Confidence game
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Basic Information

A confidence trick or confidence game (also known as a bunko, con, flim flam, gaffle, grift, hustle, scam, scheme, or swindle) is an attempt to defraud a person or group by gaining their confidence. The people who commit such tricks are often known as con men, con artists, or grifters. The confidence trickster often works with one or more accomplices called shills, who help manipulate the mark into accepting the con man's plan. In a traditional confidence trick, the mark is led to believe that he will be able to win money or some other prize by doing some task. The accomplices may pretend to be random strangers who have benefited from successfully performing the task.

The first known usage of the term "confidence man" in English was in 1849; it was used by American press during the United States trial of William Thompson. Thompson chatted with strangers until he asked if they had the confidence to lend him their watches, whereupon he would walk off with the watch; he was captured when a victim recognized him on the street.

The term 'scam' is often used to describe the 'confidence trick' employed by a 'confidence man'. The origin of this word is thought to come from the Irish phrase 'S cam é (pron. s'cam ae) meaning 'it is a trick'.

List of Confiendence Games

Methods used by Con Artists to avoid prosecution:

  • Pitiful fraud. The con artist may tell his or her mark pitiful lies about his or her family, children etc; hence the mark feels sorry for him or her, and does not alert the police.
  • Family member. Some con artists target their own families, who feel obligated not to contact authorities, due to family ties.
  • Embarrassing enterprise. If the mark loses a small sum only, he or she may be unwilling to contact the authorities if the circumstances are embarrassing, e.g. if the mark wishes to avoid revealing his or her pornography stash to his or her spouse.
  • Greasy crimes. Petty crimes and scams that will in the worst cases only be punished by a fine, no jail time.
  • A common ploy of investment scammers is to encourage a mark to use money concealed from tax authorities. The mark cannot go to the authorities without revealing that he or she has committed tax fraud.
  • Many swindles involve a minor element of crime or some other misdeed. The mark is made to think that he or she will gain money by helping fraudsters get huge sums out of a country (the classic Nigerian scam); hence marks cannot go to the police without revealing that they planned to commit a crime themselves
    • This bears emphasis - an awful lot of scams rely on making the mark think they're benefitting at the conman's expense or otherwise making some dishonest deal. Someone who doesn't try to exploit the conman or behaves in an honest or straightforward way may find the scam sliding off. (Which is the reason for the old adage: "You can't cheat an honest man.").

See Also:


Most of the above text came from wikipedia:

Movies: The Sting depicts several cons.
Movies: The Lady Eve is a screwball comedy about a female card sharp who falls in love with the rich mark her partner wants to swindle.
TV series: Lost has several con artist characters, and occasionally shows one of their cons in detail.
TV series: Deadwood has a con featured prominently in the first few episodes.
TV series: The Rockford Files occasionally has it's main character, Jim Rockford, engaging in cons to swindle bad guys difficult to reach by the law.
Books: God Save the Mark by Donald E. Westlake features a main character who is a natural bunko magnet; he has fallen for every con in the book, multiple times. This is mostly an inconvenience for him, until he inherits a large amount of money and things get even worse…

NPR article: How Scams Worked In The 1800s covers historical con games relevant to the Old West or Gilded Age.

Game and Story Use

  • Con men make very interesting PCs or NPCs, but may find the going difficult in an RPG. Hopefully, having more knowledge about how cons operate (via the links above) will make that easier.
    • Some players are inclined to never trust an NPC, so a con man taking the PCs for all they're worth is unlikely.
      • A possible way around this is to let the PC's think they're seeing through the con… and then have the con turn out to be something entirely different. A con within a con, so to speak. Difficult to pull off, maybe; but oh, the look on their faces…
    • It's not necessarily easier for PCs to be con men, either. The GM will typically know when the PC is up to something, and will have to juggle how much various NPCs know. Unless the game has very solid social mechanics, it may be very hard for the GM to determine which NPCs should fall for Cons, and how often.
  • It may be easier to use an off-camera con as a plot device.
    • One NPC cons another NPC, and the PCs are hired to expose it or bring the grifter to justice.
    • Having previously been victim of a con could be part of a character's back-story (like on the show Lost). This provides a motivation or subplot (track down that jerk and get my money back), or could just be an example of what's happened to you in the past thanks to that crummy Wisdom score or "Oblivious" flaw.
    • What happens when a known con artist is actually telling the truth? Do people believe him? Can he resist the temptation to manipulate people even when there's no scam involved?
  • The sort of scam that relies on the victim being dishonest might even make a good "odious personal habit" for the avatars of more active fantasy deities, going out in the world to set traps for the dishonest that pay them back in their own coin. Such beings might even reward the honest man who points out their "mistake" and tells them how to profit from it themselves. This is the sort of thing that might appeal to a fantasy version of Mercury … who was, after all, meant to have both thieves and merchants in his portfolio.
    • For a less divine version, this sort of thing would probably appeal to a lot of The Fair Folk - especially pookas and similar beasts.
  • While most cons are run for profit, the same methods can be applied to more hostile ends: revenge, espionage, or higher-level scheming.
  • A con in progress, or someone trying to con a PC, might make a good wandering monster for an urban random encounters table.
    • Just to mix things up, there might be some con-game setups in there that turn out to be actually true.
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