What Good are Secrets if You Don't Keep Them?
The main reason most people like secrets is because they add a level of surprise and excitement to the game when they are revealed. They are moments where people go "Ooh!" or even "Ah-ha!" if they reveal something they thought was the case, but had no absolute proof yet. It's a level of fun that comes from discovery, which has always been part of the RPG process. The main difference is that it originally always came only from the GM, whose job it was to throw these surprises at the player for them to enjoy. This was the whole reason for GM Guides and Modules that players were never supposed to read.
Over time the area of secrets started to spread out and players were starting to have secrets as well. Early on, these secrets were kept from the GM by all the players (usually as a group) to help them get the upper hand against the GM and his surprises. All of this was back in the day when most games were written as being very confrontational between the players and the GM, which would lead to secrets and plans being important. It was very confrontational and one side was seen as winning.
Gaming got past its wargame roots and this confrontational format was shifted to one of working together to make a better game. Since everyone is on the same "side" now, does it mean that secrets should also be removed from the game? Should everyone have the same information? Some say this can help them all work together to create a better story, since they are able to set up and build things towards what would normally be secret reveals, but are now character plot-points they all already know. This can make for great stories, but takes away some of the fun of surprise.
There are also those who keep secrets from everyone, including the GM and other players. These are secrets about their character's back-story or powers that they hold onto until they choose to reveal it in the game. This leads to amazing reveal moments, where everyone at the table is surprised. The downside of this is that GM doesn't know about it either, until it's revealed, which means they can't weave it into the story or aid in the reveal. It can also lead to moments where the GM is surprised to a level that screws up the plans for the story moments they actually have going on.
Secrets are another tool in the arsenal of gaming and should be used when appropriate, just like all the other tools. Secrets should be something in the game, and not something just used outside the game (often called meta gaming). This means that they should be character or event secrets that other characters don't yet know. Most of them should at least be available to the GM to know (like on the character sheets they are presented with or written in notes or back-stories given), even if they don't always act or even read up on them. This allows them to prepare for their possible use or reveal, and possibly even help the player build to the point they want to have for the reveal.
As with most things in gaming, communication is the most important part of this. The player with a secret that is important to them should make sure to communicate with the GM about it. Together they can work out how they want and don't want this to come out. That way, when it does happen to get revealed it won't only be an amazing surprise to the rest of the group, but it will be a pleasant experience for the player with the secret and GM as well. The moment of a great reveal can be the most memorable part of a good RPG story. The odds of this happening are greatly increased when you have the communication before hand.
You don't always need to go to this level of interactivity with the GM about the secret, but letting them know about it is usually important. Without this knowledge they might be doing things that contradict your secret, force it out at inappropriate moment (which will screw things up in the game even more if you don't reveal them at these moments), or even avoid it from ever coming out at all. This can lead to frustration and problems, which are not things you want to have in a game. It is near impossible for the GM to avoid these kinds of things when they don't know about it.
The position of the GM is hard enough within most games, with them running the world and setting up the story events for the players, as well as keeping everyone happy and on the same page. If every player is also keeping a lot of character secrets from them it just adds more problems that pop up and surprise them in unpleasant ways. Keeping them informed about any secrets, even multiples of them, helps them to keep everything smooth and even possibly make things better if they can use them or weave them into what they are already doing.
There is also the matter of how players handle player versus character knowledge to take into consideration when dealing with secrets. Although I am an advocate for keeping secrets to allow the surprise of the reveal to the other players, there are games that are specifically built for players to work together to make these moments. Before getting into one of these games, or having open secrets in your regular game, it may be important to determine if your players can handle the separation of these two area of knowledge.
Player knowledge is what the player actually knows, including all the character attributes, skills, story elements, real-world knowledge, and more. This includes any secrets that characters may have but have been talked about openly among the players. Character knowledge is what the character in the game world knows, which includes anything they may have seen or been told, or things they have learned to do. Characters don't know the "numbers" of attributes or skills and may not even know all of what others around them may be able to do. Characters should only take actions and say things based on what they know or would be able to guess and not on all the things the player who plays them knows.
Secrets are an area that makes this distinction between the two areas of knowledge really important. The player may know about the secret but the character doesn't, so their character should not be taking actions based on the secret in any way. It can be hard to not let it influence you, but many players often overcompensate by doing things too far the other way to "prove" they aren't acting on the knowledge, which is just as bad. If your players have this problem and can't keep player knowledge separate from character knowledge, then you should not have open secrets.
An example of this would be if you let a secret out that that your character is actually infected with a mind controlling parasite, that is only with the group to try and get them alone so he can do his thing to take each of them over one by one. The other player may actively go out of their way to avoid ever being along with them from here on out, even if it's not logical for them to do so in all situations. The overcompensating player might always volunteer to be alone with them, even though they wouldn't normally do that either. The whole point is the players should just play their characters the way they would naturally act, as if they never knew this secret. Keeping it secret would have made it far more realistic and interesting, as well as easier on the players in most cases.
There are times when secrets are useful to keep and useful to tell in games. The key is knowing when to do each. Communication with the GM is always important, even in cases where the secret is being kept from most others, but they have to make sure not to allow their "player knowledge" to taint the actions of their NPCs too much. In the end, I say have fun with your secrets and make their revealing an exciting part of your games. Seeing players show surprise and sudden understanding as a secret comes to light for the first time is a wonderful moment for all, especially when it comes from another player.
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