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In a game of Maids RP (don't laugh) right now, I'm playing a character significantly more 'cunning' than me.

I don't have a problem playing intelligent characters - I consider myself fairly smart, and this question fully covers ways to play characters with higher intelligence.

The problem is, I'm naieve, embarrassingly honest, and have little to no social grace, to say nothing of my inability to manipulate others. Most problematically, I have trouble coming up with ways to truly manipulate others into doing what my maid wants them to do.

How can I roleplay a character considerably more cunning and manipulative than I've ever been in real life?

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I feel like method acting could be a useful tool. That is if you can utilize method acting. –  Phorden Apr 22 at 18:28
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+1 for Maid RPG. –  Cristol.GdM Apr 22 at 19:03
    
This may actually be a great opportunity for you to grow as a person - by learning what makes a good social manipulator, you may improve your own social grace (I'm not saying you should become a manipulative bastard, just that both the insights and the practice may do you some good outside the game) :) –  G0BLiN Jul 20 at 17:44

9 Answers 9

up vote 27 down vote accepted

Geniuses are Hard

It's easy to play a person stronger or faster than you, since we have an objective sense of how to scale up stats. A really agile character is just that- like you, just more agile. But mental stats are a lot trickier. We know what it's like to encounter a smarter/wiser/more charismatic person, but that doesn't tell you how to think or act like one. This is especially a problem when it comes to social characters, because lots of games like to have your social checks modified by how well you can roleplay. This can penalize the player for wanting to be that particular type of character. So how do we make it easier for socially awkward people to have highly charismatic characters?

We cheat.

A common way to play more intelligent characters is to have the GM feed you extra info. You can directly ask the GM for hints on a puzzle, tell you if plans might have problems, etc. We can do a similar thing with manipulative characters: the GM and other players can work with out-of-game to make their characters easier to manipulate.

Everyone's Just a Giant Pile o' Buttons

In order to influence someone, you need to know about them. Everyone has likes, dislikes, hopes, fears, secrets, etc. Your character could have some mechanical way of finding these out, where your GM would work with you to make that way effective. The better you do, the more you learn and the more audacious you can be. A minor success might be listening to gossip or doing some internet stalking. A major one could be looking your target's ex to spill everything to you during a drunken sadfest or even getting a look at his diary.

Note this opens up a lot of interesting roleplaying opportunities as a side effect of learning the information, as opposed to a requirement for learning it. The difference is that your success is guaranteed, so the roleplay is about determining how you did it instead of about determining if you can do it. This is a great place to work with the GM and other players: if Dave is so paranoid about people seeing his diary that he keeps it in his backpack at all times, what circumstances gave you a chance to peek?

I Feel You Bro

A good manipulator can sense how other people feel, almost like a sixth sense. In this case, that sixth sense is metagaming. If players tell you what their characters are feeling and why they're feeling that way, your character can know it.

Let's Not Mention That I Killed Your Dog

In order to persuade someone you have to know how what you say will impact them. Normally this is pretty hard, because most people don't even know themselves about how they'll respond to things. Fortunately, the players and GM have complete control over the other characters, so you should be able to ask "How will telling you XYZ affect your character?" and get a mostly accurate response. This helps you map out what your character should or shouldn't say and then pick the 'right' choice to get what you want. In game, of course, it will look like your character intuitively knows just the right thing to say. You can flip this around, too: "How can I get you to react this way", which helps if you can't think of what to say but your character can.

This also leads to some great opportunities to play out manipulation gone horribly wrong. Under some cases people should be able to lie to you and make you do the wrong thing. Alternatively, they could say "Your character thinks ABC will happen, but actually DEF will".

Summary

It's easier to play a charismatic character if everybody else at the table is helping you make the character charismatic. This means giving you extra info or working with you in the roleplaying parts so that your character can better control their characters. It's your character that's supposed to be cunning, not you. You shouldn't be required to do the heavy lifting.

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+1 on getting the entire group to help. –  okeefe Apr 23 at 5:47

I do two things to help me better play my cunning and/or manipulative characters:

  1. Read/watch lots of cunning characters in fiction.
    I grew up watching TV shows like Gargoyles, whose not-quite-villain David Xanatos is the Trope Namer for a whole bunch of tropes related to being cunning. I also read, and still read (yay English), books with cunning characters, such as Lara Wraith and the entirety of the fey courts in the Dresden Files series; Gerald Tarrant in the Coldfire Trilogy; the protagonist of China Meiville's Un Lun Dun; Light and L from the Death Note manga; and Sam Vimes and Lord Vetinari from Discworld.

    The more you read about these types of characters, the more you come to understand how their tricks and schemes work: often by playing on people's expectations and beliefs, telling the truth when it's least expected, and always having plans B through M in their back pocket. They also tend to maintain large dockets of knowledge about the people around them, so that they can predict in advance what tactics will work on any given person.
  2. Read quality summaries, or if possible transcripts, of well-known lawyers presenting cases to major courts.
    We joke about lawyers, but it's exactly their talents for cunning - finding the loopholes in rules, finding obscure laws that do what they want, etc - and manipulation - emotional opening and closing arguments, showy or evocative evidence, etc - that got them their reputation. Learn from their tricks.

Good manipulation tactics are difficult to explain, and much easier to learn by observation. Finding people, both real and fictional, to watch and take notes from will get you a long way.

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Remember It's Not You.

This is something your character does, not something you have to literally know how to do. Just like how a character with a high math skill does not require the player to solve quadratic equations. Remember that. Remind anyone who needs reminding. Don't drive yourself nuts over literally learning your character's skills.

Look for Implications.

Manipulation is often about implying one thing while you're planning something else to take advantage of it. So think about what implications would make the others feel inclined to agree, think of their drives and beliefs, and imagine how that can be tied to what your character wants (even if your character is "stretching the truth" in doing so).

"You want to save the trees, don't you John? Well, my plan is a way to help do that!"
(This may be total BS, but so what? I say it and I roll the dice.)

Ask The Manipulatees.

Out of character, ask your fellow players what your character might know or realize about them that they wouldn't want anyone else to know, or something that would allow them to be manipulated at this particular moment. There's nothing wrong with players giving each other ideas that serve the fiction; players are not each others' enemies.

"John, I'm making a manipulate move on your character right now. What am I using as leverage? Anything I notice? Anything I know?"

Use The Voice.

Sometimes the way a person says something makes all the difference between talking and manipulating. Maybe your character sounds threatening, maybe they sound like they offer a convenience, maybe they sound seductive, maybe they sound like they're implying "there's something in it for you", etc. If you're not into acting it all out in character, you can simply add the adjective ("sexy" or "threatening" etc) to your declaration of action. We all know what that tone means.

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While it kind of breaks the flow, one way of doing it is to indicate you're speaking out of character (in some fandoms, putting the back of your hand against your forehead signals this) and tell the other player you're being cunning, and what would be a good thing to offer them to trick them into agreeing. Then, run with that.

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I do tend to take the other players aside and ask them for advice in the matter. We do this online, so IMing tends to work pretty well for that. –  Zibbobz Apr 22 at 19:58

So, in order to add to some already really nice answers, here are my 2 cents on the subject. Take in mind, though, that I'm just like you in this regard- being naïve and well too much honest. So this is gonna be (I hope) a nice place to start.

Manipulate them through their wants

Every person wants something. Some of us want power, or influence, or true love, or knowledge, but all of us want something. A great manipulator knows one's wants while also knowing how to utilize them.

Stage 1, Learn: This is a lot easier than it sounds. Listen to what the characters around you talk about. Learning about their aspirations is not that hard when they will usually talk about things that they wanna do in the future. Listen to those conversations closely and record the things that pop from there, the things that come up. After a short while, you'll witness that some things come back up again and again. Those are the goals and the wants of the PCs. This is the key.

Stage 2, Suggest: After that, start a conversation with one of the PCs, in which you're gonna to suggest that you "may" know how to get, how to achieve one's goals. Something like:

Hey, Lisa, how are you today… You know, I couldn’t not hear what you said yesterday, and you know what, I think that, you know, just maybe, I… I have something to help you, you know the type, knowledge and the like. I mean, I think that it may help you, but… I'm not sure, you know, but it probably can be. You're looking for this tool, right? So it will surely be helpful to you…"

It doesn't have to be that long, or complicated, but a little bit of a slippery talk, with enough self-contradictions to not promise anything while still making it sound like there is something in there.

Stage 3, Ask: It is not enough to suggest that you may have the solution. You also need to get something in return. You need something, a payment, for all of your hard work. And you want at least some of it before you even give something.

Stage 4, Swindle: After you've got your payment, give a long solution to the problem, or a not-so-useful-info. You've got your reward, so no reason not to. Then swindle the character to another thing, make them forget this little thing, this little incident. Give them another bone to chew.

Yeah, in order to get that hammer of yours, you have to… I'm so sorry, but it's gonna be hard, you know, you… we'll have to enter this mall, you know, 'casue the shadowy figure who knows the way to the tool? Well, he needs some payment also, and he likes only a certain kind of payment so we'll have to look for it.

That's the idea, learn-suggest-ask-swindle. You learn what they want, suggest that you may be able to help them, ask for payment in advance and then swindle them away from it.

Squeeze emotional edges

Sometimes you'll have some emotional edges on other people. They may owe their lives to you, or maybe you just helped them greatly, or maybe you sacrificed a lot to help them in one way or another. You can use that two. Ask them for something, "a simple and small and tiny favor as a thank-you gift" or something. Or just remind them constantly that they owe you so they shouldn't do anything that somehow can hurt you.

Remember that time, a few months ago, that I left the concert that I was in the middle of (the one of the Stones, you know, for which I paid 100 bucks) in order to come to be with you, and you just left the minute I came? And now you're gonna do it to me again?

That's it, and you force this character to stay with you, 'cause she can't leave you again. She did it once, and you're squeezing the guilt that controls her.

Hint at things

The last trick that I use is hinting. People are prone to making huge things from tiny hints and using it to your advantage can save you a lot of headache later.

Remember how Lisa left early that day? I don't want to say bad things about her, but I've heard that maybe, just maybe, she's… no, it is too terrible. I think that I heard her, that I saw her talking with that enemy of yours, what was his name again? Olivia? Yeah, Olivia, and I think that they shook hands at the end. Yeah, it was here, a few meters from your front door. They were smiling, and Olivia looked at the door a few times, only for a second, only till I noticed her.

Again, the trick is to do as little as possible, make the hints as small as you can, with enough details to make the engines start rolling but not much more.

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The existing answers to this question give good advice on how to achieve the "subtle puppet-master" kind of cunning, the kind of emotional and psychological manipulation that screams of Machiavelli and very personal villains.

Cunning doesn't have to be subtle.

Subtle is a popular way to play it, sure, but Maid RPG's definition of cunning is broader than that, and includes almost any form of convincing people to do things that doesn't rely exclusively on being likeable; It is therefore entirely possible to play an effective high-cunning maid without needing to do the whole Xanatos thing. Here's a few practical examples.

Lying through your teeth

Lies are great. They let you get away with things, get into places you shouldn't be, get out of duties you should be doing, get others into trouble, and countless other situations that could be resolved if only the other party could conveniently be misinformed about something. Best of all, they require almost no preparation or effort to tell. Fortunately for you, Cunning is Maid RPG's Bluff skill.

Remember, contests in Maid take the form of opposed rolls where the winning side gets to declare the consequences of the contest on top of causing their opponent stress loss. Your character tells a lie; Your target can oppose your bluff with her will, skill, cunning, or whatever else seems appropriate - the important thing is that you can define the outcome of your winning the contest as their believing your silver-tongued deception.

Don't worry too much about coming up with watertight lies. Remember, having a high cunning means your character is a better liar than you are, so the GM can probably be persuaded into letting an accidental inconsistency slide - and given the bizarre events and hectic pace of Maid RPG, an implausible lie can be a lot more believable than you might think. More importantly, eventually getting caught out in a lie (and perhaps trying to talk your way out of it with another one) is an entirely valid and entertaining outcome.

Seduction

I don't know if you're playing with the seduction rules, but remember that Cunning can be used for that, too. That's why Maids with the Sexy type get it.

Maid defines Seduction very loosely. It can be pre-planned or impulsive, it can be elaborate or simple, it can be born in the heat of the moment or the result of an extended campaign. It can be mutual, unrequited, or just endlessly stringing someone along. It can even be entirely inadvertent (in a "My character doesn't intend to be seductive, she just ends up forcing your character's face into her chest entirely accidentally" kind of way). This means that you can declare almost any situation or action in which your character might seem remotely attractive to be a seduction attempt. Obviously, you'll want to pick and choose your opportunities, but opportunities will arise, and often. (Flipping though the outfit rules may provide some good inspirations.)

And seduction is powerful. It quite literally gives you the ability to ask anything of a character you've seduced, and have them obey. Admittedly, it does have limits: The nature of the relationship between the seducer and the seduced and how it translates into an emotional hold really should be roleplayed if it is to be any fun, the nature of that relationship will in practice limit what you can ask of them and when, and players can easily use their character being seduced as an excuse to do all sorts of things that your character might not want. Even so, seduction's ability to cause people to do what you want could potentially achieve the goal of your character being a cunning manipulator without you having to make more than one successful roll.

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One small point to consider is that smart people don't have to be effective manipulators. You haven't said anything about requiring that your character's manipulative efforts actually work. I imagine you meant to imply this requirement, and "cunning" does that to some extent too, but one can be cunning, manipulative, and bad at it too. For instance, if you're good at planning convoluted plots to cause desired outcomes by long chains of events, you could come up with some plots like these to manipulate others and pass your character off as plenty cunning and manipulative regardless of whether anyone is actually fooled in the end.

As you say of yourself, you're fairly smart, but absolutely not manipulative in your personal life, so intelligence isn't really the issue. If naivety is a problem, try pretending to be especially cynical, disagreeable, and selfish. One might argue that's a large part of Machiavellianism right there.

If you're too honest, try just playing a quiet character – maybe one who sets up situations through nonverbal actions that are tilted toward her aims. E.g., be someone who steals things to ruin the trust between people who are more likely to suspect each other as the thief than to suspect your character.

Lack of social grace never stopped anyone from trying to be manipulative, so again, this is only a problem in as much as your character needs to be an effective manipulator. Imagining schemes is certainly tricky too, but being imaginative is one of those basic problems in role-playing that everyone needs to keep practicing. If you can, just try holding yourself to a lower standard. Let your character be bad at manipulating others, but keep trying anyway. To maintain the element of cunning, try making your plots unnecessarily convoluted, like a Rube Goldberg machine. Maybe people won't be able to tell what you're really after because you're going about it in such a bizarre, roundabout way! It may not be the most effective or easiest way to achieve subtle influence, but it at least ought to be in-character.

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Hmm, I read the OP as wanting to know how to bring up their character's Cunning stat in play, rather than wanting to know how to portray cunning. +1 for illuminating an interpretation of the question all the other answers have thusfar missed. –  GMJoe Apr 23 at 4:42
    
A benefit of my complete naivety of the game's character parameters :) –  Nick Stauner Apr 23 at 5:17
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While this is good advice, I actually do want to play a character who can manipulate successfully, not just one who wants to, but can't. Still...this does help by giving me some ideas on how to get into the mind of a manipulative character. –  Zibbobz Apr 23 at 13:29

As a person who enjoys playing manipulative characters, an advice that hasn't been said, but will complete the other ones.

If your character is smarter or more manipulative than you, how can you keep at her level? Time.

Think between game sessions. This way you have plenty of time of thinking plots that your characters will think in minutes or seconds of in-game time. Prepare ahead the many ramifications that plots can have. Study your fellow characters, their motives and their actions. You can even draw schemes and charts if those help you.

You can even comment some of your plans to the GM, for if he wants to exchange some advices (if he fancies that).

Come to the session well prepared, and your plots and schemes will be easier to implement or adapt.

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A lot of it is practice and experimentation. You can't actually practice by yourself or against bots; you need to be around real live people for it to work.

A fast way to practice would be online games of Mafia. Most games are easily won with certain techniques. Go for a more basic game that relies on cunning Mafia. You'll eventually learn to tell the liars apart with enough games.

If you want something more in-character, I recommend picking up Armageddon MUD. Any roleplay intensive MUD, MU*, or MMO will do, but Armageddon is built around the theme of betrayal and is perfectly suited to manipulative characters.

Make a character who uses no skills. Their only way of making income is through social methods - begging, lying, negotiating. You might die of poverty, but the stress will force you to learn to be more cunning.

Some common manipulative tricks:

  • Play dumb. Nobody suspects the dumb girl. This becomes very clear if you're playing Mafia.
  • Learn your target's political and religious views. Agree with them and praise them for having the 'right' views.
  • Be confident.

Yosi has suggested some of the other things I was going to cover too, mainly getting at your target's emotions (especially fear, anger, pride) and dangling their desires in front of them.

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