Using an Unreliable Narrator in an RPG

An unreliable narrator is someone who is telling a story or a tale to an audience, but with the caveat of their credibility being seriously compromised. They’re spinning a tale, and in many cases, they’re doing so for their benefit unbeknownst to their audience.

NPCs are a living, breathing part of any RPG world, but they’re also a tool for the GM. Sure, they are used to bring life to the world and help immerse the players in the game, but NPCs are the tools through which you can convey information to your players. This information could be anything from plot hooks to inside info about the town or city the party is in.

NPCs are also one way to give the players quests, missions, or potential jobs to do. These tasks can range from a simple delivery or errand to something complex like reclaiming an heirloom or an item of great significance to the NPC.

Many players, but new players especially, will take your NPCs at face value. If they’re asking for help or are offering a job, they must be telling the truth. And, to be fair, they’re probably right most of the time. If everyone is lying to you, a game can quickly become a tedious mess of the players “investigating” every NPC.

However, once in a while, you may be inclined to have them interact with an unreliable narrator. An NPC who is giving them a job to do, but the story they’re telling is incredibly biased. In fact, the story could be a complete farce, but the NPC has a motive or a reason for not giving the party the truth, and it’s up for the party to determine what to do in this situation.

starter set party artwork for DnD 5e
Many people embellish stories, but to what degree? Credit: WotC.

What Makes an Unreliable Narrator, Unreliable?

Unreliable narrators can be many different kinds of people. Some of them are malicious and are twisting facts and embellishing the story for their personal benefit. Others are completely delusional and have no idea that the story that they are conveying isn’t entirely true.

It’s easy to make an NPC that loves to embellish stories. Yes, they’re an unreliable narrator, but they’re not harmful to the party. They may even know that they’re being an unreliable narrator, but they’re simply making their story more entertaining for their audience. Hell, the audience may even be in on it and is just going along for the ride.

However, in the context of this article, I want to talk about NPCs that are trying to get the party to do something. They’re asking the party for aid or offering a job to them, but they’re not being entirely truthful with the party.

These lies could be as egregious as the quest giver being the true villain and manipulating the party into stealing an artifact or killing the heroes trying to thwart the villainous NPC. On the other hand, these lies could be totally inconsequential such as them embellishing the value of the item they’re having the party fetch to make it seem like they’re considerably wealthier than they are.

Lies, misinformation, and deceit are what make an unreliable narrator unreliable. Unreliable narrators also tend to keep lying. There could be multiple layers of lies in their stories that the players will have to pick through or ignore in order to complete their task.

Can You Trust Them?

The thing about unreliable narrators is that they’re not necessarily entirely untrustworthy. They are still telling a story and in most cases, there is a grain of truth in their tales.

For example, an unreliable narrator may lie about the circumstances of their problem, but they’d be truthful about where and when it happened. They’re giving the party enough information for them to jump off and complete the job for the NPC, even if they’re not entirely cognizant of the situation.

Ultimately, it’s up to the party to decide if they are able to trust their informant. Even though the unreliable narrator is lying to them, they may be giving just enough information that the party is able to take it from there and make their own conclusions about the situation.

Convoluted Plot Hooks

An unreliable narrator is a great way to introduce some truly convoluted plot hooks and situations.

An NPC that has consistently lied about every aspect of an assignment is one that can absolutely lead the party into certain danger. They may be doing so because they have a monetary incentive to misguide the party, or because they’re just malicious people.

More often than not, though, an unreliable narrator is lying simply to save face. They’re nearly as innocent as they may seem in whatever predicament they’re in.

The party may come to the conclusion that this NPC is not to be trusted and they won’t endanger their own lives to aid them. That’s absolutely a valid outcome of all this and it’s the price that the NPC has to pay for lying to the party, even if they don’t know that they’re lying. Beware of unresolved plot hooks, though!

“Are we the baddies?”

A web of lies is not something that can be so simply crawled out of. An unreliable narrator can be a masterful manipulator and have everyone convinced that they are the true victims of the situation.

Barbarian threatening a city guard
“That guard arrested me for no reason! Teach him a lesson so he won’t do that to someone else.” Credit WotC.

This person has played with the heartstrings of the party and caught a group of suckers hook, line, and sinker.

But will the party ever realize that they’re helping a truly terrible person commit a crime or wrongdoing? Perhaps there have been clues all throughout the adventure alluding to this, but the party didn’t care enough to look into them too deeply or they simply didn’t figure it out.

The end result, however, is that by following the twists, turns, and curves of this convoluted plot they’ve now become the villains of this story. How will they right their wrongs, and will they bring their manipulator to justice?

A Grain of Truth Can Lead You on the Right Path

As I mentioned before, even if the NPC is lying about theirs or others’ involved in the issue at hand, they’re still giving some useful information to the party. At this point, it’s up to the party to decide if they wish to unravel the web of lies or simply ignore it.

Ignoring it can be dangerous as it can set the party on the path to becoming the villains of the situation, but if they’re not overly concerned about that then it may be the path of least resistance.

However, if the party chooses to investigate the unreliable narrator’s claims they may come across clues to disprove their lies. These clues can give them the information they need to correct the situation. This could come at the cost of a hefty reward, but they may claim a moral victory or a different type of reward from doing the right thing.

What Do the Players Learn From This?

Critical Thinking Skills

While your players’ first instinct may have been to outright trust or distrust the unreliable narrator, one thing is for sure, if they accept the job they’ll uncover more information about the situation as they make their way through the task.

It’s entirely on them to determine what really happened to create the situation that they’re now involved in. This is going to require them to use some critical thinking to both obtain clues and analyze said clues.

After being duped by one unreliable narrator, they’ll have learned to ask clarifying questions and think of ways to confirm that someone isn’t lying out their asses to them about their circumstances. They’ll have the skills to call-out these unreliable narrators and tackle problems more efficiently.

Your World isn’t Black and White, it’s Shades of Gray

Not every liar is spinning their tales and embellishing their circumstances for their own benefit or because they cannot physically stop themselves from doing so. Our perspectives can get in the way of us telling the truth.

two adventurers fighting a yeti-like creature
“I slew 20 yeti myself and saved the town. They’re indebted to me. Mention my name and you’ll be treated like royalty!” Credit: WotC.

An unreliable isn’t always a villain. They can be the hero of the situation, but they may be leaving out key details or they may be emphasizing irrelevant information. This could even be a situation where there aren’t heroes or villains, only people.

Good people lie and bad people tell the truth. Part of having a dynamic world is having NPCs with multiple layers of personality.

Conclusions

Unreliable narrators are a part of life. It’s important to be able to determine who is lying and who is maliciously lying to us. It makes sense that not every NPC looking to give the adventurers a task is giving them a truthful summary of the job.

As I said before, though, if you’re regularly giving your players reasons to not trust any of your NPCs then using unreliable narrators won’t be nearly as interesting. Sure, everybody lies, but not everyone is extremely untrustworthy, especially when they’re asking for help.

This is another one of those “use sparingly” ideas for your game. The payoff after the unreliable narrator’s lies are revealed is worth it if you’re able to pull everything off!

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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2 Comments

  1. Great post! I have used the “unreliable narrator” to great effect before in campaigns. I will be linking folks here this week on my blog so they can enjoy it too!

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