Today’s guest article by Gnome Stew reader Craig Dedrick explores handling passing of secrets between players and the Game Master. It’s the most recent of four he’s done for the Stew, with the others being Fear Itself, Freedom Through Restraint, and What Makes a Good Monster? – John A.
I don’t know about you, but the players in the games that I run like to have secrets. I first noticed this tendency when running Vampire: The Masquerade, which is understandable as that game is high on intrigue and intra-party conflict. However, once players get a taste for it, the game system doesn’t really matter. When I play, I also like to have my secrets. I like to save things for a big, dramatic reveal, and it is very rewarding as a player when everything comes together in that way.
As a game master, I have tried a number of different methods of handling secrets with my players. Each comes with its own pro’s and con’s:
1) The Sidebar
The most authentic way to handle secrets is with a quick aside with the player away from the table. The big bonus here is that it really is a secret. The player has complete control of the information, and can disclose whenever he/she deems it best. While this method is the most rewarding, it is very time-consuming, and can be boring for the rest of the group who are waiting for you to come back to the table. You can mitigate this somewhat by giving the rest of the group something to discuss, or by distributing player authority and asking someone to play an NPC that is interacting with the other characters while you are gone, but these solutions are all half-measures at best. The honest truth is that the game grinds to a halt for everyone else. I tend to use this method most frequently during downtime sessions, when the other players can busy themselves with bookkeeping matters and planning.
2) At the Table
This method has some big pro’s and con’s. The biggest plus is that the game doesn’t stop. Everyone can delight in the scene, and the player in the spotlight has a chance to showcase his/her character for the rest of the players. The big downside is that there is no real secret here. Sure, the characters don’t know what is going on, but the players do. This undercuts any chance at authentic surprise from a big reveal down the road, and the players are left with the headache of remembering what their character knows versus what the player knows. I sometimes use this technique when I am confident that the player won’t mind sharing the information, or if the scene is particularly dramatic and I think that the group would enjoy watching it.
3) Passing Notes or Texting
I find this technique to be useful for quick bits of information, but if the note passing goes back and forth for too long, it stalls the game out. Ultimately, this can have all the disadvantages of the sidebar, and it robs the player of the chance to play out what is going on in person. I use this method when there is some sort of telepathic communication (or hallucination) going on during a scene that the other players are not privy to, or for communicating quick bits of information that the player may not want to keep secret, but are not particularly dramatic.
4) Emails between Games
This requires some planning and some between-game commitment on the part of both you and the player. The downside here is that the player doesn’t get to role-play out the encounter, and the player is more likely to forget pertinent details (though you can print off the email in order to mitigate this problem). The big plus here is that it is completely non-intrusive, but still preserves the secret from the other players.
I have found that secrets and intrigue add to the enjoyment of the game for everyone at the table, but it can be difficult to manage. Which of these methods do you like to use? Have you come across anything else that you have found to be particularly effective?