Do you allow players to keep secrets from each other?

In my early days of gaming, it wasn’t uncommon for players to keep secrets from each other, usually to each others’ detriment. The party thief (that’s back when we called a thief a thief, you whippersnapper!) often wanted to pilfer some valuables from other PCs or undervalue the latest haul in the hopes of getting a better percentage. Occasionally a PC was an infiltrator, tasked with some secret mission by the GM that went against the party’s goals. Sometimes a scouting PC found something that she didn’t want to share with the rest of the party (including a recently acquired lycanthropy or vampirism).

As you might imagine, many of these secrets served to tear parties apart, which often happened after players (not PCs) suspected another PC of plotting against them (back in ye olden days of gaming this was easy to notice simply by watching the note-passing). A game of cat-and-mouse ensued until the inevitable explosive climax.

As a side-effect, intra-party secrets often slowed the game down, as the GM had to pause to read and respond to notes. Particularly involved secrets resulted in the GM and one or two players leaving the table for a secret discussion, during which the rest of the group sat around for several minutes. I can recall at least two occasions when the entire table was cleared as everyone headed for separate rooms as the GM made the rounds.

As I became more experienced as a GM, I stopped allowing secrets; they were simply too distracting. I still allowed for the clandestine stuff, but it was only clandestine in-game; out of character the players had to announce their plans to me at the table. While this certainly had a chilling effect on most secrets, I found that the game sessions flowed better as the party was more likely to stick together to achieve goals.

In my current home campaign, which involves seasoned gamers, we still have occasional in-game secrets and I’ve found that the other players tend to roll with it and even help the player keeping them out, at least out-of-character.

So how about you? Do you enable players to keep secrets from each other? If so, does it tend to slow down the game or do new technologies (e-mail, texting) mitigate that? If not, how well do “announced” secrets play at your table? Do you ever allow intra-party conflict?

Walt Ciechanowski

About  Walt Ciechanowski

Walt’s been a game master ever since he accidentally picked up the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set in 1982. He became a freelance RPG writer in 2005 and is currently the Victoriana Line Developer for Cubicle 7. Walt lives in Springfield, PA with his wife Helena and their three children, Leianna, Stephen, and Zoe.


19 Responses to Hot Button: Secrets

  1. Ten years ago, I banned personality traits such as “greed” because it tended to create conflicts within the group. I had an written adventure and I wanted to get on with it. Nowadays I seldom have any planned ending so the adventure can take any kind of direction (I’m usually play fish tanks). I thrive when the players starts to argue in-character because that means that they are engaged. I can lean back and perhaps even plan what’s the next thing that I should throw at them.

    I also play with perfect information, meaning that even if people got secrets, everybody knows about it. It means that we can frame scenes for each other that brings their secrets into play. Because what’s a secret worth if it’s not discovered?

  2. In games that encourage subterfuge I’m absolutely fine with my players keeping things under their hats, but in my current game of Cyberpunk, the party are supposed to be a team, and I try and keep it to a minimum. Sure one or two of them have secrets, but they’re not being kept from the players because of any malice, just because they form an important part of the character’s back ground, and should any one find out about it, the character could be compromised.

    For a very different take on this I have to go back a good few years to running a live action Vampire game where everyone really was out to get everyone else, and I insisted on no out of character knowledge – bar the obvious stuff about system and setting knowledge – to keep people on their toes about the secrets they had. It worked very well for that game, but I’m not so sure about in other games…

  3. Good topic! This can be a tricky one and IME really depends both on the type of game and the type of players. In general my preference is that while characters may keep in-game secrets from each other players do not. However, I have had a few players over the years that simply can’t handle that kind of meta-knowledge and are always trying to expose another characters secret when their character would have no reason to be suspicious.

    It can also depend a bit on what the secret is and how it might affect the other characters. For example, in a campaign I ran many years ago one character became possessed by the spirit of a necromancer for a short time (2 or 3 sessions) and I’m not sure it would have had the same impact on the rest of the group if that secret had been known immediately rather than revealed later.

    I’m just not sure there is an easy answer for this one. I think a GM really has to know their group of players, consider the importance of the secret(s) on the game and just take things on a case-by-case basis. YMMV

  4. Secrets can be a real boon or detriment to a game, depending on the players involved.(Isn’t that always the case :/)It turned out to be both in one of the last Planescape games my group played. All players but one had a blast. It added a great depth to the game, and allowed the DM to spring some really awesome plot twists and surprises. The one player that got upset had the basic attitude that if he had secrets, that was cool. But when other players had secrets, it was unfair. Cutting to the end of a very long and complicated story, the player was actively trying to manipulate us, cause rifts between the players IRL, and dominate the group. It was a very bitter experience. He was a typical bully, and bailed once he was stood up to.

  5. Before I was in Junior High (that is Middle School for those in the weird school districts :) our group played heroes only, which is probably how it should be for kids. In the middle of Junior High, in 8th grade, we started gaming with a larger group that had adults and older teens in it. We were introduced to secrets the hard way.

    We continued to play with secrets and their inevitable party fights and we thought that was just part of the game. However, at some point towards my later teens I had realized that party fights were Not Fun. They had often led to hard feelings between players.

    Now when I game the first rule is No Party Fights. It is ok to play a bad character, but said character will have, when it comes down to it, just as much loyalty to the rest of the PCs as a more heroic character. Basically it is “You can do what you want to NPCS, but we are all on the same team as PCs”. That has helped things out immensely and even the most diabolical of PCs will help save your butt and not plot to off it.

    It all comes down to trust. We come to the table trusting to be able to have fun. It is not fun when the other players suddenly off your character. Passing notes back and forth with the GM can be fun, and as long as it does have an in-game, in-story, and in-character reason that is OK as long as the GM and players all remember that when it comes down to it, PCs will not plot against PCs.

    • So your game’s style became just like Darths & Droids? :-)

      I use that webcomic as an example of how I want my characters to create their world, but I caution them on treating the NPCs the same way Jim and Pete do…

  6. Interesting read!

    I for one have always struggled with the time-consuming nature of some “secret-play” that comes up. Notes now are easier with text messages (Oh, I wanted to build a table with built-in monitors and keyboards run by one computer with the GM in control at one time!) and such.

    In the basic, I think it is much better in most cases to preserve the secret. It makes certain elements of role-playing Much easier. I imagine it would be difficult to play ~knowing~ that a PC was a were-creature, while the character was in the dark.

    And some things, IMO, do not even qualify as ‘secrets’ per se as was discussed in the article. I have a love of making PCs that have unique quirks, or personality traits, etc, and playing them, slowly, seeing if the other PCs/players figure it out. Sometimes it is just a matter of time before it comes out, and sometimes it remains hidden permanently.

    But, some secrets I can envision being out in the open now, whereas previously, when I was younger, it would have been much harder to RP correctly knowing some things.

    Maturity and experience and all.

  7. I like each PC to possess 1 secret at the start of the adventure (yes, with the parade of players into the room where the GM awaits.) In truth, these really aren’t secrets, but player hooks. Each player gets a hook or secret unique to their PC. Then as play unfolds, the PC can choose to reveal what they know. It’s a way to give each player a spotlight moment, if they wish, as they reveal knowledge the others don’t know. Generally, these “secrets” might create illustrate some minor internal conflicts among the party (perhaps why adherents of rival faiths mistrust one another), but nothing that rises to a level stronger than your traditional “dwarves don’t like elves” cliche. Certainly, it’s something that might spur role-play, but doesn’t hinder cooperation.

  8. I prefer it when there are secrets, depending on the group and the nature of the secrets. If the secrets are ones that will lead to conflict, then they’re generally out. For a group that’s my 14-year-old and his friends, those are also likely to lead to PvP, and I won’t even bring them up.

    For the group that’s all adults, and the game is the foundation of a dynasty with politics all around, then I love them!

  9. I’m not in favour of secrets that can cause personal conflict, but am fine with personal secrets otherwise. To some extent, I encourage them, by handing out sheets with specific character knowledge. The characters are then free to share their own personal knowledge with the group if desired, but otherwise it’s secret (and can cause conflicts of viewpoint).

    I’m cool with people stealing from each other or plotting against one another too, but it’s going to be done with all the players in the know.

  10. I’ve had fun with secrets, though it’s not my style to have them in games I run.

    The first time I was the guy with a secret. 2E AD&D game, we came across a wizard’s tomb. Little did we know that the wizard was still around, just using Magic Jar to possess new bodies. My wizard became the next body for him. I liked the idea of being a secret mole that I didn’t worry about any ongoing saving throws. Besides, the wizard was probably about 15 levels higher than we were, and I trusted the DM to make it good. In my new role I ‘translated’ some writings that said where a big treasure was, so off we went. I set up our party to be ambushed on the way out by agents the new me had in the nearby town. Too bad for ‘me’ we ran into a Demi-Lich. The ambush was glossed over as I was back to being myself by then.

    The second time, in a GURPS game, it turned out one of my fellow PCs was a mole all along. It was okay, she didn’t actually know it herself. The next adventure the rest of us acted as parts of her subconscious to break her programming. Lots of fun.

  11. I’m all for anything that adds to game play. Unfortunately, player secrets often fall short of that tenet. Character secrets on the other-hand can work well if utilized properly. Secrets must serve the game as a whole by having some in game function (plot twist, character hook, campaign advancement). GMs should be sure that the player(s) involved in their character’s secret understand this concept. I am not a fan of players keeping secrets just because they can. We all know about the thief who steals the best treasure just because he can. That rarely adds to meaningful play, and often leads to player (not character) conflict. In games where character cooperation is key, it is important that characters (and players) trust one another.

  12. I like secrets on the rare occasion that they’re corralled to benefit the game as a whole. That usually means that character secrets are played out openly at the table, but there are circumstances when secrets can be harnessed to benefit the game. Unfortunately, those are harder to judge–I’ve had recent games get killed by secrets and “secrets” understood around the table, played to destroy character cohesion.

    If I could better predict who would use secrets well and what style of secrets would work best for each game, I’d embrace them more eagerly. But, really, they seem to backfire more often than they contribute to awesome games.

  13. As if I could stop them. My problem is that my players formed a Delta Green Facebook page and keep secrets from ME.

    It is a problem when it comes to the monthly write-up, which is why I try and get the players to do self-aggrandizing write-ups of their own.

    This works particularly well in Space 1889 where competing accounts can appear under different player-character bylines in different Victorian publications (like the “penny dreadfuls”).

  14. Secret secrets are a real pain in the butt, so any character secrets are open secrets. The players know, but the characters do not. It’s easier, and also a lot more fun as all the players get to be “in” on the secret and get to enjoy the roleplaying that follows.

  15. I always separate the players from the characters when it comes to secrets. The later can have secrets but they are all known from the other players. I have found that this is a boon rather than a problem. It makes for very interesting scenes everybody can attend to instead of being pushed away in another room where conversations will drift away from the story.

    And on the rare occasions when I speak to a player apart from the others, it becomes an event generating even more interesting situations. It becomes a GM’s tool to further the mood of the game.

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