Characters with Secret Identities

by Ameron (Derek Myers) on November 14, 2011

Normally D&D characters are glory hounds. They’re always looking to make a name for themselves. When they accomplish something noteworthy they usually go to great lengths to ensure that everyone knows it. The proudly wear their magical armor and make no attempt to hide the magical weapon hanging at their hip or strung over their back. For most characters, level advancement is synonymous with fame. The greater your reputation the more likely you are to take on better paying assignments with more danger and even greater chances for glory.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with this approach. After all this is what almost all adventurers do, but there is something to be said for keeping a low profile. Certainly most adventuring parties have learned this over time and have likely even had an adventure or two where they needed to conceal their true identity. But what if this was the way your party operated all the time. Think about it. There are considerable advantages to anonymity. Think of what you can do if there is no chance that anyone can tie the deeds to your PCs?

I’m not suggesting that your character don a mask and go on a killing spree; quite the opposite in fact. I’m thinking of all the potential good that can be accomplished by keeping your identity secret, not to mention the fantastic role-playing opportunities that arise from having a dual identity.

Before any real consideration is given to keeping your PC’s identity a secret it’s important to think about why these heroes would need to take such steps. Ask yourself why they’re keeping their identities secret in the first place.

The most likely scenario is that they are going to be doing things that are not necessarily legal or acceptable. If the campaign takes place in an urban setting then this is a reasonable possibility. The heroes could be hired to break and enter to recover artifacts or they may need to rough up an important NPC in order to gain valuable information that they can’t otherwise get in the time required. If their identities were known then they could face prosecution for their crimes or retribution from those they’ve wronged.

Another reason to keep their identity a secret is to protect themselves, their employers and their love ones. Although it rarely comes into play, most PCs have families – parents, siblings, a spouse and possibly even children. As the PCs make enemies there is a greater likelihood that these innocent family members could be threatened or harmed as a way to influence the PCs. But if the PCs have taken steps to keep their identities secret then this kind of reprisal is much less likely.

In a campaign where the PCs decide to keep their adventuring personas a secret they need to decide who to bring into their circle of trust. They may be content to simply be super heroes – taking on trouble as they find it and never accepting thanks or reward directly. What’s more likely is that they’ll seek help and try to find a contact; someone to act as their front man or agent. This person can arrange for the jobs and quests, accept payment on behalf of the PCs and ensure that they’re identities remain unknown to the general public. It might even be one of the PCs themselves, although this adds additional risk.

One interesting possibility for why the PCs keep their identities secret is because of their affiliation with a secret society, religious faction or elite military unit. Not only do the PCs need to worry about their own identities being discovered but they need to be mindful of the greater power they report to. Their membership in one of these groups may actually be public knowledge, but what most don’t know is that the grounds crew at the local church is really the elite hit squad that hunts zealots and keeps the peace. This could explain how the PCs are so well-informed and gives them a support network.

There are huge advantages for the heroes to keep their adventures secret. By maintaining a low profile they can better blend in among the common folk. But this is not always an easy thing to do. In the Skill Challenge: Secret Identity we presented some of the ways that PCs might try to conceal who they are in a one-off scenario. The same guidelines could apply for a longer campaign where keeping a low profile is a pivotal part of the adventure arc.

If the PCs are going to do what they can to keep their accomplishments and abilities secret then they have to make sacrifices. If they’re supposed to be peasants then they can’t show up at the local tavern as throw a lot of money around, they need to keep any material gains a secret, including their equipment. Carrying a weapon may be common enough but a glowing long sword that ignites with fire when drawn from the scabbard is going to draw attention. Although PCs don’t like to be unarmored and unequipped they many have to do just that in order to blend in.

A long-term campaign where the PCs have two identities is not something to be undertaken lightly. It requires commitment from the players and will be a lot of work to keep up the charade in-game. But as mentioned above there are a lot of benefits that come with keeping a secret identity. For this kind of adventure to be successful the players need to remember why the PCs decided to keep their identities secret in the first place. It’s up to the DM to keep the motivation strong and ever-present.

Have you even played a D&D adventure where the PCs tried to keep secret identities? How long did they manage to live their dual lives before it fall apart? Were players more willing to role-playing because they had two identities?

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1 BeanBag November 14, 2011 at 12:12 pm

The only secret identity i have seen was an arcane character trying to hide in the Dark Sun world. It worked out pretty well and did add some role playing into a more delve oriented game… but it didnt stop a TPK.

2 BrianLiberge November 14, 2011 at 1:15 pm

My players are late epic and have all adopted monikers to both make them seem more powerful, and to limit the number of people who know their real names and make them difficult to summon.

3 Roleplay-Geek November 14, 2011 at 3:28 pm

In my current campaign I have one player with an assassin who changes his alias each time he visits a new region, which is fun, but can be embarrasing for him as the other players struggle to remember which alias he is using.

I also have a player whose PC has rejected all material advancement in favour of a path of enlightenment. Little does he know that he is infact the rightful heir to a great kingdom. Sometimes secret identities are so secret even the owner doesn’t know who they really are…

4 Philo Pharynx November 15, 2011 at 11:10 am

I haven’t seen this as a group outside of superhero games. But I did have a character with a quadruple secret identity. This was in a 7th sea game. My character was a Castillian peasant pretending to be a noble whose lands were occupied and was lame from a battle injury. To finance this lifestyle, he was also El Halcon. El Halcon was the bandit who preyed on particularly obnoxious nobles (and often stole a kiss from their wives and daughters). Later, he learned that his family was noble, but had their title stripped because of their sorcery. Fortunately he had this taint purified by the holy light of Dios. Then he found out that he was travelling with the daughter of El Vago. She had to ride as El Vago one time, but Ramon provided the voice. That game was a soap opera. Complete with theme song, opening credits, and commercials.

5 Lee November 27, 2011 at 2:25 pm

I agree that keeping this up for an entire campaign could be difficult and draining, but I think running something like this for the first part of a game could be extremely satisfying and challenging for the players and the DM. Imagine a city where crime runs rampant, the government is corrupt, and the church is a business in all but name. A city like that could outlaw vigilantes and adventurers. Only people in the local mercenary guild would be legal sellswords and they are closely monitored. The common people need heroes, but who is willing to do the dirty work of the good people of the city and overthrow the villains running it?

It would be difficult to run a game like this in a high magic setting or at a high level simply because of the things a wizard can do to ruin a good secret identity. I think that it would work extremely well as a low level idea or the first part of a longer game. This is getting filed away in my Awesome Ideas bookmark folder!

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