Let's talk about secrets

How do you use secrets in your games? What kind of secrets do you use and why? When are they useful? When are they best avoided?

There is generally three kinds of secrets:
1. Secrets between players,
2. secrets between a GM and the players, and
3. secrets between player characters (and not the players).

Type 1 is central for intrigue games, where players move around on a set and negotiate and trade information. Type 2 is the classical investigation setup. Type 3 is what narrativistic games go for.

But can't we have shared narration rights and secrets between players?


  • Shared narration (as long as we're assuming that there's equality between the narration of all the players) means that the infomation that one player introduces is just as valid as any other. While you can certainly keep secrets in such a system, there's every likelihood that the information given by the other players will negate your secret before it's hatched.

    It's a calculated risk.
  • Hey Frederik, we Durhamites talk about secrets here - just some thoughts.

    I think you absolutely can have secrets between players in situations where authority is more evenly distributed. Maybe this works best as a hybrid of #3 (open secrets) where a player says "my character has a dark secret", and then plays toward that. This seems less satisfying that #3 straight to me, though.
  • To me, open secrets are almost the only kind to have. I've done real secrets since I Saw The Light, but I always feel slightly dirty when I do. That said they can still be useful sometimes. Usually to me it works best if only secret for a short time.
  • edited January 2008
    I think this is a trick that indie games miss, actually. (I'm talking about 1 and 2, here).

    Secrets are fun. Discovering secrets is fun. The Inspectres way, where the character try to discover a secret, but actually we make up the secret when we discover it, is cool but not a substitute.

    I think Brian's put his finger on the problem in reverse, actually. One way to do secrets is to get rid of strict equality between player narration. Like, it's a GM-less game, but I know the identity of the murderer, and you know the plan of the mansion with its secret passages. If you narrate anything that contradicts the identity of the murderer, I can stop you; and the only person who can say where a secret passage is is you. Then we've got some of the secret-discovering fun, without having a GM who is the Keeper Of The Secrets.

    Actually, doesn't Afraid have some sort of mechanic for discovering things about the monster?

  • The game I'm writing right now, Annalise, has secrets be a big deal.

    Each character has a secret that happens during character discovery. How this works is each person writes down a good, juicy secret, then they get shuffled up and picked at random. Whatever you pick, thats your secret. So, you could get your own, and your the only person that knows it, or you could pick someone else's, but you don't know who wrote it and they don't know who got it.

    Your character has traits that stem from their secret, and every time we find out one of those traits, you have to give a hint towards your secret.

    Later in the game, you can reveal your secret in order to get a big ol mechanical boost, but you don't have to if you really don't want too, or if you think it's inappropriate.

    In playtesting, I've really been liking how it works out. A lot of the time it means that you get to foreshadow your big reveal. Sometimes it means that you get to play up that mysterious thing that nobody knows, which adds texture to the game, I think.

    Since the majority of the game is "make it up as it goes along, fit it all together as it happens", the secrets are a nice ground into something that you, and only you, have say over.
  • Posted By: Frederik J. JensenBut can't we have shared narration rights and secrets between players?
    Sure. I can think of two example games off the top of my head: Stand Off! by Troy Costisick and Discernment by Michael S. Miller. However, something those two games have in common is that the point of them is to figure out the secret, so all the players (and characters) know that there is a secret to be discovered.

    Which makes sense, I mean, the point of a secret is for it to be threatened. Hard to threaten something if you don't know it exists.
  • edited January 2008
    Posted By: Graham WI think this is a trick that indie games miss, actually.
    The way I see it, the implied/intuitive meaning of "in-game reality" within a lot of games (more commonly in traditional games) includes the notion of immutable secrets held by one or more players. Some indie games go so far as to equate "in-game reality" with "Shared Imagined Space", however, which doesn't include non-introduced information (like secrets). Mystery is left up to our future selves to determine the answer to what we don't know now.

    Of course, either way, we can always keep secret ideas that we're entertaining throwing into the mix; I.E., information which is still completely "out-of-game". That's the way I've tried to do it as I try to get myself used to more indie-style games, but maybe keeping secrets at all is a hangup for me?

    *edited to fix the damn blockquote
  • Thanks for the feedback.

    I tend to agree with Graham: There is great potential in secrets. I love playing with shared narration rights, but I also want the suspense, intensity and satisfaction that comes when great secrets are constructed and revealed after a clever build up.

    Secrets that are never revealed during play are not fun. And secrets that nobody knows you have are not fun. It is fun to keep secrets, and it is fun to reveal secrets.

    Playing pure style 3, you can get some satisfaction by keeping the story open and then later when appropriate make the decisions. This is classic in tv & movies as well, e.g. when we see the crime scene setup in CSI before the investigators are involved.

    To have shared narration & player secrets, it is clear we need to keep track of when a piece of information is created, and when the information is revealed in play. This also means that the players will need some sort of boundaries on what information they can introduce in play, without conflicting with existing but unrevelaed information. But this can't be too hard?

    Don't know Afraid. Nathans angle could work. Not much information about Discernment in the link. Stand Off! looks intriguing - but not the kind of secrets, I had in mind: The facts are really invented and shared on the fly, except who is the one to blame. Has anyone played this? Must be quite intense.
  • I'm generally opposed to the first type of secret -- back when I was a teen chucking fireballs at orcs, we used to have lots of those. The illusionist pretending to be an evoker, the secret assassin, the palace guard who was actually the vizier's son and the hatchetman for the palace coup, all that jazz. Sometimes they were great secrets, sometimes they weren't, but in every single case they were not fun secrets. The person keeping the secret wasn't having any fun, because nine times out of ten the only way someone would even begin to suspect them was if they'd read the character sheet or background or the notes passed to the GM. The people outside the secret weren't having any fun, for exactly the same reason. The "shock reveal" wasn't much fun, either -- certainly not fun enough to make up for the disappointing preamble.

    Which is why I'm now a huge fan of the third type of secret, because making that stuff openly known by the players lays the groundwork to make the preamble fun as well as making the payoff much sweeter. When someone says they want their PC to be an ex-con using a stolen identity, now we can ask out-of-character about when and how he might like to have that information get spilled. (Would he be happier if it made everyone suspect him and he had to prove himself, or would he rather prove himself first and then have everyone speak up for him when the authorities catch up to him? Does he want people to pick at his backstory, or wait for accidental revelations?) Conversations with that character can now be layered with subtext and half-truths that everyone at the table can enjoy, character motivations are clearer to everyone and easier to work with, and now the secret is a living thing that constantly affects the game instead of being a dead piece of information stashed where no one will ever see it.

    As for the second type of secret, the one that the GM keeps from the players, I like that, too. But then, I like investigation games, and I like having a central authority who provides the bulk of the opposition, complications, and rewards, and who keeps the secret of "what's really going on." Admittedly, at some point I expect those secrets to come out, even if it's only in a GM postscript after the game is finished...but without those secrets I don't think the game's much fun. (My love of a good investigative story is one of the reasons why I don't particularly like narration-passing or shared-narration mechanics, because they don't deliver the crucial elements I need for it to be any fun at all.)
  • I'm surprised no one has mentioned Mountain Witch, with its Dark Fates embedded into the game.

    The thing for me, which has been touched on before, is that I really need to know the secret is there. I don't need to know what the secret is, just that there is a secret there in the first place. A big reveal of a secret that I didn't know existed feels like a betrayal of creative trust or grandstanding. It's "I couldn't trust you to tell a cool story with me, so I created all this secret stuff without you." All of that is handily avoided when the secret's existence is out on the table.

    To take the stronger position, I find this sort of thing most enjoyable when the secrets are a focus of play. When play is about keeping, uncovering, and revealing secrets, and I know from the outset that that's what the game will be about, then I'm all sorts of on-board. Then you've made secrets one more method for players to add to the fiction.
  • The issue with #1 and #2 type secrets, IMO, isn't that they're used, it's that they're often used in a socially untenable fashion, to protect someone's game authority unnecessarily or to undermine someone's game authority in the absence of trust. I still run into people from time to time who swear that actually revealing what your character's true goals are, even just when declaring a series of actions in a scene, is a near-certain guarantee that the GM is going to screw you over.

    The path of least resistance is hashing it out pre-game.

    "Hey, guys, in this game I pretty much want exclusive authority over any backstory stuff that isn't a direct fact about your character - this includes NPCs in your background, so you might find out that the foster father you always adored was the king's secret assassin or something later on down the road, and took you in because he felt bad about killing your parents. How do you feel about that?"

    "Hey, guys, we're doing a mystery episode next week, 'cause it's no one's spotlight. If you want, I can make up one true solution to the mystery, or we can feel it out as we go and take suggestions from everybody. What do you think?"

    Also: the use of secrets in a game, regardless of type, should happen with the assumption that what's hidden will be revealed. Otherwise, it's useless.

    So to answer the OP, yes, I think you can have shared narration rights and type #1 and #2 secrets - it just requires putting up the police tape, proverbially speaking. And I think you can transition from one expectation to another within the same game over different material - "Hey, guys, I just thought of something way cool for this one NPC's backstory, but I think it'd work better if I reveal it as we go. How about it?" So, everyone now knows that's off-limits for other people to make contributions.

    Does there need to be anything more formal beyond talking about it?
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