Secrets in games, huh? Here’s my take: They should be the exception, not the rule. The big thing to keep in mind is that role playing is an odd activity where you are both the performer and the audience. Because of that, some of the conventions from traditional stories can get a little wonky. Secrets deny the audience (i.e. the other players) a chance to enjoy part of the story, and make dramatic tension difficult or impossible. For the record, I’m defining dramatic tension as tension caused when the audience knows something the character doesn’t. Here’s an example:
In the first few minutes of the Battlestar Gallactica remake, the audience finds out that Gaius Baltar is inadvertently responsible for the annihilation of most of the human race. I don’t think the rest of the characters find out until much, much later. So we have several seasons of Gaius being a fucking brilliant and interesting character as he deals with the guilt of his mistakes and tries to avoid the guaranteed lynching he’d receive if anyone found out. Would this character be interesting AT ALL if we as an audience didn’t know his dark secret?
The same thing applies in RPG’s. Holding secrets in denies the rest of the players the fun of those secrets, and usually makes characters just plain weird and unpredictable. It’s hard to play off characters that have bizarre and unforeseen reactions. There’s a second part of this as well: Other players can help you guide the characters toward an interesting and awesome climax if they know your secrets and can play off of them as well. If you don’t let them in on it, they can’t help, and characters tend to just kind of bounce around randomly. If you’re lucky, a situation will arise that will allow for a “big reveal” but more often than not this doesn’t happen. How many times have you told all your big secrets after the session because a situation never came up that would allow them to be discovered? Oh, that’s another thing: Secrets are only cool if they get revealed. Stuff that is never discovered is, well, never discovered. What was the point? Telling everyone after the fact is rarely as rewarding. Most of the times all the clever little things you did to keep that secret go right by everyone else at the table, and that sucks!
You can only use secrets to create real suspense at the table if everyone knows there’s a secret out there to be revealed. To quote Vincent Baker:
“Suspense doesn't come from uncertain outcomes.
I have no doubt, not one shred of measly doubt, that Babe the pig is going to wow the sheepdog trial audience. Neither do you. But we're on the edge of our seats! What's up with that?
Suspense comes from putting off the inevitable.
What's up with that is, we know that Babe is going to win, but we don't know what it will cost.”
We know the secret is out there. What we don’t know is what will happen when it is revealed
. Usually the secret isn't cool, but what a character is willing to do to keep that secret (kill his brother? Let a criminal go free?) is what's really cool. The suspense comes from collaboratively putting off that big reveal until you just can’t take it anymore. Close calls are only suspenseful if people *know* they were close calls!
Games that use secrets:Cold City
is a game about spies and monster-hunters in 1950 Berlin. Everyone *has* to play a different nationality. There’s a mechanic for trust. You can use another character’s Trust as a bonus to your own roll, but if they use it to betray you, they get to use DOUBLE the trust to do so. Cold City very specifically calls out there are two ways to play it: Open and Closed. Each character has a Hidden Agenda (of course!) and the players can decide to let the other people at the table know about their agenda (open) or not (closed).Dirty Secrets
is a film noir-style game where one player, the Investigator, is investigating a crime, and everyone else plays a suspect. It’s kinda a One-Player-Many-GM deal. Here’s the thing: Nobody actually knows who committed the crime in the beginning of the game. Much like the game of Clue, playing the game will reveal the culprit, so the end everybody plays it cagey, because EVERYONE’s a suspect. In that way, it’s very film noir-y, but nobody has to keep any secrets. Everything’s out on the table from the get-go.
Jenn’s example of The Gift shows that secrets can be a LOT of fun, but that kind of fun should be rare, lest problems arise. George and Brant give an example of how the party thief absconded with the McGuffin, and they thought it was awesome. I had a similar end-game scenario happen in one of my games, and it did not turn out awesome at all for me. Basically, one of the players had been secretly going around to the entire world uniting countries against the Empire, whom I was a loyal servant of. All this negotiation happened between sessions, and the only thing mentioned in-game was “Suilemon spends some time in the South on diplomatic missions.” Then, the big end battle arrives and Suilemon’s player is like “Oh, and I’ve already gotten the entire world on my side, so even if you win here, you still lose.” Fuck. That. First off, that’s not cool at all to completely undermine another player’s objectives and not even give him a chance to do anything about it. Secondly, it sure would have been awesome to SEE those negotiations played out at the table. Instead, nope, total blindside fuckover.
In summary: Secrets are awesome if they’re USED. Secrets can be fun for the occasional “big reveal”. Secrets are not cool at all if they take the play away from the table and the audience as a whole.