Using Secrets to Add Depth to NPCs

In my latest Shadow of the Demon Lord session, the party met a family that was ambushed during their move to a new city. They found them shored up in an abandoned house. They were terrified people, but kind toward the party.

Given the nature of Shadow of the Demon Lord, the party pressed the family for more information. Finding holes in the story and realizing that they weren’t entirely innocent in their story. They weren’t bad people and certainly didn’t deserve to be robbed, but they’ve committed plenty of crimes in the town they were leaving.

Between prepping NPCs in my SotDL campaign and reading through Curse of Strahd I’ve learned how impactful well-kept secrets are in characterizing NPCs. The party may never learn what the secret is or ever suspect that the NPC is keeping any secrets from them, but even a simple low-stakes secret can better flesh-out an NPC. Adding both depth and more elements for you to play off when you role-play them.

Everyone has secrets. Why shouldn’t NPCs?

a tiefling smacking a drow into a well in a tavern brawl
A revealed secret has plenty of consequences. Such as being kicked into a well. Credit: WotC.

How Do Secrets Impact NPCs?

I tend to prep secrets for important NPCs. Thinking up a unique secret for every person the party meets is inefficient. Besides, if desired you can always add one on the fly or prep one in the future if the party favors an NPC that you once assumed was unimportant.

How secrets impact each NPC will change depending on two factors:

  1. The NPC’s personality
  2. The consequences of the secret being known

This isn’t an “either-or” scenario. The secret’s impact is calculated based on a combination of these two factors.

For example, a nervous NPC that has committed a heinous crime may act squirrely with the party. They’ll keep conversations short or redirect the conversation if it’ broaching the subject of the crime.

However, a nervous NPC that has a more embarrassing, yet inconsequential, secret might try nervously laughing it off.

Of course, how close the party is to the secret will also impact the NPC. Desperation to get the party off the trail will call for a change in personality for the NPC. A calm and calculating NPC may become a nervous wreck that follows the party around town, hoping to steer them away from any evidence of their crimes.

The Stakes of Secret-Keeping

Let’s face it, we all have secrets, but some of our secrets are dumb in the grand scheme of things. NPC secrets in-game can follow the same pattern. A harmless white lie is still embarrassing if revealed.

The scale of the lie has an enormous impact on the NPC. The higher the stakes, the less they’ll want information about their secret getting out.

High-Stakes Secrets

This type of secret is one with serious consequences behind it. The NPC has done something super illegal or has betrayed someone important that could ruin their life. This secret, if known, will have life-altering consequences. Consequences that the NPC cannot come back from.

Such secrets need to be guarded with the utmost vigilance. The NPC may not tell a soul or only tell the truth to a few, highly trusted, friends. They DO NOT want this to get out.

If the party is investigating this secret they will do everything in their power to escape the situation. They may leave town, they could interfere with the investigation, or they could try and convince the party that what they did was for the greater good. They’re a cornered animal and will do whatever it takes to survive.

Keep in mind too that secrets can be ultimately good. A person who assassinates a tyrannical, abusive king has still committed treason. Yet, if everyone’s lives improved after the king did is that still a heinous crime worth prosecuting? It adds an element of morality into the party’s decision-making as they explore this secret.

Low-Stakes Secrets

A low-stakes secret doesn’t mean that the secret isn’t important to the NPC. Clearly it is because otherwise why hide it?

Low-stakes in this regard means that there’s no legal consequence or threat to the NPC’s life if it was revealed. The secret may still be hurting someone they know, but it’s not threatening either person’s life or livelihood.

For example, one NPC tells their significant other that they get out of work an hour later than they do. They use this extra hour to get a drink at the tavern because they don’t want to deal with their family right after work.

In the grand scheme of things, this doesn’t matter. They’re not doing anything illegal. However, they’re still hurting someone with their actions and would certainly be in trouble if their partner found out they were screwing them over for an hour every day. Hence why it’s still a secret that they’re keeping.

Low-stakes just means that it’s not affecting society as a whole. It doesn’t mean that there are no consequences for their actions.

Learning the NPC’s Secret

Now comes the fun part. The party finally learning the secret that’s been hidden from them all this time.

Once they do so they have a few options. They can confront the NPC, use it as leverage, ignore it, or tell someone in a position of power about what the NPC has done/is doing. There will be various outcomes and rewards for doing each of these.

What the party wants to do with this juicy information is up to them. It’s out of your hands. Rather than cover that, let’s talk about how you might prep for them to find this information in the first place. Here are a couple of examples that I’ve used.

Earning the NPC’s Trust

As friendships and bonds grow so does trust. If you trust someone you’re likely to confide in them.

An NPC trusting the party is a surefire way for the party to learn plenty of low-stakes secrets regarding the NPC and people the NPC is close to. These small-scale lies may be told over drinks at the tavern or told in confidence after the party saves their ass yet again.

On the other hand, a high-stakes secret may also be revealed because the NPC trusts in the party. However, the context of why they’re telling the party is different. They may be doing so out of desperation in hopes that the party can help get them out of this situation.

Whether or not the party does so is up to them, but the NPC trusts them enough with this hail mary play to reveal their deepest secret.

a lively bar with people swinging from the ceiling
Plenty of slip-ups can happen after a night of revelry. Credit: WotC.

Rumormongering and Snooping

More investigative or social parties might prefer to do some digging on their own. They’ve picked up that the NPC in question is hiding something and they want to know what it is.

They’ll case the town and talk to the NPC’s associates, family, and friends. The neighbors could know something so they’ll go around questioning them as well. Someone is bound to slip them some information.

Depending on the secret no one may know what it is outright. However, they may also suspect something is up or cite some odd behavior that the party can be on the lookout for and learn more about the NPC and their secret.

Rumors are super useful in many different contexts. Keep in mind though, savvy NPCs could use rumors as misdirection. Throwing the party off their trail and turning them on an innocent NPC.

Conclusions

Secrets are useful tools for moving the story forward while giving NPCs additional depth. Even a seemingly mundane secret to the party could be viewed as a huge deal to the NPC. It’s something they need to guard at all costs.

Not every secret needs to impact the story or the grand scheme of things. Simple, low-stakes secrets are effective in giving the NPC more depth. They make them feel more lifelike and help with immersion because this person has a life and purpose outside of their involvement with the party.

Revealing or discovering an NPC’s secret can have plenty of story implications. The party may learn of other, more urgent issues that intersect with their inquisition of the NPC or they may figure out how the NPC’s involvement is just a tiny piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem.

Secrets are great. Everyone has something to hide. Whether it’s worth hiding is debatable, but it helps to flesh out the character regardless.

If you enjoyed what you read be sure to check out my ongoing review for all of the official D&D 5e books!

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