The Alexandrian

Gnome Stew has an article up today: Hot Button — Secrets

My problem is that the article is conflating two things that are, at best, tangentially related to each other.

First, you have the issue of players keeping secrets from each other. Second, you have the issue of PCs engaging in actions that will disrupt party unity.

Secrets don’t have to be disruptive and there are lots of things that will be disruptive to party unity even if they aren’t kept secret.

Meanwhile, because the article is muddling these two unrelated concepts together, it doesn’t spend much time (if any) actually addressing the actual issue of interest: How can these techniques be used? And when should they be avoided?

For example, let’s talk secrets: Keeping information secret to a PC secret from the player can be a very immersive technique. OTOH, letting the players have information that their PCs don’t can be very useful as a storytelling technique (in terms of pacing, clarity, and/or effect). And this extends beyond PC vs. PC secrets: For example, do you want the players to be totally inside Luke Skywalker’s head when he sees the Death Star and has no idea what it is until Ben Kenobi says, “That’s no moon. It’s a space station.” Or would it be more effective to use cut-away scenes to establish this looming, ominous threat in the playing space so that the players can really, truly appreciate the “oh, shit” moment when their characters suddenly find themselves dropping out of hyperspace right next to it.

The right answer depends partly on the players at your table. For example, if you’ve got a player at your table who can’t firewall metagame information and whose first response to a secret is to come up with some bullshit way for his PC to “accidentally” discover the information, then you’re probably going to want to keep secrets. (And this can also be true if you’ve got a player who really wants to maintain that firewall but struggles to get back to the character’s POV once they have access to information the character doesn’t.)

But the right answer also depends on what you’re trying to accomplish.

And the same thing applies to actions that disrupt party unity.

For example, if we’re sitting down to play a Pathfinder Adventure Path then it would a game-breaker to disrupt party unity. OTOH, if you’re playing in my open table OD&D campaign, then it’s totally awesome to engage in that kind of behavior: If the party implodes, it doesn’t matter because the next session was already going to feature a completely different party.

For an extreme example of this: I recently ran the one-shot Ego Hunter adventure for Eclipse Phase. It’s written to give every PC a secret agenda and I modified it further so that one of the PCs had a hidden identity. Then I aggressively enforced firewalling of information by taking players into other rooms to resolve secret interactions. The result was a session filled with extreme paranoia, backstabbing, and plans-within-plans-within-plans. So lots and lots of secrets. And lots and lots of party-disruptive behavior. (Including one guy who got ran over by a car twice and nearly a third time.)

It was glorious.

But I wouldn’t do it in my regular 3.5 campaign.

3 Responses to “Thought of the Day: Secrets and Stuff”

  1. Andrew says:

    I remember some time back when you were starting your Ptolus campaign and had a player who was a conduit for information to the party, who hoarded the information. The best laid plans!

    I often want to share my shiny secrets with the players, but I don’t want to rob them (or me) of the payoff of finding out in character through play. So I have what I call a “deep back pocket” with hidden stuff they may never find out.

    In your example of the Death Star, I think a great pacing issue would be to have ways for them to find out about it before it looms into view. Not through telling the players, though.

    Like, the old mentor has had Force visions about a great force of death being developed by his former pupil, and when he sees it he scents the same flavor from the dream. Han runs into someone he knew from his days in the Imperial Navy who warns him the Rebellion is doomed and nothing can stand in the way now, but can’t say more. That sort of thing.

    Inter-party conflict does indeed rely heavily on the game and its expected longevity. Good post.

  2. gaynorvader says:

    I always found when inter-party conflict began to get out of hand (threats of death, etc) it paid to throw an encounter at them. If they’re in a dangerous place, perhaps their fighting has attracted a monster, if they’re in a city, perhaps the city guard come over to break them up. Maybe they have triggered some long-dormant magic that curses them or causes them to be transported to another realm. I like when my players bicker, it gives me a chance to be evil! :D

  3. d47 says:

    I was just listening to a WoTC D&D podcast with the Acquisitions Incorporated group (who are generally funny, at least) and heard something that startled me.

    While the party was looking around inside a building, the DM started describing a menacing group getting out of coach that had previously run over one of their members. One of the players, said, “Wait, can we see this?” The DM said something like, “No, this is a cut scene. Now, the camera pans back to you.”

    It might have been a hint/warning to the players, but I felt like it was very awkward and disrupted what the players were focused on.

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