by Mike Shea on 4 March 2019
Chapter 6 of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master focuses on defining secrets and clues in our D&D games. In many ways secrets and clues are the anchor of the 8-step game preparation process in Return and they were one of the main reasons I felt the need to write a new Lazy Dungeon Master book at all. Secrets and clues are powerful magic.
To get us all on the same page, here's how I define a secret and clue in the book:
Secrets and clues are single short sentences that describe a clue, a piece of the story, or a piece of the world that the characters can discover during the game. You don't know exactly how the characters will discover these clues. As such, you'll want to keep these secrets and clues abstract from their place of discovery so that you can drop them into the game wherever it makes sense. This lets the game flow freely, while still allowing you to reveal important pieces of the story at any point where the characters might discover them.
The powerful magic behind secrets and clues come from a few different key points in their design:
They're short. Usually no longer than a sentence.
They convey useful information to the characters, thus helping us focus their world view around what matters to them.
They don't assume how they will be discovered. This makes them ideal for improvisational play.
It's this last part, how they get discovered, that we'll talk about today.
Secrets are an ideal tool for exploration, one of the three pillars of D&D gameplay. Exploration is about discovery. It's about seeking things out and finding them. It's about learning. Of the three pillars exploration is probably the least well defined. We know what combat looks like. We know what roleplaying looks like. Exploration is everything else. But how do we prepare for that? How do we run that?
This is where secrets shine.
Exploration can take place in many different ways. It can be studying a mosaic on a wall. It can be about figuring out the mystery of a magical sword. It can be overhearing gossip at the local bar. During the game, we don't know how things will get discovered. But we can figure out ahead of time what will get discovered and then wing it when we're running our game.
But winging discovery might not be that easy for all DMs. This is a new technique we're talking about. Once you get it, it will click into place. Until then, here's a nudge in the right direction.
The following is a list of twenty ways secrets might get discovered by the characters. These aren't meant to be used directly but instead help wire your mind into considering how secrets might be discovered in your own game. Only in the context of the game will the revelation of a secret make sense.
Again, these are all examples just to get your mind working in the right direction. They're not meant to be used literally. Customizing how characters find secrets is how they're designed to work. Once your mind gets wired around revealing them, it becomes second nature.
One of the interesting side benefits of preparing my game on Twitch each week has been being able to go back and look at how things worked out. Over the weeks, I've seen that, of the ten secrets I prepare, about five of them usually get revealed. This is perfectly fine and healthy. We don't have to expose all ten secrets every game. We reveal the ones that make sense when it makes sense to reveal them. For the rest, we can simply let them go.
Next week, we start with a fresh list of ten secrets and do the same thing. Secrets we haven't revealed may come back to us from week to week or they might fade off into the ether from which they came.
When we try to run open D&D games where the players are empowered to take the direction of the game in drastically different ways, we DMs have to prepare to improvise. We need to focus our preparation on activities that help us run the game wherever the game tends to go. Designing secrets this way is a perfect example of the sort of activity we can engage in that gives us interesting details to reveal during the game without worrying how the characters will discover them. It lets the characters travel in many different paths, exploring many different things, and still learn important details of the world and the events taking place within it.
How we reveal these secrets is the part of actual improvisation. We wait for the right moment to reveal the right secret. When it works well, it's pure magic.