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New Campaign: Secrecy vs Disclosure

Posted By Matthew J. Neagley On November 30, 2009 @ 1:23 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

Ideally, every new campaign you design has complete player buy in. You’ve discussed systems, options, flavor, outlined the basic thrust of the game, and everyone is on the same page and ready to go. In reality though, some games defy the full disclosure approach. Sometimes you want to throw in a major twist, some concepts are ruined by full disclosure, and other times you need to start work well before your roster is finalized.

Campaign ideas that may have problems with full disclosure:

  • Campaigns featuring foes such as doppelgangers, enchanters, or illusionists
  • Campaigns with a major twist
  • Espionage or similar genre games
  • Campaigns with minimal planning
  • Campaigns which you’re planning in isolation

Whenever you can’t utilize the full disclosure approach, you run a greater risk of player dissatisfaction and campaign implosion, so it’s essential to do what you can to balance the scales back in your favor. Here are some tips to fortify games that couldn’t be fully disclosed:

1. Disclose everything you can
Just because you can’t disclose everything, doesn’t mean you can’t disclose anything. Discuss and disclose all parts of your game that you can, and discuss as close to your non-disclosed portions as you’re able without giving them away.

2. Disclose as soon as you can
When your non-disclosure is due to logistics issues and you’re not able to discuss campaign options with players, make sure that you disclose as soon a you can. By the same token, once your secret twist has been revealed, consider another quick round of disclosure.

3. Don’t use this as an excuse for an unwanted bait and switch
Sometimes when your players are belligerent little snots don’t have the same taste in games as you do, it can be tempting to pitch one style of game, then throw in a “secret twist” that forces them into a game you know full well they wouldn’t have signed up for. Avoid that temptation. First, you couldn’t beg harder for a ruined campaign if you tried. Second, it can cause some major trust issues and cost you your players.

4. Choose your battles carefully
During game discussions, you have lots of ideas and players have lots of ideas. If you know you’re holding back details that may cause problems later, stack the deck in your favor by giving the players what they want in other areas. Sure, you may hate running the new edition, but one more thing that keeps your players happy with the game will be a benefit later when things get shaken up.

5. If all else fails, adapt
If your players loath your secret twist and your options are to downplay it’s significance, or can the campaign, consider your options carefully. Building a new campaign from the ground up is a lot of work, and if you can gracefully transform your secret twist into a minor plot arc and keep your players from walking, it’s probably a good idea. On the other hand, if dropping your concept is tantamount to creating a new campaign from scratch anyway, starting over may be your best bet. Give it careful thought, discuss it with your players, then choose what’s best for everyone.

What are some campaigns you’ve run where you’ve purposely withheld full disclosure and why?

About  Matthew J. Neagley

First introduced to RPGs through the DnD Red Box Set in 1990, Matt fights on ongoing battle with GMing ADD, leaving his to-do list littered with the broken wrecks of half-formed campaigns, worlds, characters, settings, and home-brewed systems. Luckily, his wife is also a GM, providing him with time on both sides of the screen.




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9 Comments To "New Campaign: Secrecy vs Disclosure"

#1 Comment By LordVreeg On November 30, 2009 @ 8:47 am

OK, full disclosure up front in this response.

I’ve run the same setting for over 25 years, so one of the negatives on that is not being able to totally switch things out.

And I don’t know why this post hit me the wrong way today, maybe due to a late night dealing with a crying baby and setting up 2 gaming sessions for this week (one live, one online), but part of me just looks at the following equation, GM 100work units > players 5work units, and says ‘He who does the work determines the plot’

Now, every group dynamic is different. Some have rotating GMs, some play lots of mini campaigns, some have a dearth of players and have to be careful about not losing them. So I can understand that.

I also don’t mean to minimize the importance of all the players haveing fun, as this is a friggin game, a pasttime, even a pro-social hobby, as it were. I read about a GM losing a few friends recently over theor gaming, and that made me truly sad.

But too many articles I have been reading about have gone a little overboard about player entitlement. A game is not worth losing friends over, but a GM has to stand behind his work and integrity. I am not disagreeing with anything Matt is saying here in the OP, as everyone of these points is worthwhile. But if you know you can create something special doing it a certain way in your game, at least think hard about your integrity as a creator. If you are the one putting in the work (and this assumes you are the type of GM who puts in the design time), have a little faith in yourself.

#2 Comment By RukiTanuki On November 30, 2009 @ 9:10 am

The last campaign I was able to take part in as a PC (I’m the only GM in my group) was a shining example of this.

I’d answered a call to play a d20 Modern game. The six players crafted their characters, with the DM’s requirement that we have backgrounds, goals, motivations, and so on. In the first session, he roleplayed each character, one at a time, through their day. Then, each character went to the college to attend the same presentation.

…And were kidnapped by aliens, taken to a far-off, hostile planet, implanted with control collars, and told to kill the aliens’ enemies. The game effectively imploded right then and there; two players showed up for the next session, and no one bothered after that.

I took it hard; the bait-and-switch left me playing a very different game than I wanted. Worse yet, it also left me playing a character whose strengths had just been negated, by being placed in an environment where Knowledge checks were useless, no one could be communicated with (let alone Diplomacied), and every weapon available required Exotic proficiency (which we were expected to take).

I understand the intentions here. When I hosted a one-off Zombiegeddon campaign in d20 Modern, and the players knew they’d be fighting zombies by the end of the day, suddenly every character had some quasi-justifiable reason to be carrying a loaded gun into the shopping mall: Mobster wife, Gulf War vet, embassy bodyguard, etc. I didn’t insist that they make a character who wasn’t carrying a gun (which, honestly, was the easy solution), and I couldn’t hide the fact that we were playing a zombie game, as that hook was what got everyone interested.

My best plan, at this point, is this: make it clear that there will be a twist of some sort; and work with the players to ensure both that they enjoy any unexpected genre change you attempt, and that their characters retain their utility.

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On November 30, 2009 @ 12:20 pm

LordV: I don’t think the takeaway is supposed to be “only give characters lollipops”, but you do want to avoid the situation RukiTanuki experienced– where the shift is dramatic enough and trashes your character concept to the point that there’s no fun in playing.

I only recently noticed that secrets sometimes work well– I’d had enough bad experiences that I’m leery of a full bait and switch. If I was going to do so, I’d probably pick a system with very broad skills (like QAGS), so that characters can remain functional. I’d play up the cultural challenges for laughs and as increased difficulties, not making the characters equally useless.

#4 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On November 30, 2009 @ 12:32 pm

@LordVreeg
I don’t disagree with your assessment, I just find that in most circumstances, Players with buy-in > Players who are warm bodies.

So in that spirit, I try to involve my players in the game and give them anything reasonable they ask for.

Otoh, exactly what you’re saying is sometimes the case. Sometimes you know you have something cool and you have to be a little devious to pull it off correctly. In those cases, a bit of ginger handling can prevent exactly what RukiTanuki describes above.

#5 Comment By Matthew J. Neagley On November 30, 2009 @ 12:44 pm

@RukiTanuki
That actually makes for an excellent tip 6:

6. Guide your players during character creation
If you’re planning a major twist or setting change, guide your players during creation to make sure it doesn’t gimp some of them moreso than others.

I say “moreso than others” because I’m reminded of an old RPG (Rise of the Phoenix, I believe) in which you created astronauts and then came back to earth to find civilization had crumbled into the stone age in your absence. In that kind of scenario, everyone is equally useless, and thus you don’t get the kinds of issues with balance and spotlight time you would with imbalanced gimpage.

#6 Comment By crowofpyke On November 30, 2009 @ 12:50 pm

I don’t think there is a blanket rule you can use in this situation. The DM should be the keeper of the story and plot outlines, ie- campaign direction and flavor, without leading the players by the nose. And at the same time the DM shouldn’t radically alter the game like the D20 Modern fighting space aliens example above.

Sure, talk about campaign ideas with the players before you start, get a sense for what kind of campaign people want – city based, wilderness, mostly combat, mostly intrique, etc. And definitely talk about flavor or theme – aberrant/cthulu, orc hordes, shadow darkness, tolkein-esque, etc. It might be as simple as “Let’s play a Forgotten Realms campaign”, or it might be more complex than that.

Also, be willing to adjust and include some directional changes from the players as well. The Forgotten Realms campaign I am running didn’t start out dealing with the influence of the gods at all, but has come to include a subplot dealing with the god Kelemvor because of player influence. The main plot of the whole campaign still works, but now it also includes a player generated subplot – no worries.

It is a balancing act, the DM shouldn’t have all their prep time and work negated by contrary players, but at the same time the players additions or changes shouldn’t be negated either. Balance the two if you can, and talk with the players about this balance to make sure everyone is still happy with the campaign.

#7 Comment By callin On November 30, 2009 @ 2:16 pm

I’ve done this a couple of times.

First was a one-off so I didn’t mind pulling a fast one. I sent out some invites to a few players and told them I was running a one-off. I didn’t explain anything beyond that. When they arrived I gave them some premades for Werewolf and we started. After about an hour I revealed I was npcing a character that was a GM and we were all sitting around a gaming convention. I then handed them some blank character sheets and told them to roll up their real characters.

A second time I was running Dragonstar, wherein the characters started as typical fantasy characters. We played a few sessions that way until the space empire showed up and assimilated the planet into their empire. They were then taken off world.

One thing I always do, even if I’m not pulling a secret campaign on the players, is to mention what skills may not be the best choices for the game. In the Dragonstar campaign I mentioned, “You will be moving around alot, so you will not want skills that are tied to one location; contacts and such are not advised. Wilderness skills will be seldom used.”

There are ways to give the players information, without actually telling them anything. You do not want a player spending character generation resources on something that will have no meaning in the “real” campaign.

As for springing such things on your players, you need to know your players. Will they like the campaign despite the secrecy? I know my players and have a fairly good idea of what I can get away with and what I can not.

My blog- http://bigballofnofun.blogspot.com/

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On November 30, 2009 @ 3:24 pm

@crowofpyke – IMHO, the “blanket rule” is to know your players.

If you know that they’ll be onboard with a certain type of bait and switch, or that they’ll enjoy a ‘layers of onion’ game, then go for it. If not, then either talk it over until you’re confident that they will, or don’t run that game.

IME, players are willing to do just about anything, as long as it’s fun. The catch is that everyone has a different definition of ‘fun’.

#9 Comment By scruffylad On December 6, 2009 @ 3:16 am

I think there are two types of openness: the type of campaign, and the details of the adventure/story arc. They’re very different. I’m all for determining what type of campaign people want to play. (Having put a lot of work into a castle management aspect of a campaign, and having it fall very flat taught me that. If your players aren’t going to enjoy it, there are times when you just leave it out.) While a certain amount of bait-and-switch as to campaign can be acceptable, it’s best attempted only with a group you know, that trusts you, etc.

On the other hand, when it comes to the adventures themselves, all bets are off. A certain amount of secrecy and mystery can keep the players guessing, and keep them engaged. While the story is going, the story elements stay secret.

But I generally reveal everything later on. After all is said and done, I usually show my cards, so to speak. Which NPCs were straight-forward (even if the players thought there was more there), which NPCs were treacherous (even though the players didn’t realize it, or didn’t realize the extent), etc.

I think baring it all at the end does two things:
1. It gives the players and GM closure, explanations, and something to chew over, maybe something to laugh over. (And hopefully, more appreciation for the work I put into my adventures. :P )
2. It also gives me an option to receive feedback. If they can poke holes in it all later, then that helps me improve myself for next time. (“Wait a minute. If Mrs. Poppins was actually a doppelgänger, then why did she…”)


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