Dirty Little Secret (Secrecy in RPGs)


Recently a friend asked us, “As a PC do you enjoy keeping secrets from other players?” We offered up some answers and seemed to have some disagreements about the nature of secrecy in RPGs. Not 24-hours later another GM lamented in a popular forum that his gloriously prepped  mega-session was “ruined” when his players surprised him by being a secret party of demon cultists. We were a bit floored by the behavior, and again some disagreements formed over the nature and appropriateness of secrecy in RPGs.

So today we have some of our secrets to tell you…

Secrecy in Table Top RPGs

“There’s always another secret.’ -Kelsier”

Brandon Sanderson, The Final Empire

Secrecy is tricky business at the gaming table. A lot of the enjoyment of role-playing games (particularly fantasy or superhero RPGs) is the sense of increased personal power relative to a players “real life” power. We have talked about scarcity reactions, power dynamics and fear being driving forces in design and balance criticism for a gaming system. And as many authors and game designers have posited, secrets have power too. So when we are talking about secrets we are talking about some of the most central concepts of why someone even games in the first place.

As a discussion of power dynamics, we immediately have situations of varied secrecy between players and the GM. You could say it is “have and have-nots”, but not every group has the same rules about secrecy. All roleplaying games do have one secrecy factor the same however…

The GM is a liar.

A secret is:

“Secret – se-cret (noun): something that is kept or meant to be kept unknown or unseen by others.”

– suggested Google definition

From the Pathfinder RPG Core Rulebook:

“Think of it as a cooperative storytelling game, where the players play the protagonists and the Game Master acts as the narrator, controlling the rest of the world.”

The “rest of the world” is pretty big.

If a secret is an unknown thing, then the GM by virtue of all questions unasked, vistas un-described and challenges unconquered is a keeper of secrets. The principle power of the GM position and its vaunted “Rule Zero” might is in the basis of this informative relationship. Even the results of an action are a secret until the GM confirms them. As such the player will always have secrets kept from them for moments at the very least.

So at the heart of secrecy in RPGs lies the power of the GM. And we will see that secrecy ALWAYS interacts with it. Different types of secrecy react differently in the gaming environment. Let’s look at a few.

Types of Secrecy in Tabletop RPGs

“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody — no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

Secrets in RPGs can take as many forms as there are characters to hide them multiplied by the number of characters that they can be hidden from. Add to this the layer of metagame at the table and even more secrets can happen as that Player Characters AND Players become involved in the secrets. However, some patterns do emerge:

  • The Undiscovered (World from Player Characters, GM from Players) – This is the information the characters haven’t found or encountered yet. This is the core balance of the storytelling game. The GM knows, the players discovers. In terms of power dynamics, this is the “current of secrecy.” It supports a consistent empowerment of the players and their characters through moments of thrilling discovery. Disruptions to this current are often the most dangerous things that can happen in a game. GMs would do well to try to develop cues to distinguish this process from other more specific forms of secrecy.
  • The Biased Source (GM to Player Character) – The GM is all things the players aren’t and that includes people. People who lie. People who are dumb or wrong. People that have made oaths not to reveal things. As the voice of all of these people, the GM is regularly going to be lying or hiding things from the player characters. Hopefully not always (see below). This information and “current” of secrecy follows the same flow as “the Undiscovered” and tends to reinforce a story’s narrative momentum while adding texture and fun complexities.
  • The Controlled Release (GM to Player Character from Other Characters) – Generally, this pattern of secrecy is mostly a storytelling device and more about dramatic tension in the normal “current” of secrets. A single or small group of characters is given information they have likely reasons to contain or control the distribution of. This has some immediate effects. By moving PCs into the flow of secrets, they gain power. Players tend to like this. It is a great way to make a mechanically deficient character feel more substantial. However, if this pattern is too consistent with any single character, other players will likely have disparity and scarcity reactions becoming negative with the secret-hoarding character (and player).
  • The Hidden Background (Player Character from Other Characters) – Generally these flavorful nuggets become the stones in our secret river of power, adding charming burbles and maybe even exciting rapids to the story. GMs are involved in these secrets and often support them in the overall flow of secrecy. They tend not to be obstructive to the over all flow of secrets or power and often are rewarding in moderation to the entire table as discovery eventual releases stored power differentials. A character who overuses or has drastic secrets can become a blockage and derail a story. Be cautious of peer resentment both in-party and out of game.
  • The Invisible Laws (Player to GM from World) – These secrets are more akin to preferences or game options in a video game. These are player requests that the GM accounts for that are not overt knowledge of the world. “I really want my paladin to get a holy avenger if I create one” or “I hate rats, please don’t have us fight them” are examples of these secrets. They are player inclusive and empowering but not necessary to have overt in the world (or even to other Players.)
  • The Secret Origin (Player Character from GM) – Notice this one being in red? It is because secrets kept from the GM are dangerous. Going counter to the normal flow of power and information in the game, these secrets cannot help but be disruptive. In a cooperative game, a secret from the GM is a secret from the world. This is a pretty big issue because the world holds no verity for the secret. This can result in characters who effectively are mentally ill, self-deluded or otherwise excluding themselves from reality. Many players invent incongruous or secret backstories for their characters but generally speaking this runs counter-collaborative storytelling and can damage the game’s overall narrative. Imagine not telling gravity your weight.
  • Player from GM (Also Called Lying) – Unless a group has established permissions for player deceptions against the GM, it is probably best to assume the GM should know nearly any game relevant information. A GM is only as good as their information. It is impossible to achieve consent with an ignorant party. This can lead to very bad incongruity in the game space if the GM only has partial information for a game. Cooperative remember?

Pitfalls of Secrecy at the RPG Table

“You have to be a bit of a liar to tell a story the right way.”

Patrick Rothfuss, The Name of the Wind

While we have looked at some of types above and mentioned a few specific issues around them, in-game secrecy has other pitfalls worth discussion. Some of these are specific to one of the above categories but most are applicable to many:

  • Creatures of Habit – Like it or not, as humans we make associations and see patterns. Too many or over-present uses of secrecy will form response at the table. Erosion of player trust, paranoia, and even out of game resentment can occur from over use of secrecy in-game. GMs can develop tools promoting openness and disclosure to combat this, but at the very least they should be mindful of their reliance on secrecy. Too much betrayal (even by NPCs)  will have consequences.
  • Unseen is Unseen – Too many secrets can mean story that NEVER sees the light of day. A barbarian’s secret years as a slave don’t matter if no one ever learns of them. The Shadow War between the rogues and assassins in a city is irrelevant if no PC ever hears about it. Players and GMs both need to learn the art of the reveal, and possibly even contingency plan for times when revelations don’t go as scheduled.
  • Revealed is Revealed –  Especially with “the Invisible Laws” but with any secret, revelation is a thing of power. A planned reveal of a great holy sword might be lessened if the party learns it was a player request from the beginning of the game. Similarly, a player knows any consent requirements revealed for another player and may utilize that information in other settings, “Darcy is afraid of rats? Cool I will put a rubber one in her work-locker…” Reveal secrets responsibly.
  • Story Stallouts – If players sit too long on a “Controlled Release” secret or a PC thinks a revealed piece of the “Undiscovered” might be dangerous, a story might seize up as secrecy blocks its own flow. Since this is again a power dynamic, players will almost instantly begin to feel helpless, confused and even sometimes stupid. Pretty much everything they try to get away from by gaming. This danger needs to be planned for and secondary points of discovery are always a good idea with an important secret.
  • Islands of Isolation – PC versus GM secrecy, tight “Controlled Release” information and other breakdowns of secret exchange can also breakdown party dynamics, player to player trust or story involvement as a whole. Players engaged in these secrets often pursue single character game time (split the party, or force divided storytelling) and otherwise diminish group play. GMs and Players both are well served to take steps to prevent and discourage character behavior that is overly isolating.

Pitfalls aside, secrets can enhance storytelling and empower otherwise disenfranchised players and their characters. Great secrets and stunning reveals make for memorable game experiences. Most players enjoy becoming part of the conspiracy to weave a great story, but remeber–caution is never a bad thing when weighing the worth of a secret to the overall health to the whole of the game.

Want to know some of our secrets? The Book of Beyond WIP subcription is full of them! Get the Book of Beyond WIP subcription (already including 4 products!) or see our other products (like Mythic Paths of the Lost Spheres) at: d20pfsrd.com, drivethruRPG, paizo and RPGNow.


This entry was posted in Game Mastering, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Player Advice and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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