Thursday, March 25, 2010

Keeping Secrets

I seem to be crazy sick, so just a short one today.

I raised a question on Twitter, and while I also answered it, I got some very good answers as well. Good enough that I want to re-iterate it here to see what people have to add.

The question is, if your game's setting has a secret war, what keeps it secret?

One option is that reality basically rewrites itself to make everything normal. Feng Shui's critical shifts, as well as Scion's shroud serve this purpose.

Another is that there are consequences to revealing the secret. Those might be metaphysical (like Paradox, in mage), personal (the crowd-effect in Witchcraft, or a system where the secret is more painful or weak the more public it is.)

Yet another is that the secret has some intrinsic quality, such as it is more powerful as fewer people know it (I really dig this one since it suggests a sort of espionage/highlander model) or there is something toxic about the knowledge (a la Esoterrorists).

The conflicts of the secret war might happen at a remove, such as in another world (The Matrix is a good example here) or a dreamscape.

It might be an active conspiracy by someone higher up the food chain - aliens, the Men in Black or the strangers from Dark City - who actively maintain normalcy. These often end up being the big bad of such a setting, but that's not such a bad thing. As a variant, an oppressive regime could control the flow of information to keep things hidden. It might even be reasonably benign, a la the Truman Show.

It could be that everyone is already in on the secret, but playing along. This could be anything from full bore paranoia to a local thing (epitomized by Shingu: Secret of the Stellar Wars) or played up for comedy.[1]

And, of course, there's simple disbelief. I've always been a little skeptical of this one, but as I was doing research for The Dresden Files I discovered just how many people in America and the world genuinely believe in the supernatural (magic, angels, vampires - the works). And not just casually - they fervently believe this stuff and talk it up, and we generally just dismiss it as crazy. I still think it's a little thin if buildings start blowing up, but the tendency to disbelieve and mock that which is different could definitely help someone looking to keep a big secret.

Anyway, I'm turning these over in my head, for reasons I won't really be able to think about until May at the earliest, and I;m curious if there are any other models I've missed.

1 - This, BTW, introduced me to my favorite new word of the moment, Mokita. It means "The truth everyone knows but no one talks about" (via @WeaverChilde)


  1. This is a topic near and dear to me, because I always struggle with the cosmology in modern games. I always feel like modern settings are antithetical to RPG gameplay in some ways. I've played a lot of World of Darkness as well as a little-known game called Immortal - The Invisible War (if you can find a 1st Edition copy of that, KEEP IT, or GIVE IT TO ME) and the hardest part for me is letting the Players do fun and disruptive things, while keeping the consequences present but not game breaking - without having a fluent understanding of police procedures and the other nuances of the infrastructure of modern society.

    Setting a game in modern times requires structures that have the flexibility to absorb the players antics without deconstructing what makes the modern world, the modern world, but there also needs to be enough rigidity that players can see the dents they make. That balance is tough and I admit I've not found the sweet spot yet.

  2. The reverse of having consequences for revealing the secret are that there are advantages for secrecy. It's a powerful protection when people don't know who to strike out at. It's even doubly powerful if you get to someone in the organization and even they don't know who else is involved.
    Granted, there are all sorts of issues with keeping that level of secrecy, from never knowing who to trust to disemminating orders. However, there are several real world organizations that have done this (if stories are to be believed), along with a bunch of fictional organizations.

  3. Denial is a powerful force, man. I'm pretty comfortable with the DF rationale for that. Sometimes secrets stay secret because of human psychology.

  4. There is also the companion to disbelief, in that the knowledge itself is incompatible with human understanding. Sane people just shut down in the presence of the unnatural, and then rationalize what happened after the fact, even if the rationalizations don't quite make sense. Think mass group hysteria. We've evolved to ignore such things because the ancestors that couldn't, usually didn't get to pass their genes onto anyone else.

    Which leaves the exploration of the secret war to the insane and unsane.

    Kult's paradigm was always fun, in that the lack of knowledge was the very prison keeping us from realising the true nature of ourselves and reality.

    [And investment in a movie studio is always a good idea if you want to keep something big a secret. "Oh look, they're shooting that new monster movie downtown again!" And sometimes you can even make a profit doing so, despite allegations of crappy SFX. <grin>]

  5. Like Helmsman, this is one of my favorite topics. One I like to play in the modern era. Two, I fight my players with the issue of secrecy all the time. It only takes one weak link in the chain of secrets before it all comes apart and exposure begins. One cell phone in the right place, one street corner traffic camera, or one hot headed sup trying to make a point to the world and the denials start and the hoax calling. But eventually, someone in the government (or religious institution) will catch wind and they will have to contain or bring credence. And lets face it, I can only wish my government was competent enough to pull off what is needed to keep such a conspiracy from the public. So disbelief is the one option that I can not truly accept... though I have plenty of room to see it from the other lens, people (as a whole) are dumb sheep and can be fooled (by others sure, but more likely their own delusions) to believe the fantastical.

    I have found that with my players, there has to be a metaphysical force, like Arcane in Mage to hide the traces... otherwise, I get little sociopaths killing every witness and going to OCD-induced lengths to ensure everything is back to normal. This can be fun to watch (especially if the reveal is that they were wrong and there is no such thing as the supernatural), but after of a couple of games it gets old quick to listen to their laundry list of checks and balances. So I am left with either hand waving the issue away and denying a great plot hook of them exposing themselves or get bogged down in the minutia.

    Lately, I have opted for worlds were it was just recently outted a la The Hollows by Kim Harrison

  6. Another option is to layer your secret wars under conflicts that the public does perceive. This is similiar to the monster movie idea, but can get into more serious areas. The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan or even the War on Terror could be the public venues for a secret war. Also there is always the myrid conflicts in Africa. Or you could go on the lighter side and have Coke vs. Pepsi have deeper meaning.

    Games like Noblis would easily have this type of effect, but it could work for less power-filled games as well.


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