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I'm a new DM running my first adventure (it's D&D 4.0 but that's not relevant to my question). I've heard of the "three clue rule", that there should be at least three independent pointers to any plot element you want the PCs to take note of, in places where it's likely the PCs will find them. This seems to be mostly working. The PCs are good about recognizing a clue as a clue when they find it. However, the problem is that when the PCs have extremely short memories, and often forget they're carrying around a crucial piece of evidence, even when I have NPCs ask them what proof they have of their assertions.

I'm at a loss for what to do here. Should I punish them ("Your words are worthless, maybe a stay in the dungeons will teach you not to make false accusations"), ignore their lapse ("I'll believe you...this time"), or what?

Similarly, they completely forget about minor quests ("return the stolen cask of ale") that NPCs have given them, even when NPCs remind them about it. I was counting on them completing the quest in order to give them a reward (namely, better weapons). Should I withhold the reward or just give it to them anyway?

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I suspect Skyrim is to blame for this somehow :) –  Fuhrmanator Jun 21 '12 at 20:29
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Your players either need to take more notes or you need to find better players. –  Sardathrion Jun 22 '12 at 5:57
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I agree with Sardathrion. Making the game fun is a shared responsibility between the GM and the players. If they can't do their share of the work, maybe you should think about changing the game style before the group, though. Something less intrigue-oriented, maybe ? And if at some point they tire of dungeon crawling, remind them why you made the switch... –  Nigralbus Jun 22 '12 at 8:48
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16 Answers

up vote 54 down vote accepted

Probably the easiest way to avoid forgetting a few key things is to use a physical prop.

When you have an important bit of information or a "quest item," write it down on a notecard and physically hand it to the players.

You're not "giving away" anything if they've already identified the thing as important by themselves. But now they have a handy reminder sitting around on the table, and flipping through their small (keep it very small!) stack of cards is a good way to catch up on loose ends at the beginning of a session.


This approach may seem like you're "going easy" on them compared to making them keep their own notes (because, well, you are!), but consider:

  1. When the players forget something that the PCs really shouldn't, does it lead to interesting situations or frustrating situations? If it's interesting, maybe you should make them work for a it a bit and throw some complications their way. If it's just frustrating, though, then it's in everyone's interests, including the GM's, to avoid the problem altogether.
  2. Pacing matters. If your challenges and rewards emphasize caution and detailed record-keeping, games tend to be slower. Groups that thrive on the action-drama aspect of adventure gaming benefit from play procedures that streamline and simplify record-keeping.
  3. If the players liked taking notes, you probably wouldn't have this situation in the first place. So I'm assuming they don't.
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@deltree How many super-important clues and macguffins are you juggling at once, though? You don't keep the cards forever -- purge them when they're no longer relevant. –  Alex P Jun 21 '12 at 19:57
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Not only do the players not take notes, they don't read the summaries that I occasionally type up. At least typing them up helps me remember the plot. –  Snowbody Jun 22 '12 at 2:31
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It's also ok to lead your PCs on a bit with false "important" clues. This mimics real life and I find it can prevent that occasional really important clue from feeling forced and unnatural during gameplay. –  T. Brian Jones Jun 22 '12 at 7:46
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@deltree At the very least, it's atypical in that most campaigns don't last three years. Also, many -- particularly D&D-based ones -- are structured around individual "adventures," giving them clear division points; even if the adventures are part of an arc, you usually don't have to worry about referencing your map of the Hall of the Fire Giant King once you've left it to begin your Descent into the Depth of the Earth. Also, I find it hard to believe that literally no bit of vital information ever loses its importance or relevance during your game. :) –  Alex P Jun 22 '12 at 15:10
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@deltree Think about it on a storytelling level. Reincorporation previously-established details is an excellent narrative technique (also one of the hallmarks of skillful improv). The value comes from the audience (who are also your co-creators, in an RPG context) actually seeing the reincorporation, so they can have that "Aha!" moment and a sense of consistency and closure. Even if I look at my notes to set something up, the players having to look at their notes to figure out what it means feels like a failure to me -- it means that element didn't stand out appropriately. –  Alex P Jun 22 '12 at 17:32
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Unless your players are role-playing a very forgetful party (in which case, I say throw them to the wolves), then it is not the PCs who are forgetting, but the players. In cases like this, I usually follow a simple rule at my table: if it's something that the characters would be likely to remember but which the players have overlooked or forgotten, allow some kind of memory or intelligence test, against a difficulty based on how trivial the knowledge is (some systems have allowances for this sort of thing, or you could just wing it).

Of course, of you want to ride the hard line, you can tell your players to write down information that they'll want to remember, and if they fail to do that, rule that when it comes up later, they've forgotten and will have to deal with the consequences.

Note that these two different memory-recall mechanisms place similar strains on you as the game master: you must remember the information that you've given the players, and be able to be consistent, or you will probably get called on it when you introduce a spontaneously-created character as Baron von Winduke in one scene, then forget and call him Baron Vorhaven a few hours later.

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I usually ask one of the players to make an easy insight check. If the player succeeds, I tell him 'you remember...'. And even if they fail, they notice that I asked them and start discussing and usually remember it. And if not - well, that happens too in real-life. –  Mala Jun 21 '12 at 19:31
    
@Mala and if you're trying to incite FUD, ask them nonchalantly at random points. They'll scramble trying to figure out what they've missed. Of course, once they start keeping detailed notes, that jig is up, but it's fun while it lasts. –  Problematic Jun 21 '12 at 19:46
    
Consider the situation (system-agnostic) when a player is playing a thief. He tries to burglarize a shop. The GM asks how, what is the algorithm. The player is not a thief and does not know how would his character do it. What shall happen? –  Vorac Nov 1 '13 at 15:45
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I wonder if there's a mismatch between the adventure and the players. Some players live for clues and want to unravel the mystery of even the most straightforward adventure. Others could care less, and just want to slay monsters and loot dungeons. Could it be that you're running an adventure that is well-suited to the former but ill-suited to the latter?

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First of all, you need to separate your players from their characters. Just because the players have forgotten, that doesn't mean the characters have. You can gently remind your players of the information they've collected, be it evidence, quests, etc. It's not fun to see players struggling to move the plot along, so there's no harm in simply reminding them of the information they already have.

That being said, you should also encourage your players to take notes, so you don't have to keep reminding them of things. Have them write out an index card for each quest, or story point, and then can add relevant notes (evidence, etc.) to the card has they go along.

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Encouraging the group to take notes will work for some groups but not this one. They don't even read notes I give them. –  Snowbody Jun 22 '12 at 2:32
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I'd probably start being a little harsh then. Give them a stack of index cards, and refuse to move on until they've written the important stuff down. Your players need to be willing to contribute to the game just as much as you do. –  Mike Riverso Jun 22 '12 at 15:15
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I have a house rule that the player's have access to their character's memory. I usually try to start with only giving them answers to specific questions, like "Where did we find this?" or "Who told us that?" and if necessary I'll just tell them everything that happened that they've forgotten about. My group usually isn't too forgetful, but I like to keep things very player friendly because I'm the only RPG geek in the group. I tell them that I will tell them anything their character senses, feels, or remembers to keep things fun-centered, close to the action, and engaging.

The cool part is when you extend it to things that the characters remember but the players could not, like if their parents every mentioned why the village blacksmith is so secretive and why no one has ever seen him in direct sunlight...

While I enjoy berating my players for their less intelligent actions every once in a while, there's plenty of more fun, creative, and plot-centered approaches. "Whoops, you spent 2 minutes deliberating what you should do while the orc hoard was charging toward you, and they threw a weighted net over you while you just sat there talking!" prompts more exciting and desirable behavior (quick decision when you're in a pressured situation) than "Oops, you forgot the Baron's name, and now he's pissed off and threw you in a dungeon..." :D

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I usually do a recap to refresh the players memories. However I am careful to give general recaps and not specific clues so the players are forced to write down or memorize the specifics. If they forget the specifies I usually give them a general hint or make them roll a DC15 + character level spot or knowledge check whichever is the lower value.

If nothing else once they end up with a dead character or missing a reward they quickly learn to write things down or record them.

Example - PCs had a quest to track down some stolen +2 arrows (the where a present for the man at arms of the castle, colored dark red with the boar's head on the shaft) that was taken from the castle armory. They found out that their was a meeting between the thief and a buyer the next day at 6am at a bar called the Smokin Boot. The reward was 10 of the arrows and some gold.

In the recap I told them they had discovered a meeting between the thief and the buyer outside of town early the next morning. Well the PCs had not wrote down the time and failed their checks to see if they remembered.

So they rushed around to try and remember where the meeting was. They finally put together the clues a couple of hours after the meeting took place. Long story short they missed the transaction, they figured out who the thief was but they couldn't get enough proof to prove it. The baron got fed up with them requesting the thief be arrested without proof and had them escorted out of town.

As they where leaving town one of the PC's was assassinated by someone using a dark red +2 arrow that had a boar's head on the shaft.

Needless to say they kept detailed records after that.

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+1 for Recaps. Very useful to separate players from their characters. Also, if they've already found the clues, holding their feet to the fire about remembering/notes just slows down the true scenario, IMO. –  wraith808 Jun 21 '12 at 20:35
    
That seems too punitive and un-fun. I'm not a GM of the "tough love" style. How did the players react emotionally, other than start keeping detailed records? –  Snowbody Jun 22 '12 at 2:26
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+1 for the suggestion of general hints and knowledge check, -1 for the severe consequences if they fail. –  Snowbody Jun 22 '12 at 2:33
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This question seems to be directed at memory more than actual game mechanics; however, I feel that you can still use game mechanics (specifically rewards) to help your players, and possibly yourself with this issue.

Firstly, reward players for remembering OFTEN (Psychology). Rewards of this type can vary from in-game currency to less physical stimuli like a hearty "Congratulations!" or empahtic "Thank you!" from your character's favorite NPC. Another reward for remembering would be to remove a burden from the player that grants additional freedom, but only when remembering, this could be as simple as remembering where the antidote is stored in the evil villain's lair to as complex as remembering the secret magical word that allows you to break an in-game rule, (Turn on the Anti-gravity field by saying "She, nana, gains" and you can walk up walls or move freely through Any unoccupied space.)

  • Remembering that the Apothecary throws out his unpopular potions in THAT bin can help out characters who are in a pinch, but this doesn't have to be EVERY time they use the bin. OFTEN is the key. ("OFTEN" provides a hope-like effect, "EVERY" time provides a taken-for-granted like effect. Take your pick.)

Secondly, punish players for not remembering key details OCCASIONALLY(preference). - "You don't remember me? I'm hurt" should be the example presnted here. Lack of preferential treatment is a decent way telling the characters that this name is important. WARNING: CONSTANT PUNISHMENT, while effective, is usually NOT fun. Masochism aside, rewards are ALWAYS superior to punishments when attempting to modify behavior. If you'd like an anecodte: Smacking a dog on the snout when he doesn't roll over will get you bit. Giving a dog food to roll over will give you a dog that loves to roll over.

Thirdly, use remembered items as incidental sub-plot pieces and increase their importance over time.

  • If a bar maiden in a one-shot has the hots for a character there will be very little chance for improvement across the party for remembering things; however, if remembering the bar-maiden's name gets you free drinks, it inspires learning across the board (Call it the "Hey, I wan't some too!" effect.) Knowing the bar owner's wife's birthday is coming up and giving him roses to give to her gets you a free room, and knowing that the sherrif's favorite drink is "The Blue Lizard," and allows you get get a get out of jail free card, and [etc], [etc], clearly, learning (and retaining) information about the world will become a thing of value for your players, as Getting out of trouble is a reward, getting free shelter is a reward, and getting free items/entertainment is a reward. The more the player WANTS, the more they will be MOTIVATED to behave in the manner you desire, as long as you provide REWARDS OFTEN.

Staring out with high stakes is ill-advised, as it may put too great of an emotional strain on remembering which interferes with the general mood of the game.

As my usual disclaimer: Make sure you are comfortable with teaching your players in this manner, and be prepared to deal with fallout from any inconsistencies from lack of reward (Sometimes RPGers get a lil' greedy). You may have to hint that it will take a little more to receive their reward, but please make sure that one is ALWAYS available should they show the behavior you want encouraged. Remember: Always use your GM powers for 'greatness', and not 'easiness'!

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After every game I run I write an email summary of what was found and what happened and save it as a draft. I then send it to all my players the day before the next game.

I should point out that I think my players are borderline intellectually deficient, or have learning disabilities, because some of them fail to differentiate a d20 from a d12 or d10 at times. That said, the email thing works quite well.

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I have a technique I call "cranking the plot device". You can always use an in-game ploy good for a direct and unsubtle hint that they've forgotten something and it's up to you how much you urge them towards a course of action. For example, nameless NPCs who have random stories to tell about a plot development you had your heart set on but they missed if you're being a stickler for time passage. Bob the Bard in Hero Tavern could sing about the caravan the party could have protected making it to Scene City... After being robbed twice. "Thankfully nobody (important) was hurt!"

Also, nothing says "Hello McFly!" like an NPC the party is fond of noticing something they are carrying. (IE "It's been ages since I heard of that, let alone seen it!")

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Tried this, but I don't seem to be phrasing it in a way that they get the hint. For some groups this might work, not with my current players. –  Snowbody Jun 22 '12 at 2:24
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I created a free Google Site for my players. I write up the session notes. This helps the players sort out what's important and what's not. I put up treasure and sometimes even plot points that are relevant. It also can give the GM a chance to stress something that is important or state more clearly something that was a struggle for the players to understand during the session.

The other guys that share GMing with me use it and we, as a group, have really liked it. Even if the players don't normally read it until they are sitting at the table the next session.

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I have set up a wiki for our game on Obsidian Portal and keep things organized there. My players take notes (which they happen to be good at) and then upload an adventure log for each session. This seems to work pretty well. If they are struggling and it's something the should remember I nudge them in the right direction or flat out tell them the clue they have forgotten. It's no fun to see them all sitting around scratching their heads.

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In my campaigns, in between the session, I do my own overview of the achievements and steps taken to resolving whatever issue is at hand. It's easy as pie, and let's me begin the sessions with an "Up till now" type statement that brings the players back to where we left off. It's simple, and once typed and saved, the only editing you have to do is to add whatever was most recently discovered/accomplished at the end.

Example: "Although this week started off with nothing more than your intent to stay as inebriated as possible, those plans were rapidly changed when the Baron Idone Gottaname beseeched your help in rescuing his daughter, Helplass Leelost, after she was kidnapped in the middle of the night. After you investigated the room, you discovered a red eagle feather near her bed, a common totem of the Killand Plunder tribe of the north. Wasting no time, you set out north, to the areas where the tribe is known to reside, and were immediately set upon by a roadside ambush, clearly intended to halt pursuit. After defeating the savages and their crude efforts, you discovered a carefully written note, in common tongue, describing your party as the target of the ambush. The parchment, and the manner in which it was written have left you with the belief that a third party, much more refined than the savage tribe, may be the true menace behind this act. Resting through the night, you now have to choose whether you will continue your pursuit of the tribe, and to recover Helplass, or return to the Baron with the note to see if he can provide more information about who might be involved."

When the next session is done, you just add on to the overview. Important NPCs, items, locations, are then permanently noted, and the players can always review the sheet to see what they've done or what they achieved. Plus it helps you remember to bring back NPC's that the characters either perform a service for, or may have thwarted.

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One technique I use is to quiz the players before a session and hand out tokens for correct answers (pieces from the game of Risk). During play they can spend these tokens to make a re-roll. Unused tokens convert to extra XP at the end of the session. This is especially helpful if it's been awhile since your last session.

Another technique I use is to put my campaign online, including what the characters have learned during their adventures. (disclosure: I am also the developer for that website)

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In my group there's always one of us who writes down the diary of his character.

It's true that events are described from writer's point of view, but it's a good trade off between in-role and off-role story tracking.

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Set up a wiki. You can have pages and clues can be edited in and let the look up their wiki page when something comes up. If they didn't find it important enough to put in the wiki, they don't remember it. For added fun as mentioned earlier have people do it in some sort of in character form and give out bonus xps.

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Player memory can be as fickle as our own.

I wholeheartedly endorse the "3 clue" or blues clues method. Sometimes you may need even more clues, or reconsider how you insert your clues.

In my campaign I utilize a tool found in most console and pc games, a "Bounty Board" that can often be found outside of public buildings. Here I can put up notices of things that someone is willing to pay to have done, be it capture or kill someone or something, fetch or deliver something, etc. If the PCs forget or miss the clues for something I want them to do, I can place a bounty for it or something that will relate to it. My players enjoy the easy out some times and when they any down time, they tend to hunt these down for their next adventure. The Bounty Board helps to bring to light NPC quests that the players may have forgotten, and can be a good introduction for rival parties also attempting to complete a bounty for the reward.

Prestige points To help bolster Player memory, I utilize a prestige point system in my game. After each session, the players are asked to make a journal entry on our Obsidian Portal page. It can be like a diary entry of the day from the characters perspective, or a blow by blow run down from the players perspective, which they choose is up to them. They are awarded a point each session for completing them. I review them briefly to be sure no one is abusing this by just writing a couple sentences of fluff for the night. The prestige points can be used in game for rerolls and small modifiers, as well as eventually feats and ability score increases if they amass enough points. The rewards tend to be a good incentive for the players to pay attention, take notes, and do their write ups. Benefits include multiple reviews of the nights events, from different perspectives, often each including details the others missed (key for your question). The players who utilize the points, are more effective in the game, which eggs those that have not been as involved in notes and write ups to become so. The more the players do their writeups, the more they recall events, particularly after reading each others entries. At the beginning of each session I ask a player to recap the last session and describe where they were now. This helps to jog their own memories instead of only half listening to me talk at the beginning. Here is a link to our OP page with the details. http://www.obsidianportal.com/campaign/grmunky/wikis/prestige-points

"I'm at a loss for what to do here. Should I punish them ("Your words are worthless, maybe a stay in the dungeons will teach you not to make false accusations"), ignore their lapse ("I'll believe you...this time"), or what?" - So long as it does not come over heavy handed to your players, you should generally have consequences for their actions in game, or in-actions, if they fail to achieve a goal set for them. If they are stiffed a reward for not being able to prove their success, they may be more mindful of that in the future. Also stating a condition such as bringing back the head of the big bad guy, in exchange for their reward should be pointed out when they accept the quest or task.

Remember, communication is key to any role-playing game. Before getting too upset or making any large changes to the game or your style, it may behoove you to ask the players about the issues you have brought up here. Maybe they are not seeing the clues you are leaving them. Maybe they do not think they are interesting enough to persue or rewarding enough. Maybe they did not think the tasks you wanted them to do were important either to them or you, and so discounted them and moved on to what they thought was important. Maybe it is something else entirely. Addressing the issue, letting them know that it is an issue for you, will hopefully bring to light the best answer for you and your group. No matter what, the goal is mutual fun, good communication, and respect.

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This answer is very localized to a specific type of player. –  Emracool Aug 8 '13 at 7:19
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