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A Beginner's Guide to Being Awesome At Mafia

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Original Publication: December 23, 2010 by Vi
Revised: January 18, 2011 by Vi

Motivation and Obligatory Caveats

When people first begin playing Mafia, they often ask questions like "How do I catch scum?" or "How do I do pro-Town things?". The answers to these extremely basic questions have a nasty tendency to be longwinded and completely above what your average new player can do or is even willing to try to do - if people can even answer them at all after stepping back and thinking about it. This page is an attempt to say, in no uncertain terms, what playing online Mafia effectively is all about.

While it would be wonderful to say that going against the advice on this page should only be done at one's own peril, it would be wise to remember that this was conceived by a single notoriously opinionated person and approved by an experienced subset of the current Mafia-playing population. Your mileage may vary, but probably not by much. Similarly, this page was written within a metagame - changes in the trends of how Mafia gets played may cause some of this page to go out of date. Again, this has been considered in writing this and the effect of meta shifts should be reined in.

Now then, how does one play Mafia well...?

As Any Alignment

Read the wiki.

Hey, you're already halfway there! In all seriousness, most people who play Mafia - and not just those who play on mafiascum.net, which hosts this wiki - have perused this wiki to some degree, especially the theory sections. By reading up, all of your newbie questions should be answered and you should have a general idea of what people look for when they play Mafia.

It's worth noting that precisely because everyone knows about the theory you see on the wiki, it is mostly outdated in practice (scum will generally avoid committing the tells listed on the wiki because they know they will be caught otherwise). However, novice scum and scumhunters will use it as their bread and butter, and one of the worst things you can do when playing with these sorts is get caught out on these tells. You likely won't actually use these tells yourself, but understanding the logic behind them (they DID work at one time, after all) should give you an idea of what kind of behaviors scum are more likely to do.

At the bottom of the page, a list of links has been provided to other outstanding theory articles. As these articles were published after this guide, they are guaranteed to be at least as cutting-edge as this page.

I don't want no scrub ♪

"Casual" has come to have two meanings - one being a synonym of "leisurely"; the other being the opposite of "competitive". Mafia is not either of these.

Mafia is not a game you can pick up and play. You need to stay focused on it until you're removed from the game. If you decide you don't want to play midway through, your options range from getting lynched to getting replaced to even getting modkilled. All of these are instances of you letting your team down, and rest assured everyone else playing doesn't appreciate it. Many people have tried to recover from burnout phases with a "nice easy game of Mafia" and found that it didn't work out.

Mafia is a competitive game, albeit unique in that players are not directly competing with each other individually. Playing to win is central to the game. On the Town's side, making light unrelated conversation with the other players, even if you like them outside the game, doesn't help the cause if it drags on for very long (especially since you may need to lynch them later). On the Mafia's side, it has been suggested that night-kills be tailored to keeping enjoyable players alive instead of making kills that will make it more likely that they will win. If that Mafia then loses, then it will come out that they essentially lost on purpose - and no victorious Town wants to hear that.

The bottom line is, Mafia is not for everyone. It's nothing personal if you don't like what you just read, but everyone will probably be happier if you stayed on the sidelines.

Note that this is NOT saying that Mafia shouldn't be fun. For Mafia, the fun comes more from the competition than the social aspects. You're more than welcome to talk to the players after the game and go from there.

They see you trollin' - they hatin' ♫

This really should seem obvious, but don't do things that are blatantly anti-Town unless you're sure you know what you're doing. Some examples would be claiming very early in the game (especially unprompted and especially if you are a power role), disobeying the Town when your actions are being "directed", faking an obstructive post restriction, etc. Some sample reasons given for doing these sorts of things include attempts to start discussion, spite, or attempting to uphold a meta ("well you should have known better; I always do this"). None of those reasons will justify the actions to anyone except yourself, and you can expect to get lynched as well as to be on the receiving end of plenty of complaints about your play in the long-reaching future.

There are, of course, exceptions to this. However, if you know if something is an exception, you probably have the experience to not worry about this part.

Stay classy, Planet Earth.

Mafia is not a pleasant game at times. After all, everyone has to make some very personal judgments about the people they're playing with, and people are going to be very wrong before it's all over (or at least told as much). While on a tactical level it may be worthwhile to push people out of their comfort zone by antagonizing them, most of the time pissing people off will make them want to lynch you - or at least think poorly of you. Most of the time, you will come out looking like a douche.

Note that it is possible to be forceful without being brutal. Finding the fine line dividing the two is key if you want to play aggressively.

Mafia is a game. Upsetting people for no evident reason - or for "psychological advantage" - may help you win in the short run, but will likely ensure that you will not be asked to play again.

Spy on your neighbors; they might be communists.

Where possible, make sure you have some idea who the other players are before you start playing. In particular, you want to have a broad idea of how they play, any defining quirks, and how easy you expect they would be to lynch. You don't want to antagonize someone without knowing ahead of time that they may react violently, or as Town you might want to be a little leery about wagons on people you think would be easy to lynch anyway. Unless you are absolutely certain, do NOT attempt to attribute a set of behaviors to an alignment based on games you have not played.

Posting vs. Not Posting; or, Pro-Town vs. Anti-Town

As either alignment there can be times when you are not sure what you want to post - or if you want to post at all. This is normal. However, posting is generally seen as pro-Town while not posting simply lets the other players continue their trains of thought without interference (which is usually only useful for scum). Note that if if the game is at a standstill, lurking is profoundly harmful to the Town.

While some people are capable of lurking as a playstyle regardless of alignment, people don't like playing with lurkers in general and frequently criticize them for looking unreadable or scummy, making them choice policy lynches/vigs as well as objects of public ridicule. (Note that lurkers are not always unreadable or scummy, although the argument that they're not making the game any easier for Town is usually fair.)

Note that you can go too far with this - there is such a thing as posting too much. If other players are having a hard time catching up on the discussion because of the immense volume of posts that flowed in while they were away, it will hurt those players' contributions as well as your ability to read those players. It is possible to use this as a tactic as scum, but it has a tendency to result in inactivity replacements/modkills as the other players prefer to just let the game go instead of reading it all and trying to make sense of it.

Go the extra mile.

What really makes contentful posting seem pro-Town is the initiative it shows in finding scum. Being proactive is the single best way to look Town, because it shows that you have enough of a vested interest in finding scum that you don't need to be prodded into doing it. This is one of the core bases of finding scum - scum neither need nor want to find themselves, so they have to find a way to look like they're trying to solve the game's mystery when in fact they already know the answer. Looking Town is, therefore, something you want to do as either alignment - it only makes sense that people who don't look Town should be considered scummy and therefore viable lynch candidates. Proactive arguments also tend to be more convincing, which is a solid reason for scum in particular to actively seek mislynch candidates.

As Town

Sturgeon's Law applies to Mafia: 90% of common knowledge is crap.

Think about it - people have been seriously playing Mafia for over half a decade, and a lot of people have come up with "tells" (hints toward clearly perceiving others' alignments) that they claim worked for them. One would think that all you have to do is follow these tells, and *poof!* the Town wins every time.

It doesn't work like that. Towns actually lose more often than not, in spite of the compounded experiences of so many others. What happened to those tells? Some tells simply didn't work to begin with - their creator thought that scum were more likely to do some action when in fact people do it all the time regardless of their alignment. Some tells are misapplied - either the wrong person gets scrutinized for committing some misdeed, or the tell is taken out of context. The rest of the tells have become public knowledge, and scum actively avoid committing those tells out of fear of being caught.

That last group is key. Everything on the wiki, as mentioned previously, is inherently outdated. If someone who's playing scum has read about the tell, they're going to adjust their play so they can't be caught by it. THAT is why the "tells" that actually work are either not published or not broad enough in scope that they work outside a single game. In short, there's no easy way out. (But this guide can help!)

Experience is the best teacher.

So there are no hard-and-fast tells to finding scum. Is it just something you "do"? Well, somewhat.
Experienced players do tend to do better than average overall, but they lose like everyone else does.

Mafia has a deep psychological component to it where you have to try to understand whether someone is acting with good or malevolent purposes in mind. It's hard to do that if you yourself haven't been one of the people you're trying to hunt as Town or avoid as scum. Once you understand what it's like to play as scum and know what your temptations and actions are in various situations, you can start to spot it in others. Of course, then as scum you'll know to avoid doing things that you think are scumtells for yourself... and the process repeats. That's the easiest and best way to improve, although it is very time-consuming.

One size does not fit all.

There is no single best playstyle, and in fact part of what makes Mafia interesting is that people play differently. That's not to say that all playstyles are equal in effectiveness, but you will need to read others through their playstyles. A lot of scumhunting involves "getting into peoples' heads", which means you need to understand where they're coming from.

While policy lynches for terrible playstyles are always tempting, they almost never happen (for better or worse). Don't bother.

On a related note, all tells or policies that include the word "all" are clear exaggerations. Catchphrases like Lynch All Liars or Lynch All Lurkers exist for good reasons - lying and lurking are very strongly anti-Town and there's great scum motivation to do them - but each situation is different. Think and judge the situation for yourself, but remember that the sayings exist because the offense really is that bad.

Only a Sith deals in absolutes. While that may sound appealing to you, remember that they lost pretty badly to some people playing silly mind games.

The most important part of your role is the word Town.

Barring some role madness games, your posts and your votes are the most important part of your arsenal against scum. If you win the role-assignment lottery and draw Bulletproof Doublevoting Cop, it doesn't do anyone any good if you get lynched.

While there is some merit to attempting to look tactically scummy for the sake of avoiding night-kills, it's actually much worse if you wind up looking scummy enough to be forced to claim or get lynched, as your posts during the Day will be beneath consideration whereas if you are night-killed your posts can be considered like any other upstanding Townie's.

Even if you're just a Vanilla Townie, the fact that you are Town doesn't legitimize everything you do as pro-Town or not scummy. In essence, don't play like lynchbait - you know that you're Town, but everyone else doesn't and they're not going to take your word for it.

Keep it real.

This should seem obvious, but don't lie unless you know what you're doing. Nothing looks worse than getting caught in a lie, plus one of the major benefits of dying as Town is that everyone expects you weren't lying while you were alive.

Lying as part of a "gambit" (a risky play with potentially worthwhile rewards) is a special case. You should generally try to gambit only if you're going to get a superior result if you succeed (none of that mindgames-for-the-sake-of-it garbage) and the gambit has low-to-no chance of failure. A good gambit has the following traits:

  • It isn't verifiably false - you didn't mess up the flavor, someone won't counterclaim you, and (if it's an issue) doesn't call game balance into question.
  • Your death and roleflip will show that it was a gambit.
  • If it fails or when it's time to correct your lie, you can explain that it was a gambit and what you were trying to do with it.

Since gambits are risky in general, being able to talk your way out of it should it blow up in your face is always something to keep in mind.

On a similar note, if people bring up a valid accusation against you, go ahead and admit to doing it. Then argue that it's not scummy, or at least not scummier than what someone else has done. But don't try to argue an indefensible position.

While it's tempting to call everyone else stupid at times - it might be true! - resist the temptation. The rest of the Town is trying its best to win; even if you're in a disadvantageous position, don't obstruct the Town in frustration or desperation.

Do not go gently into that good night.

Lynching a Townie is a bad thing in general, but lynching a confirmed Townie is worse. To yourself, you ARE a confirmed Townie. While getting lynched is not the end of the world, the fact is that getting lynched is the one thing you can guarantee will hinder your faction. Do not acquiesce to your lynch unless it would be clearly anti-Town to do otherwise (although those situations are not common).

Along these same lines, the occasions where it's pro-Town to self-hammer as Town are extremely limited, and offing yourself out of spite toward the (evident) morons who are about to lynch you isn't one of those occasions. Even if the wagon on you is mostly Town, you still have to win with them in the end, so stay helpful.

Learn to identify Townies as well as scum.

Scumhunting is hyped up pretty well, but being able to Townhunt is fairly close behind in terms of importance. For obvious reasons, you don't want to lynch someone you have identified as Town. In addition, as you accumulate Town reads you can begin to lynch and argue from process of elimination. As long as your Town reads are accurate, process of elimination is one of the scariest things you can do to scum - now they not only have to look Town (which is already difficult for them), but they have to look more Town than others in order to evade your suspicion.

Of course, this leaves the question of how to identify Townies. This comes with the same experience described earlier when scumhunting was discussed.

Be careful what you wish for.

If you attempt to do a "meta read" on someone to see if they do or did something the same way in a different game, you are heavily biased toward seeing what you wanted to see in the first place.

If you attempt to make a Post by Post Analysis (abbreviated PbPA, wherein you list each of a target player's posts and critique each one), you are very likely to find yourself stretching to justify a conclusion you already had in mind beforehand with posts that don't actually add anything. In fact, PbPAs are quite possibly the most pointless ways you can waste time in Mafia.

Pages 18 through 43 are not required reading.

Nobody wants to read your giant walls of text unless there's a really good reason for it. No, you don't want to read them either. Be concise; it dramatically increases the chance of people reading your posts or caring what they say.

Similarly, "information" is not this amazing serum that Townies need 300 posts of per week or they wither. Learn to pick out what is important from posts. It may be anathema to new players to SKIM the thread, but many times you can do just that and not miss much if you just keep an eye out for what's worth reading.

Skilled players are probably not going to post directly scummy things. To a degree, WHAT they post doesn't really matter. It's more helpful to look at their responses to various pressures and judge their motives accordingly.

Here's a quarter, call someone who cares.

The best and quite possibly only reason you should argue with someone you think is scum is to get them to clarify something they said earlier. Telling them that they're scum won't accomplish anything except RAGE and wars of text walls - in the end, you're not going to convince them that they're scum and they're not going to vote themselves. Market your cases to the other players; convince them that you're on the right track and you'll go a lot farther.

Similarly, defense in Mafia is fairly overrated, as a competent Mafia player can talk their way out of anything and you should expect people to argue against their own lynch by any means necessary. This isn't to say that you should blindly tunnel on your target or that you should simply ignore defense; seeing the other side to an argument may rightfully suggest that you're misunderstanding something or generally on the wrong track. By all means defend yourself where you feel it's necessary, but once done you would be better off pointing out why someone else deserves to be lynched more rather than continuing to expound on your defense.

You have a better chance of dying IRL than winning the lottery.

Do not fool yourself into thinking you can call the scumteam, especially before anyone has flipped scum. Don't bother with trying to draw connections between players until one of them is dead. It's tempting! but futile.

Stand by what you believe.

Your vote is your voice. Don't cast it against people you don't think are scum, and as a general rule don't settle for lynches you don't think will hit scum.

Certainty only rarely comes into play in Mafia. Remember, at the end of the Day you want to lynch the person who's -most likely- to be scum. Expect to be disappointed sometimes.

As Mafia

Wait, I'm EVIL now?

The biggest hurdle for new scum players is getting used to a very different motivation from the Townies. The Townies are interested in lynching a very specific guilty set of players. YOU, on the other hand, want them to lynch anyone else. For players who rely on a strong moral core, this is difficult to do - you have to deliberately misdirect well-meaning players against each other. Otherwise, you still have to deal with the fact that you're already aware that any scumhunting and lynches that further your Win Condition are inherently misapplied.

In addition, the Town's primary motivation is offensive in nature (find and lynch scum) while the Mafia's Win Condition is a bit more defensive (don't get lynched). This is why proactivity is so important - the Mafia doesn't really have any intrinsic reason to help Town in its quest to hunt scum or just do more than the bare minimum, BUT those are the sorts of players the Town is hunting for! If you want to avoid looking scummy, you have to get your hands dirty and look like you're making an effort to find scum.

One method of getting over this hurdle of not having any proactive motivation is to pretend that you're looking for an anti-Town group in the game, just like you would if you were Town. For one, you ARE looking for a group - of power roles that you can expose and deal with at Night. In larger games, there actually MAY be other anti-Town groups to look for, which will help this further (although you can't do too well with finding them during the Day, or you'll get killed - some of the advice for playing as a third party comes into play here).

YYYYYES! I AM INVINCIBLE!!

One of the benefits (and potential drawbacks) of being Mafia is that you have a massive information advantage over the Town. You -know- what is going on most of the time, whereas the Town is essentially relying on educated guesswork. So if you notice something about yourself or a scumpartner that looks really bad, don't panic - the chance of a Townie noticing it is low, the chance of it becoming a talking point is lower still, and the chance of a lynch coming of it is low enough to where it's normally not worth making a big deal over.

Along those lines, if someone starts to catch onto you, it's not the end of the world. YOU know that they're on the right path, but they don't. Play it off with the best plausible explanation you can give, and move on.

Note that things may still sometimes not go your way. The person you've been trying to lynch for two Days may turn out to be a confirmed Town power role, or your partner just said something condemnably scummy and earned a near-lynch wagon while you were away. Oops. Rather than panic, you need to adapt. Townies can be very wrong too; you need to be able to deduce what you would be doing as Town in that scenario and try to follow that - without actually helping Town, where possible. To this end, it's helpful to keep in mind a Townie thought process behind everything you do, so that if you're asked why you said some particular thing or weren't on some particular wagon you can come back with a plausible alibi.

Never quit. Never, never, never, never quit.

On the other hand, suppose you really got put in a bind and your lynch is starting to look like a real possibility. Don't resign yourself to the lynch - remember, the Town doesn't know yet that you're scum. In practice, there are very few truly unwinnable or purely negative scenarios for Mafia - there's always the chance that the wagon can be deflected to someone else, or you can make some Townies look very bad when you flip, or if nothing else you can bamboozle the Town into losing its momentum. Never surrender entirely, and never let them know they're on the right track until the absolute latest possible moment.

Be ready to make big plays.

Playing modestly can win some games against Towns full of newish players - they'll lynch themselves into oblivion with no real effort on your part. But when the pressure comes onto you, you have to be able to react well enough to ensure that you won't get lynched. There are all kinds of devious ways to do this - fakeclaiming, deliberately dropping "accidental" Towntells, or even just springing into decisive action. These sorts of gambits are inherently risky, of course. However and remembering the information deficit Town is working against, the chance of you getting called on a given gambit is fairly low, so the only real limiting factor is your own courage (or lack thereof).

A solid gambit can hand the entire game to you if executed properly. Look for ways to do it. (But be careful - people who are known for gambiting are less likely to be believed in the future.)

Begin with your end in mind.

This follows from the previous point, but warrants its own mention. Towns tend to be reluctant to lynch claimed power roles, especially Day 1. (The merits of lynching claimed power roles is currently under review in the mafiascum.net community.) You need to decide what role you want to claim at L-1 or in massclaim as early as possible, and act like you actually have that role throughout the game. A convincing claim can completely shift the game's momentum in your favor.

If you are forced to claim before being lynched, you should always claim a power role unless there is no chance of your claim being believed. Even if it's Day 1 and you don't think it'll get you off the hook for the rest of the game, you have to at least try - if nothing else, you're buying time before the first scumlynch, bamboozling the Townies along the way. Or perhaps you will draw another Town power role out in a counterclaim. There's little harm in trying.

Fake it 'til ya make it.

Learn to convincingly appeal to emotion. Getting upset works better than getting sad. What generally doesn't work is vanishing. You never know what can tip the scale away from your lynch, but not trying is usually considered an admission of guilt.

Weigh the benefits of sacrificing your teammates.

One massive advantage scum has is in its numbers, allowing it to coordinate and maintain a decent grasp on public opinion. Because of this, initially "bussing" (deliberately being a major contributor on a scum lynch) was a hugely effective manuever - scum wouldn't sacrifice one of their own so readily; and if you can't trust the people leading lynches on scum, who CAN you trust?

There are two big problems with bussing in the current meta. One is that more often than not, bussing rarely happens as defined. What happens instead is "distancing" (scum attacking each other during the Day). If done poorly, distancing looks very obvious to people who know what to look for - mostly-baseless attacks out of the blue against an otherwise unremarkable player. In this current meta, this is probably the only good associative tell without flips.

The other problem is that lynching away one of your partners is a major dent to the Mafia's power to influence the Town and does not directly make the game easier to win. Furthermore, bussing attempts are intended to give the bussing scum Town credit for leading the lynch on scum. That may not happen for one reason or another, in which case you just shot yourself in the foot.

The best kind of bus looks organic - catch your scumpartner on a legitimate scumtell and orchestrate an argument that looks convincing but is actually intended to pull in Townies and make them look suspicious. This is easiest to do if your partner knows that the bus attempt is coming; otherwise you will likely just make your partner very upset as they wonder why you're unnecessarily singling them out.

Another factor that makes bussing look good lies in proactivity. It's a bit late to start slaying your partner if it's already likely that they will get lynched regardless of what you do. You want to be early on the lynch if you see it as inevitable, but not so early that it requires you to look like you're tunneling on your partner - yes, your partner will flip scum, but the Townies will start wondering if your conviction came from KNOWING you were right all along.

At the bottom line, though, deliberately sacrificing your teammate lets another game Day go by without any progress toward your Win Condition, and as the game slowly winds down to LyLo the job of avoiding the Town's ire gets more difficult. The sacrifice made by bussing has to be worth having to survive another Day.

You are not alone!

When you are given the ability to communicate with your scumpartners, USE IT. The ability for scumpartners to coordinate with each other with no concerns about each others' allegiance is a huge advantage for the Mafia. Discuss who you want to target with your factional kill, who might be a power role, your plans for how you want to enter the next Day, how you think you should interact with the other members of the team, who you think the best mislynches are probably going to be, or anything else that may help you. A functioning Mafia team is much stronger than the sum of its individual members.

If you have been given the ability to communicate during the Day phases, unless you are playing in a very quick game there is no reason for you to NOT be able to orchestrate whatever maneuvers you like at any given time. If utilized properly, daytalk is a huge boost to scum power.

Mafia, but not scum.

Don't spoil the game even if you have effectively lost. Let's say you know who the SK is, but you're getting lynched as the last Mafioso. It's very bad form to out the SK with your dying breath - it doesn't matter to you whether the SK wins or not; you still lose. Let the others have their fun and plot revenge after the game.

As Third Party (SK)

How NOT to Be Seen.

If you do not have immunity to Night kills, playing as SK forces you into the middle of the road. Playing too scummily will get you lynched, but playing too "well" will get you killed by the scum. You lose either way. If you're an unremarkable player on the list, you stand a decent chance of blending in without doing much special. If you're noted for getting lynched a lot or for being a good player, you have to learn to play a suboptimal game without coming across as scum. For instance, pick reasoned arguments with obvious Townies, but be able to argue your way out of a lynch. Try not to "catch onto" scum; they hate that and like shooting people for it.

If you do have NK-immunity, half of the pressure is mostly removed. However, you still don't want to get shot at - aside from decreasing the rate at which people die and thus dragging the game out, if the scum figure out that you're not an obvious target for protection they will deduce that you're an SK and start working on lynching you.

Do not claim a power role except as a last resort. That's just baiting the scumkill unless you think there is a Doctor in the setup.

The enemy of your enemy is kind of your friend.

As SK, the primary threat to winning the game is the Mafia. Some mods will let the Mafia win regardless of whether the SK is alive as soon as they attain a majority of the living players. You obviously want to prevent that, so if the Town isn't lynching scum, it's up to you to kill them.

At the same time, you also don't want to annihilate the Mafia at Night. While there is at least one Mafioso alive, there's the possibility that someone other than the person you target will die at Night. That extra kill is invaluable if you want to cut down on the length of time you have to spend hiding from the lynch. In addition, as soon as the Mafia is gone the Town will begin hunting for the SK, which you can really do without. Of course, if the Mafioso targets you with its kill and you don't have immunity, it's a failed endeavor, so decide if and how long you plan on taking the risk.

Conclusion

The above reflects some of the best general advice that Vi, the reviewers of this guide and several others, can offer in terms of making high-level Mafia games more common. Now that it's part of the public discourse, it can be hoped and expected that games will become more intriguing everywhere online Mafia is played.

At the heart of good play is experience, though. There's quite a difference between reading what you are recommended to do and actually doing it convincingly. Keep playing and learning from your mistakes and experiments until you learn for yourself what works and what doesn't.

I wish you the best of luck.

Other Useful Pages

A Beginner's Guide to Claiming
How to Win as Mafia: Calculated Inaction