That’s usually the juicy bit of a story, right? Withheld information between characters or from the reader, it’s what makes a story worth reading. Since there’s an innumerable amount of similarities between role-playing games and literature, this concept translates well to the table. The GM’s role is based on revealing withheld information to the players, we surely don’t need to address that. However, I believe that players should have their own secrets too. Not from the GM, because then how are they supposed to incorporate it into the story? Secrets between players can help change inter-character relationships when they’re revealed. Sometimes they can be negative, but that’s the GM’s job to be the judge of what secrets will fly and what ones won’t.
We’re always looking for ways to create drama in our games and secrets are a cheap trick to turn it up to eleven. What makes putting them in a game difficult is that we depend on our players to come up with them. Here are some reasons to encourage your players to do that.
1) Solidifies Character Background
Character background is instrumental to games where player agency takes the stage. When your players have well thought out backgrounds for their characters, it helps to bring the setting and its people to life. This creates investment in the game, interest to propel your players ever forward in search of the end of their quest. A player character secret could be a very good window into the character’s life before the formation of the party. A dark secret could create some tension in the party upon its reveal. A story about a fall from nobility could change the way the party views that character. For good or ill, revealing a secret about a character’s past can truly shake things up and change the light in which that character is seen.
2) Could Create an Unforeseen Connection
Playing off the background idea, the secret could help create a connection with a GMPC. Creating an GMPC with a role in a character’s shrouded past is a fun way to foreshadow their background in the story. It keeps that specific player engaged in what is happening as well as the others, it’s human nature to be curious, is it not? If the secret pertains more to the present, a GMPC that knows something about it (with or without previous relation) would be forced to deal with the party. Using this stuff as tethers to tie the character together makes revealing the larger story fun and interesting.
3) GM Inspiration
The lifelong search to find what the hell to make your campaign about. Having a loose outline is usually the way I go, just to let the characters fill in the rest. This forces me to take a reactionary role in writing the meat of the story. On the flip side, if a player character has a secret, then you content to tie into your original outline. Maybe this secret makes the character a part of something greater, maybe it puts them in imminent danger, or maybe it even is the reason for the whole misadventure that keeps the story moving. It’s easy for a player character secret to become an invaluable resource. So, take out the auger and drill into the head of your players… figuratively, that is. It’d be illegal, immoral, and terrible otherwise.
4) Creates Campaign Length
A secret that gives you inspiration is rather directly giving you content to work with. Most GMs can come up with a lengthy campaign on their own without so much as a drop of sweat. Using the things your players develop is a great way to create campaign length with a robust and engaging story. If you milk a player character secret for everything it’s got, you can reveal tiny bits of information as the campaign progresses. Slowly. Very slowly. It’s not always true, but generally, a long campaign is an in-depth campaign. In-depth campaigns get remembered, and memorable games are a sign of a good GM. Unless, of course, the players only remember it because it sucked. In that case, head back to the drawing board and give it another good and honest go.
Sometimes it’s easy to forget how relevant player input can be when designing a campaign. Encouraging your players to go crazy with their characters during session zero could help a GM keep the boat afloat and create years and years of wonderful gaming. Foreshadowing, reveal, and wrap-up make our gaming world go ‘round. Properly using player character secrets is a quick and easy way to make this process fun for everyone.
Sean is the Heavy Metal GM. He’s an aspiring freelance writer and blogger that loves the hobby more than life itself. Always up for a good discussion, his blog covers general gaming advice as well as specialized advice/homebrew rules for 13th Age RPG. You can find his website at www.heavymetalgm.com, join the conversation.
I am become death, destroyer of worlds.