by Mike Shea on 25 July 2016
Here at Sly Flourish we're big fans of game preparation through secrets, small tweet-sized bits of lore, plot, or information that the PCs discover in many different ways such as a strange mosaic on the wall of an old ruin, the rumor of a local guard with too loose a lip, or the dying scream of a hobgoblin mercenary.
Discovering secrets helps players unravel the greater story going on while not being overburdensome on the story or taking up a lot of time to prepare.
In his DMing 202 seminar at Gencon 2015, Teos Abadia went through a series of player archetypes and, during his discussion of the explorer, he brought up a powerful and subtle technique that fits well with the way of the lazy dungeon master. When a player notices some detail and expounds on the potential origin of that detail, there's nothing wrong at all with us incorporating that detail right back into the story.
Here's an example:
Dungeon Master: An altar of bones and skulls sits on the western wall of the dank chamber.
Player: Are the skulls tied together by ropes threaded through their eyes?
Dungeon Master: Why yes, there are!
Player: That's a sign of their worship of Demogorgon. These horrid beasts worship the insane demon lord!
Did the DM actually know that the skulls are tied together? Probably not, but why not dive right into that idea.
Not all secrets have to come from our preparation ahead of time and not all secrets need to come from us GMs. Players are just as able to drop in the clues and secrets that keep a game going.
In the fantasy RPG Dungeon World their system of fronts is built on the interesting threads and interactions that come from both players and GMs during the first game. Likewise, our stories can lead on from the secrets and clues PCs discover through the minds of their own players rather than just the GM.
Not all players or groups fully embrace the idea that they can dive as deeply into the story as the GM. In fact, many GMs probably aren't comfortable with players diving into the creation of the story. We can fall back on some simple tricks to help players go there such as identifying notable characteristics of their foes or ask them to describe their killing blow. With these simple tricks, we can get our players thinking outside of their character sheets and use the old improvisation trick of saying "yes, and" to help them come up with new and interesting secrets.
Here's another example:
Dungeon Master: Describe an interesting characteristic of this orc you face.
Player: He has tusks embedded in the sides of his cheeks.
Dungeon Master: Ahh! What do the tusks represent?
Player: He must be some sort of champion.
Dungeon Master: What would a champion of the Boar Tusk clan be doing way out here?
Player: I don't know, that's something we really should investigate!
This sort of back and forth can build entirely new story threads right out of a random bit of flavor thrown in during a battle.
Of course, this free-form RPG style isn't for everyone. Players who love coming up with little bits of lore are fountains of ideas but others might be just as happy to follow the story the GM comes up with. Some might feel that the story is too loose when one simple statement during a fight can turn into a whole story thread.
In good story-focused games the world is built of flexible malleable gray clay until the PCs put their eyes on it. Be careful that it isn't clay when the PCs put their eyes on it or the whole world feels insubstantial.
Techniques like this teach all of us how to let go and let the story sprout from the ideas of everyone at the table. It's not an easy thing to do well and letting go can be very hard. Technique's like this aren't an all-in proposition though. Most of the time our story might go in the direction set forth by the GM and the adventure. Sometimes, however, the opportunity is right for us to "say yes" when a player comes up with an idea we might not otherwise have thought up on our own. Look for these opportunities and give it a shot.