Monday, June 01, 2009

Secrecy in the Early Game

The new campaign kicked off Friday. All in all, it was a success. Lots of fun character moments, plenty of antics, and fairly neat ending, with the lower level group all packaged up into a team and kicked out the door to go do some quest-type things. So next time won't have as much "which character am I playing right now?" type confusion; we'll be able to cut between the two groups rather than managing the whole gang all in one place.

It also had three private, out-of-the-room conversations between me and one or two players, lots of note passing, and a bit of attempted blackmail. Which is pretty much par for course for a new game of mine. The last two major campaigns I've run all started out with a lot of intra-party intrigue. Secret agendas, spying for outside (and possibly hostile) powers, and sneaking off for one's own mysterious purposes is typical behavior in the first few sessions, and while it tends to calm down once everyone gets settled, sometimes it comes back to explode later down the line.

It's partly my fault. Even when I don't start the campaign by handing each player a secret piece of information, as I did in this game, I sometimes start up the note passing, and I'll suggest the private conversations. Although I'm sure that at some point this kind of thing will go terribly wrong, in a player-vs-player kind of way, for the most part I think it's a good way to get a new party used to each other, it gets players thinking about their characters backgrounds, and it encourages PC-on-PC roleplaying. (Though I'm usually careful to apply a bit of outside pressure; a dangerous common enemy works well to keep even characters who don't like each other together.) And this campaign has a lot of political considerations going on, so I'm quite pleased at the level of player involvement and interest in that aspect of the game.

But it strikes me as peculiar that this always happens. While I intended for Is This Foul? to have a conspiratorial tone, the intrigue that's infected the Traveller game was largely my players doing. Certainly I've encouraged it, since they seem to enjoy the note-passing and discovering each others secrets, but I wasn't the one who said "I want my character to work for the people Duke Burris is trying to overthrow, because they've captured her fiancé."

It could be just the kind of players I attract. But it also occurs to me that, if given the opportunity, players have some pretty powerful incentives to give their characters a bit of secret agenda. It gets them more one-on-one attention from me, and it gets them more attention from the other players, both in the "what's that person up to?" stage, and when they finally orchestrate their big reveal. Once one person starts doing it, everyone wants to do it, because they see that other player getting more spotlight.

So is a certain amount of secrecy a fairly common attribute in player-dom? Does anyone else have these note-passing kinds of early games? And has anyone ever had secrecy go horribly, terribly wrong?


  1. Hi --

    I just found your blog and really enjoyed this post.

    Like you, I encourage secrecy in my games. I develop each character's background individually with the player, letting the player decide how much to share with the rest of the party. I like the role-playing this approach allows.

    I've heard other GMs complain that this approach divides the party, but in the last 15 years I've been doing this, I've never seen that happen in one of my games. Even in "party-focused" games, like AD&D, I've found it brings the party together, as they attempt to find out more information about the other PCs. Even small secrets can provide rich role playing.

    Hmmm, you've given me an idea for another blog entry ...

    Cherie Arbuckle
    Evil Machinations

  2. You're weird. ;)

    Just kidding. Kinda. I don't get a lot of this, but generally that's because my campaigns tend to start with everyone being homeless vagabond peons with all the political clout and influence that comes with such status. Since the PCs generally acquire their political clout and influence as a group, they are almost always allies in such things.

    Which isn't to say there aren't secrets, but these tend to be far more personal and rarely lead to ongoing conflict within the party.

    It might also have to do with my own personal golden age of gaming coinciding with Mr. Maliszewski's Silver Age of D&D, when the official materials promoted all-good parties unified in the struggle against evil and intolerance.

  3. Oh, I live for intra-party conflict. On a recent blog about "Instigator" type players I had to comment that I'm an Instigator type DM.

    With players that know each other I'll do things like this.

    If Gilbert the Magnificent mentions anything about party "scout" being a bit sticky figured at some point after the thief has searched a room/corpse/etc I'll pass him a note that says.

    "100xp if you nod your head at me and pass this note back."

    Of course everyone at the table sees this, becomes instantly suspicious of the thief (it's a rare player that ignores meta-game info when gp's are on the line) As soon as I get this note back I'll pass one to Gilbert saying

    "You think the thief just pocketed some small treasure!"

    Interesting role-play ensues. Great fun but only with an amiable group of players.

  4. Cherie Arbuckle: It definitely has the potential to divide the party, but it depends on the players and how the GM handles it. "Spying on the party because they've got my fiance" is one thing -- when it comes out, that just means they've got one more reason to go after those guys. "Spying on the party because I hate one of them" is something else entirely.

    trollsmyth: That's a very interesting point; it's definitely true the games in question all had the PCs starting out with a decent amount of personal power. Traveller's got the whole "retired marine" thing going on, and the D&D games were both started somewhat above 1st level.

    Norman Harman: I've never done anything quite *that* bad. Though I might, now that you suggest it.

    And I'd never, ever do any of this with a group that I thought would go after each other about it. Though in general I avoid playing with those kinds of people anyway. Too much trouble.

  5. My campaigns were heavily character driven, which is why I spent so much time on character conception and backgrounds before starting.
    As a result there was often things going on "under the radar." Lots of note passing, out of room conversations, and phone calls/emails during the week. Plus the periodic individual adventure session on the side (one reason why I preferred an every other week schedule. Off weeks were set aside for individual character stuff. I remember scheduling two at the local game spot one Saturday, and the first ran over and the second player showed up while the first was still in progress.
    Of course every once in a while the unusual happened, like a player dying on his solo quest, which would mess up the group when a "stranger" showed up the next regular gaming session.

  6. I've played with, and GM'ed for, secretive backstabbers int he past. My current group however, doesn't really go for that sort of thing.

    Which is why I despair of ever running an Amber game for them.

  7. None of my players in five gaming groups do this... It sounds intriguing.