The Alexandrian

IN THE SHADOW OF THE SPIRE

Session 1B: Tee’s Homecoming

In which desperate answers are sought and the lack of such answers leads to a heartbreaking revelation…

Something that I didn’t anticipate when I started this campaign was that the players would start keeping secrets from each other. You’ll see this reflected in several places throughout the campaign journals, but it really starts here: When Tee ran away from the others, her player requested a private session. Others would follow suit.

This had knock-on effects: Character backgrounds weren’t shared. The prelude campaign journals weren’t shared. And I often had to prep multiple versions of the campaign journal for each session in order to reflect different players/characters having different sets of knowledge.

(Ironically, I had actually thought I could use Tee’s interest in being a “secret seeker” as a gateway for funneling exposition into the campaign. But when we discovered that Tee sought secrets so that she could keep them, I suddenly had a whole structure built up for funneling information to Tee… and there it would stop.)

Although surprising, this wasn’t really a problem. But there are a few things to keep in mind with this play dynamic:

Balancing Time: The practice of balancing the “private session” isn’t much different than any other occasion when the group splits up. (The only difference is that the GM needs to transition between multiple rooms.) In general, I’ve found the trick is switch back and forth between the groups in order to keep everyone engaged.

There is a proviso to this, however. In general, groups that aren’t dysfunctional take pleasure in both their own activities and the activities of their fellow players (they are both actors and audience for the game). This is true whether the group is together or split up. Time spent with a player when the other players can’t act as an audience, however, is like dead air on the radio. It’s more troublesome.

As a result, there may be times when it makes more sense to just give the rest of the group a 5 or 10 minute break while you’re resolving things with the other player. (This is a good time to figure out what the pizza order should be for the evening. Or to work up a shopping list. Or just hang out and chat. Whatever works.)

Upon other occasions, we’ve simply pushed the “private time” off to a separate session (usually run via PBeM or IM). Of course, this only works if one is confident if the content of that private time isn’t going to have an impact on the rest of the current session. (Sometimes you can mutually agree on the rough parameters or “outline” of the events covered in the private session and then flesh it out later.)

Balancing Information: As I alluded to above, the keeping of player secrets pretty much automatically leads to a balkanization of information. This, in turn, can wreak havoc with the Three Clue Rule — either because the player with the necessary information doesn’t share it when it becomes relevant; doesn’t recognize that the information has become relevant due to a lack of context; or has simply forgotten it.

After all, the Three Clue Rule works due to redundancy and reinforcement. If Player 1 has Clue 1, Player 2 has Clue 2, and Player 3 has forgotten Clue 3, redundancy has been significantly weakened and there is no reinforcement.

This doesn’t require you to automatically hit the panic button, of course. Most of the time it will all work out just fine. But it is something to be aware of and keep track of.

The Bluff: This is only tangentially related to the kind of player-initiated secrecy I’ve been talking about here, but a successful pattern of bluffing can be useful when the GM wants to communicate secrets.

For example, let’s say that one of the players has been hit by a charm spell or replaced with a doppleganger. If you hand a note to that particular player… BAM. The whole table knows something is up. Even if the players don’t necessarily act on their metagame knowledge, it’s still out there.

A few ways to deal with this:

First, build a habit of intermittently handing out notes. They don’t always have to be important. They don’t always have to be secret. They can even just say something like, “Don’t tell anyone there’s nothing on this note.” The idea is to camouflage the important note when it comes long. (Disadvantage: Writing out notes is time-consuming.)

Second, include a “fake revelation” on the note. Something like: “Tell the other players that you’ve spotted a hidden rune on the ceiling. BTW, you’ve been replaced with a doppleganger.”

Third, hand out notes to multiple players. Only one of them contains the actual information — but now nobody is entirely sure who’s holding the secret. (This also works well if you include a few innocuous or semi-innocuous notes for other people. They may think they’re the actual target of the mass camouflage.)

Fourth, find a way to get the player the information away from the table. (In an era of cellphones this has actually become relatively easy. Take a break, go to the bathroom, text the player. Remember to ask them to confirm that they’ve seen the text; otherwise it may just sit at the bottom of their backpack until two hours after the session has wrapped up.)

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One Response to “Ptolus: Running the Campaign – Player Secrets”

  1. John says:

    I tend to use skype, gtalk, or other IM clients for this, since most (all?) of my players tend to keep laptops out during play. It only backfires when they have audio notifications on, as well as speakers, since then everybody hears the ‘boop’ noise (or what-have-you). Likewise, the availability of IM can backfire if the players start communicating covertly. In general, it works pretty well, though. I still pass notes sometimes when I want everyone to know that something is up / for effect.

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