Using opaque secrets in a productive way

edited October 2012 in Story Games
A lot of Story Games use transparent secrets. (The character might have secrets, but the secrets are open and transparent to the players.)

That is great and kick-ass, but I'm a player that also had great experiences of opaque secrets. (The characters might have secrets and if they secrets they are kept hidden from the other players.)

I also, like most people have really bad experiences of opaque use of secrets, because it really hard to do in a productive way, especially in tabletop games, because keeping them usually means spending a lot of time sending notes to the storyteller, or leaving the room to speak with the storyteller alone any other techniques that leads to less time spent on actual play for everyone. My personal horror example was a Vampire campaign where we spent 4 ours of our 5 hour gaming meeting sitting playing board outside the gaming room while someone else was doing secret stuff each meeting.

But I do like opaque use of secrets, when it done right.

I love it when something is revealed, and lot of little clues the other player left like breadcrumbs throughout the story, and all sort of small actions suddenly makes sense and the secrets reveal becomes an awesome plot twist both in and out of character. Or playing a game while knowing that someone else character might be a traitor, and trying to puzzle out who it might be, while immersing into the feeling of paranoia.

Because to me opaque secrets are a different experience from transparent secrets. Both are great, but different. Transparent secrets is like viewing the game as an omnipresent narrator, and not knowing them gives me the experience of viewing the story as first or third person limited.

So. I'm asking you all do you any great idea on techniques to play with opaque secrets in an awesome and productive way?

Comments

  • A game that does this simply and well is Witch: The Road to Lindesfarne.

    The person playing the witch chooses, at the start of the game, whether she is guilty or innocent. Her choice is kept secret until the game's conclusion. This does two things: It announces to the other players that there is no ambiguity and a choice has been made, and it throws tension into every interaction with the character. It is elegant and beautiful.
  • I like opaque secrets.

    I think the Witch game (which sounds very cool) is a good example of one possible principle:

    One way to handle opaque secrets is to include (in some way) the promise of the secret being revealed at some point in play. This can be mechanical or in-fiction.

    If I say that there is a chest with secret contents, and that anyone who can get into the Princess's chamber can open the chest. All the players know what the conditions to revealing the secret are, and can choose to reveal the secret or not. I think that's still fun and totally valid in most games.
  • edited October 2012
    The technique I use that made it easier to play with opaque secrets is to use both transparent and opaque secrets in the same game, at a 90% transparent / 10% opaque ratio, with the rule that you need to PLAY all the opaque secrets, not just sit on them.

    All secrets that you feel would be best played in an transparent way, is played in a transparent way. Usually that is the very wast majority of the secrets. Like 90%

    But the secrets you feel would give the other players an great play experience if played in an opaque way, is played in an opaque way. Usually these secrets are few. But you have to PLAY on the secrets, not just sit on them. You need to make it present in game, even if the other players don't realize it. You need to like a good mystery writer leave hints and clues of it out in the open. You don't have to reveal it, but it has to be there.

    This way you get much of what good with both methods.

    You get the advantage of transparent secrets for most of the scenes, yet you still get to wounder if there are any secrets you don't know about, and you get to look for clues, and you get to be suspicious of character motives. If someone has a opaque secret you either get to figure it out, or the other player get to reveal it at some dramatically appropriate point and way.
  • That sounds about perfect to me! Or, at least, it's my preferred way of doing things for most games.
  • edited October 2012
    Confession time!

    Open-play is odd to me as a player. I can handle it just fine, but it feels awkward to me as a player to keep a seperate model of what I know and what my character knows. I really am a dirty sim-lover at heart :)

    This, to me, is why I've been really psyched about IF - the world model is completely managed by a computer, so there's no awkward note-passing and no dick moves (unless you count the author of the simulation, of course). In a MUD, you can open a letter, read it, and others will simply see you reading a note (which you might recount, or destroy, or edit, or whatever).

    So I guess my solution to playing productively with opaque secrets is to go write a Guncho game.
  • I'll propose a terminology - secret vs mystery.

    When something is a mystery, it's active in play. People know to question it. They don't know the answer, but at least they know the question.

    When something is a secret, it's kept (at least mostly) out of play. You don't know that you don't know it. You don't know that it's something you could find out more about if you investigated, because you don't even know to ask.

    Using this separation of terms, I'd argue that mysteries are great and secrets are...well...they don't even really exist so they're kind of nothing.

    If you are collaboratively constructing fiction, and your collaborators are completely 100% not aware of something, then that thing doesn't exist for them and is therefore not part of the shared fiction.

    All the positive examples you've given above, though, are mysteries.

    The guilt of the witch is a mystery, because her potential guilt is something being addressed by the game.

    The contents of the Princess' chest is a mystery, because we know that the chest exists and we've had indications that it's contents are important or valuable or otherwise worthy of note.

    On the other hand, I played in a larp once that was full of secrets. I had only the vaguest notion at the time that this was the case, because the secrets were well kept. Too well kept. There was tons and tons of potentially intriguing game content that was kept completely under wraps and that I didn't experience. It wasn't a good thing.
  • Do you think that "secrets" (in your terminology) could indirectly influence play in subtle ways, and thereby be a positive force at work on a game? Or would the same "secrets", handled as "mysteries", always be superior? (I like those terms for this discussion!)
  • I'll propose a terminology - secret vs mystery.

    When something is a mystery, it's active in play. People know to question it. They don't know the answer, but at least they know the question.

    When something is a secret, it's kept (at least mostly) out of play. You don't know that you don't know it. You don't know that it's something you could find out more about if you investigated, because you don't even know to ask.
    I agree with that a mystery is when you know there is a secret, yet, I don't agree with that a secret is nothing. Just because I wasn't aware of it a certain time, doesn't mean it wasn't there.

    Let me use an example. The example is from a LARP, but otherwise I think it is an fantastic example of how you PLAY a secret well and let it be part of the game.

    A character Tassarion had been carrying a evil artifact, and this was known to the other characters. What wasn't known was that the artifact had a mind of it own and had starting getting into Tassarions mind, affecting him. No one was aware of this except Tassarions player. It was a secret.

    The LARP was a week long and the character Tassarion had been in the campaign for a few years, so many character knew the him well. Throughout the week, Tassarions player was roleplaying that he was affected, really well but subtly. But it was there. During the week stuff added up. He was angry. He made radical suggestions. He was very friendly with my character, that been marked by the evil god. His jokes where darker and more morbid. Tiny things. But they added up.

    Everyone probably had some moment when they felt that "What up with Tassarion, why is he so grumpy?" or "That's too dark and morbid, that's not funny. Perhaps the war is getting to him. He need to get home end find his balance." or "Oh. What up with him? Something is up with him, I'll see if hw want to talk about it later."

    Until at the end of the week the character got into a argument, and suddenly spun into psychotic anger, and ranted about how we must use the evil artifact to win the war. He even touched one of the seers with the evil artifact so she could "feel it's power" before storming off.

    We all just started at him. What the hell was going on? But then... Suddenly it all made sense. Chock and realization all at once. The artifact had gotten into his head. OMG. Why the **** hadn't we seen this coming? We had had it right there in front of us! How could we not realized what whas happening. We had all noticed something was wrong? How far had he been compromised? We had to reexamine every little thing he been doing for the whole week.

    It was awesome.
    ---

    It was an amazingly well played secret. It had been a part of the game all throughout the week. We had all noticed it, it had created interesting scenes, been a part of the game. Yet... We hadn't know about the secret. We hadn't known that we where staring at the face of the mystery. We didn't know we should been asking questions.

    Yet. It was all there. In front of us. If we just for a moment stopped to consider it what was happening had been obvious. It was so awesome.



  • God-king makes good use of mysteries. The characters all have private goals that are often (but not always) incompatible, and a trust mechanic requires players to choose one other character who's allowed to modify their actions, for good or ill.
  • I dig that mystery/secret distinction, it's a very helpful way to think about this.

    Before reading that post, the only idea I had was pretty straightforward: if you have an opaque secret and you want it to be productive in the game, you need to have a plan for revealing it. You can't just sit on that secret and wait for someone else to do something, because, duh, they don't know anything about it and -- let's be honest -- if you really wanted to, you could keep it a secret forever and they would never, ever know. Your character can be 100% committed to never letting anyone else ever suspect their terrible secret, but as a player, you need to be 100% committed to exactly the opposite if you want it to be part of the game. Keeping a secret in a game is ridiculously easy: you just don't mention it, and voila, secret kept. Not keeping a secret takes effort on your part.

    So make a plan. Constantly set up situations where your character can fail at keeping that secret completely hidden from the rest of the world, and make sure they fail. Turn your secret into a mystery, like @RobMcDiarmid says: give everyone a reason to know that there's a secret and a reason to ask questions about it. (I'd further argue that you should give everyone a fair shot at getting the answers, too, but that's because I think it's awesome when mysteries are solved and not awesome when they aren't. YMMV.)

    It might also help to build your secret specifically to interest one or more of the other characters, of course; then when you execute your plan and let part of the secret slip, you can get those characters poking around at it right away.


    I suppose there's an edge case, too, where you can personally find something productive in your character's secret without it ever being necessary for anyone else to ever even suspect its existence. For example, I tend to do a lot of thinking about my characters, workshopping little dialogues with them in my head and thinking about what kind of books they read or what a typical day is like for them or what their favorite things are.

    Hardly any of that ever comes into our games, because it's never stuff that's actually important for other people to know to understand who my character is, and it's never something that reveals anything in particular about what we're trying to accomplish in the game. But it's productive for me, because it gives me a little sandbox where I can work out how I want to play that PC, try out different things without having to commit to them immediately, and lay out some personal context for who I think they are and what I think they would believe. And it's a fun way to spend a coffee break or a long drive.
  • If you want to spin discord and distrust among player characters into your game then opaque is the way to go. I played a game of Lacuna recently where there were open secrets — players could hear both sides of an Agent's phone call to Control, who was asking questions like "Has Agent Taylor done anything suspicious?". It worked ok and we roleplayed being suspicious of one another, but the entire time it felt like we were faking it. There wasn't any real tension because of this. Real deceit is way more interesting. Also it resulted in lame roleplaying like:

    Agent Taylor: "So what did control say?"
    Agent Baker: "They said our mission was… I tell them what you [the GM] said."

    I hate the "I tell them…" breaking character statement and it comes up all the time in open secret games. This brings up the point that Opaque is great not just for secrets but for situations where one character saw something the others didn't. It leads to some brilliant games of telephone where details are lost. Of course, too much of this breaks up the fun of playing a game as a group. But I think mixing it up is good. Sometimes it really doesn't matter if something is an open secret — there is no reason to take someone into another room every time they run off on their own — and other times that tension is good and makes the game better.

    I'm planning on running a game of Lacuna soon and I'm planning on making phone calls to Control actual phone calls, where I'll walk into the other room and call so that other players only hear one side of the conversation.
  • Everyone probably had some moment when they felt that "What up with Tassarion, why is he so grumpy?" or "That's too dark and morbid, that's not funny. Perhaps the war is getting to him. He need to get home end find his balance." or "Oh. What up with him? Something is up with him, I'll see if hw want to talk about it later."
    First - the fact that he was holding the evil artifact was publicly known. You have a very public clue.

    Then, he made people ask the right questions. He gave them a set of behaviors to tie to the known clue.

    Therefore he made it a mystery and not just a secret.

    Which is why it was awesome.

    If you had not known that he had held the evil artifact - if you had not known the artifact existed because he had kept it hidden away all week and not shown it to anyone - it would have been a secret. Especially if he'd been too subtle with his behavior changes for people to notice and start questioning.

    And it would have been lame.
  • I'm planning on running a game of Lacuna soon and I'm planning on making phone calls to Control actual phone calls, where I'll walk into the other room and call so that other players only hear one side of the conversation.
    An excellent example of a mystery. The other players know there's more to the conversation. And they know whom to ask about it. And even if they ask, they don't know if they're being told the truth.

    But they know the call happened and something (probably interesting) was said. So it's a mystery. Good stuff.
  • I dig that mystery/secret distinction, it's a very helpful way to think about this.
    Very glad it helps.
  • So a while back, I was playing a PbP of 3:16. My character had a reputation of "Grenade-loving psycho". Man, he loved blowing stuff up! And chewing radium gum. The other characters thought he was crazy. It was fun to play!

    And then one day, the Sergeant needed someone to babysit a holovid producer that the brass had assigned to us, and considered his options. He took one look at my character, shook his head, and assigned it to somebody else.

    And that's when I realized. It was all an act to get out responsibility. He was nowhere near as crazy as he acted, but he knew as long as he acted that way, nobody would ever give him anything important to do, expect blow stuff up, which was still cool.

    I had already liked the character, but realizing that secret escalated him into one of my favorites of all time, even though that secret had never been revealed to the other PCs, or even the GM for that matter. Had the game continued on for long enough I might have started dropping hints that he was smarter than he let on, but even though it didn't it was still a productive secret for me.

    Now, I've had other characters with secrets that never came up and I was kind of disappointed by the fact then. So, yeah, if it's something that you want revealed but your character doesn't, definitely collaborate with the GM so that threats to those secrets arise more often. This may include letting the GM know the secret exists in the first place.
  • Ben,

    Awesome example.

    How would they game have been different (better, worse, neither) if you had in some way brought this "secret" into "mystery" territory?

    For instance, you could have written somewhere visible: "Questions about our game: Why does the Grenade-loving psycho act so crazy?"

    Or maybe pointed it out to a player, or maybe asked the GM to provide more situations which challenged his reliability. ("That was cool. It's interesting when the Sergeant needs someone responsible, and he's afraid of choosing the Psycho. Can we put some more situations like that into play?")

    Not great examples, but I hope you get the idea. In short, do you think the game would have been different if you and/or the group had tried to take your private secret out into the open? Better, worse, neither?
  • edited October 2012
    Yet, theb just knowing that "There will/might be opaque secrets" is a part of the social contact is enough to turn everything into a mystery, by the definition of mysteries.

    You don't know exactly what questions to ask yet, but you know there will be secrets and mysteries there to be spotted if people play on them, not just sit on them.
  • I love love love the secret/mystery distinction (even if it's a somewhat artificial terminological thing that doesn't directly map to the dictionary definitions of those terms, it's absolutely great for RPGs). I've had so many lame experiences, primarily in LARPs, with secrets.

    I also want to say that I find Burning Wheel generally falls nicely into the 9:1 ratio proposed up above. In the campaign I'm running right now, there are some important open secrets, namely that all three PCs have/had secret lovers at the start of the game. (One of the secret lovers is the mother of the other two PCs... yes, my game contains a MILF.) We had great fun playing up the tension of the (possible) revelation of those relationships. But there is one fairly big setting secret I've developed on my own, and I'm working on a few more, that are objective and won't be able to be changed with rolls.

    This is all by the book, and fully supported by the text of both the core rules and the Adventure Burner. I actually had one game go south based on there being *no* fixed information at all.

    Matt
  • edited October 2012
    Another piece of relevant terminology: Parallel Play.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Parallel_play

    This is when 2 year old kids are, for example, playing in the same sandbox using the same set of toys. So what one does effects the others play a little (the dump truck I was playing with a minute ago is now filled with sand when I start to play with it again, for example). And they may occasionally observe each other and learn behaviors from each other. But really they're playing separately from each other, but in the same space. They aren't really interacting except maybe to fight over the same toy occasionally.

    A common experience of parallel play in adults is in MMO games. When you are solo'ing, you are playing in a space where other people are playing, and your play may occasionally interact with other players (perhaps, for example, you buy something from the auction house that is placed there by another player) but your play experience doesn't really involve playing with the other players.

    I would argue that w176's example of the Vampire game where most of the session consisted of private conferences with the GM (while the other players did nothing) was basically parallel play (though the fact that the GM could only meet with one of them at a time made it more like Serial Play if you want to match it to the old computer cable terms - but it was parallel play in that each player was separately interacting with the game's playspace and their play experience was markedly separate from the play experience of their fellow players.)

    I would also argue that Ben's secret motivation was, partly, a parallel play experience. Sure, it affected how he interacted with the other players. But the other players didn't know that that aspect of his character was part of what was "in play". Especially so because he never shared it with them, even outside of the play session. So it never became part of the shared fiction. It may have been great fun for Ben, but it wasn't really part of the shared experience.

    That isn't to say that I believe that roleplaying need be a single identical shared experience. I've written a whole article on Simultaneous Action in larp, and in doing so I identify that element as being the primary distinction between larp and tabletop play. I think the individualized simultaneous action experience of play represents a facet of the complex shared fiction. But it's still shared. A secret that is too well kept can't be part of other individuals' experience and therefore doesn't exist for them.

    If a tree falls in the forest and only one player experienced it and they didn't tell anyone else it happened even after the game was over, it wasn't a shared experience.

    I'll argue, though, that information can enter into the shared experience outside of the official game time, if that information is shared later. Especially if it's shared close enough to affect your experience of the game - like at the post-game wrap-up or sometime in the middle of a campaign. I prefer when things come out during play, so that you can react in character to learning the information. But if you learn about someone's secret motivation during the afterparty and learning that affects your experience and memory of the game, then it still counts somewhat.
  • edited October 2012
    So. I'm asking you all do you any great idea on techniques to play with opaque secrets in an awesome and productive way?
    In my current gaming life, my first exposure to opaque (or closed) secrets was the dark fates in The Mountain Witch (a concept I liked so much I then completely stole it to be the Terrible Secrets in Anarktica). The dark fates are so opaque that even the GM doesn't know them - which led to some interesting moments in our game where our GM tried to work out if one of the players was bluffing with his Dark Fate or not.

    Tim (the creator) posted some great techniques for incorporating these opaque secrets into the game on SG here

    My favourite piece of his advice was:

    "Foreshadow your Fate by adding new content---particularly NPCs, events, and facts about the game world."
    One of the fun things about Fates is that they add new stuff into the narrative that the GM or the other players can interact with. Experienced players realize this, and thus often foreshadow their Fates by bringing in all sorts of NPCs, events, and facts external to their characters. New players who don't realize this tend to foreshadow their Fate by narrating peculiar actions on the part of their character that hint at a dark secret, but don't bring in much that the other people at the table can interact with."
  • In doing the "Improv for Gamers" workshop at Big Bad Con last weekend, one of the exercises was to do a two-person scene where each actor was given an index card with a secret. We were given nothing about making the secret come out in the scene, only to play it. The point, as I understood it, was that having that secret made the scene more dynamic.

    This rings true to me from my own experience in play. From the sound of it, I think Ben's experience of playing his grenade-loving psycho was richer and more interesting, and I bet that playing with that grenade-loving psycho was more interesting not for the secret revealed, but because Ben's play was more engaged and complex.

    It's true that it isn't shared experience - but I feel that role-playing isn't shared experience anyway. Even if they have the same information, two people playing in a game aren't going to have the same experience. As a trivial example, one person is in the spotlight for the whole game, and the other person remains in the background. Even though there are no secrets, those two have very different experiences. Even if you could arrange for them to both do exactly the same actions, it still wouldn't be the same. I see that as a strength of role-playing.
  • You can't just sit on that secret and wait for someone else to do something, because, duh, they don't know anything about it and -- let's be honest -- if you really wanted to, you could keep it a secret forever and they would never, ever know. Your character can be 100% committed to never letting anyone else ever suspect their terrible secret, but as a player, you need to be 100% committed to exactly the opposite if you want it to be part of the game. Keeping a secret in a game is ridiculously easy: you just don't mention it, and voila, secret kept.
    This is only true if your secret is completely irrelevant to the content of the game. If your secret actually interacts with the fiction, then it will have consequences because the fiction will force those consequences on your character; their reactions to what happens will be altered in meaningful ways. The player can't just pretend the secret doesn't exist whenever it comes up, because then it's not a secret: it's nothing.

    To be honest I don't really understand the benefits of the secret/mystery distinction -- it's remarkably tautological, since anything that actually fits its definition of a 'secret' must have no impact on play. Everything anyone would think to bring up as an example of 'asynchronous information concerning a character's situation' (I can't use the word 'secret' anymore, even though that's what I mean) is a mystery, by this definition. Rob, you even mention this in your original formulation -- why put forward a set of definitions where one of the terms doesn't "even really exist"? All you've really proposed is that we replace the word 'secret' with 'mystery' in the rest of the thread (which is in fact what has happened?)
    Yet, theb just knowing that "There will/might be opaque secrets" is a part of the social contact is enough to turn everything into a mystery, by the definition of mysteries.
    This seems to be true, as well, making the definition even less clear. What is the threshhold at which a meaningful secret -- something that is relevant to the circumstances and is having major effects on one of the characters' actions, etc. -- becomes a mystery? Is 'why is Tassarion acting so weird?' a specific-enough question, or does it have to be 'what is up with Tassarion and that evil artifact?', or can it just be 'why did Tassarion make that one unusual statement, that one time?'

    I mean, are the basic motivations of characters a sort of set of default mysteries, in most games? It seems like not, based on how the terms get used, but I think it is probably quite hard to draw the line. "Hates the nobility because they're uppity bastards" is kind of a basic personality trait, whereas "hates the nobility because, unknown to everyone, a nobleman murdered his brother" is a secret -- but both are going to inform very similar sort of behaviours. And both could be unknown to the other players at the beginning of play, and only become clear over time, but only in the latter case would it seem like a 'reveal'.

    ("And then, in the eighth session, it suddenly made sense, when [PC X] explained that she... was a vegetarian for a combination of ethical and economic reasons! Finally we understood all those menu choices back in session two!")



  • IceCreamEmperor: Rawr! Great post.

    And perhaps that one that reaches the conclusion that perhaps having an exact definition isn't what meaningful in this discussion. Or at least not the goal of it.

    Whenever we say something in a secret of a mystery, how do we use it in a way that productive in the game? What techniques do we use? What methods? What social agreements? What tips and tricks?
  • Well, here's one thing about the completely invisible secrets: you can reveal them AFTER the game, and that changes people's perspective on events.

    Like, another personal example. Once in a vampire: the masquerade game, I was playing a Caitiff who was pretending to be a Malkavian. Now, absolutely nobody ever questioned me on this. I mean, who pays attention to the Malkavians, seriously? It even got to the point where my character was appointed to be the Malkavian Primogen!

    Naturally, after my character died, I mentioned the fact in passing to the other players: and a lot of them were actually pretty impressed I had managed to keep it hidden. I think their enjoyment of the game was increased by that extra layer of complexity, even though their characters were never aware of it, and the players were never aware of it in the frame of time that it could have mattered.

    Now, these days, don't get me wrong, I'm all about mysteries versus secrets. But there is that aspect of secrets, even the one so successfully kept that it almost never influences play, that you can always learn about it after game, and you can still get that "Oh shit, really?" moment even if you don't have the "Ooooh, that explains things" moment to go along with it.
  • Secrets are pretty much the norm in Trad play. In Call of Cthulhu, especially Delta Green, characters often have their own agendas. I've twice played characters taken over by aliens (Yithians) and have thrown in some strange actions to give a clue to the other players that something wasn't right. In Cold City and sequels, secret agendas are part of character creation. We've played with them open or closed and I think I prefer the latter because the reveal becomes so much more emotionally important.

    I the LARPs we've run, everyone has secrets but we also have mechanisms for revealing them, as well as encouraging players to do so.

    A secret is pretty pointless unless it gets out in some way. I hate it when a secret is revealed after play has stopped.
  • I think it important that to reveal a secret don't have to mean that it is reveal trough failure to keep it hidden, it can just is likely be revealed trough success.

    I played an epic Solar System Campaign with Willhelm, full of active but opaque play that one of the heroes was a traitor serving the evil witch queen. The secret was revealed when the traitor character successfully delivered all the artifacts we been collecting to save the world to his dark masters.

    I think the key thing here was that the reveal didn't end the campaign by itself. We got to play the emotional fallout of the treason, and it just upped the stakes and made the final confrontation even more desperate.
  • edited October 2012
    You can't just sit on that secret and wait for someone else to do something, because, duh, they don't know anything about it and -- let's be honest -- if you really wanted to, you could keep it a secret forever and they would never, ever know. Your character can be 100% committed to never letting anyone else ever suspect their terrible secret, but as a player, you need to be 100% committed to exactly the opposite if you want it to be part of the game. Keeping a secret in a game is ridiculously easy: you just don't mention it, and voila, secret kept.
    This is only true if your secret is completely irrelevant to the content of the game.
    Of course, it probably IS completely irrelevant to the content of the game, if what you wanted was an opaque secret that your character would never willingly reveal.

    Which does happen, and will likely keep happening, as each new generation of players gets psyched about secrets and then eventually learns that making your character's secrets relevant to the content of the game and having it interact with the fiction in meaningful ways is something you have to DO. You can't sit back as a player and guard your secret and expect other people to make that secret relevant, you have to be proactive. You need to keep pushing it out into the light, making those connections to the game, or it won't go anywhere.

    And that, right there, is why I think the secret/mystery distinction makes sense: sure, it's tautological, but in actual games people have actually made exactly those kinds of secrets rather than mysteries, and then wondered why no one even tried to figure it out.
    What is the threshhold at which a meaningful secret -- something that is relevant to the circumstances and is having major effects on one of the characters' actions, etc. -- becomes a mystery? Is 'why is Tassarion acting so weird?' a specific-enough question, or does it have to be 'what is up with Tassarion and that evil artifact?', or can it just be 'why did Tassarion make that one unusual statement, that one time?'
    That's a great question!

    I have a vague feeling that it has to do with whether people can do something meaningful with it within the game, or if it's just background information that's sort of neat but doesn't really lead anywhere. If there's something there to actually play out, some stakes or consequences or whatever, some kind of actions that the characters will want to take because they know this thing, then that's much more interesting. (To me, anyway.)
  • I like John's post above. (And I am not a fan of the terminology! So I won't use it.)

    For me, there are two ways that secrets can influence play. Firstly, they give you inspiration on how to play a character: my character is constantly nervous because he emigrated to this country and never feels part of it. It doesn't matter when these secrets are revealed: during the game, at the end, not at all. They're just part of the background. (And that is what John is talking about above).

    Secondly, they can be interesting parts of the fiction in themselves: my character is constantly nervous because he knows the mission is a lie. Such secrets must come out, before the end.

    Secrets are rich and exciting. We have a culture, in indie games, that avoids them: this, I think, is a hangover from our unease about the GM role. We tend to think secrets are manipulative and inequitable. But they add so much to a game.
  • Secrets are rich and exciting. We have a culture, in indie games, that avoids them: this, I think, is a hangover from our unease about the GM role. We tend to think secrets are manipulative and inequitable. But they add so much to a game.
    I tend to have unease about them while in the traditional GM role myself, mostly since working with them can lead to very unequal spotlight time and attention for the various players.

  • Rob, you even mention this in your original formulation -- why put forward a set of definitions where one of the terms doesn't "even really exist"? All you've really proposed is that we replace the word 'secret' with 'mystery' in the rest of the thread (which is in fact what has happened?)
    I think mystery is a much more constructive word.

    The word secret has 2 meanings, which causes confusion.

    In a literary sense, a secret is something that is actively engaged with by the audience, but is not known to at least one character. For example, dramatic irony, where the audience knows something the character doesn't know, so they know why they should not be doing what they are doing. Or in subjective narrative, where the narrator's thoughts are known to the reader (allowing them to share secrets with the reader) but not to the other characters. Or it's a mystery, where there is a question being actively engaged by the text (frex, whodunnit?) so we know as readers that we are supposed to be looking at the clues and trying to anticipate the reveal.

    While in a day-to-day sense, the word secret is used to mean something you keep and don't tell. It exists to you, sure. But your goal is to make it not exist to anyone else, preferably to the point where nobody else ever engages with it (unless you're doing some sort of self-destructive thrill-seeking behavior).

    The word mystery is much more clear in it's connotations. The word is almost exclusively used in reference to a question that people are actively seeking to answer - usually one that involves clues that people know are clues but don't know what they mean yet. Both in a literary sense and in day-to-day use, the word has this connotation.

    For purposes of roleplay, I find it far more constructive to think about crafting a mystery than to think about keeping a secret. That's the key thing I'm trying to get across and the reason why I think the term mystery is much more useful.

    The ultimate goal of a real-life secret is to keep it.

    The ultimate goal of a real-life mystery is to entice seekers and, usually, to craft a satisfying reveal (though some real-life uses of the mystery concept focus on the perpetual engagement without the reveal, such as ghost hunting, but at least the focus is still on generating engagement).

    When you think about crafting a mystery, you think about putting out clues, rather than hiding any evidence (but trying to make those clues subtle enough that people have to engage with multiple of them before they start to put things together). You think about making people ask questions, rather than hoping they won't. You think about being catching people's interest, rather than avoiding it.

    That's what Tassarion was doing. He was crafting a mystery. He wasn't keeping a secret. That's why it was awesome.

    I hope that clarifies why think it is useful to separate the terms and to focus on mysteries for roleplaying games.
  • RobMcDiarmid: +1! Now I got what your saying, and I think it really good point.

    "When you have a secret, make it a mystery."

    Because using th world mystery set one into the mindset of someone using a secret to improve the narrative, not into the everyday mindset of just not telling. Using the word mystery is a way to signal that the secret should be played and made part of the story in an active way.
  • Looking at it again, though, the way I define secrets is that they can never be useful. That doesn't really help, nor is it true.

    Should be something more like this:

    Secrets are when the goal is to keep the secret and hide the information.

    Mysteries are when the goal is to entice others to want to find out the information by dropping clues.

    Open secrets (known to the players but not to the characters) are great as a way for the players to craft awkward or dramatic situations for their characters. Sitcoms and soap operas thrive on open secrets. The characters want to hide their secrets, but the audience knows what they are up to and can enjoy the tension.

    Closed secrets (known to neither the players or the characters) are a trap. Because by keeping the goal in mind of hiding the information, it is far too easy to avoid engaging with the secret in play at all.

    Closed secrets should be replaced with mysteries, where the goal is to entice others to engage with clues and to ask questions. And maybe to work up to a reveal (though a reveal is not strictly necessary, as long as the questions have been a part of the play experience).

    Character secrets, such as secret motivations for why a character acts a certain way, are potentially a way to develop rich characterization. The secret itself is not really part of the shared fiction unless you turn it into a mystery (and not all character secrets are worthy of this treatment). But they can be a great actor's trick for developing rich characterization.

    There, I think that's a better way to introduce mystery as a constructive concept without making secret an unusable word.
  • +
    Secrets are when the goal is to keep the secret and hide the information.

    Mysteries are when the goal is to entice others to want to find out the information by dropping clues.

    Open secrets (known to the players but not to the characters) are great as a way for the players to craft awkward or dramatic situations for their characters. Sitcoms and soap operas thrive on open secrets. The characters want to hide their secrets, but the audience knows what they are up to and can enjoy the tension.

    Closed secrets (known to neither the players or the characters) are a trap. Because by keeping the goal in mind of hiding the information, it is far too easy to avoid engaging with the secret in play at all.

    Closed secrets should be replaced with mysteries, where the goal is to entice others to engage with clues and to ask questions. And maybe to work up to a reveal (though a reveal is not strictly necessary, as long as the questions have been a part of the play experience).

    Character secrets, such as secret motivations for why a character acts a certain way, are potentially a way to develop rich characterization. The secret itself is not really part of the shared fiction unless you turn it into a mystery (and not all character secrets are worthy of this treatment). But they can be a great actor's trick for developing rich characterization.

    There, I think that's a better way to introduce mystery as a constructive concept without making secret an unusable word.
    +10! Niw we are really getting somewhere.

    Could we explore the mystery concept fyther? Are there different types of mysteries?
  • Well, one potentially interesting difference would be between GM-driven mysteries and player-driven mysteries.

    Tassorian being a good example of the latter. Even if the GMs told him to start acting possessed, from the way you tell it, the way it played out seems to have very much been driven by his player-as-actor choices.

    In general, player-driven mysteries tend to focus more on single character behavior than anything, though some games empower the player with more tools to help make the mystery be part of play. Games that allow players to frame scenes can be particularly helpful in crafting a mystery. Or games where players can sometimes speak for NPCs in addition to their PC.

    GM-driven mysteries tend to have more tools at their disposal. They have more characters to speak through. They tend to have more scene-setting power. Of course, GM-driven mysteries tend to be the primary plot of the game, so it tends to be easier to do the enticing part.
  • While I was reading this, I thought:

    "Yes, it's totally true that mysteries and secrets, if we're thinking about 'how secret they are', aren't that easy to differentiate."

    And the vegetarian example made me laugh really hard.

    But, as Rob points out, it's not HOW SECRET that is the important variable: it's HOW INTERESTING.

    A secret that's supposed to stay hidden at all costs, not even be hinted about, is often counter-productive in a collaborative fiction game.

    A secret that we're all wildly curious about, now that generates great play.

    Now, of course, being interested in a secret means that it has to be known in some way. Hence the term "mystery", and the attempt to describe it as a secret that is known to exist. But the important part here isn't that the secret's existence is known, that's a side effect: the really important is that the secret is interesting, that it draws people in, that it's fodder for great gaming.

    A secret that you keep secret at all costs can work, too, so long as it's having some meaningful and interesting effect on play. But, yeah, I don't really care why your character is a vegetarian unless there's a scene where your character does something mysterious, and now I might start wondering. (Maybe your character is a vegetarian, but has no qualms eating *human* meat?) Suddenly the secret is a mystery: now it's engaging, now it's a point of interest we can all enjoy.
  • edited October 2012
    It's a shame this thread is going down the terminological route. "Mystery" and "secret" have established meanings, so you can't simply redefine them: if you do, you confuse discussion rather than enlightening it.

    Oh well. I hope this comes back in another discussion. Secrets are a great subject and there is so much they can do for games.
  • edited October 2012
    Hi Elin,

    In Left Coast, my game about sci-fi authors, every NPC has a secret built into them in character creation. I do that for exactly the reason you describe in your first post: the trail of bread crumbs and the sudden realization – but also because when everyone knows there’s a secret (but not what it is) the scenes automatically have subtext and feel more interesting (in the same way John described during his Big Bad Con workshop).

    I also agree with Accounting for Taste: you need a plan to reveal the secret.

    Anyway, here's the advice about secrets that I'm giving in Left Coast:
    HOW TO USE SECRETS

    The purpose of a secret isn’t to keep it hidden: it’s to reveal it. A revealed secret changes the status quo in the Author's life – creating new situations for them to deal with.

    This revelation can happen at whatever pace the NPC Owner feels is right. It could come after layering subtle hints throughout multiple scenes with the NPC over multiple sessions, or by playing the implications of the secret so obviously that the Author figures it out at the end of her first scene with the NPC.

    Secrets are (before this revelation) kept from the Author‟s Player. The player should be aware there is stuff going on with the NPC that they don‟t know about. This subtext creates a sense of inner life in the NPCs, and (hopefully) provokes or excites the Author‟s player into finding out the secrets of the NPCs she‟s interested in.

    I also find that secrets help the NPC Owner portray her characters.

    However, there’s a significant potential problem with secrets: they have the potential to create incoherence in the fiction and frustration between players.

    For instance, imagine a scene in the story where the Author has her own objectives, and is also dealing with two NPCs who have secret agendas. In addition, the Creator has their secret three-point plan for where they want the Weird to go and is busy hinting at it throughout the scene.

    With all these people keeping secrets from each other, someone can easily do something totally consistent with their secret that simultaneously negates what another player believes is true about their secret.

    With everyone pushing in slightly different directions, the result can be an underlying lack of coherence in the story you’re creating. In previous playtests, this has led to players feeling frustrated because there’s something that’s happened in the fiction that doesn’t suit them.

    So, there’s a conflict between keeping things secret (creating subtext and a thrill of discovery) versus having all the information known to everyone at the table (helps the story flow smoothly)

    The solutions I’m using are a compromise between these two things. During play, NPC Owners do all of the following:

    • The NPC Owner shows her NPC’s secret to everyone (except for the Author’s player) who is in a scene with that NPC. This includes the Creator and the owners of any NPC who's affected by the secret.
    • NPC Owners need to subtly introduce an element of their NPC’s secret into every scene
    • The NPC owner can veto adding a relationship that involves their NPC to the Setting Chart (if that relationship is inconsistent with the NPC’s secret).
    • After an Author fails a conflict, the NPC Owner can introduce a relationship that hints at the NPC’s secret.



    This thread’s filled with great stuff: I’m going to examine it more closely when it comes to rewriting this section of the game.
  • I would say that a secret is when at least one of the people at the table doesn't know "the truth" and a mystery is when nobody at the table knows it. I like mysteries because you can also get a kind of big reveal during play when everybody finds out what's the best answer to each pending question (like with Inspectres).
  • Lisa Padol once observed that one of the lessons she learned from LARPs is that your character doesn't want his secrets to come out, but you as storyteller do -- and often, at the worst possible time.

    This is one of the things that Steve Hickey's "How to use secrets" points out.

    So why don't we just explain this to our players at the start of a tabletop RPG?

    - Todd
  • Ooh! Ooh! I actually have an answer for that one! Because many players don't like having to think OOC about things like that. They're only comfortable doing things that further their character's viewpoint.

    Matt
  • In Left Coast, my game about sci-fi authors, every NPC has a secret built into them in character creation. I do that for exactly the reason you describe in your first post: the trail of bread crumbs and the sudden realization – but also because when everyone knows there’s a secret (but not what it is) the scenes automatically have subtext and feel more interesting (in the same way John described during his Big Bad Con workshop).

    I also agree with Accounting for Taste: you need a plan to reveal the secret.
    I don't have anything against revealing secrets per se. In larps I play in, I do tend to reveal my character's secrets moreso than many other players who guard them more.

    However, I also feel like revealing secrets is often a way of substituting back-story for in-game story - which I usually consider negative. Either a secret or a mystery in the character's backstory can drive play, but the important thing is the action and drama that it drives - not the revealing itself.

    Sometimes being revealed helps drive play, but sometimes staying secret can also drive play - if keeping that secret compels you to interesting action.
  • Sometimes being revealed helps drive play, but sometimes staying secret can also drive play - if keeping that secret compels you to interesting action.
    This. It's not about mystery v. secret for me. I don't find that useful terminology relevant to the OP about player-crafted secrets. Transparent v. opaque, however, makes better sense in terms of the meta-dimension of player agency and different choices regarding player authorial collaboration. If interesting action that arises from acting on the secrets generates curiosity, suspense, and a better grounding in character that's visible at the table, then it's all good. Cool player stuff that's totally hidden and remains so without driving play can be fun in a retrospective fashion, but I'm not convinced it's relevant to impacting the actual play and development of emergent fiction.
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