After a discussion with Dave G about the merits of online gaming using Google Hangouts or Gametable vs. gaming around a table in person, one of the things I kept touching on was the value of being able to pass information to players without the other players noticing. In online formats, this is easily done with private messages, but around the table, unless everyone is using laptops, you have to pass notes. Regardless of format though, secrets and other forms of hidden information can be a great tool for creating tension. Today I want to talk about the three major kinds of secrets, which I want to define by the three kinds of relationships in roleplaying games.
Player to GM
The GM keeps secrets from the players, that much is obvious. There are all kinds of hidden things about the setting and the characters in it. There are a lot of ways to use secrets to challenge the PCs, and one of the best ways to make sure that the secrets are a surprise is to keep them secret from the players as well. This goes both ways though, and things can get really interesting when players keep secrets from the GM. This usually involves strategies or combos for overcoming challenges, but can get really interesting with narrative secrets as well. One of the ways to implement this is to have everyone record a secret on a piece of paper at character creation, and then seal it in an envelope. Maybe their paper is blank, or maybe it’s something deep and dark. But no one knows what it is except for that player, and they can be rewarded for revealing it in an interesting way. When it finally comes out, they can say “That was my secret”, and the GM opens their envelope to see what they had written. It can take a bit of negotiation to try and establish a good scope for these secrets, but it lets the players preserve some surprises for the GM.
Character to Character
This is probably the most common kind of secret that comes into play. Every character is hiding something. or they should be, because secrets are part of what make them an interesting character. Maybe the rogue is on the run from the thieves’ guild, or the fighter is secretly an aristocrat. These are the kinds of things that the players know about and willingly incorporate into the narrative. Really big secrets, like being a lost heir or somesuch are probably best done this way, because it lets players focus on the drama rather than the outcome. It’s a secret that everyone can participate in, because they can all work to arrange some interesting circumstances for it to come out.
Player to Player
This is a kind of secret I’ve been experimenting with for the last few years and is, to me, the best of both worlds. Having players collude with the GM on their secrets means that the world can better reflect their existence, and having the players keep those secrets not merely from the other characters but from the other players can result in some interesting reveals, some of which play out more than once as a player, through their character, shares their secret with a few others at a time. I’ve done this with hidden enemies, secret quests, and even one instance where a character had sold their soul and was required to occasionally do a favour for a devil. The important thing to remember about these kinds of secrets is to keep the player in the driver’s seat on when to reveal it. Secrets should exert pressure from time to time (what good are they if they don’t?), but the final reveal should be up to them. That’s part of the beauty of it, in a way. When things really come to a head, does their character entrust the party with their secret, or do they play dumb and hope it all works out?
One thing you’ll notice all of these kinds of secrets have in common is that they’re all designed to come out at some point. Secrets put pressure on people, but in a cooperative game, the goal should be to have the secret come to light, because otherwise no one else gets to participate in it. What good is a character’s dark and tragic past if no one else knows about it and it never comes up in game? Imagine how the Count of Monte Cristo would have turned out if Edmund Dantes had never revealed himself to Fernand. Sure, the reader gets to be in on the secret, but the payoff is Fernand’s reaction to finding out that the friend he betrayed has come to seek revenge. When coming up with a secret, it’s always important to think about some ways you want that secret to come out.
So those are the three most important kinds of secrets I think, and next week I’ll talk a bit about how to implement them in game, and about some games that use secrets and hidden information really effectively. Thanks for reading, and if you haven’t already, go and check out Headshots from the Heart, a fundraiser I’m helping with. We’re doing a Borderlands marathon for Child’s Play, which donates toys and video games to children’s hospitals. The entire thing will be broadcast live on May 26th and 27th, and we have a lot of great auctions, interviews, and challenges lined up. But we need your support, so head over and pledge!