Player Secrets

One of the running themes in my posts is that good games have players who communicate with each other. To quote a previous post:

I think the best advice I’ve ever gotten for gaming is the best advice I’ve ever gotten in general: communicate…Communication is the principle behind cooperative design, session zero, this blog itself, and the very concept of cooperative tabletop play. If players and DMs don’t talk to each other, you don’t have a game at all.

A lot of my advice is about the ways DMs and players communicate and how, how often, when, and why it occurs. But there’s a key assumption here, that players want to communicate with each other. What if, for whatever reason, they very pointedly don’t?

Secrets are one of my pet peeves in fiction. I’m not against secrets in general; not everybody needs to know everything about everybody else, and some secrets are necessary to keep certain activities running (for example, I’m strongly anti-spoiler). But in fiction, secrets between characters cause more problems than they solve. Whenever I see a character withholding something from another character in a way that causes difficulty for one or both parties, I’m not engaged, I’m frustrated. I’m not on the edge of my seat wondering how they’re going to maintain the charade. I’m too busy thinking about all the ways revealing the secret would improve everybody’s lives: the parents can provide alibis for the teenage superhero, the love interest can give a definitive answer to the nervous hero so they can either get together or move on, or the mentor can prepare the fledgling warrior for the mysterious figure who fits into her family’s tragic backstory. When characters withhold important, relevant information from each other, it’s manufactured drama at best and lazy, immersion-breaking storytelling at worst.

But I don’t want to get too deep into what happens when characters keep secrets from other characters (that’s fine and interesting, as discussed recently on Gnome Stew). Nor do I want to discuss a DM keeping secrets from players, because the game typically runs on lies of omission. I want to talk about when players keep secrets about their characters from other players. This is a person at the table intentionally telling falsehoods to or keeping information from another person at the table. It’s not objectively bad, but it’s irritating, and in my experience it typically fails at the few justifications it has.

I think we can lump those justifications into three categories which, I realize as I write this, fall in line with the three types of gamers espoused by GNS theory:

  • Drama. A player keeps a secret from other players with the expectation that it increases the overall enjoyment of the game. This may be because the player wants to make things harder for himself, limiting his options or enhancing his bleed, or because he wants the eventual reveal to be that much more impactful. The player views the secret as a storytelling tool to enhance the game’s emotional weight, and the fact that it involves misleading other players is somewhat secondary to the act itself. The content of the secret isn’t as relevant as its presence.
  • Immersion. A player keeps a secret because his character is keeping a secret. Regardless of the reason or the severity of the consequences, he feels the other players should not know something their characters don’t also know. The player views the secret as a role-playing tool to enhance how he acts as his character and how other players act as theirs.
  • Self-Interest. A player keeps a secret because depriving other players of information gives him some benefit. This could be out of malice, because he wants to use that secret against the players one day, or because the act of keeping the secret gives him some satisfaction. The player views the secret as an added benefit to his character, something that gives him joy specifically because the other players cannot benefit from it.

These aren’t mutually exclusive. A player can be motivated by any combination of them including, for the player whose character secretly works for the campaign villain, all three. Also, none of them are objectively good or bad. Consider Borris, a character who hid his powers from players out of benign self-interest. The player intended no harm, but it made him happy that other players didn’t know he secretly changed his build every few weeks. Rarely do players intend malevolence, and those who do tend not to stay in cooperative gaming for long.

Regardless of the intention I believe keeping any worthwhile secret from other players is detrimental to the game itself. At worst, secrets damage the trust on which any cooperative activity lies. They prevent players from feeling like a team and entire campaigns can fall apart after the reveal. But if you remove the stakes from a secret so it doesn’t negatively impact the game, then why keep it at all?

In The Eight Arms and the Shadow Invasion we had this sort of secret. A player joined the campaign with a female character posing as a male. She (the character) was hiding from somebody, and he (the player) didn’t want the other characters to know about it. But he also decided the other players shouldn’t know about it for reasons that were vague at the time and have only gotten less clear since. The character’s sex didn’t come up at all during the campaign and there was no great reveal. It just happened and it served no purpose except to mildly surprise the players some years hence when the character reappeared, and the player admitted he would do things differently if he had the chance.

In Faith we took the other path. Angeline is a boy who dresses and acts as a girl, and the player was totally up-front about this in Session 1. Everybody at the table is in on the joke and contributes toward it, which means we can give it exactly as much focus in-game as we want. Should we choose, we can do the reveal at a time that’s actually interesting and meaningful. The secret benefits the game because it’s not a secret at all.

I don’t want to say that secrets never have a place in D&D. I think a player can collaborate with the DM for an important event without the knowledge of other players, and I see the benefit in a player keeping some special trump card up their sleeve until they show it off at a critical moment. Players don’t have to share every action, every thought, every bit of backstory, or every number on their sheets with every other player. But I also encourage my players to consider why they’re keeping something quiet. How does this make the campaign better? What’s the endgame? How does he or she expect the reveal to go? What does the character do afterward? A secret is a special kind of tool, one you can’t swing with wild abandon. You have to have a good plan, or a secret isn’t a secret at all. It’s just a lie you tell your friends.

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