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Throwing Away Secrets

by Mike on 4 February 2019

I often receive questions both from readers of Return of the Lazy Dungeon Master and those watching my Lazy DM Prep videos regarding throwing away secrets from session to session. For many people, this doesn't make much sense. If we write down ten secrets and reveal only five, what do we do with the other five? If you're asking me? We throw them away. Today I'll explain why.

Revealing Secrets

One of the interesting side benefits of recording my game prep sessions is that I'm able to see what secrets I wrote down and then analyze what secrets came to pass in the game itself. I've generally found that, of the ten secrets I prepare for a game, about half get revealed in a session. That's perfectly acceptable to me. The whole point of having ten secrets is to make sure I have interesting bits of information to drop in when I need them. I certainly don't have to use all ten.

So what do we do with the five that don't get used?

Throw Them Away

We DMs probably love our work a little too much. A few years back I posted a tweet in which I recommended that we need not write down every good idea. If it's good, a good idea will come back. Originally I stole this idea from Stephen King.

"I never write ideas down. Because all you do when you write ideas down is kind of immortalize something that should go away. If they're bad ideas, they go away on their own."

I got a lot of flack for that particular tip but I still stand by it.

We don't want some big database or Excel spreadsheet of lost secrets. First, it's a pain in the ass to manage such things and, remember, we're lazy. We want to put our minds on the world and the situation, not worrying about whether some trite bit of trivia got revealed or not.

We lazy DMs want to keep our whole system loose. This means not having a giant book worth of stuff behind us to remember. We focus on the next game. We focus on how that game is going to start. The stuff we should probably write down and remember are interesting things that go on with the characters because our players remember that stuff. The rest of the world? No one really cares. If we have to keep track of it in a big pile of secrets, its probably not that important to us either.

So, instead of keeping track of secrets, let them go and see which ones come flying back on their own.

Good Ideas Come Back

The reality is that good secrets come back. You'll remember them. Each secret isn't a beautiful butterfly that flitters away on the winds while you chase it down with a net. Your good ideas will come back to you. The important secrets will stay on your lists week after week until it gets revealed. I loved the idea that Acererak's Tomb of the Nine Gods was powered by a chain from Mechanus, thus giving it the full weight of an entire realm to power his dungeon. That image is awesome to me so it stayed on my list of secrets for months until it got revealed one day.

Your important secrets will end up back on your list and those that do not will disappear into the ether.

It Isn't True Until It's Revealed

Our worlds are ethereal until the character's eyes fall upon it. Our stories don't come true until they're lived through. The secrets we write down aren't facts until they get revealed during the game. One good reason to let them go is that they're simply not true yet. The world can change. You might have better ideas later. Events might shift and things go in a new direction you didn't expect. If we keep our secrets they become links in a chain that anchor us down to a world that need not be.

The big advantage of being a lazy dungeon master is that we aren't anchored by anything. We have the tools we need to run our next game and we've loaded our heads with outstanding fiction and RPG materials so that we can build the world in front of us as it happens.

If we keep our old secrets, we're chaining ourselves down to something that isn't yet true.

A Powerful Source of Creativity That Need Not Stay Recorded

Secrets are seriously powerful magic. We create single lines of fantastic fiction that can fuel entire worlds. The power of secrets is the whole reason I wrote a new lazy dungeon master book. Secrets are small, they're packed with interesting things, and they do not burden us. If we were to worry about keeping our old secrets and managing them, their simplicity and flexibility becomes lost.

Throw away old secrets. Good ones will come back.

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This work includes material taken from by Michael E. Shea available under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International license.

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