Tactics and Tips02/27/2007

I Have a Secret

DM: I need to talk to you away from the table . . . and bring your character sheet.

One of the tensest moments in any D&D session comes when the DM takes a player aside for a one-on-one chat about something that has just happened in the game. Whether the conversational equivalent of a passed note describing the horrific creature he has spotted in the shadows or a lengthy discussion about the ghostly spirit that just possessed him, the very concept of a secret shared between the DM and a single player puts everyone else on the table at edge.

What's going on?

What does he know that we don't?

And what are the rest of us going to do about it?

In most D&D games, the players sitting around the table share a basic assumption -- that everything occurring within the game is known by everyone in the adventuring party -- which creates a bond of trust.

When one player gains knowledge that isn't shared with the others, it creates a situation of inequality, which in turn can foster emotions among the other players ranging from suspicion to jealousy to outright anger.

This month, our siblings discuss how best to handle the situation from both sides of the screen.

Andy: Okay, you've finished looting the Ruined Shrine of Set and made your way back to the city of Sigil. Greg, I need to talk to you away from the table . . . and bring your character sheet.

Greg: Ummm, okay.

There's not much else for a player to say at that point, other than "do I need to bring 4d6 with me?" In this case, I was playing Suleidan Kithkani , a corsair-turned-slave-turned-wealthy-merchant-turned-mercenary in Sigil. He and his fellow Taskmasters (our mercenary guild) had ransacked the temple, and he had picked up a magic flail that looked like a fine trophy. While it certainly could be used in combat, Suleidan was so skilled with his cutlass that he'd only turn to it as a last resort.

Or so it seemed . . .

The flail held a curse, slowly changing Suleidan. Unlike a possession or doppelganger encounter that often last only one or two gaming sessions, Andy had set this one up to be played out over the course of months. I had a secret, and it was one that I could have a lot of fun with.

Thinking back on the Taskmasters, Suleidan was easily the most normal of the group. The minotaur was a doomguard bent on destruction, the enchanter started bleeding every time he cast a spell, the ogre mage's combined Wisdom and Charisma barely hit double-digits, and the githzerai rogue was so revenge-driven that he once stole 50,000 gp from the party because we didn't raise him from the dead fast enough.

That being said, Suleidan and his relatively calm Society of Sensation demeanor was headed for new territory.

Andy: Looking back now, I don't recall exactly why a cursed weapon designed to change its owner's alignment to lawful evil showed up in the game. Was it an attempt by me to introduce a significant new plot thread into the game, or was it just one of those old-school things that most groups dealt with quickly and moved on? (For that matter, was it something I chose to use or just an element of some published adventure I was using? I flat-out don't remember.)

In any of my earlier campaigns, such an item would likely have been no more than a minor event that came up, was dealt with, and then forgotten. Anyone raised on classic dungeon-crawling 1st Edition D&D campaigns is likely all-too-familiar with cursed magic items, and these veterans quickly learned to view them as annoyances to be identified and overcome post-haste.

But this wasn't a grade-school or even a high-school campaign; this was a character-driven Planescape campaign, the first D&D campaign our group had played as adults. While it didn't involve as much whole-cloth world creation as my later campaigns (Bloodlines and Umber), as you can see from Greg's description above, every character in the game was loaded with personal and mechanical quirks. This was an unusual collection of oddballs, and everyone in the group embraced that wholeheartedly.

So when Suleidan started redecorating his manor (which also served as Taskmaster HQ) using a serpent motif, I guess nobody really thought that anything unusual was at play.

Greg: Suleidan was crafted as a pretty straight-forward chaotic good, so transitioning to the diametrically opposed lawful evil was a big shift. A scoundrel with a good heart, Suleidan's means to his mercenary ends became much more deliberate as the curse set in. But he couldn't just start killing innocents to feed the serpent god's curse -- this was going to take time (which fit well with the new LE Suleidan, who could now put some serious machinations into his plans of advancement and revenge).

Andy: The single most important thing for a DM to keep in mind when a player is privy to a secret is to keep the game fair to everyone involved. Just as it's not fair when one character has access to more power than others, it's equally unfair to let one player have extra fun at the rest of the group's expense.

At its heart, D&D functions best as a cooperative activity between the players who are working together toward a shared goal. Normally, the DM serves as a more-or-less neutral arbiter, describing the situations and adjudicating the outcomes of player decisions. But when one character's goals become at odds with the rest of the group, the DM must take a more active role in ensuring a fun, fair time for all.

Exactly how to accomplish that goal varies dramatically by the situation. When one of the characters becomes possessed by a ghost, make sure that the ghost's goals don't directly oppose the group's, so that they can cooperate on some tasks while simultaneously looking for the best way to free their comrade. When the ruler of the elven kingdom orders the lone elf in the party to leave the service of the human government with which the party works, make sure to leave the party a way out of the untenable situation (perhaps by performing a big favor for the elves).

In Suleidan's case, it would have been easy for Greg to take advantage of the rest of the group's lack of knowledge about his "condition." He could have secretly withheld assistance during key encounters or sabotaged the group's ability to succeed on missions, falling back on the excuse of "well, I'm just playing my new alignment."

Greg: Just because my character is evil doesn't mean I want to slaughter my party. They're a means to an end -- it's a lot of work recruiting a group of grunts, and why would Suleidan waste time doing that when he has perfectly good damage sponges already living in his manor?

Andy: But as much fun as that might have been for Greg, it wouldn't have been fair to the rest of the players. Just because Greg had access to a secret doesn't make the rest of the players second-class participants in the game. As DM, I had to balance the new personality I'd thrust upon this character with the necessity of ensuring that everyone felt equally involved and invested in the campaign.

In this case, Greg and I realized that the change would be gradual but would involve clues that canny party members could recognize. Most importantly, though, we decided that the new alignment and personality wouldn't significantly change his contributions within a given adventure. During the average combat, he was the same old Suleidan . . . mostly.

Greg: Months passed, and the new Suleidan began to show through. He took the group on a journey to a distant world so he could get enchanted with arm-length serpent tattoos that would animate themselves to deflect enemies' attacks. The flail became his regular weapon -- clearly a sub-optimal game choice since he was so skilled in the cutlass, but what was I to say? I was cursed, and I wasn't holding back. To pull off the secret, I couldn't just make the changes in roleplaying terms. I had to make the entirety of the character embrace his new self.

The other PCs didn't really notice much at first. The frail wizard Yrl saw an ally who was a little quicker with the kills, and to his order-driven mind Suleidan was a more effective leader. Dawthdun and Tai didn't care much -- they just wanted to be pointed at ways to make more gold and/or blow stuff up. Kur'lakk had some doubts, as did Slumber, the priest of Thoth. But the money was still flowing, so what was a mercenary band to do other than follow its leader?

Andy: And follow him they did . . . until the fateful day that Suleidan, his loyal bodyguard Ankus (blissfully unaware of his master's new personality), and a few of the Taskmasters found themselves the prisoners of a great skeletal dragon lairing deep in the Gray Waste of Hades.

The characters had invaded its home and attacked its servants. What compensation were they prepared to offer in exchange for this indignity (and their lives)?

Greg: When a villain asks the party "what will you give me to let you go?" usually a long, heated discussion ensues. "Can I give up my best magic weapon? What about that ring you have? How much gold do we have on us?" Blah blah blah.

Not this time. Without hesitating, Suleidan pointed to Ankus and said, "Him."

The other players were shocked. Before any of them could react, the dracolich had its lunch and we were on our way back to Sigil. What surprised me most of all was how instinctive the decision was. I hadn't schemed to sacrifice Ankus (or any other party member) . . . it just came to me, in one of those perfect roleplaying moments. And Suleidan's secret was most certainly out of the bag.

Andy: Now it was time for the other players to start initiating "away-from-the-table" discussions with me. They started asking questions, and I answered them as honestly as I could . . . within the reasonable limits of their characters' knowledge and awareness. It's not like plenty of facts weren't out there in plain sight, so it didn't take them long to figure out that this wasn't the same Suleidan they remembered.

By the time the next session rolled around, the rest of the Taskmasters had pegged the cause of the change and had also researched a potential solution. Of course, they had to leave their dear leader just a bit in the dark, so they concocted a fake job to locate and slay the Great Dragon of the Desert . . . coincidentally, on the same world where the cursed flail had been found. There was a kernel of truth to their story -- the dragon was indeed the object of the journey -- but it wasn't a hunt they had planned, but an artifact-destroying mission. They just hoped that the fragmentary tales they'd pieced together regarding the only means of destroying the tools of Set would work . . . and that enough of Suleidan's mind (and body) would survive the ordeal.

In my mind, this was a perfect turnaround. The original secret-keeper was now the one who didn't have all the information, and those who'd been played like suckers could have their moment in the sun. The disempowered now became empowered, and they used that opportunity to right the ship of the campaign rather than further upset it.

Once again, as DM I had to play everything straight. Nobody got special treatment during the ensuing mission. And when those in the know watched the Great Dragon swallow up their comrade, flail and all, they knew they'd earned that victory. (The fact that they rescued their now-"purified" teammate from the dragon's belly moments later was well-deserved icing on the cake.)

Greg: Plus it provided the cool visual of a reborn Suleidan rising up out of the steaming carcass, body and spirit cleansed by the Great Dragon's essence. In a campaign of many memorable plane-spanning moments, this arc was one of the best. The secret had changed the party dynamics, challenged PCs in a new way, added cool bits to the storyline, and let everyone feel "in control" at various times.

So the next time your DM says "I need to talk to you alone," stifle that instinct to tear up your character sheet. Embrace the secret. Explore new roleplaying territory. Enjoy your hidden knowledge. And go easy on the hired help.

About the Author

By day, Andy Collins works as an RPG developer in Wizards of the Coast R&D. His development credits include the Player's Handbook v.3.5, Races of Eberron, and Dungeon Master's Guide II. By night, however, he fights crime as a masked vigilante. Or does he?

As a D&D player, Greg Collins has been taking whatever older brother Andy can dish out for more than 20 years. Recently he took a seat behind the screen to exact his revenge upon his brother for killing his first character by washing him down a flight of stairs. In his time spent away from D&D , Greg is the events producer for magicthegathering.com.

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