Let’s See What Happens, Part Two: The Secrets Deck

A little over a week ago ((As I post this; it’s taken me a few days to write.)), I posted an outline of techniques I use to develop campaign storylines during play. Apparently, folks liked it, and I’m glad. But one person requested some more specific examples ((And if one person asked, then more wanted them but didn’t ask. Basic rules of customer service.)), so I’m going to do my best to illustrate some of the ideas with examples from actual campaigns I’ve run.

I was going to do everything in one post, but as I started writing it, it became painfully obvious that, if I did, it would be a terribly, terribly long post. So, I’m going to break it down into sections, each one dealing in some depth with the topics I’m discussing. I’m starting with the Secrets Deck.

Hope you find it useful.

My biggest success with the Secrets Deck was in my Broken Chains campaign, so I’m using that for the example, which means that we’re going to be talking about D&D-style fantasy tropes.. Now, in building this campaign, I had completely ignored the First Rule of Dungeoncraft, as stated by Ray Winninger, which was to not force yourself to create any more than you need to for your game as it stands. I created an entire setting bible – over 200 pages – covering the whole of the world, about 100,000 years of history, the entire religion, culture, and political structures. The Second Rule of Dungeoncraft states that, whenever you create something significant in your campaign, you create at least one secret about it. And then you write that secret on an index card to build your Secrets Deck.

Well, by the time I had finished the world document, I had a Secrets Deck with around 70 cards in it ((Really, this is too much. I made it work, but it was far more work than it was worth, and a lot of stuff never saw the light of day, so learn from my mistake. Rein it in. Seriously.)). Then, every adventure, I would shuffle the deck and draw a card, and see if I could work a hint about that secret into the scenario.

What’s a Secret

So, what do I mean by a secret? There were a couple of Dungeoncraft articles that explored this in some detail, but what it means for me is something that, if the characters knew it, would change the way the characters understand some part of the world. Ideally, this shift in understanding makes the aspect of the world more cool, and prompts the characters to action and adventure.

Secrets generally answer some questions for the characters, but tend to also give rise to other ones, peeling back layers in your standard onion-like analogy ((Problem for me with the onion analogy is that, with an onion, once you peel off the last layer of an onion, there’s nothing left. For a game, you need a core of pure cool to make sure that the players don’t feel the whole thing was a waste of time. Don’t ever waste your players’ time. Reward the effort they put into the story with cool. They will reward you right back.)). The questions reveal interesting things about the world, about the NPCs, about the bad guys, about whatever the secret is about, and will hopefully grab the characters’ interest, or at least draw their attention a little bit.

Let’s look at some examples. Say you create a pub that the characters are going to use as their home base in this town for the early part of the campaign. You write up a description of the building, some notes on the bartender and the serving girl and the cook, a quick list of regulars, maybe even a menu to lend it an easy touch of authenticity ((I’m always amazed how much authenticity you can throw into a game just by describing a few little touches of the mundane. In Broken Chains, I wrote up the contents of the three varieties of standard one-day ration packs that the characters’ military company used. Before long, characters had their favourites, would trade bits back and forth, and complain when I would arbitrarily tell them the quartermaster was out of a particular type. Don’t neglect these little details – five minutes thought can give you hours of great roleplaying.)). For a secret, you decide you want something big here, so you write down that the pub is on the site of an ancient underground prison where a demon has been sealed, and the bartender is actually the head of a secret order placed here to watch the prison and make sure nothing happens.

Now, of course, since you’ve made this a secret, something must happen eventually to start the prison opening. It’s a Chekov’s Gun thing. As play progresses, and more hints about this secret get into the characters’ hands, eventually they’re going to figure out the secret. And then they’ll look at their neighbourhood bar in a far different light. The discovery of the secret may also prompt them to take action – maybe go down into the dark to check on the prison, or go off to distant lands to get the Golden MacGuffin that can destroy the demon once and for all.

Not every secret needs to be earth-shattering, though. It’s just as good to have a small secret that the characters may uncover in short order. This gives them a more immediate reward for paying attention to the game world. In the example above, you could just as easily and profitably say that the secret is that the bartender is on the run from a criminal gang in the nearest big city for having refused the gang leader’s orders to kill a child in revenge for the child’s constable father undermining gang business ((I like The Replacement Killers. Do you like The Replacement Killers?)). It still changes the way the characters look at the bartender – he’s a former assassin, and he’s been handling their drinks – but it gives them a problem that they can help with at a lower level.

One important note about both of these examples is that they produce or increase emotional investment in whatever the secret is about. Usually, by the time the secret is revealed, characters will have been interacting with that element of the world long enough to already have some opinion of it, and the revelation of the secret will increase that dramatically ((Heh.)). It may also change the polarity of the emotion associated with the element: a villain turns out to be working to save the world, the friendly priest actually sacrifices children, whatever. Either way, if the secret is good, the cool is enhanced.

Some Secrets

I no longer have the Secrets Deck ((Or the setting document. Computer drive failure is vicious.)), but here are some examples of things that I can remember:

  1. The Mother and Father – the primary god and goddess in the cosmology of the world – had almost destroyed themselves working the magical cataclysm that destroyed the ancient Dragon King empire and freed the other sentient races from slavery. They have been slowly dying for the past 10,000 years or so.
  2. The Three Who Fled – Dragon Kings who had escaped the cataclysm by ascending to godhood as Lord Mourning, Lady Spite, and the Smiler ((Yeah, the naming and style are stolen directly from the Ten Who Were Taken in Glen Cook’s most excellent Black Company series.)) – had corrupted the current Primarchs of the church of the Mother and Father.
  3. Lady Elorewyr, ambassador for one of the kingdoms to the High Seat – essentially, this world’s United Nations – is actually a demon in disguise.
    The same kingdom, renowned for its harsh treatment witches (those with psionic power), was secretly run by a hidden cabal of witches serving as advisors to the noble families.
  4. The footprints of the saint of travel where he first set foot on the main continent had the power to transport any who stood in them anywhere they wished to go.
  5. A noble family in another kingdom were plotting to put their eldest son on the throne of the kingdom ((This one was especially fun, because said eldest son was one of the PCs, and we had some good times playing with his loyalty to family and nation. His duel to the death with his father is one of the highlights of the game.)).
  6. Four powerful oracles, the Weirds, were lost in the cataclysm, but could be found in hidden, remote locations, and would prophesy for those who brought them offerings.
  7. The ghost of a king who had gone mad and starved his capital city mostly to death was pinned to the mountainside where his rebelling citizens had crucified him, and was doomed to remain there until he had fulfilled a task set for him by the Mother and Father – delivering a message to the prophesied saviours of the world ((These were, of course, the PCs. Or rather, the PCs were in the running for this; I was playing with the idea of prophecy as a set of requirements, rather than a prediction.)).
  8. One Dragon King sought to aid the other sentient races in obtaining their freedom. Called the Turncoat, he prevented five other Dragon Kings from ascending as a five-part god capable of throwing down the Mother and Father, and has remained locked in battle with that creature in the 10,000 years since the cataclysm, at the heart of the blighted area in the centre of the continent.

Now, the first item and the last item on the list were the core of the overarching story of the campaign, as the characters slowly uncovered the secret of the dying god and goddess, and went to free the Turncoat from his eternal torment by defeating the Dragon King god. They don’t really illustrate the point of emergent storylines because of that, but still illustrate the use to which I put the Secrets Deck.

The Secrets Deck and Scenarios

So, armed with this deck, I would come up with a scenario, like going into the Blight – the area at the centre of the continent still stained by the magical cataclysm – to help a small group of settlers with their black dragon problem. Then I would pull a card, and maybe get secret #2, about the Primarchs of the Church being corrupted. I would then try to work in a hint about that.

How direct the hint would be was determined by how big the secret was, and how ready the characters were to do something about it. This one is a pretty big secret – the equivalent of the Pope and the Dalai Lama being revealed as satanists – and it’s not really a thread that the characters could pursue at the current level. In this case, perhaps the hint could be a village priest who is playing politics in the village, undermining the mayor and sheriff, playing up his status as the voice of the Church. This causes the characters to question the mandate of the Church, and they may do something to remove the priest. More importantly, it will sow a seed of doubt about the Church, and allow you to drop more clues that they will eventually assemble into a suspicion about the Church leadership, which will come into play at higher levels, when the characters may actually meet the Primarchs.

If, instead, I had pulled up secret #4, well, that’s something that I could be far more open about. Access to a great teleport point is a valuable thing to adventurers, but this is a stationary thing, so it’s not game-breakingly powerful. Still, I don’t just want to hand the secret to them. Maybe the hint in this case is a body dressed in the vestments of the travel saint’s order stuck in an old well in the ruins, skeletonized by scavengers, with a rotted, mangled book in his pack with a shredded page talking about him sneaking to use the footprints of the saint in order to follow up hints of a valuable treasure. Don’t say where the footprints are, so if the characters want to follow this up, they need to figure out who this priest is, where he’s from, and then go snooping for the footprints.

Now, it’s usually enough to drop in a single secret in a given adventure unless you’re trying to build connections between two secrets ((I’ll deal more with that in a later post.)). Too many unrelated secrets are distracting and misleading, causing players to make associations that don’t actually exist ((Although, they could, if they’re cool enough. I’ll talk about that in a different later post.)), and diverting them from the main goal of the scenario, whatever that is. If the adventure is really long, stretching over several sessions, you may want to pull another secret at the half-way point and lay in a hint about it in the last half of the adventure, when there’s sufficient separation from the first hint that it won’t confuse anything.

Other Uses of the Secrets Deck

Remember the original Keep on the Borderlands? Like many gamers my age, it was my first module. One of the things that really sparked my imagination was the table of rumours in it. There was a mechanic that could allow the players to know certain things about the hazards they would face in the adventure ((And some of them were wrong! THAT was sheer brilliance, in my opinion.)).

You can use your Secrets Deck either as a rumour table on the fly, or to pregenerate a rumour table that you can roll on when you want to, well, disseminate a rumour. Rumours work just like hints in scenarios, except they’re explicitly things that one person says to another, and they might be wrong. Even if they are wrong, they still draw attention to the element the secret is about, and that gives some information to the characters. It’s a subtle way of working in information, and some players really like the sense of accomplishment when they weed out inaccurate information from accurate information.

Now, rumours don’t just have to be things overheard in a bar or at the market. They can be legends, letters, ancient records, whatever. As long as it is information coming from one person to another (or many others). Patrick Rothfuss makes great use of legends about secrets in The Name of the Wind and Wise Man’s Fear, so take a look at those books for inspiration ((Actually, if you haven’t read those books, you should do so, whether you care about gaming or not. They’re great.)).

When I ran Broken Chains, I used the Secrets Deck to drop hints into the news stories in the campaign newsletter I sent out before each session, too. This plays into the idea of Sandboxes, which I’ll deal with in more detail in a future post, but mainly it was my way of accomplishing two things. First, it made me feel like I hadn’t wasted a whole lot of work ((Yes. Doing a whole lot of work on the newsletter was my way of feeling that I hadn’t wasted previous work I’d done. I don’t really know what the hell is wrong with me sometimes.)) coming up with all those secrets. Second, it helped me with one of the primary goals I have in any campaign, which is to make the world seem as if things keep happening even where the characters aren’t. I don’t really recommend doing a newsletter like I did – though it worked to great effect, it was a lot of effort – but if you’ve got a forum or wiki for your game, you could do worse than seed some news stories there, using the secret deck.

The Big Reveal

The revelation of a secret from the Secrets Deck should spur action by the characters. Which means, it should lead to an adventure that resolves the secret. The core of the secret should be cool enough, and compelling enough, that it motivates the characters to do something, and that something should be cool enough to merit the attention they’re paying to it.

For little secrets, like the former-assassin-bartender idea above, that can be pretty direct: go to the city, find the gang leader, and kill him. For big secrets, like the demon prison below the bar idea, it can be more involved: go down into the prison, find that the demon is stirring and has corrupted his jailer, so that the characters have to seek out other members of his order to get the information about the Golden MacGuffin, retrieve said MacGuffin from the Lair of Evil Badness, and bring it back to kill the demon and free the bartender.

Even little secrets, if the players are interested enough, can spawn involved adventures at their revelation. Instead of just killing the gang leader in the above example, maybe the characters have to dismantle his byzantine criminal network piece by piece, forming alliances with rival gangs and citizen groups to gather information and support for the final confrontation. If the players are extra-excited when they find out the secret, and immediately start putting together a lengthy and involved plan to deal with the revelation, sit back and let them plot, and savour that warm glow that you get when you create a moment in the game when the players care enough to go the extra mile. You’ve won roleplaying, at that point.

On the other hand, if they look at the revelation and go, “Crap. I guess we better take care of this before we get back to looting dungeons,” it’s time to hand them a simple adventure to resolve things. So maybe they just have to go down into the demon prison and defeat the Underdark invaders who are tampering with things, and then everything is fine again.


That’s about all I’ve got to say about the Secrets Deck. I’m off to GenCon next week. When I get back and get recovered, I’ll post about Sandboxes.

Meantime, you can look for some GenCon posts here starting on Wednesday when my friend Clint and I set off on our annual pilgrimage.

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6 Responses to Let’s See What Happens, Part Two: The Secrets Deck

  1. Rel Fexive says:

    Good stuff.

  2. Walter Bishop says:

    That’s *exactly* what I was looking for- thanks. I’ve been doing a version of “the deck of secrets” for years, but I haven’t been nearly as organized about it as you are. Seeing examples like the ones you give highlights the importance (or at least the advantages) of pre-planning a certain number of “secrets” to interject into your adventure. I know the time investment it took to write this explanation and I really appreciate it. Looking forward to your Sandbox examples- Cheers

  3. Mr Sleep says:

    Again, a fantastic amount of insight. Secrets as unreliable rumors is something I’ve never used before, but my favorite insight is that the bigger the secret, the smaller the hint.

    I am very much interested in looking forward to your next post in this thread.

    Have fun at GenCon.

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