When people talk about their espionage characters, secrets (along with objectives) are usually one of the first things to come to mind. Secrets provide the majority of tension in a scenario. Who wants to kill me? Who is my unnamed target? Is my partner out to betray me? What is the stranger’s true agenda? We’re talking the real meat and potatoes now. Not every character needs to have earth-shattering secrets. In fact, it’s probably better that this not the case. You don’t want to give out a lot of secrets just so characters have secrets. Like pretty much everything else in the scenario-building process, secrets should serve a purpose. Unless it’s really just a funny secret. A couple of those are usually okay.
A secret will ideally do three things all at once. 1. It demonstrates a connection to one or more other characters. It would be ridiculous to have a 1:1 correspondence between relationships and secrets, but secrets often serve to really highlight important relationships, though sometimes it isn’t even a relationship directly involving the character with the secret. The midwife who knows that A and B are long lost twins gains a stronger relationship with the other two even though her involvement is indirect. 2. It is something others will care about. The reason people generally keep secrets is that they don’t want others to find out, sometimes people in general, sometimes just one specific person. 3. It comes with stakes. What will happen if/when someone who cares learns the secret? When making decisions for a scenario, you should always ask yourself if you can imagine things happening as a result of that decision. If you can think of no interesting consequences, then it’s probably a dud. You don’t really need to worry about having 3 without 2; if nobody cares, it’s really unlikely anything will come of it. In lieu of thinking of more things to say, let’s look at some examples.
A very basic secret might be “you have been hired by Y to kill X.” This hits all the boxes. The secret will inform your character’s interactions with both X and Y. People will care. Mostly X, perhaps, but probably others too. It’s easy to imagine people taking action based on this secret if it gets out. Solid.
Here’s another: “You are Italian.” Let’s say we’re in a mob scenario, featuring competing Italian and Irish gangs. Your character is the bartender, who has no particular affiliation. There are no specific relationships underlined by this secret. On the other hand, people might care because they’ll assume there is a connection between the bartender and the Italian mob. It’s also plausible to imagine one of the Irishmen will interrogate the bartender or try to kill them as a result. Maybe one of the Italian mobsters will try to recruit them. This is a pretty okay secret.
“You and X are fraternal twins.” We have a scenario where only the two characters know they are siblings. This will inform the way they interact, but unless you’ve given someone else a reason to care, it’ll just be one of those little details that doesn’t mean much. If you want to occasionally throw this kind to characters not exactly brimming with secrets otherwise, it’s probably fine. Don’t count on it to do much, though.
“You have only a year to live.” This kind of secret represents an interesting intersection. It underlines no particular relationship, although others with a relationship to this character will probably care. The thing is, unless you’ve created special mechanics related to slow, wasting illnesses (what’s wrong with you?), it’s unlikely that much would result from the revelation of this secret. Some people will be sad, but that’s not really action.
I once tried to give a politician character the secret, “you support immigration reform.” It struck me as funny and sadly realistic for a politician’s secret. Unfortunately, it checked no boxes in the context of that scenario. This type of secret serves no purpose whatsoever. Avoid.
Time to check back in with the example scenario. Yes, I know. This installment is pretty much all examples, but what do you expect me to do with secrets anyway?
The primary secrets of our example characters can be pretty much deduced from what has already been established about them.
Former band mate: You’ve been ghostwriting most of the band’s songs. This one hits 1 and 2, possibly 3. A good fracas could result from this coming out. Note that this is a secret that will almost inevitably be revealed. This character could possibly benefit from an additional secret.
Wind chimes: You are passing off a song you bought from Roadie as your own. 1, 2, 3. This secret underlines relationships with both Roadie and the band mates (and Former once it is found its their song), lots of people will care, and there are definitely consequences that can come from it. Ideal secret.
Bass: I don’t believe that a proper secret has been established for Bass yet. Maybe something to do in relation to the songs in the secret message subplot. Needs further consideration.
Drums: Nope, nothing here. Further thought required. Maybe this one is planning to ask Groupie to marry them.
All band mates have the secret: you are sleeping with Groupie and have not told anyone. Again, 1, 2, 3. Nice.
Manager: A. You have been secretly buying songs from Former because nobody in your band can write music. 1 and 2. Not sure how much of a 3 can be ascribed to this one. B. You suspect Groupie is trying to destroy your band. 1, 2, 3. C. You saw Dealer do a horrible thing once (need specifics). I need to figure out what exactly this is before I can say what boxes it checks.
Groupie: You are sleeping with the whole band. 1, 2, 3.
Roadie: A. You used to be a drug addict (maybe I should determine what drug at some point, but it might not be important). This one’s a bit tricky because it’s not really a good standalone secret. Just 1, maybe a little 2. But because of the way their relationship with Dealer is shaping up, their specific context has the potential to create 2 and 3. We’ll have to see. B. A mysterious pen pal has been mailing you confusing letters, which have upset you. 2 and 3 this time. There is no known relationship from Roadie’s perspective, but there are definite consequences that can follow. C. You found a song backstage and sold it to Wind chimes. 1, 2. possibly 3. D. You are in love with Groupie. Wow, I had no idea before that Roadie accumulated so many secrets. Deserves further consideration. May decide to trim down or pass one or two things to another character.
Dealer/Drugs (I keep flip-flopping on this name and need to stop): This one is less developed than I previously noticed. They did the something that made Manager afraid of them. They have some bad drugs that do something. Designer is tempting them with something to screw over the Spy. Wow, this one needs some work yet.
Spy: The spy doesn’t really have any secrets. This is intentional, though. 1. They’re not working. 2. Like I said, you can get away with one or two characters without significant secrets. 3. I am pretty tickled by the idea of the spy being the least secretive character.
Crasher: A. You are a secret agent. 2, 3. B. Spy is your hero, but you also find them kind of gross. Really strong on the 1. A bit of 2 and 3 as well. C. You are tracking down an assassin. 2 and 3.
Model: You work as an assassin to help pay your debts. 2, 3.
Designer: A. You are a super villain and nemesis of Spy. 1, 2, 3. B. You’ve been playing a game of emotional manipulation by mail with Roadie. 1, 2, 3. C. You’ve bribed the DJ to play a particular list of songs sprinkled with secret messages. 2, 3.
Right, so this time, we established the secrets already in play and identified where they could use some more work. Now here’s the plan for my next couple of entries. Next time I’ll do Objectives. Then what I’m going to do is simply consolidate everything that’s been established thus far and work on the points that still need to be clarified before moving on to anything else new.