One of the defining characteristics of Steven Moffat and the 11th Doctor era is secrets. From the true identity of River Song, the mystery behind the cracks in time, the nature of the impossible astronaut to the name of the Doctor, these are plot elements that dangle in front of the viewer for seasons of episodes.
A good secret is a question that demands to be answered. They provide something tangible for the viewer to obtain and increase the stakes of any Doctor Who story. We know that the Doctor will save the day but will we the viewer be given any answers.
Indeed the very show itself is a question, Doctor Who?
It is obvious that mystery is a core element of the show. This plot element is something that you can introduce into your own campaign. It can be tricky to create a mystery that will be engaging not for a single session but over the course of months or even years.
There are a variety of different types of secrets.
These are secrets connected with the plot. Not everything will be explained during the adventure, leaving some dangling threads. This could be what the true motivation of the enemy was, how they achieve their goal and what set events in motion.
This is similar to how the TARDIS crew encountered aliens fleeing the cracks in time before they realised their significance. This type of plot acts as foreshadowing for the big reveal.
Since time travel is an integral part of the show the PCs could find themselves stumbling into the middle of an epic story. Other adventures can reveal how things began and how they might end.
With these types of secret the players should feel that they will eventually understand what was happening and have a desire to resolve the story. If you reveal too little players might forget important parts of the plot.
You can be subtle, having an adventure apparently be self contained only to reveal that it was linked to a bigger story. What might have seemed like a plot hole was actually a hook for another adventure.
There are a variety of characters that are good examples of this. The Doctor himself has a mysterious past and a hidden name, River Song was introduced as being someone with a deep connection to the Doctor but we weren’t sure what it was and Clara was the impossible girl, reappearing throughout time only to die.
PCs can be created built around the fact that they have a secret. This is best done in co-operation with the gamesmaster (who should also be aware of the truth behind the secret). This allows hints at that secret to be naturally introduced.
NPCs can have secrets which the PCs learn a little more of each time they encounter them. This can be a separate plot thread that runs through many different, self-contained adventures.
Such secrets should have an impact on the PCs and affect how they affect their relationship with the NPC. Friends could be revealed to be enemies while adversaries could reveal that they are on the PCs side.
These are huge secrets that make up the framework of the whole campaign. An example of this might be the Time War, which was a mystery for a long time. What happened and the consequences of that have huge impacts on adventures and the future of the characters.
This works best where there are strong mystery elements. For example you might create a campaign where the PCs gain possession of a TARDIS. Where the time machine came from and the identity of its original owner could be a secret that the PCs keep finding themselves trying to answer.
Secrets As A Plot Device
Players might want to introduce a secret into an adventure as a way to resolve a situation. Faced with impossible odds they could pay Story points to have their character do ‘something’ that saves the day.
What they did is unknown to the other players but it works. Sometime in the future there will be consequences when the truth is revealed. Whatever was done will upset, shock or horrify everyone.
Maybe the character broke their moral code to do what they thought was right (becoming in some way their own version of the War Doctor) or they could have broken a law of time (maybe their future self appeared and saved the day, meaning that they have to do this in a later adventure).
Secrets As A Way To Fix Mistakes
What occurs during an adventure might not be the whole truth. This could be a sanitised version of events. A clue to this might be that not everything makes sense. A future adventure could reveal what really happened either as the PCs revisit the adventure, a flashback reveals the truth or the consequence of their actions catch up to them.
If you take this route secrets can be a way to explain away any mistakes that are made during an adventure. If you realise that something in the plot didn’t make sense you can reveal there was secret reason that explains what really happened.
These layers of truth prevent the players taking anything for granted. All the better if you can get them to go along with this and enjoy revisiting past adventures or looking forward to what might be revealed.
Secrets As A Campaign
To put secrets centre stage a whole campaign could be centred around them. The PCs should each have one secret, maybe more. There will be secrets that link them and control their lives.
Their motivation could be to discover the truth or to keep their secrets. Time travel is perfect to conceal themselves in the shadows of history or carry out indepth investigations. Their opposition are not would-be conquers of the galaxy but those who hide their own secrets or wish to expose the PCs.
“Look, my name, my real name – that is not the point.”
As with the secret of the Doctor’s name ultimately it wasn’t revealed and the Doctor explains that it doesn’t matter. You can treat other secrets the same way. Sometimes it doesn’t matter what the truth is if it is in the past.
All that matters is the present and the PCs future. Secrets can be used just to give flavour and to make the mundane exotic. We can never know everything and isn’t that part of the fun?