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RPG crypto

Blockchain doesn’t have much to do with role-playing games, right? I’m not entirely clear on the concept, honestly. But that’s not what this post is about anyway. I’m talking about being cryptic. When players and NPCs act mysterious, only giving half answers, and just being generally vague. Is it a good thing? A bad thing?

It can be both, so let’s talk about when it adds to the game and when it might blow up in your face.

Players being mysterious

Who doesn’t like to play someone mysterious sometimes? The shady elf in the corner, the assassin who comes out of the shadows and then vanishes into them once more, or the stranger who doesn’t remember their own past. Not everyone can — or should — have a mysterious backstory, but sometimes a PC has a hidden past that they want to keep secret until it’s time for a dramatic reveal. And that’s fair! Players should be allowed to hold onto their character’s backstory until they’re ready to reveal it, or until the story brings them face-to-face with their nemesis or past.

This part is really advice for players — try not to pry too much. Be as sensitive as you can about when it’s time to stop asking questions or demanding answers. Often when a player gets any hint at all that there’s something to discover, they will hound their fellow PC until they get to the bottom of it. But just as often, players respect each other’s mysteries. After all, they know how they would feel if they had their own character secrets — and maybe they do! If they pry relentlessly, they can expect the same. Just be respectful.

Sometimes, though, players are vague and cryptic without any substance, just being mysterious for the sake of sounding cool. I’ve had players speak cryptically and always answer questions vaguely because it makes them seem more worldly, or like they know something important. It can be annoying, but doesn’t really break the game. Even when they have the full answer but won’t give it, that generally isn’t a big deal. It’s okay if they’re being cagey about a plot point; not every lore drop can or even should shake the earth.

Sure, it can be a little frustrating when a player is constantly vague for no real reason, but the Storyteller can probably just sit back and let the other players handle it. They will usually call out a PC who’s trying a little too hard to be mysterious.

NPCs being mysterious

When the Storyteller trots out non-player characters that speak in riddles and half-answers, or refuse to share info, things are different. Keep in mind that it’s the players’ job to find out what’s going on. They’re here to kill villains and ask questions, so don’t get frustrated when they interrogate an NPC who won’t talk straight. From their point of view, that kind of thing gets in the way of playing the game, and becomes annoying real fast. Also remember that most of the time, whatever secret or reveal you’re trying to protect isn’t going to be earth-shaking enough to be worth frustrating your players like that.

If an NPC knows something important but refuses to tell the player characters when fairly asked, it’s often going to become a problem. Think of your parents saying “I’ll tell you when you’re older.” Did anyone actually love that? “I’ll tell you when the time is right,” “Now’s not the time,” “No time to explain,” and every variation of “I know, but I won’t tell you” is almost guaranteed to actually make your players try even harder to find out. It might not annoy them right away, but you can only stonewall them so much before they get frustrated.

I’ve seen that frustration escalate quickly. Most RPG settings are open-carry worlds where the PCs walk around with blasters at their sides, or wear full armor and swords to the pub — violence is somewhat normalized in RPG settings. So don’t be surprised when player characters start pointing weapons or even attacking to try to knock some info out of an obstinate NPC. How many times have you had PCs draw weapons and say something along the lines of Are you going to tell us now?

It’s their job to kill villains and discover the plot, and violence is one of the tools for that in most role-playing games.

There’s another aspect to consider, too. Who is this NPC? Are they an ally? A friend? Do you want the players to like or trust them? A mysterious NPC might sound like a cool ally or mentor figure, but in an RPG, it can swiftly blow up in your face. If your friendly non-player character is being vague and mysterious, and the players are chafing at it, they’re not going to warm to this person very very well. There are lots of ways to make sure that players like your NPCs — being lovably quirky, letting the players tell you what parts of an NPC to develop, and showing vulnerability — but being mysterious isn’t usually one of them. Especially if the NPC is being mysterious just to seem cool. The PCs are supposed to be the impressive ones, and dropping an NPC in front of them that’s just cooler than they are isn’t exactly endearing.

Image: A black-and-white photo of a face hidden by the shadow of their fedora. It doesn’t get much more hipster pseudo-mysterious than that.

The NPC has to know, but the players can’t

Okay, so your NPC really needs to have some info that they can’t just share with the party. What do you do? How do you make that work without the PCs drawing swords on them?

One way is to limit how much information the NPC has. They know that the villains stole a powerful artifact and that it’s important to get back… But maybe they don’t know what the artifact is. That information is above their pay grade, perhaps, only available to someone more powerful than the NPC. Or maybe the NPC has scraped together as much information as they can and this is the best they have. Hey, they found out the villain’s secret activities, and that’s pretty neat. But they need the PCs’ help to find out more, which puts them in the spotlight and is even neater. An NPC who’s not entirely in the loop but lets the PCs know everything that they can is far more likely to end up on their good side.

But sometimes an NPC either needs to know the whole story, or it makes no sense for them not to know it, and yet you can’t let them share. Remember what we talked about above, about it usually not being worth it to hold out a surprise — but though it’s not usually worth it, sometimes it’s vital. Or maybe you’ve storytold yourself into a corner, letting on that an NPC knows and now the players won’t leave them alone. What now?

Run away before answering all the questions. Tell the PCs that tidbit you want them to have, then have the NPC hang up the phone, get teleported away, or be shot in the head by a sniper. Just remove them from the scene so that the players can’t start demanding answers. But this escape had better be ironclad — if the PCs catch them, they’re going to press for all the answers and they’re going to press harder than ever. And if the NPC does escape, know that the players are likely to jump straight to 11 on smacking answers out of them the next time they meet.

Last-minute escape is one of those cards you can’t play very often. You probably shouldn’t have more than one info-bearing NPC pull the disappearing act, or the same non-player character do it a lot. You get once, maybe twice to pull this trick in a campaign. And each time you have an NPC escape before spilling the beans, you ratchet up the PCs’ hunger for those beans. It’s one of those NPC saves that really annoys the players, and can quickly become an obvious deus ex machina. If you do it a lot, that frustration with the NPC might spill over into frustration with the Storyteller.

99% of the time, it’s better to just have a cornered NPC answer questions. If you have them bolt before sharing information, be really certain you’re in that 1 out of 100 scenario.

Put yourself in the players’ shoes

Ask yourself if you think it will be fun to have an NPC dangle information over the players’ heads and then snatch it away or refuse to ever let them have it. Remember that as the Storyteller, you hold all the power in a game. You can make an ancient dragon swoop down on first-level characters or throw a battlecruiser at their little junker smuggler ship — because you control everything in the game-verse that isn’t the player characters. It’s a jerk move, and your whole table knows it.

Having an NPC stonewall the characters is just the social-scene version of that. You have all the answers, but you won’t share them when they ask. You could even fudge deception checks, or give NPCs unbreakable mind shields, something like that — but your table is depending on you to play fair.

RPGs aren’t always the best medium for mysteries. You’re not writing a novel in which you get to decide if the main character finds a clue and puts the pieces together, and whether or not they get frustrated with hitting dead ends. These are people at your table, people who’ve come to have a good time, not to bang their heads against walls. It’s almost always better to reward the players’ efforts than to frustrate them. Even if you manage to keep all of your secrets, frustrated players won’t be able to enjoy it very much.



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