2009-06-17 : Secrets

Rob tells me that for controversy's sake I should explain why I think that you should keep secrets from your fellow players. It's easy, though! If any of this turns out to be controversial, I'll be startled and dismayed.

1. In roleplaying, there are no secrets.

When you're roleplaying, the only thing that can make something true in the game's collaborative fiction is the entire group's full knowledge and assent. That's what "collaborative fiction" means. There's nothing in roleplaying that's true-but-unknown or false-but-unknown. In the real world, yes; in fiction, no. It's like in Blade Runner: is it a secret whether Rick Deckard's a replicant? True-but-unknown or false-but-unknown? No, it's ambiguous. There's no reality behind the film that we can appeal to to know what's true. Rick Deckard isn't real, so he's certainly not really a replicant, we just don't know it. Same in your game: is it a secret that your character's really a man? No, it's just ambiguous.

2. When roleplayers talk about secrets, they're really talking about plans.

So is it legit for you to be all like "my character's secretly a man," and not tell anybody? Of COURSE it is. What's going on is, you're planning something that later on you'll put before the group for our full informed consent. Or maybe you won't; that's fine, lots of plans don't work out. Then it stays ambiguous forever, like Rick Deckard.

Meanwhile, what you'll do is prep us for your planned revelation. Drop hints, lay groundwork, warm us up to the idea. That way, when you say "my character's ... a man!" we'll all agree. "Oh holy crap you're right!" we'll say. "Why didn't I see it?" (Answer: because it wasn't true, it was ambiguous. Now it's true, and retroactively, just like how now it's true that Darth Vader is Luke's father and has been all along.)

If you don't prep us for it, we'll withhold our assent. "What? A man? That's stupid. My character saw your character naked, remember? If she's a man you needed to mention it then, or at least tell me that my character never really saw her naked. Sorry if this messes up your plans, but nope, I can't go along."

"My character's secretly a man" is exactly the same as "I'm going to have the werewolf attack at midnight." Drop hints, lay groundwork, warm us up to the idea, so that when you act on your plan, we're receptive. "Oh no the werewolf! Crap!" instead of "huh? Werewolf? That's stupid, do over."

Your ownership of your character gives you enormous credibility when it comes to acting on your plans. It does most of the groundwork for you, automatically; all you have to do is not mess it up. In Dogs in the Vineyard, same thing, the GM's ownership of the town's backstory means that the GM can enact her plans almost unilaterally. That doesn't make them secrets. They're just plans that are really, really likely to work out.

(Does it matter, this difference between a secret truth and a plan that's really likely to work out? Well, it's a real difference, but no, maybe it doesn't matter. That's fine. Lots of things are real but don't matter. The difference between a secret truth and a plan that might not work out, though, that's a difference that matters a whole lot, and that's where most "secrets" in roleplaying live.)

3. But keep your plans secret, yes!

I for one don't want you to sneeze out, unfiltered, every plan that tickles your brain. Yikes, you'd never shut up, and all about stuff that isn't even happening yet. I can't think of a game where announcing your every fleeting plan would be the right way to play.

Drop hints, lay groundwork, warm me up to the idea, hit me with your big planned revelation, or never do, that's what you should do. Don't blurt out "my character's secretly a man" prematurely, save it for when the time's right.

In some games, the time's right at the beginning of play. That's fine, tell us then. In other games, it's your call when, the game doesn't require you to tell us at any particular moment. That's fine, tell us when you want to, and set us up for it meanwhile.

Dogs in the Vineyard would be absolute crap if I revealed the town in a big infodump at the beginning of the session, for instance, instead of revealing the town naturally over the course of play.

GM, keep your plans secret from the players until it's time to enact them. Players, keep your plans secret from the GM, or each other, or both, until it's time to enact them too.

4. Play Steal Away Jordan.

You should anyway, because it's a great game. But you also should because it's a crystal-clear mechanical take on keeping secrets at the table, and it'll show you how interesting, useful and good keeping secrets can be.

Anybody arguing for 100% transparency at the table across the board, but you haven't played Steal Away Jordan, I'm sorry but you just don't know what you're talking about.

1. On 2009-06-17, Robert Bohl said:

Hooray for command performances!

So what I notice you not saying is that open secrets and dramatic irony are bad.


2. On 2009-06-17, Vincent said:

Yeah, that'd be pretty stupid to say. Depending on the game, open secrets and dramatic irony can be super awesome and exactly what's called for.


3. On 2009-06-17, Vincent said:

Like, in the Storming the Wizard's Tower game at Jiffycon, which Meg ran and Matt Weber and I set up, one of the character types was "I'm secretly a witch." One of the players chose it for his character.

To the other characters in the game, his character was secretly a witch. To the other players, obviously not.

Super awesome and exactly what was called for.


4. On 2009-06-17, Robert Bohl said:

It tends to be what I prefer, but what you write above makes a good argument for a kind of P2P secret I can probably get behind.


5. On 2009-06-17, Emily said:

Secrets as plans: that is so smart! The secrets are follow-ups to foreshadowing. Good, and tricky to pull off.

I played in a fantastic larp, in which everyone had 2 identities: a public, normal name that was on our name tag and a secret one which corresponded to one of the characters from Through the Looking Glass or Alice in Wonderland.

We knew a lot of things about the other Wonderland characters, but each of us only knew the normal name of just a couple others. That, along with excellent conflicts and resources to back them up, made for four fascinating hours of intrigue.

Looking at it this way, we were desperate to know what each other's plans were, knowing mattered, and the final reveal was dramatic and climactic because we had not known.


6. On 2009-06-17, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

I totally endorse secrets that evolve as circumstance dictates.

Where it gets hairy is when there's a loophole ??? "You're secretly a man," for instance. Clear delineation of authorial responsibility keeps that clear.


7. On 2009-06-17, majcher said:

Maybe I'm misunderstanding your primary point above, but it seems to me that there can be genuine secrets that are absolutely a concrete part of the game's fiction, without the entire group's full knowledge. So, say, we have a game where every player is a witch, but one or more of the characters secretly work for the Inquisitors or whatever, and the traitor's identity is only known to that player and the GM. (Or just that player, if the game is GMless, and uses some card mechanic or something to nail down who is the Inquisitor.) There is a secret piece of knowledge that is not just hinted at or planned for, but firmly established in the fiction.

I know you say "knowledge and assent", and I can see that could mean that the entire group acknowledges that there is a traitor, someone in the group is that traitor, and play proceeds accordingly with that communal knowledge. I don't think that's what you're getting at, but I could be wrong. Thoughts?

(Almost everything else, though, right on.)


8. On 2009-06-17, Tim said:

Dark Fates in The Mountain Witch? I guess they're much the same as a town write up in Dogs, though I'd be surprised if we couldn't call them secrets.

But I do take issue with: "the only thing that can make something true in the game's collaborative fiction is the entire group's full knowledge and assent."

Suppose someone joins a campaign part way through. Are we saying that somehow the everything that's been said before they joined is contentious? And if not, what's the difference between the things that have gone before and the things that have gone after?


9. On 2009-06-17, Simon C said:


But! (and?)

There's a disfunctional thing that happens when a player's dedication to their plan goes a little too far, where they're more interested in keeping the plan secret for the big reveal than they are in making the game fun, right now (that goes for GMs and players).

For example, in the Burning Wheel game I'm running right now, the first two sessions were kind of sucky.  There was a whole lot of political crap going on in the background, and I was trying very hard to have that stuff come out in a series of shocking revelations - making it play out in a cool way in the fiction.  What that resulted in was kind of blocking, asshole play from me, where the game kind of didn't go anywhere because I was more interested in having the information come out "right" than having it come out the way it was going to.

The last two sessions of play have been heaps better because I relaxed about how the information would be revealed, and just let it come out as a response to the characters' actions.  It came out fine anyway, but now it feels like the game is going somewhere.

Of course the classic example of this is the "Secret Evil" character that someone (usually someone 15 or so) tries to play, where the secret is more about having power over the other players than about some big reveal planned to make the game more exciting.  It never works out that way.

Also, it's reliably ass to have lots of note passing and secret GM/player conferences.

Games that are designed to accommodate secrets are the best.  Mountain Witch is great like that because it forces you to think of your secret as a plan, to think about how you're going to reveal your secret, rather than how you're going to keep it.


10. On 2009-06-17, Vincent said:

Majcher and Tim: Nope. Those are plans with rock-solid setup, where the group has agreed in advance to assent to them when the players bring them out. Like Darth Vader being Luke's father: it comes up on the screen, and as audience we have no valid way to dissent. (In roleplaying, we always have ways to dissent, unlike watching a film; but if we've already agreed not to, and the revelation isn't a real-world betrayal, then effectively we've guaranteed our assent.)

Like I say, does the distinction matter? Not really. At this extreme end of the spectrum, they're practically secrets. Nevertheless, the spectrum is made of plans and group assent; that they're practically secrets doesn't make them actually secrets.

Suppose someone joins a campaign part way through. Are we saying that somehow the everything that's been said before they joined is contentious?

Absolutely, yes. In fact, everything's always contentious, and it's most contentious when a new person joins.

The preexisting group will hold ENORMOUS social authority over the stuff they've already created, of course. The new person won't have much ground to demand they revisit it, but she can if she chooses, same as anybody can.

Here's a good example, this kind of thing happens all the time. I join your campaign in progress, and I say "hey, I know you said that King Arno has 2 daughters, but I really think he has 3, and my character's the middle one. Cool?" If King Arno and his daughters don't really matter to you, as a group, you might well go along with me.


11. On 2009-06-17, Vincent said:

A problematic example that also happens all the time:

I joined your campaign a few sessions ago. I've been playing my character fine and it's all good. I'm describing the feast that my character's family has prepared for your characters, and it's obviously something whose precise details are very important to me.

You: Oh! We forgot to tell you. All Promahu are strict carnivores. They can't digest plant matter.
Me: ...Wait, really?
You: Yeah. We established that a long time ago.
Me: But that screws up my whole character! He serves the Goddess of Life, he's vegan! Why didn't you tell me?
You: Yeah that's our bad. But it's true.
Me: Can my guy's family be an exception?
You: No. Yeah, nope. Sorry.
Me: ...
Me: ...Well so, there it is. My guy's vegetarian or I quit the game, I can't play him as a meat-eater.


12. On 2009-06-17, Vincent said:

Simon: Agreed. In Dogs in the Vineyard I put some effort into keeping the GM from investing in how the town's secrets will come to light, and instead encouraging her to take any and every opportunity to bring them to light.


13. On 2009-06-18, Marc Majcher said:

I think I'm still unclear about your secrets/plans distinction, so I'm going to nudge you a little bit more to see if I can get behind what you're saying, because I feel like I get the angle you're coming from, and I think it's interesting.

So we're playing this game, and part of the setup is something like "choose a number between one and ten, and assign that to your Sorcery skill, and for the love of God, don't ever reveal that number to anyone but the GM until the Revelation phase in Act Four", or whatever. It is a real world secret piece of information about a player's character that has a direct effect on how the fiction unfolds. This really seems like a "secret" to me instead of a "plan". It also seems very similar to the Inquisitor/Dark Fate thing, as above.

To me, a "plan" seems to be something that has potential to affect the fiction, but may or may not actually bear fruit, depending on how play goes, and how the players feel about the situation, and how they react, and so on. Whereas the secrets I'm describing are *facts*, as real within the fiction as any other mechanical bit in the system. (Which surely may be altered by the players upon consensus, but still forms as sturdy a skeleton as you're going to find in tabletop gaming.) They are not ambiguous, or unknowns waiting to be developed in discovery, but part of the foundation of the story that you're building.

I think that the part of me that is revolting at this is the part that is saying inside my brain, "Wait! If there can be no secrets in roleplaying, then there can be no solid facts! Everything is mutable and nothing matters! Augh!" Which is not an entirely accurate representation of what I really think, because I feel like I have a good handle on the mutability of fiction backwards and forwards, but I think that it leans in the right direction.


14. On 2009-06-18, Vincent said:

Oh. Yeah, the number on your sheet next to "Sorcery skill," being a real thing, is not subject to the laws of consensual fiction. It can be a secret, you can keep it secret from the other players. It can even, yes, have a direct effect on how the fiction goes, without your revealing it. That doesn't make it a true-but-unknown in the fiction (it being a real thing, not fictional).

Similarly, you can keep secret what's written on your fate card in The Mountain Witch.

Ah! I thought of an illustration. See if this explains it.

You're sitting down to play The Mountain Witch. On your fate card it says "Worst Fear." During the first session, you decide that your character's worst fear is that he'll recognize the Mountain Witch as his father, but you don't really have any opportunity to hint at it. "Next session," you think, and you start to plan hints and revelations.

Sadly, before session 2, three of your fellow players have a gigantic falling-out unrelated to the game, and you never play again.

Was the Mountain Witch really your character's father?

No! There's no "really" about it. The Mountain Witch, your character - not real.

You planned to make the Mountain Witch be your character's father, and intended to play as though he were, and fully expected the group to immediately and viscerally (and retroactively!) go along with it, the instant you put it into action. With good reason. Of course they would have. But without your actually bringing it before them and without their actually assenting to it, it wasn't part of the game's consensual fiction. Now it never can be.

Again, again, for examples at this end of the spectrum, the distinction is technical and it doesn't matter a bit. If you treat them as real secrets, it's wicked unlikely to ever come back to bite you. It's when you don't have such a rock-solid systemic backing that the distinction matters.


15. On 2009-06-18, Ben Lehman said:

A note: This sort of play requires that players have absolute authority over some element of the fiction, which thus lets them plan it.

If no one has absolute authority over some part of the fiction (like in Ron-style the Pool), you can't do secrets like this. They must be open at the player level. Otherwise the game doesn't work.



16. On 2009-06-18, Marc Majcher said:

Okay, that makes total sense to me now, what you're saying. Also, I think Ben's comment about authority is spot on, as well.

Hooray for understanding!


17. On 2009-06-18, Joshua A.C. Newman said:

Didn't I just say that?


18. On 2009-06-18, Arturo G. said:

Joshua, I think you said it indirectly. But Ben made the point clearer ;-)

Anyway... if I'm not wrong, in Ron-style The Pool the master have complete content authority. Thus, she can, and she must make plans. Ben, were you talking about only the other players, or am I missing something?


19. On 2009-06-18, Ben Lehman said:

Monologue of victory basically defeats plans, IME, unless you use the GM veto rules from the original game.

I may have mis-chosen. I could come up with any other game where full "narration" power is handed to a single player for any chunk of time (PTA, say.)



20. On 2009-06-18, Arturo G. said:

Ben said: Monologue of victory basically defeats plans, IME, unless you use the GM veto rules from the original game.

Well, not really. I fought with that issue for long, before I really got how the four narrative authorities work in The Pool. For example, here, Ron talks about it.

I may have mis-chosen. I could come up with any other game where full "narration" power is handed to a single player for any chunk of time (PTA, say.)

I see your point.
But still I would say that most plans are elaborated and presented by blending narrative authorities among players. Not necessarily exerting full authority over some piece of the fiction. Specially in PtA. We had a long discussion about this here: [PtA] How are the narrative authorities working in this scene?.


21. On 2009-06-18, GB Steve said:

Although gaming is consensual fiction players often (in fact mostly) consent blind to things a GM makes up and keeps secret from them, in many cases, the players never find out what the secret is, although they may be affected by it.

This happens all the time in Call of Cthulhu for example, where players come up against some Mythos thing. They deal with the symptoms of the Mythos thing but often never find out what that thing was. They just know something was behind it all but it's a secret. Unambiguously.


22. On 2009-06-18, Vincent said:

Nope! At best, that's another case where the difference doesn't matter.

But more, I think that's like whether Deckard's "really" a replicant. Ridley Scott has his opinion on the matter, but should we take it as anything but an opinion? Does his opinion somehow expand the fiction of the film to include itself? Pf. No.

Same with a GM "knowing" what's going on behind the scenes.

Or let's say a novelist does the thing where she tapes notecards all over her walls and draws lines and arrows between them. Maybe there's a whole branch of her planning for her novel that (a) shapes the novel in her mind, but (b) doesn't make it into the novel after all. Whole episodes of the protagonist's past, cut for space, let's say. Are they somehow part of the novel anyway? No! They're part of the author's experience, and the author's plan, but the novel itself doesn't include them.

Oh! Here's a good example. Maurice Sendak modeled the Wild Things after his own uncles and aunts, and named them after them. I have no doubt that the fiction is the way it is because of those associations in his head. In the book itself, though, is the one with the horns secretly named Moishe? No! In the book the one with the horns isn't named anything.

Same thing with Call of Cthulhu.

We played Psi*Run recently, I was the GM, and in my opinion the chasers were an insectoid hive mind that live on the blood-moon behind the Earth's real moon. I never said it to the players, though, and it never came out in play. Is it somehow secretly true of our game? No! It's just what I was thinking about while I was planning and playing.

If it had come out in play, we'd know whether it was true. Since I was the GM, they'd've almost certainly gone along with it; I'd set it up well enough. "Oh," They'd've probably said. "The blood-moon behind the Earth's real moon. That's cool."

Well, maybe they'd've gone along with it. "The what? What's a 'blood-moon'? Vincent that makes no sense. Even if it's true, it doesn't make sense. It doesn't explain anything. This game is BORKED and I'm the GM next time, not YOU."

But it never came out in play, so we'll never know.


23. On 2009-06-18, Vincent said:

All that said, I'm not suggesting that anybody change anything about how they GM Call of Cthulhu. Decide what the monster is and never reveal it, that's fine. Pretend and play as though your decision makes it secretly true in the collaborative fiction (even though "secretly true in the collaborative fiction" is nonsense), that's fine. That's what the players are asking you to do, that's what they need you to bring to the game, so do it.


24. On 2009-06-18, GB Steve said:

But the players do react to the secret, even if they never find it out, it's still an object of desire and a driving force behind what they do.


25. On 2009-06-18, Vincent said:



26. On 2009-06-18, Arturo G. said:

Agree. Plans and abstract ideas are good.
They are nurturing the fiction that really comes into play. But they only become part of the fiction when they appear on it. No matter if they appear as the original idea you had on your mind or (most probable) modified by what is really happening due to the interaction with other players.


27. On 2009-06-18, Vincent said:

Yes. And even in cases where they come into play exactly as the GM envisioned, until that moment they were only the GM's vision.

Hey Steve, does "vision" work better for you than "plan," for what the GM's doing behind the scenes in Call of Cthulhu?


28. On 2009-06-18, Moreno R. said:

I like the way the transgressions are used in Spione. They are, literally, some player's secret, modified to adapt them to the characters and turning them into possible character's secrets. As Ben said, to make it work the principal's player has complete veto power over the principal, and she, and only she, can disclose that secret.

If she disclose, that secret become part of the fiction.

If she don't want to disclose, the sheet of paper with that possible secret is never read by the other players, and it never happened in the fiction.


29. On 2009-06-18, Tim said:

Oh. I was going to quibble about our use of the word 'secret', and then I saw how the Boss Care Baker Principle not only supports these definitions, it absolutely demands them. Then everything clicked. Roleplay satori.


30. On 2009-06-18, Brand Robins said:


I think part of your CoC issue is about what is part of the fiction that isn't part of the shared fiction.

About which I could probably say more, but its one of the places where I don't agree with Vincent and so I don't want to muddy the waters about something that's otherwise fairly clear.


31. On 2009-06-18, Vincent said:

I'm a hard-liner about the shared fiction.


32. On 2009-06-18, Judd said:

"I'm a hard-liner about the shared fiction."

What does that mean?


33. On 2009-06-18, Vincent said:

It means that collaborative fiction is, as far as I'm concerned, the essential element of roleplaying. My theory of roleplaying centers on the shared fiction, treats it as primary and fundamental, and considers all other concerns secondary (or less).

Others' theories might make the individual roleplayer's experience central, for instance. I consider the individual roleplayer's personal experience to be incidental, generally contributory but not the point, and at worst a distraction from the real matter at hand.

Like, Brand mentions things that are "part of the fiction that [aren't] part of the shared fiction," and I get all narrow-eyed. As far as I'm concerned, the shared fiction is all I'm talking about, all I've ever been talking about. Obviously what I'm saying, whatever I'm saying at any given moment, doesn't apply to any non-shared fiction. Why would it, and who cares?

That's what it means.


34. On 2009-06-18, Brand Robins said:

narrows his eyes at Vincent's post


35. On 2009-06-19, Vincent said:

I mean, you're not surprised, right? You always knew I had a particular non-universal angle on this whole thing.


36. On 2009-06-19, Brand Robins said:

Oh no, I knew that's exactly what you'd say. You'd probably be equally unsurprised by my take.

The funny thing, to me, is despite the slight split in paradigms our take on secrets ends up being almost exactly the same. I can think of some edge cases where things might diverge, but I don't think they're going to be hugely important.


37. On 2009-06-19, Ben Lehman said:

Hey, Vincent, total tangent, but what about partially shared fiction? Like the GM takes a player into another room to play a secret scene?



38. On 2009-06-19, valamir said:

Thanks for post 33 Vincent.  That sheds some much needed light on the angle you're approaching this from.

It probably won't surpise you based on my other posts that I don't agree at all with you.  In fact, my position is the exact reversal of yours.  The individual fiction that goes on in an individual player's mind is the central act, primary act, and vastly the most important act of roleplaying.  The shared fiction is only necessary to the extent that common touch points are required to keep the players at the table able to communicate in a meaningful manner about the fiction that's being created.  If the individual fictions get so seperated that we can no longer communicate about what's going on, then not enough has been shared.  But if enough has been shared to allow us to do that...nothing more than that minimum needs to be shared because the individual fictions will be far richer, more detailed, and more complete than any shared fiction could ever be.  The power of the dreaming brain to experience something is far superior than the power of language to communicate that experience.

I believe that 80% (there goes those made up percentages again) of all fiction created at a roleplay table is never ever shared and exists only in one player's head.  And its that 80% where the majority of many (I suspect most but I don't know how you'd even begin to study it) people's enjoyment is found.

This is also the root of our disagreement on the desireability of rules to adjudicate who's vision gets to happen.  You don't see it as necessary because to you the unshared vision has no gravity or importance.  I see it as vital because to me the unshared vision is often vastly more important than what's been shared so far.  You'll say things like "until its in the shared fiction it doesn't count".  I say things like "bullshit, what's in my head is often far more important to me than anything that's entered the shared fiction so far."  And when that happens there'd better be a smooth way of reaching a decision about whose cuisine reigns supreme.

This is also the root of our disagreement about "playing above the character" which some of your recent comments indicate you think is a less desireable way to play.  I've always held that its just as effective and in many cases MORE effective than play from inside the character.  Because the fiction going on inside my head looks like a playing above the characters is just another camera angle for me.

This is also the root of our disagreement on the I—E example where we skip from Intent to Execution and never see the bits in between.  You want to see those bits because unless those bits are in the shared fiction they have no value for you.  I'm completely indifferent to those bits because I'm going to see them anyway whether they're shared or not and I value seeing the bits inside my head just as highly as I value the bits that are shared.  In some cases I PREFER to skip those bits because when those bits aren't shared I can see whatever I want whereas if they are shared what I see has to conform to the shared vision.

So yeah...a whole lot of me scratching my head and trying to figure out where the hell you're coming from has just been answered.  I don't at all share your priority, but at least I now get it.  So thanks again for post 33.


39. On 2009-06-19, ffilz said:

If the unshared fiction is more important than the shared fiction, then why not just daydream to yourself?

Vincent's position that the shared fiction is what is core to role playing makes sense to me.

If there is fiction, but it's all in people's heads and not shared and mutually accepted, then we just have daydreaming (or if it's shared but not mutually accepted then it's just story telling).



40. On 2009-06-19, valamir said:

Its not ALL in people's heads.  But much of the best parts are.

Here's an exercise.  Next time you roleplay wait a couple days.  Then think back on the session.  Try to play the scenes in your head as if they were a movie.  See the characters, see the city streets, smell what the vendors are cooking, feel the pounding of the pavement under your feet as you run.  See the faces of the extras in the crowd, see what's on display in the store front windows as they flash by.

I guarentee the majority of those details were NEVER shared.  I guarentee that each and every other person at your table doing this same exercise would have a totally different movie in their head.  They'll agree that you were there, they'll agree you were running.  They MAY even agree there was a crowd and street vendors.  But all of the rest of the details—the sights the smells the stuff that makes the scene pop and come alive—not shared.

Sooomtimes they're shared.  You might be in the havit of doing the "say what you do and add a detail" trick.  But the reality is that a picture is worth 1000 words...and the picture in your head has a 1000 details...and only some tiny fraction of those details are ever actually spoken.

But I believe that its THOSE details that make roleplaying worth doing.  Its THOSE details that make it a rich, exciting, vibrant experience.  Its THOSE details that (if I may wax poetic) cause the imagination to soar and the heart to beat faster.  Those details...the ones that are hardly ever spoken...that's where I find the biggest thrill.

The next time someone says something at the table that makes your mouth go dry and your throat constrict and your gut tie up in knots.  Spend some time to solidify every detail of that scene and burn it into your brain.  Then later think back on it and count how many of those details were actually shared and how many were added by your own imagination.  Then reflect how much of the gut twisting was caused by what was actually said and how much was caused by the details your imagination added; details that no one else but you will ever be privy to.

To me THAT'S the good stuff.  That's the stuff that makes that scene memorable.  That's why *I* roleplay.  If you don't have that...then its just a bunch of people talking.  And if you DO have that...then this emphasis on the right ward pointing not only not really needed, but often...actually gets in the way.


41. On 2009-06-19, Vincent said:

Ralph: let me make a new post about that sometime. I'm going to bring this thread back around to secrets.

Ben: Well, you have a collaborative fiction between the GM and the one player, which then informs the whole group's collaborative fiction, insofar as it contributes and they assent to its contributions. Seems straightforward to me.

In the old days I used to do a lot of that, 1-on-1 scenes within the larger game. The fiction I took part in, as GM, was bigger than the fiction any other individual player got to take part in; there was, however, a core fiction that all the group collaborated on together.

The stuff from the 1-on-1 scenes wasn't ever, like, socially problematic - all the details from those scenes were either irrelevant to the core fiction and so never came before the group, or else they were adopted seamlessly into the core fiction when they did come before the group - so there were never any breakdowns in it. It was an irritating way to do collaboration, though, overall. It wouldn't've done us any harm to have all those scenes at the table.

Another way to think of it, though, is like this. We're playing and you go up to the can - "no don't stop playing, catch me up when I come back" - and when you come back down you say "what'd I miss?" We tell you everything that we think matters, everything that requires your assent for the game to go forward. Now's your chance to object, like, "no way that happened! I didn't know you were going to do that while I was gone, it's DO OVERS."  Maybe you'll say something like that. However, also, when you left the room, you kind of left it in our hands, right? Demanding do overs will be socially costly, it'll likely lead to a fight, and you'll do it only if you really mean it.

Look at it that way, and when you let the GM go out of the room with another player, you're kind of agreeing to assent to whatever they say when they come back. You're letting go your right to object, your right to oversee. (You can still reassert that right later, if they come back and start saying genuine crap, but like I say that'll probably mean a fight.)

Make sense?


42. On 2009-06-19, Vincent said:

I don't think I can emphasize strongly enough just how intensely social all this stuff is. Withholding your assent to something that, say, the GM and your girlfriend are together putting forward - that's not easy, fun, or inconsequential. The reason roleplaying games have rules is so that it never comes to this.


43. On 2009-06-19, valamir said:

No problem.  Didn't mean to hit a tangent, I was just super happy that I finally figured out what the obstacle in our communication was.  Now I can enjoy reading this blog again!


44. On 2009-06-20, Simon Rogers said:

One aspect not so far discussed is partially shared secrets. There is no one shared fiction. Two players may know a secret about each other's chracters, or all but one might know something. Games where secrets are revealed after play change the nature of the shared fiction. In Fear Itself, for example, a character's madness can be simulated by the behaviour of the other players. Even if secrets are not explicitly revealed, they can certainly have an impact on the shared fiction.

As for shared fictino vs player experience, the reason that most of us have really enjoyed long campaigns with the same people is that more and more of the game is based on a shared fiction rather than a private vision - there is far less meta discussion and ironing out of differences, and far more getting on and playing, all with the same idea of what is going on.


45. On 2009-06-20, Vincent said:

Partially shared secrets:

(I said a little bit about them just above.)

I have a thought about this, let's see if we can pin it down. Simon, you and me, okay?

Here's a scenario I'm imagining. Angie, Betty, Carl and Denise are playing. Betty's out of the room, and Angie says "okay everybody, Betty's character's insane but Betty doesn't know it, so have your characters do things that make Betty gradually realize that her character's insane."

Is that the kind of thing that happens in Fear Itself? (If not, tell me what kind of thing you mean!)


46. On 2009-06-20, Simon Rogers said:

Yes, Fear Itself works like that. You'll then decide the manner in which she might be insane, and how this will manifest eg paranoia, someone they thought was real never existed.


47. On 2009-06-20, Vincent said:

Ah, so Angie would say, "Betty's character is paranoid, so have your characters act suspicious of her, hostile to her, weirdly intent upon her, or like that."

Like that?


48. On 2009-06-20, Simon Rogers said:

Yes. As a mechanism, it bugs the hell out a of very few players.


49. On 2009-06-20, Vincent said:


So Betty comes back into the room, and she has her character do things, and the other players have their characters do these weird paranoia-simulating things to hers.

After a while of this, Betty realizes suddenly that her character's paranoid, right? At that moment, it's like I've been saying all above: Betty has this opportunity to assent to "your character's been paranoid all this time," or to refuse to assent to it. Since everybody's been setting it up so well, she's quite likely to assent to it - "holy crap I'm paranoid! This is awesome! Hooray!" But if she refuses, it's probably going to be a game-ending blow-out - it won't be like "nah, my character's not paranoid, I stand by her perceptions as real," it'll most likely be like "this game sucks and it sucks retroactively and you're all stupid jerks." That's my guess, yeah? And the longer her character's been paranoid, the more likely she is to assent to it OR explode.

So the question is: before Betty realizes that her character's paranoid, is her character's paranoia a secret or a plan?

Simon, am I basically right about all this?


50. On 2009-06-20, Simon Rogers said:

So the question is: before Betty realizes that her character's paranoid, is her character's paranoia a secret or a plan?

Simon, am I basically right about all this?

Yes, I think so, if Betty ever realises what is going on. The secret is a plan. If she does realise, though, it is no longer a partially shared secret.

The opposing example would be that she does not find until the the game finishes. The secret could still be said to have an impact on the game, and yet not all the players know about it.

What you are suggesting I consider to be very useful as a technique - think how your secret, when revealed, will impact on the shared fiction, and lay your ground work to make it possible and fun.


51. On 2009-06-20, Vincent said:

I don't really have an answer. I mean, there's the obvious answer, which is that "Betty's character is paranoid" is something that everybody's agreed to except Betty, and maybe Betty will agree to it, maybe she won't, and maybe she'll never have the chance because nobody ever puts it concretely before her.

What's interesting about it to me is that it makes the whole shared fiction into an unreliable narrative. Imagine a novel with an unreliable narrator, written from the point of view of someone paranoid - it's like that, with all the players (including Betty, as she has her character react to bad information) being the author. I think that's cool.


52. On 2009-06-21, Luke said:

I hope I'm not interrupting. I'd like to process this.

The other players, in acting weird and differently, are harboring a secret and affecting the real world aspect of play. If the secret is revealed, this strange real-world performance can make sense to the outsider player retroactively (or it can be protested). Until it is revealed, the other players are just acting in a strange manner. The outsider's character/fiction hasn't changed beyond that: "You all are acting strange." Her answer can be, "Cool, creepy." or "Quit it, jerks."

The other players have taken a piece of game mechanic "Make another player crazy" and formed a secret/plan about it. They're allowing it to affect their play and color the fiction they're creating. But until the target buys in, it's just noise. If she buys in, there's fruit for the labors—it all makes sense.

And just to be clear, I don't think this edge case contradicts what V is saying. I think it's a germane example of the phenomena of how these secret/plans affect play.


53. On 2009-06-21, Simon Rogers said:

What's interesting about it to me is that it makes the whole shared fiction into an unreliable narrative. Imagine a novel with an unreliable narrator, written from the point of view of someone paranoid - it's like that, with all the players (including Betty, as she has her character react to bad information) being the author. I think that's cool.

It is my most proud contribution to Fear Itself, although we've only had the chance to try it once. I have used this technique a few times in other situations, where all but one or two players are in on it, eg, dream sequences, or a group of doppelgangers. It really freaks them out. I like the analogy of an unreliable narrator. This could almost a term for a GM in a suitable horror game, "the games needs four players and one Unreliable Narrator (the UR)."


54. On 2009-06-22, Simon Rogers said:

Luke: The other players have taken a piece of game mechanic "Make another player crazy" and formed a secret/plan about it. They're allowing it to affect their play and color the fiction they're creating. But until the target buys in, it's just noise. If she buys in, there's fruit for the labors—it all makes sense.

The downside of this interpretation is that if she never finds out, the secret has certainly impacted play without being revealed to her, even though the others know it. There are many secrets which impact on play which not all the other players find out about, usually between GM and player. Usually they are revealed, often, not.

The secrets in SAJ are also an example of this; as GM I went through the entire game doing my damndest not even to bother taking notice of what the slaves' agendas were - after all, would any slave-holding NPCs even care? It was quite liberating (if you'll pardon the expression) to let the players get on with their plans without me even knowing what they were. In the last scenes of the game I found out a couple of the players' secrets, but certainly not all. "Shared fiction" is not always shared by everyone, and sometimes a secret can impact a game without it ever being revealed at all.


55. On 2009-06-22, Vincent said:

"Impact a game" isn't what I'm after. Players can have secrets, and share secrets selectively, and it impacts the game; no doubt.

Imagine this. A fantasy game of the sprawling sort where there are rival kingdoms and trade cities and so on, and the PCs have a home base in an inn and kings' spymasters and ancient wizards and foreign ladies come and enlist them to go on adventures and stuff. You know what I mean.

Imagine that the players get together behind the GM's back and say "hey you know the NPC Chamberlain, our contact with the king? Let's all, no matter what the GM says about him, let's all react to him as though he smells bad. We can't insult him to his face, we need him, but let's be subtle and see what the GM does with it."

So they do.

Does this make it true, but secret from the GM, that the chamberlain smells bad?

In play, one player says "while the chamberlain's talking to us my guy edges toward the window, and opens the shutters. Want me to make a stealth roll?" And the GM says, "uh, no, that's fine. You do, nobody notices." And another player says "my guy notices! Thanks for that."

So now everyone knows and assents that one character opened the shutters unobtrusively and another character noticed and was happy. Does that make it true that the chamberlain character smells bad?


56. On 2009-06-22, Vincent said:

Ha ha ha! Four sessions later, the GM's like, "hey guys, the Chamberlain? He's clean, healthy, he bathes, his clothes are fresh, he wears a modest aftershave - he doesn't smell bad." Player: "you don't tell me what my character thinks."


57. On 2009-06-22, Vincent said:

...In fact, I think I'm going to bump this up to a post of its own. Stand by!


58. On 2009-06-22, Simon Rogers said:

...In fact, I think I'm going to bump this up to a post of its own. Stand by!


(If this was the long-running D&D game, and the Chamberlain was an NPC, I would probably go with it, rather than say "No he doesn't. It's your nose, but nobody else thinks so." On the otherhand, you could treat it as a childish conspiracy amongst the characters to humiliate him.)

I really like it when players conspire to do something to completely screw over the GM, as long as it's fun. We played one game where whenever we met someone who vaguely looked like they were going to feed us info, we would kill them before they go the chance. (We were young.)

Incidentally, their are explicit rules in the Dying Earth RPG (in Cugel's Compendium) for running a long con, not just on NPCs, but on the GM.


59. On 2009-06-22, Joel said:

I really like it when players conspire to do something to completely screw over the GM, as long as it's fun.

I can't parse that sentence at all. It looks like pure nonsense.

Oh, wait. You didn't say fun for who,


60. On 2009-06-23, Luke said:

Hi Simon,

I'm reading what you're saying as, "Sometimes the players of these games imagine stuff and those thoughts affect the game." And, "Sometimes, when a player imagines something cool, he shares it with another player and that player is inspired to incorporate it."

Which sounds like basic elements of RPGs, and not counter to what V is asserting about secrets/plans and how they are made real and true.

Anyway, V has trod off into his faceted world of the (Un)Smelly Chamberlain. Let's watch, shall we?



61. On 2009-06-26, Simon Rogers said:

Joel said:

I can't parse that sentence at all. It looks like pure nonsense.

Oh, wait. You didn't say fun for who,

Well, for everyone, of course, with me being the GM and all.


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