Dirty Little Secret (Secrecy in RPGs)

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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.

 

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Blood Bank (Design Notes: Bloodborn)

Races of the Lost Spheres - Bloodborn ©2015 Lost Spheres Publishing, Artist: Dio Mahesa

Races of the Lost Spheres – Bloodborn ©2015 Lost Spheres Publishing, Artist: Dio Mahesa

Often we at Lost Spheres like to keep our magic things well… magical and mysterious, but in the modern gaming environment sometimes a GM or player wants to “see the math” on our homework, and we assure our fans that we in fact can produce such things on request.

Today @bigznak on Twitter asked us:

“I was wondering about Bloodborn. Did you make this race w/the guide from adv. race guide? If yes, how many points are they?”

Bloodborn have existed in the Lost Spheres cannon for about 8-9 years and pre-date the Pathfinder Advanced Race Guide (ARG) by around 3 years BUT the ARG came out before the product release and we wanted to run the numbers to make sure we weren’t stepping too far off the mark. So we worked them through the ARG Race Builder before the product came out. Oddly enough the math worked out eerily on point:

(2 RP – Flexible) – +2 to One Ability Score: As a Human offshoot, bloodborn characters get a +2 bonus to one ability score of their choice at creation.
(0 RP – Standard) – Augmented Humans: Bloodborn are humanoids with the (human) and (augmented) subtypes.
(0 RP – Standard) – Medium: Bloodborn are Medium creatures and have no bonuses or penalties due to their size.
(0 RP – Standard) – Normal Speed: Bloodborn have a base speed of 30 feet.

Base race traits came in at a clean wash of zero. The augmented subtype has no game consequences and ultimately serves to make sure that sufficient Knowledge (Local) or Knowledge (Arcane) can tell a bloodborn from a human.  The Sourcerunes get a little more interesting:

(8 RP – Flexible Bonus feats x2 – Additonal Traits and Multiclassing Synergy Feat)  – Sourcerunes (Su): See the Sourcerune Section for information on this racial ability.

Sourcerune and Resonances are best Approximated by Feats, Extra Traits for Primary and Secondary Runes which only alter base abilities such as Spellcasting Attribute or Favored Class bonuses, and Resonances being represented by feats that link differing class features – These feats were more common in the ancestral system but still have some Pathfinder equivalents. The racial abilities were written as they were to be less specific as that feats for multi-class synergy are often tied to two classes, like “your Monk levels stack with you Paladin levels for ki powers and lay on hands uses.” The bloodborn use a decentralized system that works for dozens of Paizo and 3pp classes and makes more functional combinations possible.

Taking for example Soulflare (the Atkai-Muo resonance), we see that we can get the advantage of a Spell Focus feat when we cast a spell from a second class after casting a spell from a different one. A generalized effect that requires a different trigger (two alternating  casting classes) instead of one specialized school, the Soulflare advantages a multiclass bloodborn who relies on both casting classes in alternation.

Powerstrike instead uses an alternating mechanic of spellcasting to gain damage bonuses to your next round of melee attacks. The metrics are similar to those of power attack (spellcasting classes having lower BABs and missing more frequently) trading both on action economy, BAB reduction and spell resources to get similar damage bonuses.

The primary and secondary abilities are more in-line with traits that alter spellcasting. They tend to make tighter stat arrays like point buys more able to support multiclass characters. The Additonal Traits feat allows for two trait substitutions and is good benchmark here.

(4 RP Flexible Bonus feat Additonal Traits) Blood Patrons (Ex): Each Bloodborn was born of two blood donors whose power and knowledge becomes the raw material of the newly created bloodborn’s being. The player selects two skills to represent these blood patrons knowledge reborn in the new character and become class skills regardless of class selection. Additionally, the GM may also allow the bloodborn to make skill checks untrained when dealing with circumstances familiar to one of their Blood Patrons.

Again, the Blood Patron ability is tied to the Traits mechanic in Ultimate Campaign and ultimately is another Additonal Traits feat but ultimately allows the GM and Player to collaborate for the unique Roleplaying Options presented by a bloodborn. An arcanist bloodborn who has a Blood Patron who was a soldier might have Martial Lore or another skill that most arcanists wouldn’t. She might be haunted by battlefields her “father” fought on.

(-2 RP) – Bloodforged (Ex): Due to the energies of the Bloodwells used to create them, Bloodborn have a -2 penalty to saving throws vs. Death Effects and Negative Energy attacks. Additionally bloodborn are sterile via natural means of reproduction and may not trigger Bloodwells with their own blood.

Situational penalties have precedents with things like Light Blindness, the vulnerability to nercomantic effects helps offset some of the advantage of the race.

(-2 RP) – Conflicted Soul (Ex): Bloodborn are driven by the conflicting memories of both their Blood Patrons and their Sourcerunes. They resolve these conflicts by embracing diverse skill-sets and mastering counterbalancing arts. Bloodborn
who remain single classed after their first level take a cumulative circumstance penalty equal to the number of levels in their single class beyond the first to all d20 rolls made for the character. If this penalty exceeds their highest mental
statistic bonus, they descend into madness are surrendered to the GM as NPCs. If you are using the alternate multi-classing rules from Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Unchained you may avoid conflicted soul penalties by giving up the required
feats to acquire a multiclass progression.

This is probably the biggest limiter of the race. The Conflicted Soul weakness pretty much requires you to multiclass. If not right at 2nd level then fairly close to it to avoid terrible penalties. The design choice here was very deliberate as that the bloodborn exist pretty much encourage new combinations of class mechanics and “suffer” the additional penalty of slower access to high-end spells and class features.

(0 RP – Standard) – Languages: Bloodborn begin play speaking Common, and a language belonging to one of their Blood Patrons. Bloodborn with high Intelligence
scores can choose any languages they want (except secret languages, such as
Druidic).

The ability to select any-non secret language isn’t shabby but not occasion to charge an RP when 1 RP gets Gifted Linguist. As such the Languages portion allows for rare or unusual languages to enter the story without undue advantage.

(Total RP – 10, Standard Power Race)

Overall the bloodborn come in at slightly more advantageous than playing a human IF you are okay multiclassing, which is exactly why and how they were designed. Ultimately, if you want a solid MAD character to be more playable a bloodborn might be a solid option.

Thanks for the question @bigznak – It was awesome!

Interested in playing a bloodborn? Get it here. Or you can check out our pretty cool Pathfinder content at these fine vendors: d20pfsrd.com, drivethruRPG, paizo and RPGNow.

 

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Change My Mind (Book of Beyond: Psionic Paths – Cover Preview!)

BOB - Psionic Paths Cover Teaser Smaller.jpgThe final installment of the Book of Beyond subscription is nearly upon  us! Over 50 new psionic powers combining the spell interactions, planar manipulation and the Source Origin mechanics from Book of Beyond: Liminal Power. Psionic Paths is part of the Book of Beyond WIP subcription and will be available shortly for subscribers or individual purchase.

Pre-order with the Book of Beyond WIP subcription (already including 4 other products!) or see our other products (like Mythic Paths of the Lost Spheres) at: d20pfsrd.com, drivethruRPG, paizo and RPGNow.

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All Hallows Evil… (Shadows Over Vathak Players Guide is Out!)

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Just in time for Halloween, a horrifying good supplement just came out from Fat Goblin Games – The Shadows Over Vathak Players Guide. Now, not everyone looks to Third Party Pathfinder Publishers for Campaign Settings, but this one is BULGING with horror-themed crunch. Shapeshifting witchwolves and stitched up wretched PC races, a reanimator base class, a psychic magic fortune teller and a SO much more we can’t even kind of do it all justice in a single post.

If you like creepy, dark or gothic games…. Go get it now.

(And no, we have NO affiliation with Fat Goblin Games, it is just that good.)

Of course if you want to look at our offerings you can do that too. Like the Book of Beyond WIP subcription or see our other products at: d20pfsrd.com, drivethruRPG, paizo and R

Posted in 3rd Party Options, Horror Adventures, Occult Adventures, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I Need a Hero…

Well actually Heroes Cove need’s  heroes. Our friends at Heroic Games have launched their very first Kickstarter here:

https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/heroescove/heroes-cove/widget/card.html?v=2

It is a light RPG-style board game with fast play (30 min to an hour) allowing it to fit schedules or game nights that don’t allow for a “full” night of gaming. With card based mechanics and random quests you’ll be surprised how fast it is. Your party’s goblin thief, minotaur berserker, and faerie wizard (just 3 of dozens of possible characters) will get through a fist-full of quests each play!

Check it out!

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It’s About Time (Book of Beyond: Liminal Power is Out!)

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Our apologies for the delays but the Book of Beyond: Liminal Power is finally arriving! Over 40 feats, 9 prestige classes, archetypes, and more for combining psychic awesome with psionic amazing! Here is the backcover text:

The Astral Plane. The Ethereal Plane. The Shadow Plane.
Three places between worlds.
Psionic Powers. Psychic Magic. Shadow Loci.
Each a discipline of a liminal master – a being between worlds.
Step through the Border and find your place among them.

Book of Beyond: Liminal Power provides mechanical support for occult and third party systems like psionics. New Archetypes. Dozens of feats. And new prestige classes for those daring to blend liminal Source Origins with other classes
and each other. These prestige classes include:
• Astral Antiquarian – A gifted channeler of the awakened potential of artifacts, these characters focus on unlocking a world of psionic and psychic implements. They master techniques of astral infusion to surge their implements temporarily with the energies of the Astral Plane.
• Blackblade Breaker – Mastering the entropic elements of negative planar infusion, these warriors learn to shatter shadow versions of themselves, providing their own tactical advantages from flanking to misdirection.
• Dreamsealer – A studied master of the energies of body, spirit and mind, the dreamsealer uses healing as an opportunity to enhance the life it finds. Providing wounded allies with seals that unlock new powers and transform their physical being, their powers as amazing as it is fleeting.
• Eye of the Storm – Wilders and mages have flirted with the power of Chaos for ages, but the Eye of the Storm welcomes it into their being. Gaining increasingly unstable energies they can’t hope to control forever, these mad savants combine twin Source Origins and live for the unbridled power of their lucid moments.
• Gyreblade – Soulknives and other mystic warriors have found ways to awake the weapons of the mind, elemental planes and etheric power. The gyreblade seeks to fuse two of these weapons into one singular form combining the lore of mind and magic into a weapon of endless potential.
• Shadowed Packmaster – Mentalists and mages call to the silver sea of the Astral for summoned constructs of crystallized thought or planes like the Ethereal for dream echoes of what is. The Shadowed Packmaster learns to utilize the power of two planes at once, drawing Shadow versions of his own summons as he calls them to form a
pack of servitors.
• Souldancer – Some mentalists learn the strange art of possessing another creature’s body. The souldancer perfects it learning to migrate from host to host, shifting her friends to less wounded bodies, caging possessing creatures or even to call back the lost to life.
• Tribemind – Rare are those whose mind fragments to for other selves, rarer still are those who learn to control this phenomena. The tribemind learns to command their inner multitudes and call upon them in moments of need.
• Trinity Mage – Exploiting one of the Great Laws, the trinity mage masters the art of drawing on three distinct power Source Origins learning to enter the trance-like Trinity State their oscillating power builds to rival the most focused of supernatures.

Get it on RPGNow and DriveThruRPG: here.

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Eat It! (Goblin Gluttony)

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©2016 – Fat Goblin Games

All you can eat and more… Our friends over at Fat Goblin Games are offering a HELL of a deal for their back catalog. Over 3000 pages of Pathfinder compatible goodness with new races, feats, classes for stupendous crunch? Not enough? How about player handouts, adventures, thieves cant dictionaries, psionic monsters, magic satchels, mysterious locations… even chainswords and monofilament whips!

For 30 bucks.

Before they reclaim their sanity go here and get it:

Fat Goblin Games

Shop at d20pfsrd

 

 

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