Play on Lies

Play on Lies

We’ve all been there – “Is this character lying, or is the player just not being very believable?”

The Problem

Early on in my larping career, I was very interested in playing on lies. Back then, I really enjoyed fiction focussing on intrigues and scheming, like renaissance politics and Game of Thrones. I quickly learned that there were problems when it came to lying in larps: since larp means collectively pretending, collaborating in telling the same “lie”, it is much more difficult to decide if a character is lying or not, and knowing what is actually true in the reality of the larp.

In everyday life, we have a lot of different tools at our disposal to decide if someone is being truthful or lying:

The Unlikely Statement. If the suspected liar makes a statement that seems highly unlikely, it feels very probable that they are lying. However, in a larp context we can never be certain that our co-players have read all of the material explaining the fiction of the larp, that they remember it correctly or that they understood it in the same way we did. There are also a lot of aspects of the fiction that are not detailed in the fiction documents, where we as players need to fill in the blanks. We can never be certain that we have a joint view of what is probable and believable. As good co-players, we usually opt to “yes, and…” the improvisations of others.

Verifying the Truth. When someone makes a statement, it is usually possible to verify it – for example by investigating directly. In larps, this is difficult, as we often need to play on a lot of things that are not in fact there, and are not verifiable.

Conflicting Statements. If you were to talk to different characters about something that they have a joint knowledge of, you might get a lot of conflicting statements. In reality, this would be a pretty sure sign that some or all of them are lying. In larp, however, it might just be a sign that they are all trying to improvise, and have not had a chance to decide off-game what the truth is.

Signs of Uncertainty. When someone is lying, especially if they are not very good at it or are in a very difficult situation, they usually show signs of uncertainty. They might wring their hands, bite their lips, glance off to the sides, stutter or even change what they are saying during the conversation. However, things like this are also signs of nervousness, and often occur when we are finding it difficult to improvise something believable.

It is possible to broadcast that we are lying to our co-players. The surest way to do this is by overdoing the signs of uncertainty, and not needing much pressure to give away the lie. This is useful when playing a bad liar – smooth, polished lies are more difficult (but of course not impossible) to signal. This usually requires a high-resolution play-style, in which you are able to communicate much with very subtle gestures and variations, and having co-players who are able to read these hints.

The Poker Face

At the recently played larp The Future is Straight (2021) I found myself wanting to play a capable liar, while still being able to signal to my co-players what was true and what was a lie, and at times invite them to challenge the lies and call me out as a liar. Inspired by this need, after the larp I came up with the Poker Face meta-technique.

The Poker Face is used to signal if something is true, if it is a convincing lie, or if it is an obvious lie. This is done through the positioning of one’s hands when making a statement.

The technique is best suited for dialogue between two people sitting down, with their hands free and visible to each other. It can be used in situations with more people involved, and it is possible to use while standing up. It can be used by all players present in a scene, or just by the one currently in focus (for example, in an interview or interrogation). To make the technique more easily recognizable, both hands should be used.

The technique uses three hand positions:

Palms facing upwards: This statement is true. The character is being honest.

Seated person with open hands resting on legs

Photo by Patrik Åkervinda.

Palms facing downwards, hand is open: This statement is a lie, but it is told smoothly and convincingly. It should only be called out if there is a good reason for it.

Image of a seated person with open hands resting on their legs

Photo by Patrik Åkervinda.

Hands closed into fists: This statement is a lie, and it is not told very convincingly. The player welcomes the co-players to call out the lie.

Image of seated person with closed fists resting on their legs

Photo by Patrik Åkervinda.

This is the technique in its most basic form. In addition to this, I have two suggestions that you may or may not want to use, depending on the design of your larp:

Palms together, directed at interviewee: If the Poker Face technique is available as a tool at the larp, players may nevertheless forget to use it. If a player would like to know whether a recent statement is true or false, they can put their palms together and point them at the person they’re talking to, and ask “Really?”, “Is that so? Tell me more!” or something along these lines. The co-player is reminded to use the technique, and can give the requested meta-information while continuing to talk about the same subject.

Image of seated person with open hands pressed together in front of them

Photo by Patrik Åkervinda.

Hand half-closed, palm facing downwards: You may come to decide that the difference between the smooth lie (palms down) and the obvious lie (fist) is too stark, and that you would like to have a middle-ground. This is one more gesture for your players to remember, but the scale from open hand to closed fist is intuitive if workshopped.

The design of the hand-signs is connected to our views of how lying looks in our natural body language. Open, visible palms are understood to signal openness and honesty, while hidden palms are not. The reason fists signal a bad lie is because a bad liar is likely to look tense and uncomfortable. Someone who lies well is more likely to have a relaxed, natural posture, hence the relaxed hands with palms facing downwards.

Cover image: Photo by Patrik Åkervinda. Photo has been cropped.

This article is published in the Knutpunkt 2022 magazine Distance of Touch and is published here with permission. Please cite this text as:

Greip, Julia. 2022. “Play on Lies.” In Distance of Touch: The Knutpunkt 2022 Magazine, edited by Juhana Pettersson, 142-144. Knutpunkt 2022 and Pohjoismaisen roolipelaamisen seura.

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Julia Greip (b. 1992) is a Swedish larper, writer, designer and organizer (best known for Pleasing Women, Stenrike and Libertines). The fine line (or long jump) between social realism and the sensually divine makes her tick. She is passionate about historical undergarments, meaningful eye contact and finding what truly connects people. She has a B.A. in behavioral sciences. She shares reflections on larp and other relevant subjects on the blog Flickers: