Badass Larp Talk #2: The Joy of Spilling Secrets
Let’s talk a moment about secrets.
Secrets are cool. Secrets are mysterious. Secrets are powerful. Lots of characters have secrets – in their backstories, in their relationships, sometimes even in their day-to-day lives. I have no doubt that, regardless of what town you call home, there are characters walking around whose closet skeletons could rip the community apart if they got loose. And that’s pretty damn awesome, no matter how you slice it. Here’s something else about secrets, though:
Hoarding them sucks.
One thing that I hate to hear, after a character dies or is retired, is the player declare “Nobody ever found out about X!”, which was some really cool character detail or vital piece of backstory that never made it into play. Or worse yet, the same declaration from a villain, talking about some really awesome detail the players never managed to dig up. What’s worse is that these declarations are often made proudly, like the player managed to hoodwink everyone else or something, when all I can think is: “Man, what a waste of all that dramatic potential.” Because that’s the thing with secrets in a game environment – at game, having a secret you never tell ANYONE is to good drama what masturbation is to good sex. As in technically there are similarities, and they’re both fun I guess, but really, I wouldn’t put them in the same league in pretty much any other way that counts.
“But my character wouldn’t confide in anyone!” some might cry. “Why would they tell anyone about their worst deeds or darkest moments?” To which I respond: BULLSHIT. In my regular life I tell my closest friends lots of things, including dark secrets and weak moments, and we haven’t even suffered through a zombie apocalypse together, much less your everyday dungeon crawl or vampire society party. What the hell do you think the bond between friends in that sort of harsh world would be like, where literally any moment might be your last? That kind of stress needs a release, and guess what, that release is pretty much always someone else, whether it’s a friend, a lover, a bartender or a battle brother. Even the most hardened, jaded, cynical characters I’ve seen have at least one buddy they hang around with, and most of them have a whole gang. Sooner or later, something’s going to come out. Everyone is still human, and humans are social creatures. We can’t help it. Even when we know it’s dangerous to share a secret – hell, sometimes especially because it’s dangerous – we have to share because the sharing validates something about us, brings others closer and lets us share a bit of the strain of carrying it.+
And if you’re still thinking, “But! But! But my character is a Lone Wolf who rides alone, wolfishly! He doesn’t need anyone and never gets close to anyone and can’t trust anyone but himself and his sweet Desert Eagle/katana gunblade that he made from the melted metal of his old village and the ashes of his family”, well, I’ve got a whole other speech about what’s wrong with total lone wolves in gaming, especiallyLARP. We’ll save it for another time, though. (Short version: Playing a genuine, absolute loner in a social gaming environment is a bad strategy vis a vis entertainment, and I mean yours and everyone else’s at the game.)
Also, just for the record? Sharing a secret is awesome for drama. Previously you had all the power over this knowledge, which is safe but boring. But now? Someone else has a key to your skeleton closet, and even if you’re super BFFs, now there’s always the chance that they’ll slip and let it out, or be captured and interrogated, or turn against you, or any number of other things. And guess what? That excitement, that tension, is likely far cooler and has far more potential to entertain you than sitting on that secret alone would have been. It also adds a great power dynamic to your relationship that you didn’t have before, not to mention possibly inspire you to get some dirt on them too – you know, just in case.
I should add that I’m not just talking about sharing dangerous secrets either, though that’s what I’ve focused on so far. I’m also talking about things like backstory, inner thoughts and relationship dynamics. So many characters have rich, detailed inner lives that nobody else ever gets to know about, because the player never shares it. For some people, that’s fine – they like being the only one to know certain things about their character, and hey, it IS their character. So if it works for them, great. But for those of you that spend so much time and energy writing those backstories and developing those in-game relationships, I urge you with all my heart: Get it out there! Let other people know about it! Even if it’s just a little bit, you’d be amazed how it changes the way you play; when whole games start doing it, a whole new level of story, trust and betrayal opens up that will blow your mind.
Let me be clear, I’m not saying that there is no place for FOIG (Find Out In Game). There is. After all, you probably would tell your best friend what you got them for the holidays if they really REALLY wanted to know, but generally speaking it’s more fun for both of you to surprise them, otherwise you wind up with a pretty dull present exchange down the road. Game secrets can be the same way – sure, I would probably tell you what Doc Rowe, my Dystopia Rising character, been plotting to do to the rest of the town since taking his first death drove him a little bit crazy, but that wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as finding out when it happens. (Especially for you DR players who will find out about it when the first symptoms begin to surface.) And I’m not saying there won’t be repercussions for sharing certain things either – if your character is in a secret assassin’s guild, for instance, and decides to start posting the names of members around town, you can bet there will be some retaliation, and quickly. Some secrets really are best kept that way, at least for a while, in order to preserve mystery, paranoia and tension. It’s sitting on them forever that’s the real problem.
I’m also certainly not saying that meta-gaming – using out of character knowledge in-game, like using diner conversation after an event to prompt an in-game response your characters would have no reason to carry out otherwise – is acceptable either. Not only is it against the rules, but it’s also what holds a lot of players back from doing this in the first place – they worry that other people will use what they learn out of game against them in game. There not much else to say about it except that it’s poor form, it’s poor sportsmanship, and poor drama besides. It’s not even like cheating at a video game, it’s like cheating at having lunch with your friends – it’s rude, you don’t win anything really and it makes little goddamn sense besides. Respect the divide between player and character, therefore, and just don’t metagame.
Last but not least, sometimes you just never get a chance to share a secret. Maybe your character dies before the right moment arises to reveal their love for that person they’ve been hopelessly taken with for ages; maybe they retire or are forced into exile before they ever get a chance to tell people about what they saw that terrible time during the war. That’s OK, too. That’s what they call “being true to the fiction” in the writing biz, which is another way to say that sometimes not everything goes the way characters plan, but so long as it makes sense in the context of the world it holds up. It’s its own special kind of drama, knowing that you waited just a little too long and now the chance passed you by for good. I call this the “Adama Effect”, and if you’re not familiar with why that title’s relevant, go and watch all of the new Battlestar Galactica. It’s cool – I’ll wait. (Seriously, it’s totally worth it.) OK, OK, for those without the time, let’s just say that – no spoilers – a major character waits the entire series to spill a very important secret, when he finally does, it’s literally seconds too late. The utter joy of the reveal and the utter devastation at the timing is one of the most effective instances of a secret reveal I’ve ever seen. The point is, though, that it was still revealed – just a few moments too late.
That said, I’m not asking you to go around telling other characters things you thought your character never would reveal – except maybe I am, a little bit. Whether it’s a little bit of personal history you’ve never shared, a motivation you never revealed, thoughts on a relationship your character was afraid to voice, or even a dangerous secret that might land you in a whole lot of trouble if I became widespread knowledge, I’m challenging you to find a way to share one secret thing about your character at the next game you play. And the game after that. And the game after that. Your character, telling another character. (None of this “I told them in the parking lot!” or “I whispered it while everyone was eating pizza, not my fault if no one heard” nonsense.) Not enough secrets, you say? That’s not a problem, really. Indeed, it’s challenge of its own – go and find some.
After all, the woods are lovely, dark and deep, my sweets.
Lovely, dark, and deep … and full of secrets too.
Badass LARP Talk is a semi-regular advice series for gamers who enjoy being other people as a hobby. Like what you read? Click on the BLT or Badass LARP Talk tag on this entry to find others in the series, follow me on Twitter @WriterPete, or subscribe to the blog for future updates!