Tuesday, 13 September 2011

You Should Know my Dirty Little Secret

Ulfgar looked at the carnage- another outlying farm attacked in the night, body parts strewn throughout the house. The other warriors wondered what happened here, but it was all too obvious to the young warlord. A raid by Fenris cultists. And from the looks of it, the savage cannibals had taken their time, feeding on their victims while they were still alive. Ulfgar rubbed his stomach, but didn’t let the rest of the group in on his findings. He had no desire to explain how he acquired such intimate knowledge of the worshippers of Fenris.

Many characters have a dirty, little secret: a secret affair with the married queen, a disgraced noble hiding out from enemies by enlisting as a soldier, or a dark elf posing as one of his above ground cousins to stay out of trouble. Our little secrets give us something to own in our characters- a piece of personal property that we don’t have to share with anyone but the DM.

My character has a hidden background. Someday, the rest of the world may discover my nasty secret. In fact, I’m planning on it.

A character secret is a plotline, a new story or adventure hook that the DM will weave into the game. As players, we love this because we know when the secret comes into play, the game has suddenly shifted to being about the party to being all about me, me, ME! Even if the rest of the group doesn’t know the secret came into play, you and the DM know and the player always enjoys the extra attention.

But that’s not the point of the secret. A secret is a mystery - and the point of a mystery is to be solved. Imagine if all the NPCs in your game had secrets and you never, I mean never, found out about them. You never knew the barkeep is selling information to cultists in the nearby temple. In fact, you never even find out there was a temple nearby. Why even bother having the temple?

The point of a secret is to create a mystery – an unknown element that is revealed during the game until a final shocking revelation. Now, you already know your secret. And the DM knows your secret. So who’s supposed to figure out this mystery? The rest of the players are.

While your background is a method for the DM to hook your character into an adventure, your secret is a plot line for the rest of the party to figure out. And you are no longer a player, but a deputy DM whose task is to lay out this story for the other players. And like any good DM, your job isn’t to make the secret a dead end wall with no hope of getting through. You want to provide openings for the rest of the party to unravel the mystery. Your character may never want their secret to become public knowledge, but as a player and deputy DM, you are actively working towards that very goal!

The Setup

The giant boar lay dead at their feet. It must have weighed as much as 10 men and took a long time to die. After such a long battle, the party decided to set up camp. Asgar used his dragon breath to light a fire for roasting up some fine boar meat. Ulfgrim declined the meal. “I like it the way it is” and he hacked off the boar’s rear leg, biting into the raw, bloody carcass.

To put together a secret like this, you and the DM need to meet and determine the secret. Then you need to work together to work out how the plotline will progress. You’re making a mini-adventure that will span as many or as few sessions as you see fit to make this work. You don’t have to design adventures, just decide on a few hints that will be dropped here and there and how far apart they should be spaced.

This is the crucial first step and one that is often missing. The usual method for a player is to develop a secret and then throw it in the DMs lap, with visions of grand adventures based on their character now that the DM has this awesome adventure hook you just force fed them. One of three things will happen:

1)    The DM will not use it nearly as well as you had hoped, or not at all. Maybe they took it in a different direction that you don’t like, or maybe they just gloss over it now and then to keep you happy. After all, the DM has their own plot to handle, not to mention the secrets of the rest of the party.
2)    The DM uses it just as you planned. Perhaps matching it too much to your expectations. Every time your secret came into play, it was fairly obvious to you what was going on and why. There was no surprise or suspense and your secret felt very mundane.
3)     The DM totally rocks this thing and your faith in his awesome DM-ness reaches new heights.

Now number 3 might be the result. But it might just as easily be one of the other two, so why take that chance? Plus, you have the option now of totally rocking this thing with your DM and giving the rest of the group an awesome experience

Put into Play

Gorm’s brother stood high atop the altar, channeling dark energy to free Fenris from his chains and release him upon the world. “Kill the traitor and his friends!” he commanded his werewolf followers. Gorm stepped forward, notching an arrow and sending it through his brother’s skull. “You’re the traitor, not me!” he cried at his sibling’s crumpled body. Ulfgrim didn’t correct Gorm’s assumption about who the traitor was- he was too busy as all but two of the werewolves rushed forward to focus solely on Ulfgrim.

Now that you’ve decided on the events that will transpire as part of the mystery, you need to put it in play. This still does not need to ruin the fun or suspense for you. An event could be “Fenris cultists focus on me heavily during a battle.” You don’t know when the battle will be, or who you will fight. You just know that at some time, you will get mobbed.

If you are using Aspects and Fate Points, you have the freedom to do this at almost anytime, without any DM intervention. At any point in the game, you can use a fate point to take control of the narrative and put your secret into play. You might even be able to get Fate points by doing something to your disdvantage. In this way, the DM doesn’t have to do anything- he lets you determine the pace of the mystery and when it comes into play.

Leave my Secret Alone

Llams read the message from Foxten again. “Meet me at midnight, by the central fountain. I have dire information regarding one of your friends!” The only problem was, Foxten never showed up last night. He was found dead in his kitchen this morning. Was it related to this message or did he simply fall and hit his head like it seemed?

After all this time spent building up your story and letting the secret fester, you should get the satisfaction of running the story to its end. You and the DM may have started this journey together, but you’re the one who’s going to finish it.

The PCs are not the only ones trying to solve mysteries in the world. Some of the NPCs may stumble across your secret. In this case, it’s important, nay necessary, that the DM does not use them to reveal the secret. Somehow, that NPC must be silenced, bought off or given amnesia. It may be that you will get some one on one time with the DM after all as you are confronted about the skeletons in your closet by a snoopy NPC.

The DM is running the game and should use your secret to make the game more interesting. This may mean adding a wrinkle here and there that you’re not aware of and keeping you on your toes. But under no circumstance, should the DM give away your secret. That’s your job.

As many a DM has lamented, sometimes players are just too damn smart for their own good. Your players may figure out your mystery before you were ready. You have a few options. First, you may be in a spot where a grand reveal would work and you just roll with it. Sometimes the most suspenseful moments come outside of the plan.

Alternatively if the player hasn’t revealed his knowledge to the other players, you can pull him in to the plot. Nothing is as exciting as being part of an exclusive club and being privy to a secret. Perhaps he can work with you to keep the rest of the party in the dark. Perhaps your character is begging him to keep the secret for just a few more days. Perhaps he’s going to use this as blackmail unless you elect him as leader of the party.

The third option is to deny it and the DM quickly puts an event into play to divert suspicion. Perhaps this is even preplanned for just such an occasion. Ever watch the first seasons of Smallville? Lex Luthor figures out Clark’s secret every few months, but some little glitch always comes along to disprove his theories.

The Big Reveal

The goblin camp lay before the heroes. The bandits had been hired by cultists to kidnap the Jarl’s daughter and her screams could be heard echoing through the forest. A frontal assault was suicide, but the party couldn’t find a way to sneak in. Suddenly, the trees around them exploded with fire and a horde of goblin wolf riders came charging towards them. They had been seen!

Weapons came out of their sheaths and the group readied themselves to enter Valhalla. Ulfgrim lunged forward with a sneer. “Maggots!” he cried. “Is this how you greet your masters? Put your toys away now, or by Fenris’s Fanged Jaw I’ll eat you myself!”

The goblins laughed at the obvious bluff and the closest one charged at Ulfgrim. The Viking warlord brought his axe down, severing the creature’s arm. With one hand, Ulfgrim picked up his opponent’s arm and ripped a mouthful of flesh with his teeth. With the other hand, Ulfgrim tore off his breastplate, revealing his bare chest and the large shimmering tattoo of Fenris emblazoned there.

His reassuring wink to the rest of the party didn’t stop their jaws from hanging on the ground.

There are two ways to do the big reveal: you reveal the secret, or the rest of the party finds out all on their own. Either way, you want excitement. If you reveal the secret, you want it to be dramatic. Afterwards, everyone else can review all of the hints you’ve dropped and either smack their heads or scream “I told you so!”

If the party is supposed to figure it out, these events are reversed. The party is given one larger clue or situation that makes them rethink all of the little clues that have come before. At this point, revelations keep dropping fast and furious until they catch on. Once they do figure out the mystery, the realization should be used to propel the adventure forward, or cause a dramatic event to occur.

Dos of Secrets:
-       Do leave some hints about your secret for the other characters to discover.
-       Do have a plan for a big reveal to shock and awe your friends.
-       Do make sure you and your DM are working together to make this happen.

Don’ts of Secrets:
-       Don’t hide your secret from everyone to the point that no one knows you even have a secret.
-       As the DM, don’t reveal a player’s secret without their permission.
-       Don’t use your secret so you can monopolize your DM’s time and exclude the rest of the party.

So now you know my dirty, little secret. Are you sharing your secret?

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