A quest to get players to remember
Getting a group of adults to invest time into a game each week is hard enough, but then you stack on the expectation from the Dungeon Master that the players and characters will remember what happens each week. This is something that I have struggled with in the past, and something that I am continuously trying to improve. The simple fact though is this, getting players to remember NPC’s and subtle story hints from week to week or session to session is tough. The challenge is that players have their own lives outside of the game, so players have to keep two separate lives in their brains. Unlike a Dungeon Master, the players don’t live and breathe the story, so this is something good for DM’s keep in mind. That said, I have developed a few tricks that I use to help my players remember past sessions and important story points.
The recap is a great place to start. If you are not already, set aside about ten to fifteen minutes to recap what last happened and any important details from the past that might come into play for the night's session. You will need to develop a feel for the foreshadowing part, but try to recap with those points in mind and encourage players to jump in and help tell the recap. This last part can give you a feel for what the players think they remember and can help correct any deviation in story canonical.
Senses mean everything
Ok, so this is going to get a little technical so just bare with me. Let’s start with a simple overgeneralization “The brain is nothing but a computer.” The brain has the complicated equivalent of RAM, Hard Drive and a processor. Now what your goal is, as a Dungeon Master and a storyteller, is to make sure that your story gets firmly implanted into your player's long-term memory. This means that you must get your story to be important to your players (which it is probably a little already seeing how they keep showing up) and you need to get the hippocampus to classify those memories as important. The worst way to do that is through your player’s sense of sound. Sound is the weakest sense medium for memory creation. The best way to get the memories to stick is to get your players to relate the new memories to a very strong, old memory. Be careful here, and try to purposefully relate these to positive memories. Now how you can do that is using other mediums and senses to trigger these old memories. The best ways are visual depictions, vivid audio depictions, and smell. These all can be done audibly, it just takes a long time to learn the skill. In my opinion, that person who I see does this the best is Matt Mercer from Critical Role or the Force Grey series. This dual/triple encoding will make the memories stronger in your players and make them less apt to forget. Couple this technique with the recap and you have there a great mixture as the recap will keep them recalling those older memories which builds the synaptic connections up and allows them to access those memories faster and easier...Man, isn’t the brain amazing?
K.I.S.S. (Keep It Simple Stupid)
In the wise quoted words of Michael Scott, “K-I-S-S: Keep It Simple Stupid.” Now Steve Carell's character was notorious for getting simple things wrong, but this is some of the best advice for a story writer and a Dungeon Master. Remember, especially for a long-running campaign, what might seem obvious to you is probably not obvious to your players. They are not knee deep in story writing like you are. They don’t have context to all the background workings of evil giants and such. You need to show your player’s through NPC interactions and what not. They need to be directed, let them select the path, but it is your job to make sure they don't get to the end boss and say “Who the eff is this cat, and who cares!?” If this happens, you as a storyteller have not catered to your audience, and something broke down between session one to the final session. Keeping your story simple, by cutting fluff and just serving up what is needed will go a long way towards your players remembering your sessions. By fluff I mean, cut down on plot threads, the number of important NPC’s. These can get confusing for players and can become hard to remember.
Keep it interesting
Variety is the spice of life and like many things, you should not play a single play-style for every session. Think of play styles as being on a gradient, to one extreme you have hack and slash murder hobos and to the other extreme you have role-play storytelling. What you as a Dungeon Master needs to do is try and create sessions that land all over this spectrum. No session should be like the one just before it or just after it. I like to have RP heavy sessions, battle-heavy sessions, and then a solid mix of both fighting and role play. This gives enough variety that players will not get stuck in a rut, and will make it so your sessions don’t get lumped together and forgotten about.
I very much encourage players to keep journals for writing down plot points they think are important and for writing down NPC’s that they have met and interact with regularly. This gives players a log, something to reference at the table or away from the table. It can be a great way for players to help build cannon as well. As a DM, I would suggest that you keep what I call story bibles. These are collections of the NPC’s cast list, with a detailed summary of the NPC’s and their history or connection to the group. Then I would encourage the players to do the same, by writing down these important NPC’s and information that they have learned. Making these docs electronic and shareable is a giant perk; I am partial to Google Drive.
No matter how good you think your story is, it will mean nothing if your players can’t remember it each week, and it can be frustrating. Just remember there are things that you can do on your side of the screen that can help your players. That is where I am going to leave it for this time. Thank you so much for reading, and let me know if you have anything to add to this article by the usual means. Feel free to comment, I love to read constructive feedback and love discussing topics like these. Check back in next week to see what else I have on my mind or decide to analyze. Remember to follow The DM’s Table on Facebook or on Twitter @dmstable for updates and to let me know what is on your mind, or what you might want to read about. Also, go check out Roll with Advantage! It is a Dungeons and Dragons podcast that releases every Monday by 5 pm Eastern Time. We play, laugh, and have a good time playing a game we all love. Thank you for reading and if you enjoy these articles feel free to donate to the website or buy one of our Crit-Horn t-shirts to help keep the website up and running!
― The DM