July 2, 2010

Don’t Keep Too Many Secrets

As DMs our worlds are full of secrets. Our NPC villains have secret plans they are hiding from the characters. There are mysterious places in the world the characters know nothing about. That beggar is more than he seems. The gods have agendas the characters can not fathom. Having a world with secrets is a good thing; it keeps the players guessing and gives them something to try and figure out.

However, sometimes we can fall into the trap of not letting enough information out. We want to keep things close and “save it for later”. We fear if we reveal all now, there will be nothing to reveal later….and then we end up never revealing anything.

To keep the interest in the campaign we need to reveal bits and pieces. If we present the players with mysteries and then do not reveal the answers, the players may begin to feel detached from the world; like outsiders looking at a picture instead of active participants.

Recently I made an error on game night. In my 4E sandbox I have sprinkled all sorts of mysteries around the world for the players to find. They found one; a table with chairs with a complete dinning set…in the middle of a forest all by itself. The characters tried to figure out what it was and eventually left it. I ended up giving them absolutely no information. In hindsight I should have allowed them a Nature roll (at my prompting for the roll) wherein I could have revealed “You get a vague sense of the Feywild here, but can not make any more sense of what the table is doing here”. This would have allowed them to feel in touch with the mystery. They may have not gained anymore information, but it would have given them a basis to start forming their own conclusions. The encounter would go from “that weird table thing” to “that possible gateway to the Fey”.

I have another Fey encounter written for the players to find later. It would tie wonderfully in with the table, but now the players will not know about any possible connection between the two. This was a failing on my part. The players never investigated enough, but there is no reason why I could not have asked for the Nature roll.

The trick with keeping secrets is that you need to let some out. The perfect version is that for every secret you reveal there is another mystery or question that the characters now have. However, eventually you want to reveal all the secrets. The important thing to remember is that secrets are meant to be revealed. What good are they if you are the only one who ever knows them?
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