One of the cool things about role-playing games is that they are a hybrid entertainment source. Everyone at the table (or at the computer screen as the case may be) is both an author and the audience. Most of the time we are both at the same time. However, this same coolness also gives rise to some challenges. One challenge is that we get stuck in either one mode or the other instead of operating in both simultaneously. This is where we get the misguided concept of player knowledge versus character knowledge. Without getting too much into it, let me give a quick example.
Remember the pinnacle scene in Star Wars: The Emipire Strikes Back where Vader confronts Luke and says, “Luke, I am your father!”? It’s the central, big reveal of the entire trilogy. That reveal drives the entire plot in Return of the Jedi. But Lucas had it easy. He was the sole Author and we were the Audience. Nobody was doing two of the roles. Let’s view that scene from two different perspectives as if we were a group of role-players playing that game instead of seeing it at the movies.
In the first group, everyone keeps their character secrets to themselves. No one peeks behind the curtain at any other player’s background secrets. Players are staying in their Author role and waiting to reveal their secrets to the other players as the Audience. Only Luke’s player (or perhaps just the DM) knows that Vader is Luke’s father. They play far into the campaign and then when the right moment pops up, the player in the know makes the big reveal… and it is awesome. Everyone is “Whoa… that was cool. Didn’t see that coming.” The obvious upside is that everyone is surprised and the reveal really drives some excellent play from that point on.
The downside is, with only the one player knowing about the reveal, it might never actually take place. The one player as Author is waiting for her moment. It may never come. Nobody else knows about the big secret so they don’t know to make room for it in the fiction. Also, the revealed information can only drive play AFTER it takes place. All the play that takes place beforehand is totally uninformed by the information.
In the second group, all the players know that Vader is Luke’s father. They know it and they know that the information needs to come out at some point but not too soon. During play they come to a spot where it would be perfect for the reveal to take place and so the players make sure all their characters are off doing perfectly logical and relevant things so Vader can confront Luke and make the big announcement. Boom! There it is.
The downside is that the reveal isn’t a huge surprise. The character’s reaction to the reveal could be a surprise but the information itself isn’t. However, there are huge upsides to this scenario. First, the reveal is going to happen. Everyone wants it to happen. This ensures that the information makes it into the fiction at a good place. Remember, secrets that don’t make it into the fiction don’t really exist and are fairly useless. Second, the secret can actually drive play BEFORE the reveal. If you watch the Star Wars movies again knowing the big secret, suddenly all the earlier scenes have some really cool subtext to them. That’s Luke’s dad that Obi Wan is fighting. Obi Wan’s conversations with Luke take on a new meaning. In a role-playing group the unrevealed secret is still known to the players and they can use it to create tension in the fiction in all the sessions leading up to the reveal and then continue to use it afterwards too.
I generally prefer to play more like the second group than the first. I don’t keep all the information to myself as the DM and I’d prefer that as players we play rather transparently. That isn’t to say that I don’t pull a few surprises. The first kind of reveal has a nice payoff and keeps the audience on their toes. However, the second group makes being co-authors a lot easier and more rewarding as we help everyone’s character, not just our own, be awesome.