Content of the article: "Make Life Easier on Your Players if you want More Buy-In"
TLDR: We’re talking players, not characters. Per a player request, I’ve created a live document to track NPCs that the players have met, where they are, and what quests are attached to them. The players love it and they’re remembering a lot more about the game.
I was running the first session of Rime of the Frostmaiden (very light spoilers ahead) and the players were travelling north in a caravan. There were two important characters there, the caravan leader Brahm Lemarch and Hlin Trollbane, a dwarven woman who was the head of security. Hlin offered them a quest, telling them about another dwarven woman named Torrga who was running a different caravan and that her bodyguard named Sepheck might be behind a string of murders in the nearby towns.
“So we find Hlin Trollbane and then kill her bodyguard?”
“No, Hlin Trollbane is giving you the quest. You’re after Torrga’s caravan.”
“We’re in a caravan.”
“A different one.”
“Oh….So we’re not killing Hlin?”
My players started getting confused about which dwarf woman was the one giving them the quest and which one they were supposed to track down. That was my bad, I could have been a little clearer when giving the quest. But it didn’t help that besides keeping track of the four NPC’s I just introduced, two of which were only referenced, but they also had to learn who the other members of their party were.
We cleared that part up and moved on.
As they moved through a sudden blizzard, their caravan was attacked by an ice dragon buried in a snow drift. They managed to save the two named NPCs and make their way to a town. This town had a name, it’s leader had a name, the wolves guarding the entrance to the town had a name, the woman whose children got kidnapped by said wolves had a name, those kidnapped children had names, the kobolds they found near a wooly mammoth while rescuing the children had names – and that mammoth had a name too, by the way, but the party never asked.
That is a lot of name dropping in a single session. Granted, not all sessions are going to be like the first one, where a lot of characters are introduced, but they very well could come close as the players move from town to town and meet swathes of new characters. I don’t typically love introducing this many characters in any session, especially off-screen, but sometimes you just don’t have that much choice.
So how do you deal with that?
Well, post-session my players asked me if I could put together a list of all of the NPCs we met this session and share it with them. I’m not going to lie, I kind of balked at this suggestion. I am already doing a lot of back-end work and bookkeeping, so tracking NPC’s seems like something that the players can do in their notes. I tried to think of a way I could get around it with some clever device, but in the end, I just made the list and pinned it to our discord chat.
And it worked.
My players feel a lot better about the game now that they can quickly reference NPC’s, where they’re from, and the quests attached to them.
I also include their pronouns at the front of their descriptions. This was first because I wanted to avoid having to write “dwarven woman” or “half-elven man” a bunch, but I found out that it makes a great shorthand when referencing NPCs. It prevents accidental misgendering and easily remembering non-binary characters. Your players want to use the correct pronouns in game, but beyond that, they just don’t want to be confused.
I’m not including details that may be subjective about a character they’ve met, and only short physical descriptions for the most part. All that matters is who they are and why they are important. Your player’s notes can fill in all the subjective details that will inform their relationship with the NPC themselves.
This list has become a useful reference tool for myself as well. I know all the NPCs that exist in the adventure, but it’s really nice to have an updated list of the ones my players have met. If the players don’t know an NPC exists in the game, then for all intents and purposes they don’t. That’s not to say that a hidden character’s machinations can’t be happening behind the scenes or outside of the player’s zone of influence, but if they or their devious plans never make an appearance in game, then they aren’t really a part of the game at all.
This was a learning experience for me. Creating that list took me maybe 30 minutes and keeping it updated will add about 5 minutes to each of my planning sessions – but the return on that time investment is that the characters that I spend so much time on won’t be forgotten. I’ve also added details like the date/time that they left off on. This can easily be referenced by my players later who scan through the list and remember:
“Hey, weren’t we supposed to deliver this bone necklace to Haggatha Christie?”
“Oh shit, what day is it?”
“I think we’ve got about three days left before she curses us. How far is she away?”
“I’d estimate about two days' travel. Let’s go!”
And then my vengeful, hag heart melts because the players remembered my ugly crone, which is great! But sad, because my devious curses might be avoided…if they can make their way through a sudden, but totally coincidental blizzard in time, that is.
My point is that the easier you make it to keep track of the elements of your game, the more buy-in you’ll get from your players – who generally want to remember all the cool things, places, times and people, but maybe don’t take the most exhaustive notes and after weeks of play forget about some cool characters and details.
Another cheeky little thing you can do is subtly nudge your players towards dope elements of your game by putting more emphasis on certain things. You don’t have to do that, but if you really don’t want the players to miss your gravity dragon hiding in the reverse waterfall, it might be a useful tool in your toolbox.
I hope this was helpful, because it’s something new I’m trying and I’m sure there are loads of other tools out there to make things easier for you and your players to track things. If you know of any, I encourage you to comment below and let me know!
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