On Bullshit

Cliff Clavin, from Cheers

It’s my last post for improv month, and I want to talk about the truth of improvisation while GMing. It’s an ambiguous term. Some of it is about incorporating good ideas from improv theatre into the game, which is awesome. But mostly it’s a guide on how to bullshit well. That’s often what we’re doing when we get caught off guard, were too busy to prepare for a session, or when the players go in a direction we weren’t expecting at all. We’re improvising sure, but we’re also bullshitting. So today I want to talk about bullshit, some of its important principles, and the key rule when it comes to doing it at the gaming table.

Princeton philosopher Harry Frankfurt wrote the book on bullshit. Literally. He argues that while lying involves deliberately leading people away from the truth, bullshit is more creative. When you bullshit, you’re creating a narrative without caring whether it’s true or false. You’re not trying to supplant reality with a falsehood, you’re just spinning yarns. Of course at the gaming table you’re always spinning yarns, so the distinction becomes a little muddier. But the same things that let someone pull bullshit out of their ass will help you when you feel like you need to pull something out of yours.

Be Confident

Cliff Clavin, from CheersIn Cheers, Cliff was a sage man who delivered little known facts from his bar stool. He knew something about everything. Of course it was all bullshit, but he delivered it calmly and confidently, as though he’d just finished perusing that particular section of the encyclopedia earlier that day. You can doubt it, but he certainly seems to know better, and he does know all kinds of real facts, so why wouldn’t this be one of them? Same idea. Your players rely on you for the details of the setting, NPCs, and adventures. Most of the things you say are prepared somewhere else so why not these?

It’s a Narrative

It’s not just a fact, it’s a story. There’s got to be reasons for the thing that you made up, and it has to fit believably into your world. Link it to something they already know or something you do have prepared, and draw it out from there. Cliff does a great job of this too.

You know, there’s a lot of misunderstanding about rats. The rodendus vermikitis as they’re called in Latin. It turns out our long tailed friend wasn’t after all responsible for the dreaded bubonic plague as alleged through history. Yes, sir. It was caused by an animal called the bubon. That’s right, and the threat by the way is still with us. So if anyone does see a bubon, contact your local authorities.

Cheers, Take Me Out to the Ball Game

But there’s one principle that has to remain constant. Bullshit has to stick. Once it comes out of your mouth, it’s real. It’s part of the responsibility you have to your players to represent the world in the best way possible. They need to be able to rely on your descriptions of characters and events. Be vague if you like, but start telling bald-faced lies or letting that bullshit slide and you’ll start to lose their trust. That trust is invaluable. It’s going to give you the room to go farther afield without them worrying or second guessing you, and it’s going to let everyone take more interesting risks. It’s okay if they know that you’re bullshitting, as long as it’s interesting bullshit. Everyone bullshits from time to time. There’s an art to it, and it might be the subject of further posts once I can sort out some more thoughts about it. We’ll touch on it a bit in July, which is psychological warfare month.

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