One fascinating thing about real history is the nature of knowledge. I was having a big nerdy talk with a friend today where she was recounting some history about ancient classics that had been lost and the variety of really interesting people who recovered some of them and what that meant. It’s the kind of history that’s instantly recognizable because, well, nerds are always nerds, even in the pre-renaissance. 4chan has nothing on classicists bitching about each other’s Latin translations.
This seems like it should be really gameable, but there’s weird barrier that I have never really found a solution to. The problem with the history of knowledge is that it’s full of questions we have already answered. That is to say, the discovery of an ancient greek text that lays out atomic theory along with its philosophical implications doesn’t really get the pulse pounding (unless you’re already a certain type of nerd).
This is a subtle reason why magic (or weirdness) makes for an easy out in a lot of settings. Magic allows for secrets which have no real world analog, so we can accept it as jarring. Eldritch horrors, vampires in the shadows or secret UFO landings provide us a means to have Big Meaningful secrets without much in the way of understanding.
And maybe that’s a necessary shorthand. If you’re going to assume minimal setting buy in from players, then you want secrets that carry their own weight without needing context to give them meaning. Tentacled horrors are an easier sale than the invalidation of heliocentrism. The former can drive action, the latter not so much.
But the problem is that this model ultimately produces thin, brittle secrets. Monsters in the shadows? Other worlds than these? Elder horrors? These ideas and more all so digestible that they more or less transmute into tropes at the moment of their creation. It is only through the addition of context that they grow richer, but that tends to require enough work that it more or less undercuts the original point.
Which brings me back to those mundane, boring secrets. The trick, I think, is that what makes them fascinating is not so much the secrets themselves as all the things and people around them. Consider that in a world before the printing press, every piece of data transmission is painstakingly handcrafted. The power of the secret is as a thread that ties people together, specifically the people who are smart and driven enough to be really interested in this stuff. As with so many things, the really cool things can be found in the people.
Still, while that provides some motivation for more real secrets, I’m not sure that provides much in the way of guidance for making them any more playable. But what it does suggest to me is that maybe it’s worth the extra work.
 – Ok, there’s one solution: have Ken Hite at your game table.
James Wallis said his conceptual breakthrough in Baron Munchausen was the realization that the adventures in Munchausen’s stories are never shown actually happening, but are instead being recounted by the Baron in retrospect. That led James quickly to the design approach of having the players tell their stories to one another.
The “lost/secret knowledge” idea essentially amounts to “Think how much cooler those people really were than we had previously understood.” So one game approach would be to have players establish a line of ancestors and cultures. Then players earn modern-day glory or reputation by rediscovering the lost illustrious deeds of their forebears. And if you can uncover some previously unsuspected common thread that unites disparate antecedents, that’s worth more glory.
In my old fantasy campaign we had a player that was interested in how magic worked. A purely scientific curiosity into the secrets of the universe. Now this curiosity might have been satisfied by my imply designing a philosophical framework for magic, and then spieling off the appropriate answers, but instead he constructed magical experiments, and only asked me what the result of each individual experiment was. Each experiment was well reasoned to test a specific theory, so it was reasonably easy to provide an answer to this question without actually my having anything more than a vague initial idea of how magic worked (in the sense that it was more focused about “magical thinking” and “fundamental natures”). Eventually, after several game-lifetimes of experimentation, he had developed a working philosophy and laws of magic that I still use today.
I think that is the benefit of secrets in RPGs. They are much better when know one, including the GM, really knows the actual answer to the secret ahead of time, but rather that they should be assembled by the evidence that comes to light (and, if that evidence is contraindicatory, so much the better, as it promotes attempts to either rationalise the apparent complexity or discount part of the evidence).
[Of course, in a conspiracy style game you shouldn’t let the players know that you are doing this as it relies on a strong positive feedback loop to function correctly.]
Yeah, having Ken Hite at your table solves most things.
The problem I’ve had with using real (or real-ish) secrets as motivation for NPCs and PC-attracting intrigue is that player buy-in evaporates once it’s learned that What’s In The Briefcase is… Well, is *not* the Overthruster or Marcellus’ soul or what have you.
Some recent experience with trying to create fantasy academia in a live-action game has brought me to the conclusion that really a lot of the fun is in the size and shape of the hurdles you set in front of the PC researchers, and in how you embroider the explanation of those hurdles once the PCs pass them by. I think the PCs have really enjoyed quick descriptions of finding that one rune they’re looking for, embossed in the cracked leather of an ancient tome. In keeping with your point here, there have also been many references to the foibles and academic shenanigans of previous generations of monks and archivists; though I can’t measure this objectively, the feedback from the playerbase on this has been quite positive so far. While a lot of the secrets players have been researching are new spells or the mechanical functions of the magic system, there are also many research projects aimed at solving significant world mysteries.
I’ve been using the “Lost Secrets of the World” in a manner ripped wholesale from Planetary, the idea being that as the characters see what’s been purposely hidden or destroyed, their anger toward the antagonists responsible grows.