Mike and I have come up wth a number of pieces of roleplaying discussion shorthand. Sort of small quips that remind us of big concepts when we are talking about games (about what went right and what went wrong). I've already talked about one of these ("stunt your failure") in 'The Death of Cool' post, but there are a couple of others that I think are really useful, and one in particular that caused me to write this article.
1. The Belly Of the Dragon.
This is a concept that relates to getting players onto your plot and not some other plot that you might've accidentally hinted at. Basically the story goes like this: your players are at the local inn. You have a big adventure planned with the forest elves. They need the player's help to overthrow their god and regain their sense of morality. You have a bunch of NPCs, compelling story hooks and such, but the adventure starts with them in the woods, meeting the elves. So you give the players the hook: there have been a lot of bandit attacks out in the woods, if only someone could help! Instead of charging off into the woods like you wanted, the players say "Well, we should get the local lord or duke or whomever to fix this." You panic. Of course there is a duke and he doesn't like bandits, so you need some reason for him not to be interested so you say "the local duke doesn't care about these people, he won't help." a player responds with "we need to make him see the plight of these people". And so it continues. And eventually you find yourself saying something like "Well, you could go up to his castle, which is protected by the king's elite guard and is renowned across the land as the most defensible fortification for 100 miles, but a dragon has swallowed the castle whole and now its in the belly of a gaint dragon. You think you've won, they won't go up there now. The players on the other hand hear "there is a lot of cool stuff at the castle, it must be where he wants us to go, plus we get to fight a dragon!".
This concept boils down to: if you place too many cool obstacles in front of players, it isn't a turn off, sometimes it is a challenge and the more you heap on, the more some players will want to tackle those challenges. I think this is the reason I sometimes drag games off course. I almost always seek the plot like an arrow, but if the GM starts building up some problem or place, I will think that in the plot and start pushing towards it.
Some ways to counteract the belly of the dragon effects include sudden role reversal... "Oh the duke will talk to you, yeah, and he wants to hire you to route out the bandits, no we don't need to roleplay the interaction with the duke". Another technique would be the metagame hints ("you feel a pull to go out into the woods", or "your childhood friend is traveling this road and he may get hit by the bandits!". Basically, though it boils down to: if you find yourself talking about things that aren't in your grand plot, stop! Don't talk about things the players aren't supposed to do, either it convinces them not to do something (which could've happened quicker by not talking about it) or it derails the game.
2. No more secrets!
This is a technique that generated some controversy at the retreat. The basic idea is that secrets are bad, or at least not very interesting. I want to talk about this from 2 perspectives: player and GM secrets. This post was actually inspired by this Geek Girls Rule!! post. I was struck by one particular sentence: "It’s friends only as much of the information there is not stuff other players/characters would necessarily know". This is exactly the sort of reasoning I want to argue against. (Note: I have no idea what trust level exists between players in Tammy's game and it may be the case that she has completely valid and awesome reasons for hiding this stuff)
First off GM secrets. In general these take the form of plot points or other things. Some of this is OK. But a lot, in my opinion, should just be thrown away. For instance, lets say you have a game plan of the players creating a rock band, getting killed in a plane crash, and recruited by Satan to corrupt the world through rock and role in order to be placed back on earth. This was a great game that was run by Keith a long time ago ("Paladins for Satan"). Now that game went well, but it could've easily gone badly, because our character instructions were "make a rock band". Now, for instance, we could've make a christian country music group. That would've been bad. While the character conflict over serving Satan might've been delicious, the meat of the game was supposed to occur after we were back on earth, doing his bidding (As it turns out we made a death metal band and everything was great). In my opinion, it would've been better to be like "make a rock band who will be recruited by Satan to corrupt the earth". Now, yes, I have just revealed a major plot point. But that plot point is going to occur and I need the players to say yes if we are ever going to have that awesome rock off between the players and the 2nd coming of Jesus. This also allows people to make that christian rock band, with the full knowledge that they WILL be turned to the side of evil (this is a form of player by in through character generation).
It is my firm opinion that whenever you have a secret as a GM you should think long and hard about keeping it a secret from any players. Even if it is a secret from the characters (this doesn't really matter), it shouldn't be a secret from the players. For one thing, people enjoy the game a lot more when they know some big thing is going to happen, and what better way to indicate that than telling them what the big thing is. Trust in your players to keep it OOC, and run with it.
I said I also wanted to approach this from a player perspective. Secrets for players seem to take 2 forms: back story secrets and character planning secrets. So, lets say you're a Cylon (traitor) in a Battlestar Galactica game. Think about what is cooler: the other players seeing all the cool cylon things you do as you subtle work to mess up the ship, or the other players being bored as you talk to the GM out in the hall yet again. Additionally you should always be thinking of ways to reveal to the other characters your secrets. As Mike once said "if you never reveal a character secret in play, it isn't any different from not having a secret at all". As a player you should have a plan for the best way the other characters find out your secret. Do they catch you shooting up before a mission? Do you tell them in a tear-filled confession. It may not work out the way you're thinking, but having a plan and communicating that plan to the GM can make for some really awesome roleplaying.
At the end of the day, both GM and player secrets should be revealed. If you never reveal them, its like they never happened. Have plan for getting them out, and take any opportunity that comes up. If you hide it away, then you never get to have an awesome story about the secret, and that is what you want, right? Hiding things from players is almost never right, since it excludes players from enjoying all aspects of the game. Hiding things from characters has a necessity, but all secrets should have an arc that includes their reveal, so that you have have some cool story around the secret (otherwise why have the secret at all?).