Dungeons & Dragons Online

Dark Secrets and Unresolved Conflict: A session 0 system for immediate player agency

This system uses two narrative concepts, historical events and dark secrets, and one mechanical concept, unresolved conflict. At a high level the historical events and dark secrets are narrative sequences preceding the campaign or adventure the current party is involved in. They are snippets of each PC's history that the other PCs will know, giving some common ground. Unresolved conflict represents a simple mechanical method for expressing dark secrets. As unresolved conflict persists throughout the campaign, players will experience increasing costs and rewards for these unfinished narratives.

I'll start by explaining how this works at the table and then detail more in sections below.

Each player will take one turn rolling for/picking a historical event. They are then given time to think about inputs for the prompts. After everyone has rolled for an event the first person will let the GM know their responses to the prompts along with any additional content they wish to add. This continues until everyone has at least three events. After this is done, all players pick a dark secret from among their historical events that becomes their unresolved conflict. The concepts of historical events, dark secrets, and unresolved conflicts are explained in the sections below.

My suggestion for using this system is at Session 0, before a long lasting campaign/adventure is about to start. This is generic enough that it could be used as downtime variant rules if you wanted though I'd highly revise the unresolved conflict benefits if you go down this route.

That said, I built this explicitly to encourage my players to own the world they were about to enter into for a potentially multi-year campaign. I also planned the campaign to begin shortly after the first "quest" had gathered them together, so they were already working as a group and would be mostly past the "what's your story?" stage of conversation. How and if you use this is entirely up to you! Your mileage may vary.


Historical Event Table

You must roll/pick (roll for at least 2) from this table to generate up to four unique historical pieces of information about you (reroll if you get the same result). Then, after filling out all of the prompts within the events you share the events with the other PCs. Feel free to coordinate on names, places, or even general themes from the results.

All but one of these events can be (does not have to be!) resolved, in a method of your choosing, and you share with the group how they were resolved if you'd like. However, the unresolved event(s) becomes your dark secret.

Dark Secret

A dark secret is something your character is so conflicted by that their own actions belie their intent to hide, forget, or move on from the past. You've only told the other PCs because you trust them enough to share such details.

After choosing a dark secret pick two associated skills of your choice that you think represent the event appropriately. For example, if you were accused (wrongfully or rightfully) of theft you might pick Stealth and Deception. The choice of the skills is an agreement between you and the GM at creation of the dark secret. One of these skills becomes your reliant skill while one becomes the separated skill.

Reliant Skill

The reliant skill is one that your character relied on to either get out of the event or help them stay ahead of the unresolved conflict (explained next).

Separated Skill

The separated skill is one that your character associates with negatively since the event and which your character struggles to consider using as long as they have not finalized the unresolved conflict. The PCs know what these are as part of your sharing of the dark secret with them.

Dark Secrets and Unresolved Conflict

While your dark secret is not deemed resolved by you and the GM you have an unresolved conflict counter. The unresolved conflict counter represents your character's internal conflicts about their pass actions/history expressed mechanically through the associated skills. Throughout the game the GM will tell you when to increase your unresolved conflict counter. This could be during downtime, when you see a key person/place/thing of your dark secret, or anything else the GM deems relates to your past event. The GM can't increase your unresolved conflict more than once per level though. If the PCs choose to act out their memories and/or nightmares of it, or fail to progress resolution of the conflict, they can (at the GM's permission) volunteer to take a point themselves. This can happen only once per level too.

For each two points of unresolved conflict you subtract 1 from all rolls of the associated separated skill (to a maximum of -5). Additionally for each two points of unresolved conflict you add 1 to all rolls related to your reliant skill (to a maximum of +5). Once you and the GM agree that your dark secret has been resolved you remove all negative modifiers of your separated skill. Additionally, you may distribute the remaining positive modifiers (a maximum of +5) between both your separated and reliant skills. You may also, if not already, become proficient at your reliant skill. It is encouraged that as the conflict grows the PC and GM agree on potentially other bonuses, narrative or mechanical, that would be gained by resolution.


Explanation of fillable types

Use random generators if you want inspiration but also feel free to create entirely new (within reason) responses for each prompt type below.

<<position/title/role>> Provide a name for the position, title, or role of some organizational structure (i.e. a clergy, government, guild, etc.). These should be within reason but do not have to be limited in scope of creativity. Create entirely new organizational structure names if you'd like, or don't!

<<name/organization/object>> Provide a full name of the person, organization, object or other proper noun whom is referenced here. Provide as much or little history as you'd like. Objects should be limited in magical nature (no the thief didn't steal a +5 shortsword from you….)

<<settlement/location/land>> Provide a name of a place on the map or made up. Provide as much detail as you think your character would know about this place. You have explicit permission to create things here.

<<true/false>> Respond whether the statement preceding this is true or false about you.

Anything else in brackets should be intuitively discerned.


List of historical events

  1. You once served under <<name>>, a member of <<organization>> of <<settlement>> before you were let go. Word from those still in their employment is that your wanted for stealing <<object>> upon release <<true/false>>.
  2. You were accused of poisoning <<name>>. Now the residents of <<settlement>> put enough coin together to pay for mercenaries to bring you back for trial. <<organization>> is involved.
  3. Passing through <<settlement>> you met <<name>> the <<title>>. They promised you coin if you gave them your <<object>>. Now you hear voices whispering their name in your head.
  4. While exploring <<location>> you stumbled a small point of some large monolith barely jutting from the ground. You were startled by another explorer <<name>> coming up behind you as you watched it. They swore they were your <<position>> though you'd never seen them before.
  5. <<name>> has sent << after you. You stole their <<object>> <<true/false>>.
  6. You’ve received a message from a long lost relative <<name>> and are trying to find them. The only words on the message were "I only remember you." They were delivered by the <<organization>> who specialize in discreet message delivery at an extreme price. You know this relative couldn't afford the message.
  7. While visiting the <<organization>> you touched their <<object>>. It disappeared as soon as you touched it and you ran before anyone could see. Rumors now float that <<name>> the <<position>> is looking for someone of your approximate features.
  8. <<name>> was kidnapped. Because you are their <<position>> it was expected that you would pay the ransom the bandits wanted. There was no way you could ever pay for it. Two days later no one but you knew who <<name>> was. You've found no sign of their existence since.
  9. You were promised a great sum of money by <<name>> should <<organization>> succeed. You even signed what you believed was a strongly binding contract. Now <<same organization>> is incredibly wealthy and <<same name>> doesn't even recognize you. You've even used Zone of Truth.
  10. Several years ago you witnessed the murder of <<name>> the famous <<position>> of <<settlement>>. The murderer was caught and killed publicly. Now you've been named an accomplice to the act.
  11. <<organization>> claims you can create the cure to <<disease>> <<true/false>>. You know what the cure does to people and know that death is the better alternative. They've sent people to bring you in and force you to work for them.
  12. You watched the theft of <<object>> from <<organization>> in <<settlement>>. You did nothing while it happened.
  13. <<name1>> stole <<object>> from you. Rumor was they were in <<settlement>> working for <<name2>>. Those rumors were cold and you've since lost the trail.
  14. <<organization>> of <<settlement>> kicked you out for assaulting their staff. You did no such thing but suspect the owner <<name>> has an unspoken vendetta against you.
  15. The <<organization>> of <<settlement>> tried to recruit you a few years back and you turned them down. They don't allow 'no'.
  16. You convinced a group of <<position>> that <<object>> was a powerful <<title>> in order to escape. Some of their rank seek you out now to serve as <<role>>.
  17. Every time you touch a <<object>> you hear the name <<name>> in your head. You have no clue who, what, or where <<same name>> is.
  18. Your parents are the great <<name>> and <<name>> the <<title>>. They've passed on yet their fervent fans believe you to be the next of their kind. Word of death threats against you float around.
  19. Someone claimed you fought and killed the evil <<name>>. You did not, however their minions are now hunting you for revenge.
  20. <<organization>> of <<settlement>> put out a warrant for your arrest. The claim merely states, 'falsifying identification'. When you weren't found in a day the <<organization2>> were paid to find you.
  21. A <<position>> of <<location>> crossed your path one day. They spoke out loud their title and exclaimed to no one in particular, "You! Hear me! See me!". Now you occasionally dream nightmares of you two being the only two people left on the world.
  22. You made an enemy of another adventurer, <<name>>. You slandered their name <<true/false>> and now they return the favor.
  23. After partying all together too hard, you woke up the next day at <<location>>. It wasn't far to get there from the party but you remember strange faces watching you wake up. You caught the name of their group as <<organization>>. When you finally stirred enough to raise your wearied form they were all gone.
  24. You served in <<organization>> based out of <<place>>. You left because you saw your allies do unspeakable things.
  25. A <<position>> incoherently cursed you, causing you to turn into a <<creature>> for a month.
  26. A <<title>> of <<organization>> raised you from birth. They treated your kindly until you could leave of your own will <<true/false>>.
  27. When you turned of age you had a dream where you could speak to <<creature>>. When you woke that day one was by your side, speaking to you intelligently. After a year it vanished. You were close friends by that time <<true/false>>.
  28. You worked hard for years as a <<position>> at <<organization>> of <<place>>. However, it was your colleague and close friend who passed into the upper echelons of the org. They were murdered, though claimed by leaders it was suicide, and you know it was <<name>>.
  29. The unlikely group of <<title>> from <<organization>> trained you for a few months as an apprentice <<position>>. One day you woke up and they'd gone. You remember nothing of the skills they taught you, only that they did.
  30. On your name day you were given <<object>> by the local <<title>> of <<settlement>>. They whispered to you, "If anyone takes this from you, the world will cease to exist". You've tested this prophecy <<true/false>>.
  31. One day a <<creature>> walked into <<settlement>>, scaring many of its residents. It approached you intently and you froze. It bumped you with it's body, knocking you to the ground, and then calmly left.
  32. You were given <<object>> by a <<title>> and promised that it would give you unlimited power should you figure out how to 'open' it.
  33. During the War of <<name>> you passed through a razed settlement, <<settlement>>. A dying citizen shared their final words with you. You can't get their words out of your head.
  34. You were a student to the greatest <<title>> of <<settlement>>. One day you were given a <<object>> by a stranger. You left the tutelage the next day.
  35. Whenever you look at a <<object>> your <<left/right>> eye turns the color <<color>>. When you were young a <<title>> told you that meant you are cursed. They refused to say in what way.
  36. When you were a child, a <<title>> of <<organization>> approached you with a <<creature>> and said "Gods grant you strength of mind." Now whenever you see a <<same creature>> you hear the name <<name>> whispered in your head.
  37. For many months <<name>> trained you to become a <<position>>. One day they set you up with a crime they did and ran. You were captured and imprisoned for it <<true/false>>.
  38. Your family told you to never go to <<location>>, one day (perhaps many years later) you visited it. There, sitting on a rock was the believed to be stolen family heirloom, a <<object>>.
  39. You were given the key to <<place>> by a <<position>> of <<organization>>.
  40. Every other day when you wake a voice speaks into your head "go to <<place>>". On the other days it says "kill <<name>>".

Final thoughts

My goals in creating this system were:

1) Construct player driven world history that both the players and the GM can exercise in roleplay, character building, and adventure design

2) Create common information by which the players and PCs can interact meaningfully without removing the opportunity for twists or surprises in backstory development

3) Give a mechanical reward for the resolution of personal history of the PCs

This conscious effort to solve 1) meant that I, the GM, was immediately given a huge amount of narrative ammo. Adventure skeletons filled in perfectly using some of the results created. Parts of culture in disparate locations immediately began to bloom from the little cues the players provided. I was mapping out a whole campaign of goals and story point skeleton structure that very naturally grew from the responses given.

Additionally, this immediately engaged the players before even the first adventure. Your players own parts of the world and in some cases even have highly visible histories. In several responses, players gave additional information about wars, creatures, items, and even other actors that associated with their event. These became skeleton frameworks for me that alleviated both my world and adventure building process.

One player wrote an entire two page story before session 0 had even started. Initially I felt like this defeated the purpose of joint discovery of locations and organizations that would occur if everyone chose/rolled together. However, she wrote this amazing sequence of events that perfectly defined her character and painted this vivid history for the other players. Everyone else at the table loved it and several wove portions of her antagonists into their own responses. So while I would discourage letting everyone write their events before hand, it certainly helped this one player immensely and gave value to everyone else.

To the second point, the historical event table is very intentionally light in details. Creativity loves constraints. However, I also wanted to not constrain the players so much so that they felt uninspired to expand. These prompts all give just enough direction for a person to create wildly different responses because they only ask the player to give one or two word responses for each prompt. If you add more prompts of your own be mindful of how much constraint you intend or implicitly include.

Lastly, there are a LOT of notes that you'll want to have from all the responses the players give here. I made an effort to only capture the high points of it all on the first pass. This included the major bracketed responses I prompted and anything other important noun or proper noun thrown out during their replies. One of the players got concerned that they wouldn't be able to take notes on everyone else while filling out their own form. I asked from that point on that everyone prepare their responses to be shared amongst the group. We're using a VTT and stored them as readable notes for all players to inspect. This saves you, and the other interested players, a lot of concern with remembering everything else.

Edit: Formatting

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