RPG Game Master

Secret Goals in RPGs and Why You Need To Use Them Now

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When playing a roleplaying game in a group, sometimes you want the spotlight to shine down and highlight a character moment. This opportunity for high drama and fun can be greatly improved and made larger by having it pay off character and player motivations. One of the best ways to do this is with secret goals. These missions and quests discussed between an individual player and the Game Masters or Storytellers are ways to entertain the whole table with surprise flourishes to heighten the stakes. I’m going to explain more about why you should use this technique more in games.

What is a secret goal?

RPGGMs and Storytellers are there to facilitate a great many things in a game, including the overall story, action and drama of the game and the microcosm of each scene and encounter. As the referees, writers, directors, producers, actors and teachers of our RPG experiences, they mean a great deal to us as players with all the work they put into running our games.

An interesting component they can add to our games to make things exciting is the addition of personal missions. These can be things players have suggested to their GM and agreed beforehand or something the GM has approached them with.

Work together so you all get what you want

Either way, it’s a collaborative process. It’s fun to have something secret that the rest of the table and playgroup has no idea about. It’s something that can play in the back of your mind during scenes and other players’ spotlight moments you’d normally have little stake in because something might pertain to your secret goal.

Everything the GM says and does now potentially has a double meaning for you to puzzle out, everything becomes about how to turn situations to your characters’ personal advantage and this is where real roleplaying and drama comes out!

Beware of concentration burn-out or character paranoia

Personal and secret quests can be a double-edged sword; concentrating on every aspect of the game for a longer play session, such as 8+ hours, can be exhausting. You don’t even concentrate like that at your full-time job or at school – it’s not natural for us to do so. Your mind needs a chance to wander and process things without also processing additional input and so, you lose concentration.

What if during one of these lapses you miss a key piece of information, something your character should act on and, if missed, essentially leaves a thread dangling that the rest of the table thinks is out of place? It could potentially pull people out of the game.

Before moving on, let’s deal with these issues first. To begin with, your secret quest needs to be a collaborative process. It might be as simple as the players approaching their GM and asking for a secret mission to be supplied, or the players might have something more fleshed out already in mind.

Who should get a secret goal?

It should never be an imposed task from the GM without the prior consent of the players, otherwise, it won’t resonate with them at all. This is not to say the secret goal can’t be a surprise. But you should ascertain beforehand, either by knowing your players well or talking to them, whether a secret goal will be well received.

The GM then needs to maintain the goal in their notes, preparation or improvisation. It needs to be present, otherwise it’s useless and can deflate the energy in the player very quickly. If you’ve arranged for a player character to have the goal of having to find a rare object, be sure to include that rare object somewhere, or at least allude to it.

For the long haul, or as a shortcut?

secretAs a GM you can feel free to make things complicated and have this secret goal be a longterm quest for a rare item, and so you needn’t make the object turn up a couple of sessions in but instead you should be dropping hints as to where it might be, or where information about it can be learned.

This ties into one of the biggest advantages of having secret goals for your players if they’re well planned out, but I’ll get to that at the end.

As well as being sure to keep the secret goals active and in mind, make sure they don’t dominate the play sessions. If the game consists of no surface-level plot and simply consists of everyone’s secrets then there’s no obvious cohesion and cooperative elements to work from. There’s no story to work from, no villain to defeat, no villagers to save.

Make sure to have a game there, too

If the secret goals become the only goals, and they’re kept a secret from everyone else, there can’t be any cooperation or competition between the players at the table. It simply becomes a staring contest or a sequence of private one-on-one games where conspicuous results are relayed to the rest of the group for them to react to. While it might be fun once in a while, it isn’t the way great roleplaying is had; the characters essentially don’t interact, only their actions do. You may as well run a game of Risk or Cluedo.

[Image of LOTR Risk: Actually, that sounds like a lot of fun in the right circumstances…. Argh! Stay on target!]

So we know not to make the secret goals the only ones, to keep them up and to make sure everyone’s on board! Whether player or GM, you’re covered thus far. But are these goals even going to fit into your game?

Will secret missions fit into my game?

Whether you’re playing Dungeons & Dragons, Marvel Super Heroes or Starfinder you’re going to be able to put secret goals into your sessions. These aren’t genre-specific aspects, as having a secret you keep hidden from your friends and colleagues is something integral to the human experience. While we’ll often be playing demihumans, aliens and anything else that explodes from our imaginations we, as players, are fundamentally human. We play our games in a human way.

We’re always playing through a human experience

To that end, having a secret goal makes your character seem a bit more real, someone who isn’t simply a member of a group but someone with their own thoughts and feelings and ambitions. I remember allowing my players to wrap up their characters by describing, in their own words, the year following the defeat of the big bad guy. It was a short campaign, played weekly over 6 months.

Some players described their characters finding riches and getting drunk, others spun quick yarns of whimsy and adventure. The final player described how he secretly had been adventuring this whole time in order to win the hand of their love and earn enough to support them both. This was a secret goal that even I, as the GM, didn’t know about, but the context made it okay. It rounded out this scoundrel of a rogue into more than a class and a race, but someone who went to insane lengths to stand by their friends despite easier options being available. It retroactively coloured everyone’s opinions of the character into a much more positive one. You know who you are, and you’re awesome for doing this.

My own players in the streamed Star Trek Adventures game, had secret goals from a secretive organisation. This was fun for everyone because they had the mission at hand as well as their own secret objectives. In order to achieve the ends of one, a sacrifice had to be made on the efficiency of the other. [NERDITOR’S NOTE: Juggling our individual secret missions was a ton of fun! I’m still not sure about the captain…]

It was a beautiful thing to see how the players dealt with things. It was interesting to see that on at least one occasion, the inclusion of them having these secret goals led them to seek out drama and roleplaying opportunities rather than simply trying to get the “best” outcome; one of them lingered a while to see what happened, and bumped into one of the others in the process of completing their mission. Awkward… what do you do when you catch someone else doing something secret?

Forgotten something?

Secret goals can deepen a character, can introduce fresh perspectives and increase player attention during games. They can improve the quality of a revelation or produce a realistic intra-party conflict that isn’t disruptive but rather productive.

However, we have yet to touch on one of the best uses of secret goals in a roleplaying game: moving the game forward. Best used in this way in games where the GM has an idea of where the players are going (whether this is railroad-style gameplay or sandbox with a known objective), secret goals can be used to move some of the more questionable characters into position.

The biggest advantage of hidden goals in your RPG

Consider the following scenario: You have a classic adventuring party of the fighter, wizard, cleric and rogue, and all of the characters are present when the old ranger in the corner of the tavern recounts the story of the nine wraiths guarding a magic ring that, once reclaimed and destroyed, could save the kingdom. The rogue, of course, has no interest; should the kingdom fall, another will rise in its place and in the meantime, there are neighbouring civilisations with coin purses to pilfer.

However, the GM and the rogue’s player step away from the table for a minute and discuss a secret mission the rogue has been given by the local thieves’ guild. The guild wants the rogue to steal the ring and return it for a handsome reward. This quest would allow the rogue player to feel satisfied their character’s motivations are being met while maintaining the surface level of cohesion for the group.

Be wary of not having a contingency plan in place for if this all goes south. Once the party realises the rogue is more interested in the money than the safety of the kingdom, it’ll be a lot of work to stop the party from drawing weapons on each other or simply parting ways. Character rotations can happen, or an external factor can be introduced to encourage keeping the team together, or the rogue might feel bad about their selfish choices and, while still motivated by greed, grows and develops into a deeper character who acknowledges some of the wider ramifications of their actions.

Secret quests help with roleplaying

All in all, the GM should work with the players in any group wanting to try secret goals in their games. Perhaps it’s just the perk a stale adventure needs, or maybe, just maybe, you’ll all discover how quick you all are to backstab each other to get your own way. Evil campaign, anyone? Let me know what secret missions you’d like your characters to have, or have you used this before?

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3 Responses

  1. Eric W.
    | Reply

    I did a ‘secret goals’ one shot with pre-gen PCs and secret goals randomly assigned to players at the beginning of the session — even I wasn’t sure who wound up with which goals, but I knew what each of the goals was. Players were told that the first player to achieve their goal would get a reward in the main campaign … I also introduced a couple of NPCs to the players this way, that later impacted the central campaign. After the first player achieved their goal, one of the competitive players wanted to finish his quest and see how many of the participants could achieve their goals. At the end of the one shot, the players shared with each other what each player’s goal was. It was then that they discovered that although most of the goals were compatible or at least semi-compatible, the (one-shot) paladin’s goal was in direct opposition to the rest of the party. I was accused of cheating, until I pointed out that only the first player to reach their goal was guaranteed the main campaign reward, and that I had reluctantly agreed to smaller rewards for other players who achieved their goals… I never said that everyone was going to get a benefit from the evening. I gave the paladin player a big RP reward in the ongoing game, because if he’d been playing ‘to win’ he could have totally fubar’ed the one-shot group. When he realized this early in the session, he didn’t even try. He just went with the flow so that he could help his team mates. Although I normally never had any problems with in party fighting, it was eye opening for some of the newer players to the group how much trust they could/should have in each other.

    • Drew Murray
      | Reply

      That’s pretty cool, Eric. I’m glad to see that all worked out in the end.

      I’d be interested in reading more about how you decided on the goals, why you randomised them and if you maintained them for the main campaign. It sounds a bit like when you’re playing Risk or Ticket to Ride and you have your own secret things to accomplish regardless of the wider campaign or story, which is perfectly serviceable and can often, if designed well, complement the experience. It does run the risk, though, of coming across as nonsense mechanical drivel and spoiling the narrative flow if it doesn’t fit. How do you mitigate this?

      Still, overall I think what you did was interesting, entertaining and ultimately served the gaming experience and got people invested. That’s all you can ask, really. Well done.

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