by Mike Shea on 28 March 2016
When we think about the components we need to run a great RPG adventure, a bunch of things come to mind. A strong start, cool monsters, interesting NPCs, fantastic adventure locations; these are the building blocks of a fun and interesting adventure.
There's one other set of components that can keep our games interesting and give information over to the players to help them build out the story as they choose courses of actions. We'll call these components secrets.
Secrets and clues are the cornerstone of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master.
For the sake of this article, a secret is a piece of information previously unknown to the PCs that, when revealed, gives them a tweet-sized bit of useful and interesting information.
This secret may be part of an assassin's plot. It might be a rumor about the mad king's terrible rituals. It might be the secret love interest between the prince of smugglers and the advisor of a duchess of Baldur's Gate. Maybe it's a scrap from the half-burned journal entry describing a villainous quest. Maybe it's a piece of the strange history about the dungeon in which the PCs explore.
Secrets aren't an entire story. They're not complete pictures. They're a single point of data in a large pool of undiscovered information. Through the history of a magical sword, the PCs might learn the origin of the bounty hunter who hunted them. It's not the whole bounty hunter's story, but it's a clue into the larger picture.
When we're writing our secrets down, we don't need to give them context. We don't know how the PCs will learn about the mad king's terrible rituals, only that they might uncover it somewhere. When we jot these secrets down in a list of ten, we just put down the secret. It might only be two or three words.
We don't know nor do we care how the PCs will find it out. Maybe it will be an ancient carving on a wall. Maybe it's something whispered in an alley. Maybe its information retrieved from the charming of a thug. Maybe it's a piece of history that comes to a character's mind when they hold a strange small idol in their hands. That last one is important. Passing a secret as part of a skill check is a great way to give a player a reward for their fine roll. If they miss the check the secret may come up some other way.
Here are a bunch of example secrets from a recent Out of the Abyss game.
It's quite possible the PCs never learn all of these secrets. Maybe they can piece some of them together on their own. All the better. It's still nice to have ten secrets on hand.
We develop these secrets by asking ourselves a nice simple question:
"What secrets could the PCs uncover next session?"
As we sit down to prepare our game, asking this question drives us to write down our ten tweet-sized secrets. These secrets may never come into play or they might turn the entire course of your game when revealed. Until they come into play, they are fluid entities. They don't become real until the PCs discover them. They might change. They might disappear. We might use four secrets in one session, scrap the other six, and write a new list of ten before our next session.
As our game moves forward, we can continually look back over previous secrets and add in new ones to keep our list of ten secrets fresh.
Instead of writing a 300 page document for our huge epic adventure, we can instead do some campaign building by writing down a big bunch of campaign-level secrets. Here are some example campaign secrets for a 13th Age campaign set in shattered lands of Moonwreck.
These campaign secrets may split and form into all new secrets as our adventurers navigate through the campaign. Some may fall off, never to be seen again. Others might become the main focus of the campaign.
Beyond useful aids to tie players to the story, secrets serve us well in preparing our game. They tell us what's important too. Just like using handouts for game organization we can use these secrets to help us understand the structure and threads of our game. These secrets may be just as useful to us as they are to the PCs who discover them. Good secrets serve double-duty as both organizational aids and useful information to pass to the players and keep things interesting.
We don't use secrets to steer the direction of the PCs. We use secrets to give them interesting information that helps them come up with their own directions. Sometimes we might guess what path the players will pick after learning an interesting secret, but the most interesting secrets are the ones that lead to more than one clear direction. Some secrets simplify things, but many secrets complicate things. As we may learn from D&D veteran Teos Abadia it's complexity that builds all the tasty nooks and crannies in our adventures.
If you find yourself adding in secrets to simplify your game and streamline it down to a single clear path, you might be oversimplifying things. Some groups are perfectly fine with this, but others may want to stretch a bit and explore a network of tangled secrets.
Secrets are powerful magic. A solid list of secrets helps GMs understand the scope and boundaries of their game while, at the same time, they build a rich texture for PCs to discover. When we think about the tools we need for the three pillars of exploration, interaction, and combat; a list of ten secrets is as valuable to exploration as monster stat blocks are to combat. Next time you're thinking about how to organize your adventure, sit down and jot down ten secrets and see if it works for you.