The Failure of Secrets

So, information management is usually a pretty business-wonky idea, but it’s one that has a role in RPGs that can be very useful to keep in mind. Specifically, the role of information management is one of the easiest ways to distinguish between adventure, intrigue and caper/crime.

Information management, which is to say the review of what informationis distributed, how it’s distributed, and what’s done with it, has a very small role in the traditional adventure (which is why we tend to not prioritize it). Specifically, the traditional adventure manages information by being very, very tight-fisted with it. Some bits of data might be necessary to proceed (like a password or location of a secret door) but most information is purely color. It simply may not make much difference if the bad guys you’re fighting are a thousand year old cult of the Old Ones or a new age cult of destruction.

But what’s important in an adventure is that this lack does not matter. Player action is not dependent on information – what they need to do is usually very clear. Most typically, there is a dungeon, and once you’ve got a dungeon, you pretty much know what to do with it. In fact, too much information can make for problems, because players might decide to go off in unexpected directions as their options open up.

Because of this combination of clear motivation and sparse information, gaming has developed a culture of secrets. Giving players more information is treated as a bad thing[1] so secrets are kept out of habit rather than because it’s necessary for the game.

But this is not the only model.

For games centered more around intrigue (such as espionage) then, paradoxically, there should be MORE information available. Characters know a lot about a lot, so much so that the thing they don’t know is usually the important point on which the story or game resolves. if, in contrast, EVERYTHING is a secret, then no particular secret is going to be very compelling.[2]

On another vector, a caper game should assume nearly total information. Capers revolve around plans made from comprehensive data – it may take some work to get that data, but that’s only a fraction of the game – and that data needs to be reliable. That does not means there’s no rom for surprises and the unexpected – they’re a part of the genre – but like with intrigue, they stand out as exceptions.

These examples only scratch the surface of ways to consider information management[3] but what they hopefully highlight is that a lot of assumptions about how things should be may just be habits. Next time you run a game where you’re trying to capture a specific genre, then take a little bit of time to think about what people know, how they find it out, and what they do with that information.[4] A small change could profoundly transform your game for the better.

1 – Some of this also comes from the much more reasonable “no one wants to drink from the fire hose” problem. If you’re too free with information, players will get overwhelmed and disinterested. This is also an information management issue, but a slightly different one than we’re looking at today.

2 – This is doubly true when the entire setting is designed to be “wheels within wheels” to a totally arbitrary degree. Once everything is suspect, everything is meaningless.

3 – I remember my first exposure to the idea of total information transparency, proposed by Robin Laws in Over the Edge. it was a little too weird for me at the time, and it still is a bit uncomfortable, but it’s a great example of how to rethink these assumptions.

4 – Shadowrun is my poster child for this. 99% of the time I see it run like an adventure, with the run standing in for the dungeon and with a more interesting wrapper around it than a trip to the tavern. That’s fun, but when I think about the Genre,I imagine something much closer to intrigue or caper style play. I don’t think I’m alone in this perception, but the trick is that despite that sense of genre, it’s not necessarily reflected in play.

9 thoughts on “The Failure of Secrets

  1. Graham

    Rob, that’s reasonable, but I have a couple of issues.

    Firstly, the idea of information being “purely colour”. We tend to be dismissive of colour, but it’s terribly important. For example, if you’re playing Cthulhu, whether you’re investigating Deep Ones or the Great Race is genuinely important. It might just be colour, but that colour is the point of the game.

    Secondly, I feel that, with indie games, the pendulum has swung too far. The idea that secrets are bad has become part of the dogma. It’s important, I think, to point out that secrets can be fun and useful.


  2. Rob Donoghue

    @graham I agree with most of this. The trick, ithink, is that the difference between “Just color” and information has more to do with the player’s role int he game than the data itself. if the players are more audience than participant, then the differences in color really don’t matter too much.

    But that said, I think the real point is not that secrets are bad, but rather that you need to actually think about what is secret and what is not.

    “Everything” can work, if you want a specific outcome, as can “nothing”, but most of the more interesting outcomes (to me) come from deciding what should be secret and, by elimination, what should _not_.

  3. gamefiend

    How timely! I’ve been thinking abou this a lot myself lately. Part of the problem is that we are conditioned in RPGs that players need to earn everything…even the information that they need to make the decisions that actually drive story. Do I know this? Roll the dice. I see where that comes from but increasingly in my games I want to focus on the decisions characters make and less on how they acquire the information to make them. I’ve been treating skills as “info unlocks” lately, with great success. If you’re the history guy in the group, you will be the one who knows X about the current situation. If I force you to roll, you might miss the information, which is less fun because you are less likely to make to a decision without the proper information. What I care about is what you do. Of secondary importance is the depths of your knowledge. If a player is willing to invest a lot of points in a skill, I like to reward him by giving him info. That player has a key to unlock certain info.

    In the games I’ve done it in, it works pretty well.

  4. Andreas Kjeldsen

    One of the things I really like about Spirit of the Century is the use of declarations to introduce new facts about the world – I find it makes information management so much simpler, both because it allows the players to focus on the things that actually matter, and because the greater sense of ownership of the information means they’re much more likely to actually remember and internalise it than if it was just one-way communication from the GM.

  5. Mike Olson

    Skill-as-infodump is a big part of the appeal of both Gumshoe and SotC, for me. In other games with skills, the easiest way to handle it is to say that merely having the appropriate skill means knowing a baseline amount of information about a particular thing, and a successful check gives you more information. That way you can give the players the info they need without it feeling especially contrived, and the player never feels like he wasted resources on a skill that never does him any good.

    Anyway — interesting points here, Rob, especially the bit about using the information you give players to highlight the importance of what they don’t know.

  6. Reverance Pavane

    It also works for players too (if they are mature enough players to handle it).

    Does your character have a deep dark secret? Reveal it to the other players, and you will find it is a plot element that keeps coming back near to the surface as the other players weave it into the game, without their characters quite realising it (unless they actually find out in play).

    If you hide it away, on the other hand, nobody knows about it, nobody will find out about it, and most importantly, it won’t haunt your game.

    But overall I think it also comes down to the fact that your players probably should be the ones telling the story, not you.

    [I find a lot of the info-dump requirements of giving lots of information can be aborted by giving players control of the environment. Let them determine that there is something important there if they approach it the right way.]

  7. Wilson

    Hmmm, so this is so contrary to how I’ve always run games (whether old-fashioned trad back in the day or cutting edge indie) and even the games I’ve enjoyed playing in that I really will have to think about it before I even dare to say that the contention about information revelation not mattering much for adventure gaming is wrong either situationally or per gaming groups. Part of this no doubt is definitional, too, in that your take on “adventure” sounds like purely hack-n-slash, maybe?

    I can’t see playing an RPG adventure (or otherwise) game, aside from those directed to extremely limited kinds of experiences, without drama, relationships, and just plain “subplots” that directly influence and entirely shape what the adventure portion would be like, how it would play out, what role each PC will have.

  8. Rob Donoghue

    Adventure includes Hack & Slash, but is not limited to that, but it does prioritize action and thrills over other elements. Think summer blockbuster: There might be romance or other subplots, but really, we’re there for the explosions.

    To illustrate though, the dungeon is probably the purest element of data in this regard. From the time that players get to the entrance of the dungeon to the time the get to the final boss, the information encountered is rarely of importance (except in a self-contained way, such as puzzle solutions).

    Now, individual GMs might break these rules (and often did) witht heir own material, but this model holds a lot of space in mindshare because it’s th emodel followed by most published adventures.

    (now, all this does ignore the point about the importance of color: Dungeons were often quite colorful, but things like ‘gygaxian naturalism’ helped insure that color tended to lack and deeper meaning besides the immediate cool’)

  9. Rob Donoghue

    Or, to put it more blunty: How often do adventures give the players full and accurate maps of the dungeon’s they’re about to enter, with useful information about their inhabitants? (Maps of ‘how it used to be’ don’t count – those are usualy designed with specific intent).


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *