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Defining Importance, Making Sure The Things You Want To Be Remembered About Your Game Are

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.

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)

About  John Arcadian

John Arcadian is the head of Silvervine Games, a freelance writer and art director, a website developer, a builder of sonic screwdrivers, and a purveyor of kilted mayhem. When he isn't out causing trouble in his kilt... Well, no, that is pretty much what he does when he isn't running RPGs or or trying to take over the world.

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6 Comments To "Defining Importance, Making Sure The Things You Want To Be Remembered About Your Game Are"

#1 Comment By refinement On July 16, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

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 Comment By Scott Martin On July 16, 2010 @ 4:39 pm

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 Pingback By They Were In Our Back Pocket the Whole Time « Mike's D&D Blog On July 16, 2010 @ 5:30 pm

[…] key when we got it. It’s funny that today on Gnome Stew, John wrote some tips to help players remember details about a game… such as the importance of a special item. Unfortunately I don’t think his […]

#4 Comment By John Arcadian On July 16, 2010 @ 11:02 pm

@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:


#5 Comment By LordVreeg On July 17, 2010 @ 11:18 am

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.

#6 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 19, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

@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.”