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Let’s talk about institutional secrecy.

Organizations have all sorts of reasons for keeping secrets. Good ones. Necessary ones. Bad ones.

I’ve watching repeats of JAG lately and recently they aired the Season 8 episode “Need to know” which is about a submarine which was lost at sea 34 years earlier, with the loss of all hands, while on a covert mission for the Central Intelligence Agency. The episode was about finding out what happened to give closure to the families of the men on board. There is a more complete synopsis at this website.

This brought to mind the subject of secrets, and the reasons they are kept, and in particular the work that I used to do for CLAN, the Care Leaver’s Australia Network, which is a support and advocacy organization dedicated to helping the children placed in orphanages and similar institutions in Australia, and in particular to their struggle for apologies and recognition from the organizations who ran those institutions, particularly with regard to the abuses that went on. Adding to that the recent admission of a cover-up by the Catholic Church in Australia of cases of child sexual abuse, including the creation of false documents, and similar admissions made in the US a few years ago and the huge settlements of compensation cases that accompanied it; and the book I am currently reading (a Biography of Nikola Tesla), which brought to mind the whole subtopic of industrial secrets, and you can see where the inspiration for this article came from.

The pattern of secrecy

Here’s the pattern when it comes to institutional secrecy:

  • An institution decides that it has to keep something secret;
  • Rumors and Allegations begin to circulate about the secret;
  • A wall of denials is erected in order to protect the secret;
  • In time, this gives rise to a second layer of secrets, aimed at protecting the parties to the first cover-up from embarrassment;
  • Some time later again, a third layer of secrecy is adopted, aimed at protecting the institution from the damage that would result if it were ever revealed that they had covered something up.
  • Eventually, the fact that they have a secret to keep becomes more important than the secret itself, which is usually common if unconfirmed knowledge. The initial secret has become institutionalized within the organization.

It doesn’t matter what the secret is. It could be something shameful, or something that needs to be secret for legitimate national security reasons, or a trade secret, or an outright criminal act. There may even be a concerted effort to destroy any records containing the truth and replace them with ones that protect the secrecy. A generation or so of management later, and the organization itself no longer knows that it is protecting a secret; the truth has been buried, leaving only rumor, innuendo, and official denials. Penetrating a veil of secrecy that has gone this far is a monumental task of assembling incongruities and details that don’t quite match up.

Of course, going the “false documents” route is extremely dangerous; if future managements are reassured that there is nothing to hide, they may well permit an investigation to “clear the air”, and find themselves then acting from a position of feeling their ideals have been compromised when the details don’t add up. Their sense of betrayal and outrage can lead to full cooperation with the investigation that, in turn, leads to the exposure of the true culprit. Well, it makes a good story; in reality, the likelyhood is that there will suddenly be a fresh wave of coverups.

What does all this mean?

Organizations in RPGs

RPGs are full of organizations. Orders of Knights. Political bodies and Courts. Businesses. Trade Missions. Diplomatic Missions. Schools Of Magic. Temples and theological hierarchies. Ship’s crews. Military Academies. Guilds. Armies. City Watches.

There are dozens of them. And they are all likely to have at least one secret that they would lie, bribe, and perhaps kill, to protect.

Too many secrets?

don’t have such a secret.
How likely?

  • Year 1: No secret = 0.98 to the first power = 2% chance of a secret.
  • Year 2: No secret = 0.98 to the 2nd power =~ 0.96 = 4% chance of a secret.
  • Year 3: No secret = 0.98 to the 3rd power =~ 0.94 = 6% chance of a secret.
  • Year 4: No secret = 0.98 to the 4th power =~ 0.92 = 8% chance of a secret.
  • Year 5: No secret = 0.98 to the 5th power =~ 0.9 = 10% chance of a secret.
  • Year 6: No secret = 0.98 to the 6th power =~ 0.89 = 11% chance of a secret.
  • Year 7: No secret = 0.98 to the 7th power =~ 0.87 = 13% chance of a secret.
  • Year 8: No secret = 0.98 to the 8th power =~ 0.85 = 15% chance of a secret.
  • Year 9: No secret = 0.98 to the 9th power =~ 0.83 = 17% chance of a secret.
  • Year 10: No secret = 0.98 to the 10th power =~ 0.82 = 18% chance of a secret.
  • Year 11: No secret = 0.98 to the 11th power =~ 0.8 = 20% chance of a secret.
  • Year 12: No secret = 0.98 to the 12th power =~ 0.78 = 22% chance of a secret.
  • Year 13: No secret = 0.98 to the 13th power =~ 0.77 = 23% chance of a secret.
  • Year 14: No secret = 0.98 to the 14th power =~ 0.75 = 25% chance of a secret.
  • Year 15: No secret = 0.98 to the 15th power =~ 0.74 = 26% chance of a secret.
  • Year 16: No secret = 0.98 to the 16th power =~ 0.72 = 28% chance of a secret.
  • Year 17: No secret = 0.98 to the 17th power =~ 0.71 = 29% chance of a secret.
  • Year 18: No secret = 0.98 to the 18th power =~ 0.7 = 30% chance of a secret.
  • Year 19: No secret = 0.98 to the 19th power =~ 0.68 = 32% chance of a secret.
  • Year 20: No secret = 0.98 to the 20th power =~ 0.67 = 33% chance of a secret.
  • Year 21: No secret = 0.98 to the 21st power =~ 0.65 = 35% chance of a secret.
  • Year 22: No secret = 0.98 to the 22nd power =~ 0.64 = 36% chance of a secret.
  • Year 23: No secret = 0.98 to the 23rd power =~ 0.63 = 37% chance of a secret.
  • Year 24: No secret = 0.98 to the 24th power =~ 0.62 = 38% chance of a secret.
  • Year 25: No secret = 0.98 to the 25th power =~ 0.6 = 40% chance of a secret.

You have to wait a long time for that to reach 100%. 263 years, in fact, before the chance of not having a secret to protect is less than 0.5% (at which point it would round to zero instead of rounding to 1%). But for the last century or so, the chance was in the 90%+ range.

But 2% is an extraordinarily low base chance. It might be appropriate for an order of Paladins or something along those lines, something where purity of spirit and purpose are enforced directly by Divine Power, but not for much else. What happens if we double it to 4% per year?

  • Year 1: No secret = 0.96 to the first power = 4% chance of a secret.
  • Year 2: No secret = 0.96 to the 2nd power =~ 0.92 = 8% chance of a secret.
  • Year 3: No secret = 0.96 to the 3rd power =~ 0.88 = 12% chance of a secret.
  • Year 4: No secret = 0.96 to the 4th power =~ 0.85 = 15% chance of a secret.
  • Year 5: No secret = 0.96 to the 5th power =~ 0.82 = 18% chance of a secret.
  • Year 6: No secret = 0.96 to the 6th power =~ 0.78 = 22% chance of a secret.
  • Year 7: No secret = 0.96 to the 7th power =~ 0.75 = 25% chance of a secret.
  • Year 8: No secret = 0.96 to the 8th power =~ 0.72 = 28% chance of a secret.
  • Year 9: No secret = 0.96 to the 9th power =~ 0.69 = 31% chance of a secret.
  • Year 10: No secret = 0.96 to the 10th power =~ 0.66 = 34% chance of a secret.
  • Year 11: No secret = 0.96 to the 11th power =~ 0.64 = 36% chance of a secret.
  • Year 12: No secret = 0.96 to the 12th power =~ 0.61 = 39% chance of a secret.
  • Year 13: No secret = 0.96 to the 13th power =~ 0.59 = 41% chance of a secret.
  • Year 14: No secret = 0.96 to the 14th power =~ 0.56 = 44% chance of a secret.
  • Year 15: No secret = 0.96 to the 15th power =~ 0.54 = 46% chance of a secret.
  • Year 16: No secret = 0.96 to the 16th power =~ 0.52 = 48% chance of a secret.
  • Year 17: No secret = 0.96 to the 17th power =~ 0.50 = 50% chance of a secret.
  • Year 18: No secret = 0.96 to the 18th power =~ 0.48 = 52% chance of a secret.
  • Year 19: No secret = 0.96 to the 19th power =~ 0.46 = 54% chance of a secret.
  • Year 20: No secret = 0.96 to the 20th power =~ 0.44 = 56% chance of a secret.
  • Year 21: No secret = 0.96 to the 21st power =~ 0.42 = 58% chance of a secret.
  • Year 22: No secret = 0.96 to the 22nd power =~ 0.41 = 59% chance of a secret.
  • Year 23: No secret = 0.96 to the 23rd power =~ 0.39 = 61% chance of a secret.
  • Year 24: No secret = 0.96 to the 24th power =~ 0.38 = 62% chance of a secret.
  • Year 25: No secret = 0.96 to the 25th power =~ 0.36 = 64% chance of a secret.

It’s clear that the chances are going up a lot faster, but it still takes 130 years – a little less than half the 2% value – to reach a probable 100%. But for a good 60 or more of those years the chance was 90% or better that they would. Which is another way of saying that nine in ten organizations that are 70 years or more old will have such a secret.

This is possibly correct for an organization like a church that has political agendas as well as some divine enforcement. But if a Paladin loses his honor it is fairly obvious, whereas a cleric can remain hidden so long as he mouths the correct formulas and doesn’t try casting any spells. It’s even possible that this value is too low.

How about at a neat 10% per year?

  • Year 1: No secret = 0.9 to the first power = 10% chance of a secret.
  • Year 2: No secret = 0.9 to the 2nd power =~ 0.81 = 19% chance of a secret.
  • Year 3: No secret = 0.9 to the 3rd power =~ 0.73 = 27% chance of a secret.
  • Year 4: No secret = 0.9 to the 4th power =~ 0.66 = 34% chance of a secret.
  • Year 5: No secret = 0.9 to the 5th power =~ 0.59 = 41% chance of a secret.
  • Year 6: No secret = 0.9 to the 6th power =~ 0.53 = 47% chance of a secret.
  • Year 7: No secret = 0.9 to the 7th power =~ 0.48 = 52% chance of a secret.
  • Year 8: No secret = 0.9 to the 8th power =~ 0.43 = 57% chance of a secret.
  • Year 9: No secret = 0.9 to the 9th power =~ 0.39 = 61% chance of a secret.
  • Year 10: No secret = 0.9 to the 10th power =~ 0.35 = 65% chance of a secret.
  • Year 11: No secret = 0.9 to the 11th power =~ 0.31 = 69% chance of a secret.
  • Year 12: No secret = 0.9 to the 12th power =~ 0.28 = 72% chance of a secret.
  • Year 13: No secret = 0.9 to the 13th power =~ 0.25 = 75% chance of a secret.
  • Year 14: No secret = 0.9 to the 14th power =~ 0.23 = 77% chance of a secret.
  • Year 15: No secret = 0.9 to the 15th power =~ 0.21 = 79% chance of a secret.
  • Year 16: No secret = 0.9 to the 16th power =~ 0.19 = 81% chance of a secret.
  • Year 17: No secret = 0.9 to the 17th power =~ 0.17 = 83% chance of a secret.
  • Year 18: No secret = 0.9 to the 18th power =~ 0.15 = 85% chance of a secret.
  • Year 19: No secret = 0.9 to the 19th power =~ 0.14 = 86% chance of a secret.
  • Year 20: No secret = 0.9 to the 20th power =~ 0.12 = 88% chance of a secret.
  • Year 21: No secret = 0.9 to the 21st power =~ 0.11 = 89% chance of a secret.
  • Year 22: No secret = 0.9 to the 22nd power =~ 0.1 = 90% chance of a secret.
  • Year 23: No secret = 0.9 to the 23rd power =~ 0.09 = 91% chance of a secret.
  • Year 24: No secret = 0.9 to the 24th power =~ 0.08 = 92% chance of a secret.
  • Year 25: No secret = 0.9 to the 25th power =~ 0.07 = 93% chance of a secret.

After 22 years, we hit the 90% mark – this is far quicker than a 4% chance was, in fact it’s less than half as long. But it still takes until Year 51 for rounding to take the chance to 100%. This is the right sort of chance for a basically honorable organization whose mission involves politics, statehood, and other such dangerous pursuits.

Doubling this to 20% per year gets us into the organizations that have slightly shady dealings every now and then.

  • Year 1: No secret = 0.8 to the first power = 20% chance of a secret.
  • Year 2: No secret = 0.8 to the 2nd power =~ 0.64 = 36% chance of a secret.
  • Year 3: No secret = 0.8 to the 3rd power =~ 0.51 = 49% chance of a secret.
  • Year 4: No secret = 0.8 to the 4th power =~ 0.41 = 59% chance of a secret.
  • Year 5: No secret = 0.8 to the 5th power =~ 0.33 = 67% chance of a secret.
  • Year 6: No secret = 0.8 to the 6th power =~ 0.26 = 74% chance of a secret.
  • Year 7: No secret = 0.8 to the 7th power =~ 0.21 = 79% chance of a secret.
  • Year 8: No secret = 0.8 to the 8th power =~ 0.17 = 83% chance of a secret.
  • Year 9: No secret = 0.8 to the 9th power =~ 0.13 = 87% chance of a secret.
  • Year 10: No secret = 0.8 to the 10th power =~ 0.11 = 89% chance of a secret.
  • Year 11: No secret = 0.8 to the 11th power =~ 0.09 = 91% chance of a secret.
  • Year 12: No secret = 0.8 to the 12th power =~ 0.07 = 93% chance of a secret.
  • Year 13: No secret = 0.8 to the 13th power =~ 0.06 = 94% chance of a secret.
  • Year 14: No secret = 0.8 to the 14th power =~ 0.04 = 96% chance of a secret.
  • Year 15: No secret = 0.8 to the 15th power =~ 0.04 = 96% chance of a secret.
  • Year 16: No secret = 0.8 to the 16th power =~ 0.03 = 97% chance of a secret.
  • Year 17: No secret = 0.8 to the 17th power =~ 0.02 = 98% chance of a secret.
  • Year 18: No secret = 0.8 to the 18th power =~ 0.02 = 98% chance of a secret.
  • Year 19: No secret = 0.8 to the 19th power =~ 0.01 = 99% chance of a secret.
  • Year 20: No secret = 0.8 to the 20th power =~ 0.01 = 99% chance of a secret.
  • Year 21: No secret = 0.8 to the 21st power =~ 0.01 = 99% chance of a secret.
  • Year 22: No secret = 0.8 to the 22nd power =~ 0.01 = 99% chance of a secret.
  • Year 23: No secret = 0.8 to the 23rd power =~ 0.01 = 99% chance of a secret.
  • Year 24: No secret = 0.8 to the 24th power =~ 0.00 = 100% chance of a secret.

Nine in ten slightly-shady organizations will have a secret that they are desperate to hide after just less than 11 years. And that’s completely ignoring the fact that such organizations come into existence for a reason, and that reason is probably itself a very deep secret.

So, what are the chances that an organization like this will have two such secrets? Well, it’s the chance that they already have one, multiplied by 100 minus the chance of not having one – which just happens to be the same as the chance that they already have one. If you could be sure that they would only acquire one such secret in a year, you would use the chance from the previous line, but there is no such restriction. And the chance of a third is the chance of two multiplied by the same chance again, and so on.

  • 67% one secret
  • 67 x 0.67 = 45% two secrets
  • 67 x 0.67 x 0.67 = 30% three secrets
  • 67 x 0.67 x 0.67 x 0.67 = 14% four secrets
  • 67 x 0.67 x 0.67 x 0.67 x 0.67 = 9% five secrets.

These numbers overlap – technically, the first chance is actually the chance of having at least one secret, so, convert them into a table, you get:

  • 01-09 = five secrets
  • 10-14 = four secrets
  • 15-30 = three secrets
  • 31-45 = two secrets
  • 46-67 = one secret
  • 68-00 = no secret

Remembering that these are secrets that the organization will lie, bribe, and possibly kill, to protect, and that ignores any secrets stemming from the creation reason in the first place.

It’s probably worth remembering that a serious spy organization might undertake half a dozen or more missions a year, most of which would constitute such a secret (instead of years, count “missions”). Five missions a year for three years at even a paltry 20% chance each is 96% of a dirty little secret, like targetting someone they should not have, or for reasons they should not have.

The Secret Of Secrets

So, what’s the upshot?

Whenever you create an organization, give a passing moment’s thought to how likely they are to have secret worth killing over, or dying for, given how long they’ve been around. It’s not necessary to assign numbers – I’ve done so just to offer your intuition a guideline. Give your d% a roll, and react instinctively to the result. Then start thinking about what their lethal secrets might be, and whether or not a PC might stumble over one in the course of their interaction with that organization – if not now, then eventually. Because secrets have a way of getting out…

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