and be available to any players who may have questions they need to ask me one-on-one.

And then at precisely 12:30, I make my announcement:

“If I could have your attention please! We are now starting… When last we left off…”

And then I give an account of what happened in the last session.

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From Lord Damian

The Tome is an excellent resource for anything related to Renaissance. It’s got links to everything from stores, to guides, to information sites. He’s also a friend of mine, a Rennie, and a gamer. ?

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Fighting Fantasy Books

From Laurence McNaughton

I stumbled across advanced fighting fantasy and thought others might like to hear about it. It’s a nifty website devoted to the old Fighting Fantasy game books (e.g. The Warlock of Firetop Mountain).

I was a big fan of the Fighting Fantasy books back in the 80s. I didn’t know this, but apparently there’s also an RPG version called (astoundingly enough) Advanced Fighting Fantasy.

Just thought I’d pass the word along!

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Sympathy For The Devil (Or The Goblin)

From Kenni Littlefield

I had a campaign adventure where I tried creating sympathy for a goblin encampment by demonstrating the horrible living conditions of the women and children.

Well, the PCs went ahead and burned the goblins’ barn down anyway, knowing there were fighting goblins inside. Female and young goblins ran everywhere, while male goblins ignored their families and came running out to fight the intruders.

So, during the later ‘mop up’, I had a toddler goblin just stand there, watching the players. One of the players saw him and that player silently scooted him off. I felt good that he felt bad for the young goblin.

Later, I had a goblin wave a white flag, declaring peace. He was wearing nothing but a loin cloth because he was afraid that the players might be wanting to attack him if they thought he had weapons. He declared that he and some few members of his clan wanted to become citizens of the empire, and that the others were hidden in a cave some ways away.

After some tense negotiations, he led them to the cave, retrieved the dozen or so others, and took them back to the nearest city. There, he protected them until the time came to decide whether the empire would let them live as citizens or die as prisoners of war.

To sum up, I took traditional villains from an encampment destroyed by the players and tried to make them people to be protected.

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How Much Detail Is Reasonable

From Chris Heismann

The actual number of details I give out in a session really varies with my plans for that session. Slower paced sessions usually have more details, faster paced ones don’t. I feel the ratio of significant vs. insignificant is most important. My basic rule of thumb is about 50/50 overall. Half the details I give mean something, half don’t.

The number of significant vs. insignificant details in any given session varies – some sessions are mostly significant details, others mostly insignificant, most are equal. I try to “link” details so that players don’t look at each individual detail so much as they look for patterns. i.e. instead of just finding a fancy sword, they find a sword with a mark that looks similar to a tattoo they saw on a guard a few sessions ago.

I’ve found this gives a reasonable balance. With a 50/50 chance of something being important, the players are more likely to take note of details but not analyze them until a pattern emerges.

Another key is my presentation of a detail. Is it a carefully prepared handout, or apparently the result of a random die roll I hastily thought up? Try as they might, even the best players will often pay attention to the presentation. Fool them a few times so they don’t take your presentation of a detail as a clue to its importance.

Prepare a few fancy handouts that mean nothing. Fake a die roll and some hasty scribbling before giving them an important detail. Create an important NPC, but don’t give him a name until the last moment. Look intently through your notes before giving a random barkeep’s name. Mix it up. Stuff like that keeps the players on their toes and helps keep them in character when analyzing details rather than metagaming.

The hard part is getting a new group of players used to that style. In the first half dozen sessions of my current campaign, my players were doing a lot of over-analyzing. Now that we’re two years into the game, they don’t do that.

Another technique I use is to give rewards for the players being true to character when they analyze details. Would the fighter really pay attention to–or even care about–magical runes the way a wizard would? Would the thief find the same significance in an obscure religious text he chanced across as the cleric would? Would the wizard be as intent on that unusual sound behind the door as the thief and fighter would? Probably not. Reward accordingly and good players will react in a reasonable manner.

Finally, I don’t worry if they over-analyze an insignificant detail. I like to sit back and listen to them discuss it. Often times, the players will point me in a direction I didn’t consider. Where appropriate, I take their ideas and run with them. Some of my best plot lines have been the result of players making connections between details that I overlooked. It can ease the workload for you, and give the players a sense of satisfaction that they figured out a particularly difficult connection. Only you need to know it didn’t start out that way.