Game Writing: Nose Firmly to Grindstone

So, the D&D public playtest documents hit yesterday. I read through them a couple of times, went back over them again today and then set them aside. I was hoping to be excited enough to make it worth playing over the long weekend here but rapidly felt like, “nothing to see here, move along” was about the best I could get out of them.

And that’s the last I have to say about the D&D Next Playtest unless something else comes along to make it worth mentioning again…

It’s for the best that I’m not too impressed because it means less distraction from working on my game. I mentioned the other day that choice and consequence were important to me — and since I’m going for an RPG with the feel of romantic (ish) fantasy, it’s going to be very much a character-driven experience.

And I started thinking about secrets. I love secrets. I love playing games where people have secrets (though only if they are given a chance for those secrets to eventually be revealed). I love playing a game where the story has secrets to be ferreted out and found. But secrets are interesting buggers at the RPG table. Secrets can be a great thing but there are some parts to encouraging secrets that need some looking at.

1. Here’s a big one that occurred to me while I was reading a story the other night… people need a reason to keep secrets. We keep secrets because we believe the consequences of them being revealed are too great to bear (or to protect others from the same). For example, one of the great, formative stories for my love of Romantic Fantasy is the story of Alanna, a girl who wants to be a knight. So she disguises herself as a boy to go off and get to become a knight. Thing is, why does this have to happen? It has to happen because the society she lives in doesn’t let girls become knights. A lot of RPGs have a very strong desire to be inclusive — completely inclusive — in the way they set up their game worlds. I agree and support this desire. Gaming should be as inclusive as possible. The problem with this though is that in a world where anyone can run off and become a knight… Alanna never has to keep her secret. Alanna has no story (or at least, a very different one). Society and its rules are important to needing secrets, to creating secrets. Two characters need to hide their love? Why? Because their love is frowned upon by “society.” A character has done something awful they try to cover up… but it’s only awful if the society involved would actually think it’s awful.

Secrets need the world to have boundaries. These boundaries can curtail choice. Curtailing choice is antithetical to what a lot of people want out of a game. So, should I avoid making secrets a part of making characters? It’s a tough call for me.

2. Secrets are also only fun if there is some chance they’ll come out. Secrets are all about having made a bad choice (or at least, a regrettable or dangerous choice) at some point in the past and needing now to hide it. But giving a character a secret is all about the knowledge that it will (WILL) come back to haunt you… otherwise it’s just something you sit on forever and it never comes up. But again, there is a balance between, “your secret is out” and “dammit, how’d everyone learn my secret so fast!?!”

3. One kind of secret I don’t like — games that want the game world to have secrets from the players. I’m looking at you Deadlands. Telling the player not to read the Marshall’s Handbook is pointless. The joy of those secrets really only lasts (at best) one time as a player. I’m not saying that characters should always be assumed to be “in the know” but it seems silly to keep secrets from the player. Besides — if I GM Deadlands even once then the next time I’m a player it’s really too late to block out “what I learned.” Seems like a lot of effort for little return. Now don’t get me wrong… at the individual campaign level I love mysteries. I love secrets tied directly to the story — but meta-secrets tied to the campaign world… meh.

So I’m going to spend the long, holiday weekend working on my game. Hopefully I’ll get to a point where I have something I can really talk about…

Ah well. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you think about secrets in games.

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One response

  1. I love secrets in games, too; it’s one of the things I like best about Warhammer FRP. Everyone’s lying to everyone else, and half of them don’t even understand their own backgrounds well enough to know what’s true and what’s false! I also tend to help PCs build characters with their own secrets, because I think it encourages interesting interaction at the table…most of the time.

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