19
May

How to Write and Reveal Story Secrets

Stories of discovery revolve around uncovering secrets. If you’re having trouble building secrets for your tales of adventure, follow this checklist:

  1. What is the secret?
  2. Why is this information a secret?
  3. Hook: How do the Players get pulled into the investigation?
  4. Who knows the secret and what are they willing to do to keep it?
  5. How are you teasing the secret?
  6. What do the Players think is going on?
  7. Reveal: How will they find out the truth and how is this dangerous?
  8. Reaction: How might the Players and others react to the revelation?
  9. How does the revelation change people and the rest of the story?
  10. Re-Write: What do you need to edit to make the reveal even better?

1. What is the secret?

It can be anything from a buried treasure to a hidden relationship to a forgotten civilization. What is it and why does it have value as a secret? What would someone gain by knowing the truth? Imposters, con artists, amnesiacs, and spies – everybody has something they want to keep confidential. Think up a secret and then build a plotline around it.

 

 

Obsidian Portal features a “GM Only” section on each of your pages to keep track of secrets that only the GM can see.

 

 

 

2. Why is this information secret?

Some secrets are kept because someone feels like they need to be kept. What motivation is behind your secret? Guilt? Embarrassment? Greed? Fear? Is there something dangerous for the secret-keeper (or someone else) if this gets out? What about accidental secrets – information that was lost simply because all the people who knew about it are gone?

3. Hook: How do the Players get pulled into the investigation?

Natural curiosity may be enough for some Players to look into things more deeply, but others may need to be hooked into the plot. How are you getting their attention and why should they care? Is one of the Player’s invested in a person, place, or cause related to this secret? Does finding out the truth impact one of their goals?

Ascendant campaigns have a feature called Wish Lists and Goals – a section to list the wants, needs, and aspirations for each character – the perfect place to look for possible hooks.

4. Who knows the secret and what are they willing to do to keep it?

Make a list of anyone who knows the truth and how they feel about it. Are they content with their knowledge or does it eat away at them? Do they even know the information is important at all? If they do, are they willing to part with it, and at what price? Some secrets might be worth killing for, for some people.

A “GM Only” character is a persona that only the GM can see. Created ahead of time and completely hidden from Players, they can appear suddenly with the click of the mouse.

 

5. How are you teasing the secret?

Subtle hints, foreshadowing, symbolism, and clues (often hiding in plain sight) are essential for a big reveal. A sudden appearance with no build-up is a frustrating gotcha!, not a clever plot twist. But if you’re too blatant with your clues, your Players might see right through the ruse and spoil the surprise. The goal is for them to know something is up, but only put it all together at the climactic moment or just after the reveal.

Create a new folder in your Media Library and check the “GM Only” checkbox to hide its contents from your Players until you’re ready for the big reveal.

 

 

6. What do the Players think is going on?

Your Players only know what you tell them – everything else is just a guess. So, controlling that flow of information (and the pace of clues) will determine their capacity to figure out the secret. So, withhold as much information as you need, leave things open to misinterpretation, and misdirect or distract from the truth with some other pressing matter (like combat). You can use unreliable narrators, red herrings, dead ends, and lying NPC’s to throw them off the scent when you need to, but be logical and play fair – a brilliant Player who solves the mystery too early just means you need to write a better twist next time! And don’t forget that some NPC’s might rather that character keep silent about what they’ve discovered. Maybe permanently silent.

If you have an Ascendant account, you have access to “Player Secrets” – a secret note section that you can share with one or more Players, as needed. For mystery games, this is a must-have.

 

7. Reveal: How will they find out the truth and how is this dangerous?

It’s time to reveal the truth. The “aha!” moment. Set the scene, assemble the suspects, and pull off the mask. You can feed them the final clue – a puzzle piece that reveals the whole picture at last. You can dole out the evidence until they logically land on the right conclusion. Or, you can have them bear witness, first hand, to the proof they need.

You can make an “Entire Page GM Only?” with this checkbox, so that when you’re ready to unveil the secret, you can click a single button and raise the curtain – exposing entire pages at a time.

 

8. React: How might the Players and others react to the revelation?

Now that they know what’s real and what isn’t, how will the Player’s use this new knowledge? Will they spread the news far and wide, use the secret to save the day, or go on a quest of revenge against those who misled them? You can plan for their reactions, but you’ll also need to be prepared for the unexpected.

Ascendant members have access to “Private Characters,” which hide everything except the Quick Description and Bio. Only the GM, co-GM, and owner-Player can see the rest. If one of your Player’s has a secret in their own backstory, this is the perfect way to conceal it.

 

9. How does the revelation change people and the rest of the story?

In some cases, revealing a big secret is the climax of the story – it solves the problem at hand, simply by being uncovered. In others, it sets up a new conflict or a complication to an ongoing plot. Perhaps this twist is only the first in a series of turns. But the big questions to answer are: How is this revelation vital to the story as a whole? How does the world change? How will it change the characters involved? Who gets hurt when the truth comes out and what do they do about it?

10. Re-Write: What do you need to edit to make the reveal even better?

Now that you have the secret and revelation planned, go back. What do you need to add, alter, edit, or remove to make it better? More hints? More subtlety? Faster pace or slower burn? Can you spin off this twist into a new subplot? Ask yourself if the secret was worth knowing about – why would it have been useful to know all along? And if it still feels a little off, can you change it entirely? Try writing the same secret about another character or event. Examine what would happen if you flipped the script and made the truth the lie. And remember to re-read everything from the perspective of the characters in the story and the Players at the table. What can they deduce based on what you’ve given them and will they enjoy it?


Example Secret – The Phantom Army

To illustrate the idea, we will construct a secret, following the steps above. As you read, look for ways you would change the scenario and the details to make it fit your own stories.

What is the secret?

The Rebel Army is actually much smaller than anyone suspects. Reports indicate that they number in the tens of thousands, but this is a lie. They are actually only about one-thousand strong. Clever tricks and careful control of information have hidden the truth from nearly everyone, including the rebels themselves.

Why is this information a secret?

The Rebel Army opposes The Gilded Empire – a significantly stronger foe. In order to survive, the smaller force has used propaganda, battlefield tricks, and clever intelligence operations to create a phantom force far larger than they actually are. If the Empire discovered this, they would concentrate all their force and wipe out the Rebels, instead of spreading their defenses thin in anticipation of wide-spread attacks. The Rebel Army itself is also largely unaware and might give up if they knew how outnumbered they truly were.

Hook: How do the Players get pulled into the investigation?

Major Vultus, an officer within the Rebel Army, suspects something strange is going on, but has no proof. When he asks about troop numbers and dispositions, he is politely rebuffed or forced to wait for answers. He worries that he will risk his command position if he crosses the line. Vultus wants the Players to quietly help find out more.

Who knows the secret and what are they willing to do to keep it?

Only one woman knows the full truth – Colonel Mendax. She is secretly the leader of The Rebel Army, but pretends to receive secret, coded messages from various higher-ranking Brigadiers, Generals, phantom brigades, and distant supporters. Originally, she did this to avoid being targeted by Imperial assassins, but saw the benefits of continuing the lie as her cause grew in size and effectiveness. She will do almost anything to silence the truth, but has not had to resort to murdering an ally.

How are you teasing the secret?

Mendax always acts very “diplomatically” – spinning truth into whatever her troops need to hear most. She instills in her officers the need to put on every display of strength they can and is fixated on the appearance of her people: their uniforms, flags, and even grooming. She uses spies and double-agents to wage psychological warfare on her enemies – tactical tricks and feints are always her first choice in battle. Players who investigate the coded messages will be unable to decipher the codes – they are gibberish. Careful detective work could reveal Colonel Mendax’s past and find a history of lies, including that the names of the Rebel leadership all match family members, childhood friends, and pets. Evidence of phantom Rebel activity will always be planted or ephemeral and reports will contain small mistakes that may give away the lie – impossible marching distances or mis-matched dates of battlefield activity.

What do the Players think is going on?

If the Players get too close, Mendax will do her best to throw them off the trail by hinting that she suspects a mole. She will blame any strangeness on her attempts to root them out. She will go so far as to send the Players on a wild goose chase and may even sacrifice one of her own officers to protect The Phantom Army secret. As pressure builds, she will have to try more desperate lies to keep everything from coming out and may plant false evidence against one of the Players or stoke discord between them to split them up. If the Players are moving too quickly and you want to slow down the investigation, throw in some complications – battle interruptions, false leads, or even an actual mole that nobody knew about.

Reveal: How will they find out the truth and how is this dangerous?

At a climactic moment, Colonel Mendax will read an uncoded message to the assembled officers, sent from the highest ranking member of The Rebel Army who is many leagues away. It will accuse one of the Players (the one she fears most) of working for The Empire and order their immediate arrest. False evidence may be produced or some of the Player’s own actions may be turned against them if they can be argued to be behaving like a spy. If she has seen any rift between the Players, she will try to exploit it. And, if there’s an actual mole (or moles), Mendax will reveal this and try to associate them. Perhaps she has even turned Vultus to her side with some version of the real truth and the party can be betrayed on two fronts. The Players may face imprisonment or death if they resist!

React: How might the Players and others react to the revelation?

Several things may happen, next. A battle for freedom, an arrest followed by a tense breakout scenario, or the Players might believe the lie against their friend (or pretend to in order to avoid bloodshed). They could confront Mendax with the evidence of the truth in front of all of her officers, causing a break into factions and a fight unless she is able to explain it away as the work of the Imperial mole or spin it around until the evidence points at one of them. Or, they might find a way to talk to her in private, where she could perhaps be willing to divulge her motives if they pressed her – or, she might try to silence them some other way. Alternately, the Players might find unexpected help from an Imperial mole, a friendly soldier they helped along the way, or even Vultus who knows enough to know that what’s happening is wrong.

How does the revelation change people and the rest of the story?

Colonel Mendax can try to save her rebellion as long as she can contain the spread of the truth. If only her officers know, she might be able to bring them in on the secret and swear them to silence, even though this is a risk. But they also might turn on her, violently, if they feel she risked lives for a lie. If the secret of The Phantom Army gets out to the rest of the Rebels, morale will begin to fall apart and many will leave. And if the news reaches The Empire, they will be hunted. Major Vultus would stop his investigation if he knew the truth – he has no interest in destroying the cause. The Players may try to cover things up once they know, they may wish to take over and get rid of the disgraced Colonel, or they may want The Empire to learn about the secret and win, depending on their motivations. If the Rebels fall, there will be no one left to oppose the Empire.

Re-Write: What do you need to edit to make the reveal even better?

Once the scaffolding of The Phantom Army secret is in place, it’s time to go back and add details. Plan out the movements and actions of The Phantom Army. Figure out how Colonel Mendax is planting her propaganda and false reports among the populace and add more clues to the mystery related to that aspect. What about the coded messages? How is she sending and receiving them and why don’t the couriers know the truth? Are they in on the scheme or has she set up deliveries in such a way that no one messenger knows the full route? Detail some ways the Players could find out about the Colonel’s past and the history of the rebellion. Throw in some other clues that she likes secrets – hidden weapons on her person, secret compartments in her tent, and military hand signals for communication. Draw some paper props to represent the gibberish codes and have some maps ready for plotting out the movements of the imaginary forces.

Also, consider the alternatives. Would this secret be better in reverse? A large Rebel force that pretends to be tiny in order to draw Imperial forces into overwhelming traps is another great reason to keep your troop numbers hidden. Perhaps they all bear the same flags and use the same code-names for their units. Maybe their maneuvers are carefully organized so they never appear in the same region at the same time. Perhaps Colonel Mendax needs the Players to spread the lie to trick Vultus who is a mole, after all. Or maybe, the Players are double-agents, Mendax knows, and the whole thing is a setup to get false news to the Imperial commanders.

The sky is the limit with secrets like these! Have fun!

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