Having Chosen Secrets

So you’re either the GM or a player, and you want to have a secret. Secrets are tough things to work with; fun, but very prone to backfiring. Here are some questions you might want to ask yourself.

Why does it need to be a secret? Some situations are epically suited for it: if you’re secretly going to betray the party, for instance, keeping it under wraps is optimal. But if the secret is something that isn’t going to get the character beaten up by his teammates, if it’s a problem they might be able to help with, or if it’s something they would probably be interested in knowing, is keeping the secret really worth the irritation when they find out?

Will the secret by virtue of its nature inconvenience party dynamics in character? Sometimes, the very act of hiding something can be a problem within a group itself, even before they find out that it’s being hidden. One really common issue is when you get games where the entire group has powers but one’s hiding having powers even from them. I’ve seen this come up twice in games I’ve been involved with, both Exalted; in the first, I missed the session where the rest of the group first revealed to each other that they were Solars due to a field trip (…let me put it this way: nearly losing a character to one of the other PCs just because I’d chosen the wrong day to be gone was annoying), and the other time, a new player to my game attempted to pass for just-a-mortal—in quite possibly the highest-profile crowd of Celestials Creation had seen at that time. Short version: While situations like this can be amusing, or a challenge, they can also be blasted annoying for either the keepers or the ones who are left in the dark, particularly in a group used to knowing each other’s capabilities and teamworking. Think carefully before you get into them.

Similarly, are you willing to deal with the in-character ramifications when the thing gets out? This is mostly a question about the group; some people don’t react too well with things being hidden from them, whether they’re as small as listening in on someone when you’re saying you’re not and you never would, or as major as semi-voluntary dealings with a creature far beyond the group’s comprehension and possibly inimical to the setting.

How secret is this secret? With some groups, you can get away with out of character knowledge of an in-character secret. With some, you can’t. Sometimes, being able to share out of character information can protect you from a secret severely backfiring, or just allow you to mitigate the IC damage from it by getting it out before it reaches a point of no return.

Moreover, sometimes you don’t want something to be a secret to the group, because it won’t have occurred to them that it’s supposed to be a secret. If this is something you want to keep hidden from the rest of the world in character, it’s best for the people around you to know to keep their mouths shut. Otherwise you’ll find your alter ego introduced by your normal name by someone who doesn’t know any better.

Is someone going to have issues with this both in and out of character? I’ve seen secrets that could blow up like this, mainly because they were dealing with concept-deep damage, striking a blow against who and what the character’s supposed to be and possibly rendering characters unplayable or close to. Some people enjoy this sort of issue, but some just get frustrated, and a frustrated player can make life extremely difficult. Be very careful if the answer’s yes; the damage might not be worth it.

What are you going to get out of it? Secrets are powerful things, and there will be benefits. But how do they compare to the potential problems?

Think carefully. Make sure your factors balance. It will save you a lot of trouble.

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  1. Characterization Exercise: What Are You Hiding? | Exchange of Realities

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