Mysteries and Secrets in Roleplaying Game Worlds

Mysteries and secrets are tempting things, aren’t they? After all, everyone loves a good revelation scene. Mysteries add excitement to your game. You might be tempted to pile on huge, exciting secret after huge, exciting secret when designing your game world. You might be tempted to make the entire world revolve around those secrets. Why is this a bad idea? There are so many potential reasons!

Terminology

Part of the problem is one of terminology. We think of mysteries and secrets as being an integral part of the amazing roleplaying experience. What we often don’t realize, though, is that there’s a difference between “mysteries” and “secrets.” The word mystery implies a solution; there’s the expectation that someday, somehow, someone will solve the mystery. The word secret, however, implies permanence–a secret is something that must be kept.

Thus, thinking of your spiffy weird odd things as secrets instead of mysteries leads you to make incorrect and damaging assumptions. In some cases this leads game designers to not plan for the eventuality when the secret is revealed. They don’t address what it will do to the game world to have the secret become public.

Once It’s Gone It’s Gone

Secrets are one-time things, simple on-off switches. Once a secret is out, that’s it! You can’t put it back in the box. This leaves the game master (GM) in a bit of a quandary: reveal the secret and use it up? Or keep it secret, and, well, not get to use it. Not a great choice when that secret is the heart of your game world, huh?

Again, think of your secrets as mysteries. Often what makes a mystery neat isn’t simply the fact that people don’t know anything about it. It’s a sort of atmosphere, an aura of excitement. If you consider mysteries instead of secrets, you’re more likely to come up with something that will continue to be interesting and attention-getting even after it’s revealed.

Accidentally Changing the Face of Your World

Any game world that relies on certain large secrets being kept is going to run into a problem eventually. Your secrets will get played with and revealed in-game. When this happens (when, not if) the entire face of the game-world could change, and much of the material you’ve written for the game could become out-of-date and useless to the GM and players using it.

If you’re relying on the assumption that the secret will be kept ad infinitum, it’s presumably because it would do really bad things to your game world if it came out (where “bad things” refers to things that make roleplaying in that universe difficult). This is not a good situation for the world to be in! As I’ve said in other places, absolutes are plot holes in disguise. If your world is made unplayable by the revelation of that secret, if it is absolutely necessary that it be kept, then that’s a plot hole you need to fix.

You cannot rely on player characters (PCs) to keep quiet the secrets that they uncover (heck, you can’t rely on PCs for anything!). You have to carefully consider what would happen to your game world if the secret became the subject of the six o’clock news. Remember to address in the material you write what will happen when the secret is revealed or the mystery is solved.

Keeping Your Secrets Secret

As I’m sure you’ve noticed, I’m running on the assumption that your secrets simply won’t stay secret forever. Why is that?

As I’ll explain in more detail in a later article, anything that you put into your game world is something that you should expect GM and players to make use of. You can’t control other people’s campaigns, nor should you try; so you have to assume that the secret will come out. But it’s more than that.

If you reveal little bits of the secret but always dangle the meat of it just out of reach, never fully revealing anything, the only thing you do is frustrate people. This isn’t creating an air of mystery; this is being a tease. After a while people stop caring about such secrets, so they’re pretty much pointless. Any secret that is revealed in part must eventually be revealed in full (or at least enough detail to leave people feeling somewhat satisfied).

If you never reveal any of the secret, on the other hand, then it might as well not exist. Secrets known only to the GM that have no impact on the game are utterly useless to the game. They’re a frustrating waste of space.

Big, world-breaking secrets are usable precisely once–they don’t lend themselves to repeated campaigns in a single world. If you want GM and players to use your game repeatedly, then be careful with your secrets.

Expectations and Consistency Problems

If you pile on too many huge, world-altering secrets as a solution to the fact that you have to reveal your secrets once in a while, you cause other problems. You set up a certain level of expectation in both GM and player that that these secrets will keep coming out. Eventually either the secrets become cheapened (“Ho-hum. The lost continent of Atlantis, huh? Big deal. We found the lost race of vampires last week”) or you run out of secrets, and everything else seems less exciting by comparison.

It can also result in a rather ridiculous end-case where all of these wild secrets have been revealed, and the PCs have discovered that the world is full of all these amazing things that no one knew about. Then they start thinking: Why didn’t the world know about them? How did they stay secret all these decades when there were so many of them that they were practically bumping into each other on street-corners?

Secrets and mysteries are great roleplaying game fodder, but your game shouldn’t exclusively revolve around them. Remember that mysteries don’t have to be big and earth-shattering. They don’t all have to revolve around hidden races and lost continents. There are plenty of smaller, plot-relevant or character-relevant mysteries and secrets that can lend a lot of excitement to a game without causing problems later.

More importantly, not all mysteries have to be secrets! Mysteries can be solved. Mysteries have an excitement to them beyond the simple fact that no one knows about them. Mysteries are often already known to a certain extent — people are aware that there’s something weird going on; they just don’t know what it all means.

So turn your secrets into mysteries. Expect them to be used and revealed. Make sure they aren’t the only interesting things to be played with in your world, and make sure they aren’t all huge and world-altering. If the revelation of a secret would alter the face of your world, then deal with that. If it would break your game, then fix that! Don’t simply declare it off-limits and hope it never happens; game material exists to be used, and used it will be. Work with that, instead of fighting it.

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