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One Die Short: Keeping Secrets

Written by One Die Short - Published on August 12, 2011

Greetings!  And welcome back for another installment of One Die Short.  The below page depicts the first meeting of the PCs, an important, and sometimes overlooked aspect of building a good campaign.  Interaction between PCs is crucial, and can make or break a game.  Surprisingly, it’s also something that isn’t often used to its fullest potential.

There are a lot of ways for us to be good Dungeon Masters.  We can write amazing stories, or design superb maps, we can create complex and interesting NPCs or come up with the most creative puzzles, but there’s a more overlooked aspect of DMing that I think can really add interesting dynamics and complexity to our gaming experience: sowing the seeds of dissent among our players.

We are used to having our players introduce their PCs to each other and have their “get to know you” adventure when we start a campaign.  From then on out, things generally progress with the PCs making decisions as a team, or at least being aware of one another’s decisions.  Certainly many of us have whispered secrets to our players from time to time or pulled them aside before a session to give them a small bit of knowledge, but in my experience, this is a great tool to incorporate regularly into our campaigns.  It can, however, be challenging to do it well.

I came across this nice article on Garbled.  It’s not a roleplaying blog, but this particular article touches on some of the ideas I’m talking about.  The GM uses a technique I’ve encountered before, where players aren’t allowed in the room unless they’re in the scene.  I’ve used this with mixed results, and try to mostly avoid it (but it is occasionally handy).  I find it to be too disruptive, and one thing I like about roleplaying, is how immersed players get in the game.  If you have to continually pull them out of it, there’s too much readjustment for my taste.

Throughout the One Die Short Webcomic, Rob’s character, Thelema, possesses knowledge that is crucial to the outcome of the campaign.  She knows things that Soren and Matilda (the other PCs) don’t, and they have information that Thelema doesn’t.  In real life, Soren and Matilda’s players (Sam and Howie), don’t even know that Rob knows anything they don’t, and vice versa.  When we pull a player aside, this has the effect of alerting the other players that something is amiss.  Of course, good roleplayers will pretend very well that they don’t know something is amiss.  Unfortunately, this is still just pretending.  In their heads, they’re very much wondering what their fellow player knows that they don’t, and it will alter their roleplaying choices, even if only slightly.

Not all of the information has to be crucial; it can simply be a character’s background info.  When players create a really detailed and interesting back-story for their characters, it is of course, very tempting to share it with everyone else.  They’re proud of their creation and want to hang it on the refrigerator for all to see.  A lot of DMs like to incorporate character back-stories into our campaigns to give them a more personal feeling, and this is great campaign writing.  But the same way we don’t show our players the campaign in advance, so too should the players avoid sharing anything about their PCs; unless it’s in-game, and only what their PC would naturally share.

Right from the get-go, this has the beneficial effect of building some mystery into things.  If the PCs don’t know anything about each other, why should they trust each other?  Probably they wouldn’t and shouldn’t.  This is especially true if you inform the players before-hand that important information will be withheld from them, and that certain players have privileged information that could effect the outcome of the campaign.  If anyone has ever done one of those Murder Mystery games, it’s the same basic idea.  Everyone knows something that someone else doesn’t.

This keeps players guessing, makes them suspicious of one another, and means that one of them could very well do some sneaky and underhanded things if he or she wanted to.  PCs actually have to earn one another’s trust, because they have to guess and second guess everyone else’s motivations.  Why is the Rogue so interested in helping out this random old woman?  Why doesn’t the Cleric ever pray in front of anyone?  Why does the Ranger get nervous every time he sees a Dwarf?

We can further build upon this, as some of us already do, by using the wonders of technology!  Before the next game night you can e-mail or text your players, providing them with information that only their PCs would have about the next session; whether it’s about a particular NPC they will meet, some secret about a location they’re going to, or maybe they had a strange vision.  If we include these sorts of tidbits of privileged information in every adventure in our campaign, things can get very interesting and party dynamics can become more complex.  We automatically encourage better roleplaying by doing this, because PCs have to watch out for each other as well as the NPCs.

Keep in mind, I’m not saying we should encourage our PCs to mistrust one another, I’m simply suggesting we add more realism to the way our PCs would probably interact with each other.  If one character wants to divulge every bit of information about themselves and what they know, that’s fine, some people will tell you anything and everything.  If someone else wants to play the quiet brooding type and says very little about anything, that’s fine too.  Most of us don’t tell our friends and family everything, so just because PCs are withholding information, doesn’t mean they should hate and fear each other.  They are still, first and foremost, a team.

As always, thanks for reading and please be sure to check out the rest of One Die Short, and my personal advice blog, Ask the Dungeon Master, all about Life, the Universe, and Roleplaying.

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Written by One Die Short

I’m a long-time Dungeon Master and roleplayer and will bring my dice to the grave with me. I write a webcomic entitled One Die Short. It’s a story of love, life, nerds and roleplaying. Both the adventures and “real-life” segements are based on my own roleplaying experiences as a DM of over fifteen years.

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4 Responses to “One Die Short: Keeping Secrets”
  1. Asmo says:

    Very nicely and most of all practically put, up till now I’ve been running campaigns where people always tended to immediately share extra information they receive out of the sheer fear of being back stabbed just for withholding the information from the rest of the group.

    This article suggest very good alternatives to level out the difference in power they receive (parallel to the amount of relevant information they receive) and therefore makes the sharing of the information less likely. After all, your exposing a potential weakness towards the rest of your party, that they might use against you, this way a bond of trust needs to be built before sharing there individual weaknesses and possible exploitation’s as well as strong points that might arise from this.

    All in all it makes it less likely they would share there life’s story right off the bat.

  2. Matt says:

    Thanks for the comment, and nicely summed up. One thing I didn’t hit on much in this blog, is that I also think that when PCs need to earn one another’s trust they tend to form closer bonds as a team and it actually reduces tension and arguments amongst them. It’s the difference between real trust and manufactured trust. Thanks for reading!

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  2. […] my own version of Inbox Zero, I stumbled on this post by One Die Short from Dungeon Mastering on Keeping Secrets. He’s essentially advocating the exact opposite of one of my previous posts on not keeping […]



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