image As Game Masters we are in control of a lot of elements at the table. Not only are we responsible for adjucating the rules and mechanics of the game we are playing, we also are primarily responsible for crafting the story, playing the parts of the NPCs, engaging the players through their characters, and making a memorable play experience. At any one point in a game there are multiple things going on, and a lot of important details can get lost in the shuffle of the game. So how do you make sure that the things you want the players to pick up on get picked up on? You know the kinds of things I’m talking about: the clues that lead the characters to solve the mystery, the fact that the BBEG has a weakness to fire based on the runes on the dungeon wall, or the deep subplots that drive the political intrigue game.

You define their importance within the game.

This is a task much easier said than done, especially since problem solving in roleplaying games can be as wide open as the players’ imaginations. Here are a few tips that can help you define importance for elements you want the players to remember.

  • Names – Anything with a name is automatically more important when it comes to gaming. As Matthew pointed out in his Seven More Ways To Spice Up Treasure article, names and histories make things feel more important. Once you reveal that the random pickpocket on the streets is named Aladdin, the group will take notice and realize there is something more to it than just a random city encounter. Including the name turns it into more than it seems on the surface.

    Also to be remembered, the more epic the name the more it will be remembered. Sword +1 is mundane, Chrysaor emblazoned on the blade with mystic etching is better, but Chrysaor, royal sword of the fey kingdoms will make the biggest impact.

  • Hooks – Loosely defined, a hook is anything that pulls the audience in. The hot chick on the beer ad is a hook to make you look at the ad. The shiny cover art is a hook to get you to open the book or read the back cover. The way a salesman asks you for the time as you pass by is a hook to listen to the pitch. Giving your elements things that will hook the players into thinking about it more is a great way to get them engaged. So what kind of hooks can you use in a game? Mostly they will appear in the way you describe the unique details of the element. For real impact they should be described comparative to other things of the same type. “The steel sword feels much heavier than it should.” “You notice the pink shock of hair on her head, uncommon for girls from this region.” “The Mr. Johnson has a nervous tick. Usually he is very cool and collected.” “The ants are crawling all over the floor, despite the rest of the house being clean and an exterminators sign being outside.”
  • Physical Representation – Having any kind of physical representation for an element will add one more sense that players can interact with it. Having a mini specific to a monster puts it into the physical space between the players. I can’t coun’t the number of times that players have asked in the enemy is “doing that” because of the pose the mini was sculpted in. Having it physically present trumps the narrative description in a lot of ways. This doesn’t just hold true for minis. Write down names of NPCs on an index card and hand them to players. Draw a quick sharpie drawing of the runes on the wall. Make a graphic of an alien keypad and put it on the table for the players to interact with. This little bit extra locks in the visual as well as the aural processing centers.
  • Make It Relevant – Nothing gets a player engaged with an element as much as it being relevant to their character. Finding a magical locket is one thing, a magical locket with a picture of the character’s parents found in a dungeon is something the player is instantly engaged in. Even if only making an emotional connection, i.e. "The electron gun owned by a brave space warrior who sought only freedom, much like your character.”, creating a connection or relevance to a character will make the element well remembered. Items are easy. Take whatever item stats and throw in a little history. Plot points are a bit more difficult, but not too hard either. Ask a player if you can engage a bit of their backstory for your current plot, usually they will gleefully say yes. “Sure you can kidnap my sister. That’ll be awesome to play out!” With one character being relevant to the story, the rest of the players will pay more attention or at least support the relevant player’s actions. When making something relevant to one character, remember that the spotlight gets shared by all. Players might zone out a bit if they think they it is just another player’s story going on. They will still participate, they just won’t be as engaged.
  • Spell It Out – Sometimes you just need a cluebat, and depending on the type of game you are running this can work well. Telling players that important elements are important is blunt, but it does cut through a lot of the murkiness that can come in games. There are certain tropes we all know and look out for when gaming. “The vizier or advisor is really betraying the king.” “The skeletal bodies are going to rise and attack us.” “The murderer is going to be someone completely innocuous whose motive wasn’t easily definable as soon as we pull off this rubber mask.” While your games aren’t likely this obvious, sometimes it helps to point out exactly which elements are important and need remembered. The more complex the game, the more necessary this can be. We are only partially engaged in the worlds in which we play in. If we had the vantage points of our characters there are many more things we would pick up on, but since we don’t we have to rely on the important things being marked important. Telling your players that this wrench could be the murder weapon will make them take note of it. You can always do this out of game, and then ask them to tell you how their character came to that conclusion if you want to preserve some sense of game subtlety. 

What all these tips boil down to is one simple rule: Present the things you want to be remembered in a way that makes them stand out from the rest of the events going on. This simple truth is why book titles are bigger than authors names, why typography is such an important art in advertising, and why there are long dramatic pauses inside of important speeches in movies. These, and a million other tricks, are all about making one element stand out from the background so that it, and the message behind it, is remembered by the audience.

So what do you do in your games to define important in elements you want remembered?

(IMG Here / CC 2.0)

6 replies
  1. refinement
    refinement says:

    You read my mind on this one. I was thinking yesterday how great it would be to get you Gnomes’ opinions on how to get your players to remember details.

    One question for discussion: what is your course of action when (despite all attempts to red flag them) your players forget crucial or even just useful details? Roll checks? Wait for an opportunity for repetition? I’ve been struggling to balance player responsibility for details and GM interaction. My current 3.5 game involves a number of factions that my players tend to have a hard time keeping straight. They also often fail to recognize recurring adversaries and rarely remember names of places or people (despite all my attempts to provide compelling description, they only seem to remember the most unimportant characters). At what point should there be a kind of penalty for not taking notes or remembering? Ever? I struggle between giving away plot elements and letting them try to figure it out on their own (because I feel like that is a large portion of the fun).

    Also, this is my first comment. I’ve been lurking for months. Just wanted to say: Keep up the good work, Gnomes. This is my favorite gaming blog. I’ll be buying your book when it arrives at my local gaming shop and voting for you all for the Ennies.

  2. Scott Martin
    Scott Martin says:

    Naming things is powerful– I know that as a player, I pay a lot more attention to named people and items. I don’t introduce many physical representations– I’m not a crafty guy– but they are memorable when they’re used.

    @refinement – Rolling or a friendly reminder work well, depending on time. It can be hard to remember something that passed only a few hours ago (game time), but weeks ago (real world).

    When in doubt, write it down. If it will make you happier to have the people recognized, pass out a sheet with NPC names and a few blank lines between them. That cues your players that the NPCs on the sheet are important and gives them space to write down their reaction to the character.

    For factions, a similar trick applies: write it down. This map of China’s relationships between companies, shadow investors, and various levels of government is more clarifying than paragraphs of description– and can clarify exactly what group is the lynchpin the PCs can strike. This relationship map captures some of the power in a good RMap.

    For more examples, this google image search for relationship maps shows lots of different ways of displaying connections and conflicts to make them clear.

    Combine a map for the relationships between the organizations and a name sheet for the PCs, and your players should soon know who’s who– or at least where to find the info quickly!

  3. John Arcadian
    John Arcadian says:

    @refinement – Glad you commented! Games with a lot of factions and intrigue are really hard to keep everything straight in. They can be really fun though. For one World Of Darkness game I made a table formatted sheet of all the cast of characters. It had:


    I filled in picture, name, and desc (physical description, then handed one sheet to each player. They wrote everything down and I sometimes gave them index cards with special events written on them. Think clue style (Brujah Jacobus In Arizona With the last surviving knowledge of the temporis discipline). They didn’t always remember everything, but they went to those sheets and cards real quick when I hinted that they probably already knew. Once they had the quick reminders they started to remember events and write down new notes. This was a long game and without some kind of organization it would have been way hard to run.

    @Scott Martin – Excellent sugegstion. Relationship maps are a great way to organize, well, relationships. The only downside to one in an RPG is when players would have to discover relationships on their own. I could see doing a magnetic white-board + magnets and image/name printouts to do a very dynamic setup that you can move around and change dry erase lines on. It would be a hell of a prop too. A regular whiteboard and dry erase markers would be cheaper, but image cutouts (like Patrick’s tokens) would be awesome to use. You could pop them off and suddenly have minis, then move them back with changed relationships/notes being marked.

    @Mike’s DND Blog -Michael made a reference to this post in his own blog and had a great idea that I totally missed! A quest item list. Being the old school JRPG dork that I am, that one should have been on my radar. Providing a separate list of “quest loot” would automatically mark it as more important. Even just telling the players to mark xxx item on their quest or important things list would instantly denote its importance. They can then roleplay how and why their characters felt its importance. Check out Mike’s post here:

  4. LordVreeg
    LordVreeg says:

    One tries to create more versimilitude, and to create a more sophisticated game.

    I tend to name and give details for key items and many othes for a few reasons. One is versimilitude. By highlighting certain things you want to be remembered; the ideal of ‘World in Motion’ suffers. In otherwords, the background details (so vital for the versimilitude) are forced further back by shinging the bright light on the forground details.
    More, I don’t like to make it so easy for the players. I like cool, fun items and details. But I also enjoy writing backstores and interesting details on useless and bizarre items. My “Roasting Pan of Cooking” magic item comes to mind.

    I like the ideas above; well thought out and well described. But at the next level, this should be done with lots of items, quest/adventure connected and not. If you only carefully describe the pertinent, you are giftwrapping the game to the players as well reducing the versimilitude of the game.

  5. Kurt "Telas" Schneider
    Kurt "Telas" Schneider says:

    @refinement – Hand the party an index card with the name of each faction, and their relationship to each other, and let them fill in the blanks (with some prompting) as the campaign continues. They can make their own map by arranging them.

    When I want the players to “catch a clue”, I use the Socratic approach – ask questions, sometimes as an NPC, sometimes just as a GM. “Why do you feel the Grand Vizier is trustworthy?” “Why do you suspect the Princess?” “What makes you think it was the butler? He only appeared once, to take your cloaks.”

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