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In my game of The Dark Eye we play in the south of Aventuria, and thus the players come across many NPCs with names that are not that common (especially compared to common german names) and my players struggle with remembering the names. We mostly play in town, so there are many NPCs at once in some scenes, and many important names and roles come up.

As we use Roll20 for our games, I already provided the players with a handout where they can keep notes on characters and I make sure to explicitly copy names into the chat (we play over VOIP). The Handout is maintained and shared by all players.

Example Entry (which also showcases how many of the names look like and maybe why they are so hard to remember)

Rastafi ibn Halum

  • believes in Kor
  • bald, strong human
  • scar in his face
  • captain of the guard in Town

But I still feel that they struggle to remember the NPCs and thus the feeling of a living town with interesting Characters fails. What can I do to increase the chance for my players to memorize the NPCs (and especially their names) better?

Why do I feel that the names are what they struggle the most with?

Almost every time the players talk to or about an NPC, what I hear is "I want to talk to insert name of that guard guy here" or "That insert name of our quest giver has not given us enough money...." They remember the function and what the NPC in question did or did not do, but not the name.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Reminder: comments are for clarifying content, not posting small or incomplete answers. Please use answer posts to submit answers instead. Prior comments containing answers have been purged. \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Nov 26 '15 at 2:48
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    \$\begingroup\$ Sounds like me in real life. :P \$\endgroup\$ – fgysin Nov 26 '15 at 6:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Have you considered making character handouts for you notable NPC's with a brief description and token of them. That wya your players can access this info freely in game. It also then allows you add more information based on what the characters discover about the NPC in question. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthew Perryman Aug 25 '17 at 11:20
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Give the NPCs a title or nickname.

Your example already has one built in, rather than referring to him by his full name, Introduce him as Captain Rastafi ibn Halum, but have other NPCs refer to him as The Captain or Captain Halum. You'll give your players something they can grip easily and there is a better chance of them remembering the title and their first or last name rather than their full name.

For other characters lacking an official title or position, a nickname added to their name should help make them memorable. For example, lets say your example character did not have the title captain of the guard but was merely a guard the players had interacted with and would interact with again. Naming him Rastafi ibn Halum "The Bull" (maybe he has a large, imposing physique) could also help players remember the character.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Knowing some of my players, they will nick-name him "Ratso" or some such. Then again, there is a tradition amongst some heroes (Harry Dresen) to not let the bad guys (Denarians) get cool names and instead have insulting ones (Nickleheads). \$\endgroup\$ – Sardathrion Nov 27 '15 at 7:39
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Is it necessarily a problem? If everyone's fine with it and you don't have that many characters so there's no confusion having people say "I want to talk to the guard commander" then that's ok. People forget names in real life.

If it is a problem, then it's probably because you either have many people with similar, possibly overlapping roles, and/or many names to remember. If people are saying "I want to talk to the guard commander" and you're wondering whether they mean the captain Rastafi ibn Halum or the sergeant Ruadhiri O'Hanlon, then I'd suggest:

  • Improve the signal to noise ratio. The longer the name, the less likely players are to try to attempt it. If you can, give and use only the first or last name, as appropriate to the setting and relationship. If players have conversations like "Why would we talk to ibn Halum when we could ask Rastafi?" then they're going to give up on names and focus on defining characteristics.
  • Reinforce the name. Refer to characters by name more frequently than than you would otherwise, and avoid he/she altogether when there is more than one NPC in the scene. Little things like introductions in character, requiring players to use the name "Who're you looking for?", "Who sent you?", having NPCs use each other's names.
  • Keep the names distinct. Different starting letter, different vowel sound at the end, and vary the number of syllables.
  • Build up associations for selected characters. Give players a reason to remember the name, e.g. an NPC explains they're proud of their family name, or likes the PCs so makes a big deal of asking them to use a diminutive name or nickname. Wordplay can work: maybe the party first meets ibn Halum in his office which looks out onto a dairy and so he always smells faintly of sour milk whenever they meet him. But do so sparingly and remember it's risky, especially if you're in a game where it's immersion-breaking for the party to call your big, tough NPC "Captain Cheesy".
  • Differentiate your NPCs. If you have, e.g. a captain and a sergeant, make sure they're not interchangeable by having them interact in the same scene, or if that's not possible, have them refer to each other (perhaps antagonistically?). Know the difference, make it matter, and reinforce that difference from the outset. This is an opportunity to have your NPCs name-drop each other and remind the players.
  • Pick your battles. Your players really won't remember all the names. Focus your energy where it matters - NPCs who don't have an easy in-character way of referring to them (like Captain), NPCs whose names indicate prestige (nobles, merchant families) or some other important quality, and NPCs who you specifically want the PCs to care about.
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  • \$\begingroup\$ I would probably add one suggestion: resolve the name-forgetting issue in-game ("So none of you remember the captain's first name either? Who should I ask for?"). Oh, and +1.. My favorite answer so far. \$\endgroup\$ – Roflo Nov 26 '15 at 15:49
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There are some real-life hints to remember names you could use.

  • Repeating the name many times when your players are meting the NPC is a good tatic "Hallo, my name is Alabelardo, Alabelardo Billocalal, but you can call me only Alabelardo.
  • Also, he could give a nick name to ease the remembering process "My name is Alabellardo, but you can call me Lard".
  • A title, like Alabelardo the Bold, helps too.
  • A NPC can also correct the PC who said the name incorrectly, to help them remember "It is not Abelard, is Alabelardo, as my mother´s father. ALABELARDO".
  • And you can always change the names to a more german one. "My name is Albelard

But in the end, no one can remember all the names some one give to them in a short time-span (is like trying to recall all NPCs from WoW. You only remember the great ones (trough fame, funny, or easy).

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Some people remember what they hear, others remember what they see. I am visual, names go in one ear and out the other. I usually cannot remember a name told me unless I repeat it to myself to keep it in short term memory, and if I'm doing that I'm not listening to whoever is talking.

Try writing the name (legibly, in large black print!) on an index card and holding it up when you first pronounce. Not only will this help players who are taking notes to spell it correctly, it will help players to "see" the pronunciation. For the visual players it will stick in their mind much better. For example I tend to remember the "shape" of a word on the page.

As a bonus, after you hold the card up, toss it on the table. They'll use it to remind themselves the first few times they say the name. That will cement it in their minds. It won't help if they mishear it several times, or mispronounce it; they need to say it, and they need to say it correctly. The note takers need to record it correctly or they'll forget by next session.

The memorable title or nickname is the best mnemonic; this is mainly for when you want them to remember the actual name, and especially if the name is complex. You could avoid complex names, but simple names may be inappropriate or lack the proper flavor. Also, if all they remember is the title then they'll eventually just address the character impersonally as "captain" or "smiley" or whatever.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Well, Holding up a Card wont really work over voip ;) \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Nov 26 '15 at 5:57
  • \$\begingroup\$ Then use chat to reinforce with writing. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Nov 27 '15 at 0:43
  • \$\begingroup\$ Yes, i Do that regularly. \$\endgroup\$ – Patta Nov 27 '15 at 6:21
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I am currently trialing using an Org Chart. Obviously it is only appreciable the NPC's form into a Hierarchy, or some kind of relationship graph. But they should form a relationship graph, otehrwise you have NPC's that don't relate.

In my game It is important that the players remember who a double handful or other people in the organization are.

I gave them all the Org Chart, (so they can annotate), and there a copy on the wall in the room we play in (obvious not applicable over online play).

It doesn't actually matter if they remember the name Sophie Dervish is, but they do need to remember that she is in charge of Hard Assets, and part of the Science Division, and outranks them (if sideways).

org chart

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It's similar when reading books. I'm struggling with the Wheel of Time series, which has more characters that any other books I've read, and all have strange and often similar names. What the author, Robert Jordan, has done though is associating the characters with certain traits, qualities and characteristics; and usually when he mentions a name he also describes the character to remind of the association with the name, and it creates a visual and living image of the character; he does this over and over until the name settles in the memory. It's quite an effective method in my opinion.

Another method I use when remembering names of people I meet, is to say out the name aloud when introduced. So, instead of saying "Hi, my name is ...", I'd say "Hi [name]! My name is ...". In a similar manner, you can have your players say the name of the NPCs repeatedly, during game play conversation.

As you mentioned however, these names aren't native to your players, but might actually be normal names for your player's characters. Also, the player's characters would see the NPCs with their eyes, and associate their names with how they look and act, and certain details you may not have time to describe. Thus it falls natural that the characters more easily would remember the names, than the players. To focus game play, and making it more interesting, rather than the players getting bored by having to remember lots of difficult names, simply hand them cards describing the NPCs. This way they won't have to make a lot of notes either.

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This annoys me, because it seems like players are showing disrespect to my creation if they don't remember my NPC names, but the truth is that some players just don't care. I have a couple of players that are note-takers. If they meet an NPC for more than 10 seconds they ask me for the name and they write it down. The rest of the players just don't care. It is "the Elven chick" or "our guide" or "that guard we net".

Let it slide

My advice is to let it slide for the most part but to apply consequences when it matters.

For example, if the players don't remember the name of the guard or the innkeeper, it is not going to affect their characters. IF they don't remember the name of the guide who has been with them for a week, it's ok. However, if the players don't remember the name of the official who is handling their case, then when their character asks for an appointment at the town office, they will get nowhere. If the player's didn't write down the local ruler's name then their characters are going to be horribly embarrassed at the state dinner.

My general ruling is: A character's memory is a player's piece of paper. If the player didn't write it down then the character doesn't remember it. Or, to be more precise, if the player didn't write it down then I take it that they intend for their character to not remember it.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ If you have a different opinion post a different answer. \$\endgroup\$ – mxyzplk Nov 27 '15 at 0:44

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