RPG Characters and Secret Identities

Every now and then, you just want to play a character with a secret identity. And why not? Secret identities are fascinating; they give you a chance to play two (or more!) characters for the price of one, more art-fodder if you sketch as well as play, and they’re a fun little “this will come up later” to dangle in front of the other players.

But while maintaining a character with a convincing secret identity is tricky when writing a story, it’s even harder when you’re in the midst of a game group.

First off is the difficulty of hiding your identity from your game group. Whether their characters realize it or not, the players are probably going to know you for what you are: after all, don’t both these characters have the same player? Just about the only way you’re going to be able to avoid giving the game away is if there’s a circumstance in which the GM is asking people, you included, for random NPCs for something (the only secret identity I’ve ever made stick was only because I was providing half the NPCs for the Obligatory Martial Arts Tournament the group had gotten involved in). This can get worse when the other players don’t realize they shouldn’t know who you are, let alone introduce you as such.

A secret identity often depends on a contrast between situations, usually ‘default’ vs. ’something specialized’. Now, this is pretty straightforward for ensemble heroes who all have secret identities, since the people they hang around when they’re “on” and the people they hang around when they’re “off” don’t look like the same people. But consider the RPG character. Unless she’s in a solo game, she’s probably hanging with the same group when she’s herself and when she’s her other self. If she’s the only one with a secret identity, don’t you think the consistency in friendships is going to look a little suspicious?

Think about feasibility. Most games, one way or another, have some way of pulling off the kind of disguise skills needed to pull a secret identity properly. Some are more straightforward about this than others. I once had to get the help of the best min-maxer I knew to make a spy-masquerading-convincingly-as-general for a D&D 3.5 game to make a character viable outside of that role, and it took five or six rulebooks, a bewildering array of level dips and prestige classes, and one of the most counterintuitive magic items I think I’ve ever seen just to avoid being unreasonably squishy. Can you construct a secret identity without it making the character useless in most of her other pursuits?

You might be able to avoid the problems by having a character who instead of having one long-term secret identity puts on and shucks new identities the way someone else might handle clothing, with the group fully aware of this tendency and willing to cover for it. The good part of this is that you don’t have to worry too much about long-term loss of secret identity, and that it’s usually easier to provide yourself with supplies for a short-term facade than a long-term. Where it gets dicey is the bookkeeping: making sure your allies remember who you are today (not to mention making sure that both you and your GM know who you are today!), keeping track of who you were when, trying to avoid using the same name twice. If you can make it work, it’s great fun, but it can be a strain on both you and those around you.

Secret identities. Fun? Yes. Difficult. Yep. Worth it? You decide.

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  1. Impractical Applications (A Secret Identity Sampler) | Exchange of Realities

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