How to Hide Secrets in a RPG
When we play video games in a huge, interactable world, it can be such an awesome feeling when we find a secret tucked away behind something that exists just off of the beaten path. When we notice that that one tree in Breath of the Wild is slightly different and we go to investigate and find a Korok Seed hidden amongst the branches, it’s exciting!
This article was inspired by a conversation between The Angry GM and Fiddleback on their Digressions & Dragons podcast. Discussion starts at 00:50:40.
The reason that finding those small secrets is such a reward for a player, and causes them to keep investigating everything weird, is because of three things:
It costs us time to leave the main plot behind and start searching the side areas, and you are rewarded for that. It’s a cost/benefit of: If I spend time on this instead of the main plot, I want that excitement of finding something.
It’s not always a given that we will be rewarded when we investigate something odd, and sometimes it can be dangerous to do so. This creates suspense for us as players, and is what helps draw us in. If there is no danger, than the excitement of doing something is diminished, even if there is a reward involved.
We are being rewarded for paying attention to the game. This really helps make the world feel alive to us and works on our fear of missing out on something. This in turn pulls us deeper into the game.
Now… how do we translate those three rules to an RPG when any discrepancy that the GM utters is immediately remarked upon by the players and it costs them almost nothing to ask about that different thing. How can we create a system where our players are given all the information they need about the world without giving away a secret, while still rewarding the players that pay close attention to the details of our world?
Hiding in Plain Sight
Before we truly begin, let me paint you a picture of a room in an old mansion, filled with dust and mystery:
You enter a dark and dreary room with old fabric curtains slowly being eaten by moths. The dark wood floors are coated in a line of dust and a fireplace, long gone cold, is still full of ash from past fires. Hanging on the walls are three pictures of stern looking women, evenly spaced out except for the last two which seems to be missing a picture in between them. The furniture has been covered in old white cloths and are tucked to the sides of the room, and the smell of age lingers heavily in the room.
The obvious question that will jump to everyone’s mind is: Why is there a missing picture frame from the wall? Some people may go check it out while others might investigate the room, searching for it. As the GM, you know that there is a secret in this room, but it’s so cleverly hidden that it won’t be found out until the players retrieve that missing fourth picture of a stern looking woman and rehang it on the wall. This gives them a small task that they can choose to pursue or not.
After your players finish investigating the room and don’t find the missing picture, some may immediately forget about it and continue on with the session without a second thought. The more quizzical players may be bothered that there is a secret that they haven’t figured out and will be on the lookout for that missing picture, which will get slipped in later in that session.
We want a separation of the secret and it’s solution to be a few hours to a session or two, any longer and your players are less likely to remember it. This separation is where we draw on our Point 3, rewarding those who pay attention to the game. If we immediately had the solution in the same or next room, than it doesn’t cost them anything to go back and hang that picture to find a secret and it’s not a huge reward for the party to remember that picture for a few minutes. Part of the reward is not the mechanical benefit they recieve, but the joy of remembering a small detail and getting praise from the party.
On a side note, if a solution spans a session or two, than the reward should be greater than if it was only a few hours of separation from secret to solution. The longer it takes them to find the solution, than the reward should grow in equal scale. Nothing is worse than opening a secret compartment after two sessions of being on the lookout for a solution for it to only have a gold piece.
Sweet, Sweet Rewards
So your players find that picture frame of a stern looking women gathering dust in a box located in the attic, and they bring it back to that dreary room and hang it on the wall. The machinations that were hidden in the wall start grinding and a wood panel rises an inch from the ground, enticing them to open it. They go over, pull it open and find… well, it depends.
What they find is largely dependent on what they are doing and your game, it could be a small bag of gems, a letter to a forbidden love or even nothing. Yup, that’s right. Nothing is an option. Going back to Point 2, sometimes the real treasure is the friends we made along the w-… er, I mean the real treasure is experiencing a living world.
The world is constantly shifting around them, and if they always find a Potion of Healing or a sack of gold, then they will start treating the game more like a game, and that becomes an issue as the world stops being real. The world isn’t something that always goes there way, sometimes there is opposition. We want them to be aware of the world they are in and not expecting a supply drop whenever they need it just because things are getting rough. We are trying to establish a sense of realism for our players, whether they like it or not. Of course if that’s not your game style, you are free to do as you wish.
Looking back at Point 2, we haven’t talked about the danger. That’s right, sometimes the real treasure wasn’t the friends we made but the poison dart to the face they are about to receive. This keeps them on their toes and, combined with sometimes finding nothing, will create a greater sense of thrill when they uncover actual treasure. The danger shouldn’t be a character killing device, but rather something that can start draining resources from the party during their adventuring day.
A poison dart that gives them the Poison condition for 10 minutes to releasing an angry spirit that should’ve been left alone in that one book they found, danger lurks at every corner, and should give your players a moment of pause when they wonder if this secret compartment will be a boon or a bane. It provides a sense of thrill!
Keeping it Secret
When your table is playing your game, and going through your fantastic story, they should always remember that the world around them is interactable. An interactable world has hidden secrets and small side quests to help break up the monotony of the main story, not every session has to be about saving the world.
Here are a few more examples of secrets you can sprinkle into your game:
Three golden statues of monkeys rest on top of stone pillars, each monkey has its paws out as it to hold something. Two of them hold a golden apple, but the one in the center doesn’t. Finding the missing apple reveals a hidden trapdoor beneath the golden monkey statue where a book of lore can be found.
A smoking chair sits in front of a fireplace at an angle, as if there is supposed to be a second smoking chair opposite it. Any attempt at moving the smoking chair is halted as the legs are stuck to the floor. Finding the second chair and putting it opposite of the first one, you hear a clicking noise as the chair pushes on the wood floor in four specific points and a brick on the fireplace pops out. Inside, a small poisoned dart is ready to spring out on the first person to pull out the brick.
A row of books line a bookshelf, all with blue spines covered in dust, there is a book with a red spine that looks to have been shoved in between the other books. Finding another blue book and placing it in the spot of the red book causes the bookshelf to swing forward, revealing a secret alchemical lab in the mansion.