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 ofÂ four he’s done for the Stew, with the others being Fear Itself,Â Freedom Through Restraint,Â 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?
I have to agree with most of your points.
Sidebars have the additional drawback of making the rest of the party aware that a secret is being discussed, and one that is relevant to the current action. They should either be used extremely infrequently (and generally as a lead-up to the Big Reveal), or extremely frequently, where the campaign is run more like a game of Diplomacy and people are constantly being pulled aside.
Notes should really only be used for very quick exchanges. They run the risk of having a conversation underway that becomes out of sync with the rest of the action. I find they are best for the player raising a “you remember my secret, right?” or the GM saying “there is a double meaning behind his words, specifically for you”.
I will disagree with your primary issue with emails. Done with any sort of panache, emails can be just as rich a role-playing experience as anything around the table. After all, there is an entire style of RP called “interactive fiction” that is exactly this. For me, the biggest issue with email is that it can’t be inserted in the middle of the action, and thus sometimes opportunities are lost.
Open secrets are an odd thing. I admit that I’ve never run with one active more than a session or so. They really require some very mature and aware players. And they often quickly undercut any of the intrigue or surprise that is the whole point of having secrets.
That is a good point about the notes – they are very effective for a quick reminder as well. I often use them as a “do you remember this thing that happened to you three months ago?” When we have a long time between sessions, it is unrealistic to expect players to remember all of the details.
I have found that email between sessions works really well for some players, but others don’t get into it. It may just depend on the types of players that you have.
Yes, I’ve found the same about any between session communication or homework. Some people get excited and will spend time roleplaying between sessions via email or whatever, some will devote 3 lines every few days, and some go dark between sessions.
Weirdly, the investment in between session play doesn’t always correlate to enjoyment in game. Sometimes it’s busy lives, different email/forum/FB reading habits, etc.
My experience is that most secrets that “need” to be kept secret are the “I am screwing over the other players” secrets, and those are seldom good for the long term health of the game anyway. Otherwise, open secrets work fine and allow everyone to make the secret more awesome.
I think allowing for “secrets” between players makes the game vastly more interesting but it often involves splitting the party, which I appreciate is one of the biggest rpg taboos there is. To me the “hive mind” approach that seems to dominate rpgs these days is not the ideal and prevents some very interesting things from happening in the game. I’m definitely of the sidebar/split the party persuasion but admit the GM has to be creative to compensate for the delays that can result. Most of the scenarios I run are riddled with player secrets.
I think you’ve hit the heart of it. When you’re roleplaying individuals with individual goals, there’s an expectation of round robin scenes. (Primetime Adventures does this well.)
When the game is mission based, about the challenges you overcome, then secrets and sidebars tend to fall back into the accent and flavor position.
similar to emails but seem to to work better for some reason; we use the player secret sections in Obsidian Portal, or chat apps like ‘Slack’, more and more often.
As they are used as dedicated game resources they seem to be easier to use. I am coming to the opinion that they disrupt the game less than a sidebar as well. But like a lot of things a mix of options is usually the best (sometimes the Player HAS to take yo u to one side as its critical they get your attention at that moment, and OP, emails, chat app etc. are not always that instantaneous)
NikMak, do you use Obsidian Portal or Slack when you are running a game with online players, or do you also use it with the players that you have around the table?
around the table, and also between the games 🙂
I recently started a new campaign with some players who are REALLY into the storytelling aspect of RPG’s. After the second session I asked them to each tell me one of their character’s secrets via e-mail or paper before the next session. It allowed the players to add to the story in a great way.
During an in-game interlude one character told the party a story about how her families prized heirloom was lost in a fire.
The secret she revealed was that the story was a lie, because she was ashamed of the truth. She used the heirloom to ransom her beloved from a gang of kidnappers, whose leader was later revealed to be her “beloved”.
Now I have the “story” and the “real story” and am looking forward to playing it out.
Can’t wait for them to meet in an encounter now…
That sounds like a lot of fun, Kingslayer! I must admit, that as a GM, I love it when a PC and I share a secret while they deceive the rest of the group. I also love teasing things out and watching the PC squirm as they try to hide the truth. Delightful!
I value story telling above all else. I’ll wait a few sessions and drop the rogues name in a Streetwise test as a minor NPC who could offer assistance with whatever they’re dealing with at the time. It will be interesting to see how the PC reacts. 🙂