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I Have A Secret (About Secrets In Play)

Close up of a woman holding a finger to her lips

Me, The Character:

I am the rookie on an established task force. They all call me “Boot” but my father was in this police department, and my grandfather, and as one of the youngest graduates of the academy in recent memory, I am prepared to follow in their shining footsteps. There’s something a bit funny though — everyone on my new team keeps talking about this thing that was in the papers months ago. It was all cleared up, pretty unfortunate, but one officer from this team turned out to be the responsible party. Every time they talk about it, I feel like I’m missing something, but they stop talking and give each other meaningful looks if I ask anything … About that, or about how the Lieutenant lost his eye. There’s a pool on the eye so everyone’s trying to find out. I voted swordfish but on second thought maybe pool cue would have been a better bet …

Me, The Player:

We world built this together. I am in on the secret. I delight in believing only the best of my teammates with bright eyed innocence, not that they could be hiding anything dark. Because I know the secret, I can push them in to awkward situations by asking questions that seem and feel innocent and give them all a chance to be the group who’s been through thick and thin. Playing the rookie in this game works out for me — I don’t know this genre well but I’m having a blast playing it, and any goofs can be easily covered by my newness to the team.

 Because my character is not in the know, we create all kinds of good role play opportunities at the table. 
But the secrets. That’s really what it’s all about. Because my character is not in the know, we create all kinds of good role play opportunities at the table. Someday, maybe, it will actually come out we’ll have that moment when Ras, around whom all of the whispers swirl, will have to actually tell me what happened that night when shots were fired. But until then…until then we all get to lean in to it.

Why Have A Secret

You might say, why even have secrets if all the players at the table are in on them? Well, my gnome reading friend, gather near to these pointy hats and listen to their whispered thoughts. Having a secret drives both character actions and character evolution. Having a secret does not stay stagnant. As a character, there are two general ways to handle a secret, and they are not mutually exclusive. The first is that you are constantly working to conceal it — it will drive your actions even if it causes you to do things that aren’t in your best interest (which just makes everything more interesting). The second is that you may have confused or evolving emotions tied to your secret. You may be torn between keeping your secret and another force — care for a person or thing that is being harmed by your silence. You may be on a path to realizing that you will still be liked and accepted if you reveal your secret. All of these make brilliant role playing opportunities at the table. Our characters are not one dimensional any more than we are (unless we want them to be).

The kind of secrets that are fun to play with as characters are also frequently tied up with guilt, remorse, sadness, or other emotions that are easy to lean into at the table. If you are worried that a different cop in your department took the fall for what may have been your bad call, you’ll react differently to him suddenly showing up than if you parted knowing that he fired the bad shot. Since I love feelsy games right now, of course I want the complication of secrets to raise the stakes and push more interesting decision making at the table.

So How Do I Have Secrets Successfully At the Table, Senda?

Gosh, I’m so glad you asked! There are a couple of key items I don’t think folks always consider when dealing in table secrets, and using them successfully.

 Use secrets on a character level, not a player level. You might think it would be more fun if it’s a “real” secret, but actually, no one will care enough to try to find out. 
Use secrets on a character level, not a player level. You might think it would be more fun if it’s a “real” secret, but actually, no one will care enough to try to find out. If they do, they are likely to feel annoyed or betrayed that you would keep something key to the game from them. Trust me: it is more fun to play with secrets if you are put in positions where you have to make difficult decisions about keeping them or not, which the other folks at the table can only do if they’re in on it. Remember that this is a cooperative exercise and give them the tools to make this story the best for everyone.

Get the investment of the other folks at the table. This is pretty much consent. Are they okay with this secret your character has? Is it safe for them? Does it sound like something that will be fun to play with? And from there, is it interesting? Does it get them excited about the direction the game is going? If your table is invested, having a secret can give you all something to play with in downtime, or in tense moments. It’s fun both to have a secret and to be trying to figure out what one is, and we can do both of those in a game.
Share the spotlight. Just because you have a secret doesn’t mean that you are the only character worthy of attention at this table. As long as your secret is fostering interaction among characters and not causing the game to warp to your lone wolf ways, you’re doing fine. In fact, you can have a shared secret with other characters that ties you together tighter — in the police procedural I’m playing now, I am the only one not in on it!

Some Secrets

So you want to try having a secret! Fantastic. They can be very fun to play with. Here are some leading questions in case you are stuck for ideas:

Secrets are fun when they create opportunities to lean into your characters at the table. Secrets are less fun when they’re a bait and switch on your friends, or if you have one that no one notices. Create situations in which you can play off that secret and the ways you work to conceal it. Give other people moments to interact with you as you interact with it. It can be fun to be a character who is left out, but it’s not so much fun to feel left out as a player. As with implementing anything at your table, communication and table buy in are key!

Have you ever played with a secret? What was your favorite? Did your fellow players know?

3 Comments (Open | Close)

3 Comments To "I Have A Secret (About Secrets In Play)"

#1 Comment By griffon8 On May 14, 2018 @ 8:57 pm

I’m in a game of Ars Magica set in the modern world where all the players know a secret about my character, but none of the characters, *including mine*, know the secret.

And I’m not the only one in the game like this. It might end up completely random when either of our secrets are revealed.

I’ll admit that such a secret doesn’t lead to interesting role-playing, but every time my secret could be revealed by how the next die roll goes, everybody pays attention.

#2 Comment By Ankheg On May 19, 2018 @ 5:30 am

I have a character in DnD which is a soul left on sword coast land and was infused into the body of a cleric. The latter fought a lich with dire consequences for party, and used magic under a guidance of death domain deity. Chaotic magic in the area distorted his spell and binded to his body this ancient soul.

The soul itself is from Netheril, ancient kingdom of arcanists, wizards who practiced magic on a free basis, and fell when power hungry leader of one of its enclaves tried to ascend to godhood. The soul in a new body now learns about new world, new landscape, creatures, societies.

It’s not as much as secret – character does not tell freely of his circumstances, and think that might put him in uncomfortable position. And it’s not he cares much about, as he is trying to see what the world is now. The characters story helps me to understand how he might feel in environment, what his thoughts might be, how he might act. So I look at it as not a secret for the sake of narrative – mostly as a story that defines characters present.

#3 Pingback By Player Secrets | DMing With Charisma On June 5, 2018 @ 11:14 pm

[…] characters keep secrets from other characters (that’s fine and interesting, as discussed recently on Gnome Stew). Nor do I want to discuss a DM keeping secrets from players, because the game typically runs on […]

#4 Comment By Jared Rascher On June 22, 2018 @ 1:03 pm

My favorite Adventurers League character is my cleric/bard of Cyric, who has the charlatan background. He constantly portrays himself as a cleric of some other cleric, but one of the first things I do in AL sessions, when I introduce the character, is to tell everyone the secret. When he starts to trust people, he doesn’t tell them the truth, he just starts telling lies that are more over the top, so it’s easier to pick up on the lies.

Having a character with that kind of secret not tell the other players is a huge red flag that I’m trying to screw over the party, and it’s way more fun to have people constantly point out when I’m getting the scripture or holy days of the priesthood I’m impersonating wrong.