Apr 042012

The night that Alex and Meyer decided to gang up on Paul and murder his character, I was completely unprepared. I stared down at my session notes, now almost completely useless in the face of the left turn my campaign had suddenly taken, barely able to speak. Paul scanned his character sheet in silent frustration, searching for an action that could perhaps save him from a messy death at the hands of his fellow party members. Across the table, Alex and Meyer high-fived each other, reveling in their success. Once the deed was done, I called the game, both for Paul’s sake and to give myself a chance to regroup.

In the aftermath, I was left with several nagging questions. What were these idiots thinking? Why didn’t I see this coming? What could I have done differently?

(Find out after the break.)

Later, after reflecting on and discussing the matter with my players, I realized that this was the culmination of a series of events that I had helped to engineer by keeping secrets at my table. It began simply enough, but before long, every single player was hiding something from the group. This led to great dramatic tension at first, but it all eventually spilled over into real life. Tensions mounted as the secrets proliferated. So much of my game was happening under the table that my players felt justified in keeping secrets from me as well. When the inevitable explosion came, we were able to resolve the matter without ret-conning, but in the wake of what had happened, we decided to lay down our cards for the remainder of the game.

Paul looking very sad

Being double teamed by Alex and Meyer makes Paul a sad panda. (Photo by Coleen Watkins)

That said, I should point out that keeping secrets from your players is a necessary part of gameplay. When they know something that their characters don’t, or shouldn’t, it creates a dissonance that most will fight to resolve because they want to act on that information. Unless a great deal of trust exists between the GM and her players, she’ll have to remind them endlessly of what their characters would and wouldn’t know, which can quickly get frustrating. If done properly, keeping secrets is a great way to add suspense to your games, and create plot twists that can be devastatingly effective. Sometimes, it can be a dangerous line to walk, but there are a few things you can do to make sure that things don’t get out of hand. For example:

  • Put A Cap on Keeping Secrets: Limit the number of clandestine plot elements happening at any given time. If one player is secretly working against the party, think twice before adding any more intrigue. Too many complications at once can lead to a byzantine array of character motivations and goals, which can make it difficult for the players to act in accord. (Unless, of course, this is what you want.)
  • Keep Conflict In-Game: If someone has a secret that is creating tension, make sure that it doesn’t spill out into the real world. This can quickly drive a wedge between friends. Unless you nip it in the bud, it can grow from annoyance into full-blown animosity before you even realize it.
  • Limit the Scope and Duration: If you’re going to give a player an objective or a motivation that runs contrary to the rest of the party’s goals, keep it within the confines of a single session or story arc. Try not to raise the stakes too high for the other players unless they’re aware of what’s at risk. Nobody likes being blind-sided by an attempted murder, on either side of the screen.
  • Know When To Show Your Hand and How To Handle The Fallout: Approach a situation where you’re keeping secrets in-game with the expectation that eventually, they will be revealed to the party, whether it be in a dramatic confrontation or as a harmless afterthought. Have a plan for how and when you want the other shoe to drop, and be prepared just in case someone else forces the truth out into the open.
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