The Secret Ingredient For Great Campaigns

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #1078

Give everything a secret. Sound advice from Ray Winninger’s “Dungeoncraft” column in Dragon Magazine in the late 1990s.

When I read that advice it instantly clicked.

Alas, it’s easier said than done. You know I like my plethora of NPCs, plots, and side plots.

Ray also advised giving locations, items, and pretty much anything relevant to gameplay something hidden but discoverable.

To turn everything in your campaign into a mystery quickly becomes a burden, despite the awesome benefits having a big bucket of secrets behind your screen.

I’d like to offer you a couple of solutions so we can have our secrets and eat them too, as the vampires say.

Divide & Conquer

Let’s focus on NPCs.

Say we divide them into three buckets:

  • Common folks — background NPCs who occasionally get a spotlight moment
  • Special folks — NPCs who develop a relationship with the characters
  • Key folks — NPCs vital to your plots.

This division lets us harbour our scarce resources and creativity better.

Here’s how.

Common NPCs

These fine people need less effort on our part.

Pick two NPC traits.

And for secrets, give them light ones. Nothing plot shattering. Just a little something players can discover and use as leverage if they choose.

You can also employ this to help roleplay subtext.

For light secrets, create a simple list and pick or roll when a common NPC comes into play.

For example:

d6 Common Secrets

  1. Stole something
  2. Having an affair
  3. Caused neighbour to get in trouble with the law
  4. Committed a crime
  5. Lied to their cleric or priest
  6. Has an illegitimate child

That’s all you need at this point.

A simple hook you can flesh out as you go.

Special NPCs

These feature in your encounters or are recurring NPCs, such as the bartender of the party’s favourite drinking hole, the guard they bribe for information, or the weird druid they meet in the forest.

We give these NPCs more detail because we’ll be gaming with them more often.

For secrets, we want to use the Common NPC secrets with a couple extra levels of detail.

First, attach a second NPC to each secret.

For example, who is the NPC having an affair with? Who did they steal from? Who did they commit a crime against?

Now you’ve got a cool dynamic, and have looped in another NPC for greater depth.

Next, we want a third NPC who knows the secret. Think of the campaign ramifications and GM options of that!

Instant triangles, which most plots hang on.

Note in movies, TV series, and fiction how it’s rare we get plots with just two points: the protagonist and another character.

It’s always at least three points and a plot triangle with protagonist, another character as an agent of the villain or faction, and then the villain or another character.

So the tip here for Key NPCs is, don’t make Secrets more complicated. Just add NPCs.

Your campaign will bloom from these relationships as they get brought into play.

Key NPCs

Here’s where we want to integrate our plots and create secrets with a bit more meat on their bones.

What we deliver here are playable plot hooks.

This means the NPC’s secret hook is meant to advance or complicate the plot if discovered, interacted with, or resolved.

For example, the NPC has knowledge, an object, or a relationship that ties directly into your Loopy Plans or plot design.

Use your preferred plot hook generation approach at this point. Some plot hook tips here and here.

Alternatively, here are d10 seeds for plot hooks based on motives and missions.

d10 Motives for Key NPCs

  1. Bring a crime lord justice
  2. Perform a dangerous heist
  3. Clear their name
  4. Find the enemy’s source of power
  5. Overthrow a corrupt government
  6. Prove someone’s innocence
  7. Rescue an ally from the donjon
  8. Establish first contact with a new culture
  9. Negotiate an end to the war
  10. Break up a drug cartel

Once you have a motive, the subsequent details, and the motive itself, are grist for Key NPC secrets.

Focus Where It’s Important

Giving your game elements secrets sets up exciting surprises and discoveries for your players.

For NPCs, at least, make this job easier by spending more time on your most important NPCs.

Most NPCs can have generic secrets you can colour during play. Key NPCs are where you want to spend extra time figuring out what’s in their closet, and how to tie that into your plots.

In addition, make secrets more effective by bringing in more NPCs instead of making secrets complicated.

Create plot triangles where possible.

And it’s not bad having multiple NPCs share the same secret.

For example, perhaps a group of revelers spots someone powerful committing a crime. Now you’ve got a whole bunch of NPCs with an instant secret. Give this a shot next session. Try giving a few more NPCs a secret and let me know how it goes.