Psssst, How To Tell A Secret

Roleplaying Tips Newsletter #0801

Psssst, How To Tell A Secret

“Here’s something  about myself I’ve never told anyone.”

It doesn’t matter what NPC says that, your players are going to stop fiddling with their dice and tune in.

Everyone loves a secret.

And one of the classic laws of GMing from the old Dragon Magazine column Dungeoncraft by Ray Winninger is to give everything a secret.

Secrets are very gameable.

They offer a clear quest or goal: discover the details of the secret.

They have strong hooks baked in. Once your players hear a secret exists, they will want to find out what it is!

And done the right way, they fit our storytelling framework of beginning, middle, and end.

The last part is key. Treat secrets like stories unto themselves. Turn them into gameplay where players must take actions to discover the answers. Do this and you add yet another awesome tool to your GM Toolbox.

Here’s how.

Step 1: Begin With Hints

Our story must have a start. For a secret, we must first reveal to the PCs it exists. You cannot desire that which you do not know of.

Create three hints or clues about the secret you can drop into play. These hints do not reveal the secret itself. They just reveal the secret exists and its nature.

For example, let’s say the Baron has a body in the basement. It’s his second wife. Strangled. Buried. And turning into a ghost.

  • The Baron’s in-laws are powerful and never learned the fate of their beloved daughter. Should the body be discovered, it would be bad for the Baron (assassination, most likely) and the people (civil war is possible).
  • Take out a piece of paper and brainstorm hints. For example:
  • The Baron has been married four times. His second wife was taken by orc raiders while travelling. His third got lost one night in the swamp. Neither body was recovered.
  • The Baron refuses to talk about these wives. He always looks nervous. If pressed, he starts to sweat and goes pale. Then he summons the guards to throw the questioner into the dungeon.
  • The castle staff are forbidden to enter certain rooms, including several in the dungeon.
  • The baron has a locket from his second wife that she was wearing the day of her disappearance.
  • The baron has a terrible temper and gets violent easily. He physically abuses his family and staff.
  • The guard who helped bury the second wife was promoted to sergeant even though he is a coward and a poor fighter.

Those are just some ideas. Keep brainstorming until the idea well runs dry.

Then turn your best hints into gossip, physical clues, and results of knowledge or gathering information type skill checks.

Step 2: Middle Actions

Gameplay means doing things. Making decisions, taking actions, rolling the dice, dealing with the consequences.

We need to bring our hints into the realm of action, of gameplay.

So, take your favourite hints and figure out how they can turn into new gameplay. Thus, the infinite game is served.

Each hint must offer the possibility of a Next Action:

  • Where can the PCs go next to discover more?
  • Who can they talk to who might know more?
  • What puzzle gets presented they must solve?

For example, the PCs are bailing their drunk friend out of jail. The guards demand a payment that’s obviously part pay-off.

Cleric: You should be ashamed of yourself turning your job of protecting people into a corrupt pocket-lining scheme.

Guard #1: Watch it there, mace-boy, or you might end up Berta’d.

Cleric: What does that mean? What’s Berta’d?

Guard #2: <Elbows Guard #1> Shuddup will ya? You know who will throw you in the dungeon fer talkin’ like that.

Guard #1: <Looking scared> Nevermind the extra silver this time. Just get your friend out of here. Next time though it’s double, you demon-licking crap hunters!

That’s a nice and pleasant scene. Something to write home about. But it leaves the PCs without a clear way to follow-up. Likely, they’ll forget the reference before the next encounter. So let’s offer up a Next Action:

GM: As you start dragging Nimbletoes out of his cell, reeking of vomit and Bandar’s cheapest ale, the second guard steps up behind you, Brennar, and whispers in your ear. The guard is obviously nervous and it’s hard to make out what’s he saying. It seems like he said, “Walk with slander.”

Cleric: Weird! Can I make a Listen check to get a better idea of what he said? He’s got an accent, right? I’ll try to work it out.

GM: Great. Roll with Advantage for the accent thing.

Cleric: 13.

GM: You work the words over in your mind and realise he said, “Talk with Bandar.”

Cleric: Ok, I’m making a note of that. I tell everyone once we’re clear of the jail. Let’s head to the inn. Not so fast, Nimbletoes. I’m taking you home. No mead for you!

The party now has the scent of your secret and a clear Next Action if they choose to remember and take it.

Do this twice more. Tease out the existence of the secret, who might be involved, and its possible implications.

You’re not revealing the secret here.

Instead, you’re building it up. Making things more dramatic. Gaming out a short and interesting story.

Step 3: The End Is Just The Beginning

You’ve romanced the secret. Teased the players with it.

They’ve taken actions and noodled on what’s happening. They’ve bonded with it, which was our intention all along. Invested, they care.

Now finish your short story by confirming the existence of the secret. Once the PCs understand the hook, they’ll want to follow it because they’ll be so curious.

Perhaps the party talks to Bandar. He offers vague details of who Berta was. He hints that Berta and the Sergeant might have had a fling. The PCs talk to the Sergeant, who’s nasty but easily tricked into revealing the party should investigate the rear cell of the dungeon, the one that’s never used but prisoners swear it’s occupied.

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Your Adventure Triggers

Here’s your best case scenario: the secret becomes a compelling plot hook for your next adventure!

We’ve accomplished important things with this approach.

We’ve got the players curious about something. Curious is caring.

We’ve got gameplay happening without much effort on our part. The PCs lead gameplay by choosing to pursue Next Actions.

We’ve got encounters galore. At least three. Make the encounters roleplay, action, or puzzle. It’s up to you and your group, because there’s no restrictions on how hints get delivered.

And if the PCs investigate the dungeon, we’ve got them where we wanted them all along — choosing to game our adventure.

Secrets make awesome adventure hooks. And when secrets are told this way, your hooks become irresistible.

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Bonus Round

If you like a challenge, try going for more than three hints. Make your secret a Five Room Dungeon!