Thursday, April 23, 2015

Breaking the Game II: The Secret Player

This is a really fun way to trick the rest of the party (while still maintaining player agency), and will instantly turn your next adventure into a thing of legend. Start by getting in touch with one of your players and ask them verbatim, “I got something cool planned for next adventure and want to know if you’re up for a role-playing challenge?” I’d be surprised to hear if this ever gets a negative response. Then let the player in on the secret you’re about to unleash.

Whether he’s undercover, an impostor, or a con artist the secret player is pretending to be something he’s not. Often it’s to surprise the rest of the party in some way, sometimes to betray them. You can provide the secret player with a ready made character or you can allow them to build it within some parameters you provide. Depending on what the secret and the surprise is, you might want to disclose everything to your mole up front.

Or you could keep them in the dark. It’s harder to get a player to stay true to a character’s motivations if they don’t know what that motivation is. That said, make sure not to tip your hand by letting the other party members get suspicious. Have the secret player use two character sheets, one for his false identity and one for his true character. The secret player is going to spend a couple of hours sitting between those he plans to betray, and during all that time one casual glance could ruin the whole thing. You don’t want another player glancing over only to see the supposed wizard has a Str 18.

A different yet equally great opportunity to utilize the secret player is when you have someone jump in your campaign for a quest or two. It works sort of like having a guest star. In an earlier game, one of my player’s asked if his brother could sit in on a session. I said sure, just send me his email. After asking his brother if he was up for a “roleplaying challenge”, I gave him a character concept for the quest and it’s epic reveal. He was psyched to play a demon disguised as a sorcerer’s apprentice during the party’s sojourn through a hellscape. One of my regular players had been held captive for a month by a succubus, and she used that player to give birth to a half-demon using a loophole in the Compact (an agreement by the gods to only influence the world through their followers instead of divine power - including the use of some angels and demons). When the player’s discovered him in prison at the beginning of the adventure, they never thought he was anything but your average player character. Little did they know the secret player was the son of the recently freed party member and leading them straight into a trap.

What was great about this one-off player was that he introduced a great villain to the party and delivered an epic reveal my players will never forget. Sadly, this trick needs to be used sparingly and delivered differently each time. I let a few months go by before the second time I dropped it on my group. It was equally epic.

This time I used one of my regulars as the secret player. The switch came when the party was ambushed by assassins, yet the party had no idea the assassins were also changelings. One of the players got knocked out in a dark room and was carried away by the assassin with a couple of successful stealth checks.

After the quest I took the player aside and asked him if he was up for being a secret player. Currently his character is a sorcerer, and his impostor is a crossbow wielding assassin. In the next quest he played the assassin with two goals I gave him: capture the party’s paladin and collect information on the whereabouts of a magical tome known to have been in the party’s possession.

The next quest the player comes back, saying he was knocked out and didn’t know where the assassin went. The secret player also came up with an artful deception. He claimed the Oni they faced in their last fight must have cursed him because his own magic had stopped working. Being in a city where there were two or three other magical problems the secret player led the group into thinking there was an outbreak of curses. It worked wonderfully until the first five minutes in.

Another player kept looking over at his character sheet (hence the need for two), but apparently didn’t see the new character. He started putting two and two together and said, “I don’t think Vorn is Vorn.” My heart dropped since I thought the jig was up, but no one paid him any attention. I shrugged it off like it was another of that player’s wacky comments and moved on. To my amazement so did the suspicious player. None of the others gave a moment’s thought to it, either. It wasn’t until the secret player found himself alone with the Paladin they knew something was wrong, since my secret player dropped the Paladin with a sneaky crossbow bolt in his back.

What made it even more memorable was when the secret player, on his own initiative,  dropped clues throughout the game. When in character the player always refers to the party’s bard as “Bard” instead of by the character’s name. Throughout the quest he used the bard’s name several times. It was fantastic to see my player take a great concept and make it even better.

Lessons to take away: use the secret player to drop a clue pointing towards a secret, have the secret player keep his real character sheet hidden behind a cover identity’s sheet, keep up a good poker face, and have the secret player drop subtle clues the party has to work for. If you can pull this off your players will never forget it. Not only will your next quest have an unforgettable twist, but it will be remembered for years.


  1. I sometimes have used the secret player in the form of a guest who I knew was only going to make it to the game one time. Sometimes it was an out of town friend of mine who was visiting. Sometimes it was a relative in town for a weekend. Sometimes I place them as an assassin. Other times as a thief. Sometimes they are independent villains. Other times they are associated with the master villain that the adventurers intend to confront at a later date.


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