Playing With Secrets in Gaming

There’s a guy in my current D&D gaming group–we’ll call him Chris. That’s his name… or so he says. A nice guy. He plays a farmer.

A farmer?

Just a simple farmer. Nothing to see here.

That’s what he says, and the DM backs him up on this.

He joins our little adventure with no real explanation for why he’s there. Just one day he’s part of the party. A farmer. The rest of us are fighters, rogues, clerics, rangers, monks, and so forth. And now we have a farmer.

He’s not useless in a fight. He has a crossbow that he’s had some good rolls with. And a dagger that’s contributed to a fight once or twice. And…

And…

Well… rumor has it that he can do magic. My character hasn’t witnessed him doing this, mind you. In fact, only one party member–the monk–has witnessed the farmer performing magic, and he’s not really talking about it. Most of what we think we know about the farmer’s real profession is rumor and hearsay. And we dare not press too hard. If he is a magic user of some sort, they can be a handful. So far, it’s not really hurting anyone to let him keep his secrets. We’ve seen the notes passed secretly to the DM during combat.

And we sometimes notice that while the farmer takes a “guarding” stance during his turn at combat that sometimes something unexplained and, well, magical happens to our benefit in combat.

So we’re good, for now. Our farmer is an enigma, but he’s our enigma.

Oh, and that monk? He sprouted dark wings recently. No one, not even he, knows exactly why. It may have something to do with mysterious tattoos on his back that he’s had since childhood (you know monks… always orphans with murky pasts and raised in monasteries) and repeated exposure to demonic forces (such as those we’ve been encountering recently) seem to have triggered this sudden wing growth.

There doesn’t seem to be anything diabolical about them. Or the monk. The monk and the “farmer” have been going off in secret during time between missions to examine the wings and their usefulness.

In game, very few of us know about this. And none of us have any idea what to think about the wings.

Characters with secrets.

Such a tragic backstory… if you only knew…

They really round out things and make role-playing more interesting. It can be as simple as a dark or traumatic past–such as with my cleric whose noble family was murdered by the same dark forces responsible for the destruction of a port city and tens of thousands of innocent lives. That same cleric who hides his past from others while he quietly searches for answers. Or a young dwarf whose whole clan is destroyed by hill giants at the order of some mysterious agent of chaos.

But it’s not just having player characters with secrets. None of that really works in game unless the DM agrees to be in on it. The DM has to be good with the magic user masquerading as a farmer and letting that character cast spells in secret. The DM has to know what triggers those mysterious tattoos and what happens when they get triggered. If that cleric is ever going to confront his tragic past, the DM is going to have to trot out some character from his past. Or maybe give that dwarf a a clue as to who was behind the destruction of her home and why?

Storytelling on steroids? Well, that may be a little much, but it certainly adds dimension to the adventure. Granted… if there are too many players juggling too many secrets, it gets a little unwieldy, but a little can go a long way if everyone is on board.

Give it a try if you haven’t already. Throw a little bit of mystery, some hidden pasts, some secrets.

Enjoy!

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