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To cut it short, the players (it's a 3 people party) are in some kind of a Secret Service of a rebel prince who wants the throne. One of my players is working for the current king secretly, feeding him info, sabotaging the missions he gets from the rebel prince (like accidentally shooting a VIP he is supposed to protect), etc. The other two doesn't know about it both in-game and out-game.

We use the bathroom when I have to tell a player something secret. But if this player keeps playing the double agent for longer, I will be spending half of the game in the bathroom and the other players will get paranoid and these guys just can't stop themselves from metagaming. I mean, imagine 4 people (3 PC and 1 NPC) sleeping in a room and waking up with the NPC dead. You would be suspicious of the guy that DM always secretly talks to, right? I know the players will eventually find out, but I want to keep it secret as long as I can.

Whad'ya suggest? Can't think of anything myself, other than learning telepathy. Just give up and give a lecture on the evils of metagaming maybe? I thought about making up an excuse to talk to all players in the bathroom during stuff like the assassination example above so everyone will be suspicious of each other but it sounds like too much hurdle.

Please note that 2 of my players are Evil and all of them have things that they keep secret from each other, which leads to a lot of bathroom-talks.

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Take a look at these questions: How do you discourage “player knowledge” as a GM?; Suggestions for decreasing metagaming and increasing player immersion? If they help you with any of this, edit that out of your current question so we can focus on the stuff you still need help with. They might also help just help you get a handle on exactly what you're asking and maybe frame it more specifically. –  BESW Apr 2 at 13:14

13 Answers 13

up vote 27 down vote accepted

I thought about making up an excuse to talk to all players in the bathroom during stuff like the assassination example above so everyone will be suspicious of each other but it sounds like too much hurdle.

Unfortunately, that's your answer.

Metagaming in this case isn't going to be deliberate, but it's going to be hard to avoid. If you constantly talk to one player and one player only, even perfectly honest players trying not to metagame are going to have a difficult time not seeing suspicious activity in anything that one player does. It's human nature. The biggest danger of it is that you give a metagaming speech and the players over-compensate by ignoring suspicious activity so to avoid the perception of metagaming.

The only way to avoid it is to either not talk to that player so often at sessions (by talking between sessions and letting the player improv as needed during sessions), or by talking to everyone so they have no reason to suspect any one person over another.

Example from my campaign

I recently ran a session with my players that was a peace negotiation. Everybody was playing an ambassador for one city (or nation), except one (he was playing his own character, as the host of the session). Every nation wanted something out of the negotiation. One of them wanted to see the whole thing fail. In order to ensure that nobody knew who that person was, I wrote half-page notes for every single player and handed them out at the start of the session.

The troublemaker knew who he was (because his note said so), but everybody had notes so nobody knew who was getting different instructions from everyone else.

Is that more work? Yes, absolutely. It was a lot of work. But it was a big success.

Other Tricks

If everybody has a phone or tablet at the table, you can exchange chat messages. If you do it rarely enough, it won't be overly noticeable. Doing it too frequently will make it obvious who you're talking to.

If you have one player come early, you can talk to that player before anybody else shows up. People don't arrive at the same time for games typically, so that's not overly suspicious.

You can hand the relevant player a note at the table with important information, at the time. But again, you'll have to do this with every player from time to time so it seems normal. I've done this with cases where one party member notices something odd that they might not want to share right away (like if only they hear a weird noise or think someone's lying).

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That cell phone idea gave me another idea. I think I'll give a secret sentence like "Anybody want pizza?" to player so he can say while we are playing. So he can signal me whether he is going to cut the VIP's throat or not. –  OnlyD20CanJudgeMe Apr 2 at 13:43
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We used to use big manilla envelopes, and everyone got one, with info or "Nothing to see here, move along". The arrival of said envelopes was known to produce the "Oh crap, here they come." response, because at that point everyone suspected that they were operating on less than 100% information. The most fun I had as the DM was to issue those once with the message "Nothing to see here, move along" to all the players, who were extremely paranoid the rest of the evening, waiting for the non-existent "shoe to drop". Yes, sometimes it's not the PC's, or the NPC's that are evil, it's the DM. :) –  railsdog Apr 4 at 12:01
    
OP could fudge the dice in a discreet manner, too. In his example about the double agent "missing" his attack, he could have made the attack roll and the GM could have "rolled to see where the misfire went" and "accidentally" killed the person in that case. –  Kyle Baran Oct 11 at 3:28

I've run games with strict information compartmentalization like this, it really aids the immersion.

Here's what you can try to do in order to not give away too much.

  1. Take other people aside too, not just for "super secrets" but for experiences they have outside the rest of the group. So if someone gets sent to the library to research, take them aside, tell them what they learned, then send them back in. By spreading out the "anti-spotlight" (?) time you are not throwing too much suspicion on the spy.

  2. Encourage all your players to keep it brief when you're doing an aside with them. Explain that time spent in there is time away from the rest of the group - if they have complex plans or you have big info dumps, do it between games in email or be prepared with a writeup or whatever, to make it go faster. The biggest downside of asides is that you have 2 other people waiting around possibly bored.

  3. Consider texts or emails even at the table (this requires some subtlety from the player, but avoids going aside for really simple stuff). Or, just pass notes. Again, if everyone is using note-passing for brief exchanges then it doesn't single out the spy. When I did this, I used notes unless a RP exchange really was merited, then I took the relevant player(s) to another room and gunned through it.

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If it's a short information exchange (and not a discussion per say), then I would go with exchanging a paper between you and the player(s). However, it is pretty difficult to manage that kind of situation for a long period of time and I think you should arrange things in the story so that the group will have to join their efforts against a common threat (instead of having two different conflicting parties within the players).

For example : - You could tailor an assassination of the king or prince, which none of the players would have done. - You could make so that the king betrays the player secretly working for him.

Another option is to talk with each players alone BEFORE the session in order for them to tell you what they want other players to know and what not. You could also talk in a way that only the targeted player would understand. However, as I said, these situations can very easily end in misunderstandings or something could be said by accident and everybody would know that secret, which can lead to conflicts outside the game (eventually breaking it).

On a last note, evil players are very hard to play if things are not handled very carefully, specially if there's a mix of good and evil characters in the party. I strongly suggest you discuss of a way to change that with you players, otherwise it could very much jeopardize the entire game.

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The leader of the party is True Neutral, and the party mostly has Chaotic Neutral tendencies. They don't rape and burn everything in sight but they can get Evil when a personal gain is involved. Anyway, I guess I'll eventually end up revealing the spy because they are going to find out eventually. I just want to let the spy have fun until it's discovered. I bet we will be talking about this for years after it's finally revealed. –  OnlyD20CanJudgeMe Apr 4 at 4:34

Just to add to something others have been saying:

If there is any secret information in the game, then Pass notes to every player, constantly!

Occasionally scribble random gibberish like "Look at this paper and smile knowingly." and pass it to a random player. Make sure everyone gets used to it as "one of your GM quirks".

Mix this up with meaningful notes to the double agent (but also keep sending the non-important ones to that player too).

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Generally I disagree with "random gibberish", but the "look at this note & smile knowingly", I couldn't help but smile. (I don't consider this gibberish & shouldn't be used too often lest it lose its effectiveness). All that said, +1 –  Ben-Jamin Apr 2 at 17:15

So, you have player A who is the spy, B and C who are loyals.

Call in A for normal information exchange/private time. Call in B and have the Prince tell him that he's heard a rumor that someone may be betraying the cause. He knows that based on the rumor that it is likely either the PCs, or some other little cluster (if it exists). However, have the Prince suspect it is C, but may be A. Call in C and do the exact same conversation you just had with B, only tell him that the prince is certain it's B who is the spy, but it may be A.

Hopefully B and C both bite on this subplot and are watching each other rather than A. When B and C see that A goes into private time, they will think that the Prince pointed them to their target, and if A is any good, he will play B and C off of each other.

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Headphones and music!

Whoever isn't at the scene puts on headphones for a minute. If you have them do this at random times for no real reason for cover-up (that is when something concerns only some players, but the others actually could just as well know it), then it will be hard to tell when you are really talking about something super secret.

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I've run exactly this scenario to extremely good effect (a Star Wars game in which one of the characters was an Imperial double agent). It's possible to surprise the players without cheating, but you've correctly identified a major problem which you must avoid.

There are three parts to the solution:

  • If meeting with a player privately, you must meet with all three players privately - they will notice, very rapidly, and probably have already.

One trick I used was: establish a time when the character was out of view of the rest of the group, then don't meet the player privately in play. Instead, talk to them afterwards and establish what the character was really doing in the missing time. You can even put the correct answer in the wrong place - I used this trick to recruit the character for the Empire during game time, without any suspicion from the players. (I split all the characters up at a customs checkpoint, then ran mini-scenes for two of the other PCs at the table - including attempting to recruit one of those two for the Empire. Nobody ever asked what happened with those I didn't address; they were just relieved not to have been stopped and asked questions at customs...)

This kind of misdirection can be extended:

  • Don't just give the other players reasons to talk to you privately. Give the spy a reason to talk to you privately - an unrelated one. The other players need to have something in mind which they think you're talking about. As with any secret, the key is not to hide that anything is going on - it's to have people guessing about the wrong secret. Give the spy an independently willed magical item, or notes from a mysterious assassin - anything that implies a different secret plotline. (Make sure you execute that plotline too.)

A more important part of the solution, however, is to reduce as much as possible the amount of private communication you need. I ran the entire Imperial Spy plotline without ever once needing a private talk during game time - all our secret talks were before or after the game, right up until the moment the spy stole the group's spacecraft and threatened to blow up the party with it if they didn't surrender...

  • Don't try to find out anything from the spy unless you absolutely need to know now. If the character would definitely be up to something secret - but you don't know exactly what - ask them after the game what they were really doing, then write that in.

  • If the spy is going to have any differing objectives from the party, brief them in advance and ask them what their plans are - or for several different contingency plans. Then the player doesn't need to give you a two-minute talk, just tell you which plan they're using.

  • Give the spy advance warning - through their contacts - of choices that might happen during the game, and ask in advance what the character will choose. (Write the main game plot so that you don't need to spoil it to reveal the relevant decisions, and keep it to areas that the king's intel might plausibly be able to warn the character about.)


If this sounds like too much work, strongly consider the more narrative-gaming approach, as used in games such as Fate:

  • Don't bother. Reveal everything to the players. Make them complicit in hiding it from the characters. Shift the question from "how does my character succeed?" (which leads to meta-gaming) to "how do we make the plotline resolve in as interesting a way as possible?". (This still leads to meta-gaming, but in a way which is actually desirable - players get their characters to do things that make the plot more awesome.)

This is a more advanced technique for the players, requiring an adjustment to that kind of mindset, but it can produce stunning results.

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Just as a specific note-passing technique: index cards.

They're a good size, nice and sturdy, fit a fair bit of information, and are reasonably inexpensive.

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Oh I understand that. It wasn't intended on being a stand-alone answer, it's just that no other answer mentioned index cards and they're basically the go-to solution in my gaming circles. I personally get around the 'suspicious' problem by passing plenty of notes to everyone at random times: a technique mentioned in other answers. –  Duncan Matheson Apr 6 at 23:58

Lots of great responses. What I do is: 1. Make sure that everyone gets notes. 2. Pregame info with my players, separately 3. Make sure that if I am giving a player info that is top secret, then I will give him info unrelated that is not really a secret. I will write a note of some info and then asking if he is going to tell the party and then tell the party what is going on. It is a distraction that I use. 4. I do use text if necessary.

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I know what I would use. Whatsapp. Actually, any other text application on your phone would do, assuming you all have one.

If you want to be absolutely certain not to drop hints, turn off your mobile data, type out a message to each of your friends, and then switch on data. They'll all get the messages together so they don't have data like how long you took to type each persons message. You could send a "Nevermind" to one, and a detailed report to another.

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Writing this in case other people who have the same problem with me are looking for a solution.

After combining all the ideas here (and some stuff I thought myself), I decided to use code words to signal other players and give other players code words so they can signal me if they are going to do something secret. Like, say "It's Monday right?" when you want to kill that dude while he is sleeping and I'll let the dice roll!

That note idea is pretty cool too. I'm going to pass notes like crazy. Giving unimportant notes to other players should make it much less suspicious when I'm giving important notes to the spy.

I'll probably edit this later and talk about if it worked or not.

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Ever think about not holding these gaming sessions in person? Computer aided voice chat, mumble, or a conference call on you're phone can have some serious advantages if you need to do a game with information compartmentalization.

I haven't gm'd a gaming a session but with modern communication tech, it occured to me that it might be a solid way to get it done, then you can talk to specific players or send private whispers the other players can't read.

Skype, and SIP clients (everyone probable should use the same sip client), XMPP-Audio/Video even have the ability to hand files out, you could make a quick copy of character sheets and file transfer it to the specific players that need them.

I posted this before I noticed Steve's post.

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Well, the thing is, we all live very close to each other (only one of the players is like an hour apart) and we even go to the same bars. I played D&D with skype before and I know how easy it is to simply send notes to people online but it will be pretty weird if I stay in my home rather than meeting in one of the player's house which is like 15 mins of walking distance for me. All the players bring their laptops when we meet though (I use mine for my DM notes). Using laptops for messaging would be less suspicious than burying our heads into cell phones every ten mins. –  OnlyD20CanJudgeMe Apr 5 at 16:06

My party uses G-talk, we all sit in front of a PC and message each other and or the DM if it is secretive. (I bought my laptop for that purpose only! - THE CONVICTION!) :)

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Well, I don't want to use laptops too much because my players are an easily-distracted folk, and I don't want my players to start checking their Facebooks in the middle of the game. I might have to end up using this if other methods fail. We are going to play this Thursday. Just gonna wait and see how notes and codewords work out. –  OnlyD20CanJudgeMe Apr 6 at 20:29

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