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It's Not Just A Game!

Secrets: I'm No Tattletale!

by Coilean mac Caiside
Jul 17,2002


Secrets: I'm No Tattletale!

What they don't know . . .

"I know something YOU don't, you don't, you don't!"

There are many types of secrets, but for convenience's sake, I will only deal with those that (in Champions) might provide some point value for the Disadvantage; i.e., "I've been building up my lint collection in the corner of my backpack." will be ignored, "I'm an escaped convict." will not.

The five types I've found are arranged in the following format:

Concise label (to define this ) A few examples.

Possessions of items/knowledge. (that which others covet ) You are hiding the murder weapon in your pocket. You came out of that dungeon with a diamond. The guards would be trying to kill you ten times harder if they noticed you were laying about into them with the prince's hereditary sword you already lifted from his bedroom wall. You once hacked into NORAD, and might remember the codes. You are the only surviving member (though you don't know this) of a team of janitors that once cleaned a certain building that has now been taken over by a group of terrorists (who stole all the blueprints), and may know enough about the layout from your time inside to give the tactical assault team some advantage.

Capabilities (what you can do ) You can shoot bolts of fire from your fingertips (and the latest murder victim was incinerated). You can hear keenly enough to eavesdrop on a conversation from 100 yards, or cast Clairvoyance (on your fellow politicians). With a tightening of the neck muscles, you can prevent strangulation when being hanged.

Fundamental nature of your existence (how you can do it / what you are ) * You're really a 20th-level thief masquerading as an 8th-level ranger. You only pretend to be vulnerable to mirrors - you're not really a vampire. There's a reason you're wearing a mask (your gaze turns flesh into stone).

Motivation(s). (roleplaying of the character ) You are spying on the party and may eventually betray them if so ordered. You intend to bring about the fall of the Empire. You have a peculiar fetish ("Umm, Dave, why are you licking the severed ankle of that orc we just killed?").

Relations within the setting (to NPC's). (campaign or character background ) You are the long-lost grandson of an eastern king. You are a member of HYDRA. You grew up in the briar patch.

* This deserves a bit more explanation. In AD&D, this would be your class; in Champions, the basis of your powers; in a sense, these are the mechanics by which your character operates. But they're not out-of-character mechanics; you don't alternate exposing alien DNA to the sun and Kryptonite to play Superman, you roll lots of dice. :) The choice you make here can dictate what the OOC mechanics will be; but only through influencing how the system interprets your character.

. . . Can hurt you

"Umm, Bob, maybe if you'd TOLD us there were assassins out to get you . . . "

The idea behind secrets, at least, as they're given points for in Champions, is that it can hurt you if it gets out. But what about the harm they may pose to other characters? Don't those other characters deserve some recompense for them? Well, they may be the ones exacting the ultimate price from your character's hide when it comes out . . .

I've played characters with secrets. Some of them have been quite successful; sure, at times they did things which may have been detrimental to the overall security of the party (spiking the seer's visions), but overall they were concerned with the well-being of their cover and potential future allies. I kept their secrets, too. After the party left aforementioned spy for dead, I simply didn't mention him. When his name came up, I studiously ignored the conversation, showing no reaction; I didn't become visibly anxious (discovery!) or frantically gabble out reasons why he was irrelevant. When the question of whether or not he would come back as a certain type of undead arose, I firmly gave my belief that he would not come back as ANY type of undead. Since I didn't make it apparent to the players that he was still important to me, they ascribed no importance to him. Sure enough, his death was presumed.

In other cases . . . I've had quite the opposite. Some people just don't seem to get . . . that, when I am giving my character a Secret, this means I want to roleplay someone with a Secret. I want to roleplay them having to keep it that way. And, to the rest of the players, the general sentiment is "It's okay if we know. We're the party."

And because we're all PC's, I'll be safe with them. In turn, we will all know everything about every member of the party - a kind of localized omniscience, courtesy of the uncaring attitudes of the players (Secrets are just there for the point value - kudos to me for thinking of such a freebie). It's not like they're going to give the secret away to anyone else.

But that doesn't matter - I've still been deprived, just like that, of one of my opportunities to roleplay. One, no less, which I was expressing a desire to . . . and all to no avail. I've tried hiding stuff by not putting it on my character sheet; but it still got found out.

That's when I learned that it's not just the players (giving their character's knowledge which they learn with OOC omniscience). It's often a GM, too, freely talking with people about the details of a character which you have made him privy to. Oddly enough, one of these was the same GM who let a character with permanent True Sight into the party, and shortly added a Ring Of X-Ray Vision (I lost count of the Rings Of Truth several sessions before that). It was almost like he was trying to minimize opportunities for intrigue in his campaign.

Never mind that it's "bad roleplaying" to use out-of-character knowledge. I mean, who said that they actually used information their characters wouldn't have? Nay, for MY character told them! After all, it's in the best interests of the party for them to know every detail about those whom they're fighting alongside! And my character, being one of them, would naturally have told them everything! They had every right to presume that he would!

But maybe you're not like that, and have no idea what I'm talking about. "This would never happen in OUR campaign!" you'd cry self-righteously. Well, for you (and, just to be cool, with an effort to make these compatible for the rest of us to use ;) ), I've assembled this list of ways to prove it.

How To Keep Secrets (or punish those who seek them)

"The best way to get rid of an inquisitive person is to point them at a secretive one."
- Pyotr Silent-Thunder

Start with the simplest: You are a H.Y.D.R.A. agent, and you have just been revealed. The telepath is smirking at you from across the table, and the brick is preparing to show off his moves. Your head blows up.

The severity of the explosion depends on whether you wanted (at chargen) to warn the players of their mistake, by ending the life of the other character(s), or merely leave the player with a severely crippled character who lives to regret being so nosy. And has documented incentive for not wanting to repeat that!

There are a few different ways to deal with people like I've described above; for convenience's sake, I've placed them into four categories:

Discouragement (curiosity can be dangerous) You tell them there's a bomb in your brain which will explode if the other members of the party use their powers on you. They've killed your last two characters (with multiple civilian casualties to accompany them, and badly wounded some members of the team) by the second hour of the game session, and your third is acting mysterious. You began to sort through what appear to be a huge stack of character sheets (and if you're well-prepared, they are) as soon as your latest walked into the room.

Concealment (I'm an open book) You might only be saying that there's a bomb in your brain (you're lying to them, it's really hidden in the torso, or your "knowledge" is just a decoy for a gengineered plague) which will explode if the other members of the party use their powers on you. You don't know there's a bomb, your superiors told you they were installing a hyperspatial device that you could use to return you to headquarters (but only in the case of emergencies, because their doctors hadn't figured out a way yet to shield such small units from all the radiation, so you'd be paralyzed from the neck down for life), where you could report (small loss) and retire (permanently; alas, the radiation was never that generous to those within range). You kept the exact Special Effects of your Secret in a sealed envelope, only telling the GM "It does twelve dice killing, resulting in the death of my character even if his entire point value hadn't been Drained to feed that result."

Punishment (for being too successful) A few members of the party crawl away from the wreckage, severely injured, determined to write "They called his bluff" on whatever tombstone they can buy with pawned possessions of their former teammates. The scandal you were involved in implicates their boss - making them a liability to his continued safety. If your Secret is revealed, the consequence is that it must be bought off by whoever discovered it - resulting in a loss of power, or at least further experience, by your teammates for a few sessions.

Nullification (rendering their achievements useless) Well, if your character's dead, they're not going to be holding that secret over your head, are they? They take you to the authorities, and no one cares - your entire "secret" was a fabricated memory, designed to cover up a few years in your life spent doing something else (your real secret) for the government. Your character is magically cursed, to be laterally reincarnated into a different identity (with a new secret and brand-new powers), every time anyone finds out the former one.

When To Reveal Them

"The play must go on . . . "
- Any director, any theater

As a Gamemaster, there are a couple of things to take into account when dealing with secrets; primarily among them, the advancement of a plot by getting a character to reveal information to the rest of the group, which only they came back with. But I recommend something more advanced than telling the other players "Okay, he happens to mention this entire encounter." For one, you may scandalize the player, who would insist their character was deliberately keeping it a secret (which, of course, was the problem; the solution, however, was not best accomplished by forcing the character to do something he wouldn't). You can minimize this by planning ahead; let there be other means of extracting the information from the character, so it may get around to the other characters second-hand; preferably, have this be done in another plot, which you had ready to move on while the others were stalling; this gives the player the illusion that their secrecy was permitted. It also removes a source of conflict from the party by not allowing them to "interrogate" their suspect directly - they find it out from some NPC's, who may not even have known who they got it from (or may lie about it, not tell unless directly asked, etcetera).

Secondarily, how to enhance secrecy in your campaign; not just how to control it, as above, but how to make sure it works well. To begin with, keep secrets from the players - for instance, they have a spy amongst them. This may be a player character, and need not be aware of the fact (electronics hidden in their hardware) nor willingly cooperating (later on, when the party has "found out", you can reveal to the player that they were given a self-reinforcing post-hypnotic command to periodically report in, while captured in the villain's base, then made to forget about it), which should encourage sympathy from the other PC's, not revenge. In the meantime, keep track of what information is known by said character, and slowly give hints that there is a leak; eventually, the characters will begin to experiment with secretive behavior. If the villain had a chance at more than one PC, you can decide at the last moment who it was, and focus on rewarding that behavior.

Also, tighten up the watch on in-character versus out-of-character information; there's nothing quite like having another play walk up to yours and say "Congratulations on being pregnant.", when you didn't even know this yet, to spoil the surprise. As Gamemaster, you may say one thing out-of-character, with the intent of chuckling over a roll, but make sure your players understand when you're not feeding them their perceptions ("reveal" craftily designed lies to them now and then, just to enforce honesty; you don't even need to lie to them, just freely verbalize the interesting possibilities you'd like to make true, but can't). Encourage all players to protest even when it's not their turn, too; if PC #2 is acting on information that PC #1 told them, and it really wasn't, you should disallow it.

Finally, look at both sides of the nature of the secret; you might rule that she can't keep her secret accidentally ("Sorry, guys, I just never thought to mention I was keeping a pet spider in a gourd - it never seemed important. I don't bring her out among company because she's a bit shy."). But take, for example, a character that is not even aware of the value of what she knows. If your character is from the far east, what, exactly, is prompting her to compare the exact description of one of the rapists she witnessed ransacking a village, with another character's recollection of the land's prince? If she sees the man, that's one thing - and she's just foreign enough to not know better than crying out her recognition immediately. And why is another character spontaneously describing royalty to her, anyway?

It's Too Damned Complex

"Never tell them the truth until you check to find out what the truth is today."
- The Consultants' Handbook

All in all, secrets can be a wonderful thing to add to a campaign - but is it worth it to you? Having to keep track of all those layers, who believes what, and not losing track of what's really happened all along (you can't rely on the players to know that much) . . . how can a person handle it all?

Keeping really good notes risks losing them, or having a player sneak a peek. However, the effectiveness of the latter is greatly reduced with the multiple versions of the truth which they may gain access to, and here's one trick to take care of it all - allowing the "truth" to be slippery. With so many layers of deceit, after all, who's to say that even you knew exactly what was going on all along? You can just look deeper for an underlying truth - and if you're willing to let go of your own favorite belief, however much you wanted a certain way to be so, to acknowledge that you might have been wrong . . . a new explanation will rise to the surface. And if you don't see how to define everything else that's happened so far in terms of that? Well, things were so damned complex . . . no one should expect you to put a stop to the game while you try to figure out what would probably be attributed to confusion.

In Conclusion

"I was through playing."
- Sentry, V.I., Don DeBrandt

While secrets can be fun in character, it's sometimes more entertaining to know what's going on as players. And I do enjoy this aspect of the game immensely. But I don't always share information freely - and why not? What, for me, makes this decision? It's not just the possibility of abuse on the part of other players. It's because my character was keeping it secret for a reason - and even if I don't agree with their reasons, no matter how I found it out myself, I don't have the right to give it away. Their secrets, I feel, aren't mine to tell.

Next time: Alignment

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What do you think?

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