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It may happen that, during a session, players don't remember the name of a NPC that they met (or, more generally, information about something that happened) during the previous session. Obviously, their PC remembers that information. Conversely, a player may have taken notes about a not so important event that happened several years ago (in game). In this case, it is possible that the PC does not remember it.

How should the DM manage the discrepancy between the player's memory and their PC's memory? In the case of 5e, should he have the PCs make Intelligence checks?

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The situation here is complex and hinges on several issues that come up in play, namely player attention, difference in player-character skills, social contract etc. Because of that I'll try to establish a general rule with exceptions, instead of having a huge discussion not suited to RPG.SE format.

If a player forgets a story detail the PC knows, remind him/her.

This has several advantages! First, you're not bogging down the session by the player frantically looking for a note he never made. You don't frustrate your players. You don't punish the party for the forgetfulness of one of its members. You don't make your party genius Wizard character forget stuff, because he belongs to an absent-minded mate of yours. You avoid arguments. You prevent a players-vs-GM competitive playstyle around the table. It also prevents you from rolling a character trait (INT) to fix player's trivial mistake (lack of notes).

Now, for the exceptions:

  1. If a player regularly fails to pay attention, disregards your words and makes no notes, that is a golden opportunity to illustrate the consequences and make him realise he's disrespectful.
  2. If you believe it would be interesting for the story to have the character forget those details. It might be hilarious and entertaining, but remember to say it out loud, "Oh, just so it happens that your character Gurdek the Barbarian also forgot the High Priest's name. What would you like to do?", so that other players are in on it.
  3. If the character is forgetful and it's a known personality trait, capitalise on it. Don't forget to make him forget when the player remembers too!
  4. If you have a very competitive table, where you see the game as a contest between the GM and players, and everyone is on board with it, you should absolutely have the players suffer the consequences of their carelessness.

Now that it's said, it seems the opposite situation's default rule is also pretty clear:

The characters should forget stuff when it's exciting and fits the story, player meta-knowledge being unimportant.

For the characters to forget an important story detail is a plot-based challenge. It can be a minor one quickly removed by an INT or WIS check, or maybe a major obstacle which will require the party to re-investigate the issue or otherwise get into trouble. I would specifically say that frequent rolling of INT to remember is quite tiresome and I would avoid it unless the character in question is scatter-brained or careless. For big forgets I'd say it warrants a sidequest: Why did I forget such an important thing? Why are my notes gone? Is that pesky Mnemomancer at us again? What did I just say?

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Related: Should I warn my players when they're about to do something stupid?

Short answer: The PCs are not their players. They should know and remember things independently. Don't make them roll to remember unless there's an in-universe reason for them to be particularly forgetful - being drugged, charmed, diseased or poisoned, perhaps. Or perhaps just very, very stupid or absent-minded. You should encourage the players to keep notes though, because it makes both their playing and your job easier.

Long answer: As a GM, one frequently has to provide the players information their PCs are simply assumed to know - common knowledge. This typically covers stuff like:

  • actual real-life common knowledge (that thing on wheels is a cart, you use the round metal things in your pockets for exchanging for items and services, point the sharp end of the axe towards your enemies)
  • knowledge that would be common for your PCs (the name of the town they've lived in since they were three years old, the kingdom it's a part of, the local shopkeepers etc)
  • detailed knowledge of mundane, common creatures (horses are strong four legged things, humans are clever two legged things etc)
  • folklore-level vague knowledge of rarer or not-local creatures (some local nutcase say gnolls are dog-faced savage creatures, not sure if true or not)

I would situationally recommend rolling for information that falls outside of these categories - such a "knowledge roll" is pretty common in RPGs (Dungeons and Dragons, Savage Worlds for example), and covers stuff like less-known history, detailed descriptions of monsters and their behavior, specialized fields like medical herbs or precious metals or so on. However, I would specifically exclude things the PCs have already discovered; if there's no particular reason the PC should forget, I see no more reason for the PC to suffer from the player's forgetfulness than for the PC of a clumsy player to suffer from the player's clumsiness.

Furthermore, making the playeres roll for information their characters should already have might distract the players from the fun parts of the game. In essence, you're giving an incentive for the players to document everything instead of enjoying the adventure. If you feel your players should remember things better, help them: draw maps and lists as hand-outs, create a shared wiki page for your campaign, write session recaps.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ +1 for the shared wiki. Those things are invaluable, and super-easy to maintain. \$\endgroup\$ – fectin Jan 10 '17 at 20:35
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Let the player use what they remember

In my experience players get frustrated if they as a player remembers something, but their character is not allowed to remember it. However, some of my players has started voluntarily to roll int checks to see if they remember something. So they set them self a target number and say I'll remember it on a 15 or higher. I like this way of doing it as it leaves more control with the players.

Help the players remember

As a DM I constantly help my players remember things. I try to use the name of NPC's as often as possible. In some cases I have used INT roll to see if a character remember something the player don't, but I feel this is very unsatisfactory. First of all the players get very suspicious when they fail thinking that they have forgotten or overlooked something important. Therefore, I'm more and more leaning towards doing one of two things:

  • If the information is necessary to move the story forward, I tell them
  • If it works either way I roll 1d10, the higher the roll the more I tell. If I roll very low they either get no information or the wrong information. I roll 1d10 to decide many different things so they never know why I'm rolling. Is it to check what the weather will be tomorrow or is it to see if they remember something, only I know.
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Obviously, their PC remember that information.

Obviously, you have a good memory and that leads you to overrate other people's; many of us can't remember the names of people we met last week. For those of us over 40 this sometimes extends to being unable to recall the names of our children on occasion.

Notwithstanding, the players are the ones playing the game, not the characters. Everything they know about the world the player characters know.

In this particular case we are talking specifically about knowledge that has been gained in-gameplay so meta-gaming is not an issue here. For completeness, I will briefly mention how to deal with meta-game knowledge. Whatever works for your table is correct and don't let anyone tell you otherwise! Allow it, ban it, deal with it on a case-by-case basis; whatever.

If they players do not remember some piece of vital information because, for example, they have a life away from the table; assume the characters remember and feel free to at least hint to the players. Don't stop the game for half an hour because everyone had a memory lapse.

If the information is incidental then tell them or don't tell them or make a roll because, who cares? If they forget an NPCs name then role play the embarrassment this inevitable causes; incidentally, this is why we Australian's call everybody "mate", if you really matter to us we bother to remember your name.

Note that there is a feat that allows perfect recall of everything within the last 30 in-game days. Therefore, the game assumes that people don't have perfect recall. Make this feat valuable by hinting rather than just revealing all to those who don't have it.

Knowledge checks are for things the characters know because they live in the world that the players don't because they ... don't. Don't use them to punish players for memory lapses; what are you running, an RPG or a university?

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    \$\begingroup\$ +1 for pointing out that while the players may have experienced a week of other stuff to deal with between sessions, their characters will have experienced far fewer distractions while their time was frozen. \$\endgroup\$ – GMJoe Apr 7 '16 at 0:43
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    \$\begingroup\$ This! In essence this is just the usual knowledge gap between players and characters. The player may not know the name of the place next to her character's home, but the character will. Conversely, the character may not know the name of the big badass devil who owns the 3rd layer of Hell even though the player does. \$\endgroup\$ – Matthieu M. Apr 7 '16 at 13:29
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    \$\begingroup\$ These two sentences seem contradictory to me: "Everything they know the player characters know. In this particular case we are talking specifically about knowledge gained in-game so meta-gaming is not an issue here." The second seems to override the first. \$\endgroup\$ – DCShannon Apr 7 '16 at 23:57
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The ratchet turns toward remembering-- in general use the better memory of player and PC

You have two cases running in opposite directions. In each case, only one outcome is generally considered "fun".

Note-taking players with good memories:

If the players are so engaged in the game as to be doing hard work like taking notes (or are simply paying enough attention that they are remembering bit characters or throw-away lines, how exactly would a GM benefit by punishing or failing to reward that engagement?

Sure, you can concoct some reasons, like that you think a comedy of errors or identity confusion would be a fun thing to play through, but the fact of your players engaging in the details that strongly really suggests otherwise. No one takes notes on something so he can have someone else arbitrarily decide they cannot be used.

(Somewhat as a side note, those who take notes are gems among players; those who make their notes available to the GM are doubly so, as it provides the GM a separate and independent memory and gives a huge insight into how the players are taking in a plot line. In my experience, one wants to encourage this behavior as strongly as humanly possible. If that means letting them refer to their notes during the game, so be it.)

Poor-memory players with normal memory PCs

This is, as you note, exactly the opposite situation, but it still leads in the same general direction. Most players will not go to the effort of keeping detailed notes on a game, as in the prior situation. And the players, as opposed to the PCs, are not living through the experiences, they are hearing condensed verbal summaries. It is reasonable to assume that even non-eidetic memory PCs will have clearer memories of things than players.

I do like to see players paying attention, but I realize the limitations of the human memory system. Not only am I not inclined to punish it, I am inclined to generally help the players out as long as it isn't getting too disruptive and as long as I don't think I'm unintentionally encouraging them not to pay attention.

I find the benefits are two-fold: First, the narrative usually flows more smoothly if the players and characters are not stumbling in-game through mistaken and misremembered identities; second, the players tend to feel less foolish (I do when I am a player in that situation) when their memory is not constantly an issue, and they will enjoy the game more... and therefore so will I.

I think, however, there are more reasonable special cases on this side of the coin: Obscure NPCs who were just hanging around in a background a year ago, meeting a great many NPCs briefly but in rapid succession, etc, these are all fairly taxing things. I might in some cases allow a roll to help the player, but I would never take away or disallow something a player remembered on his own.

(Which roll? Again, I am inclined to extreme generosity, here, and all three of the non-physical stats has a case to be made: Intelligence is recall, wisdom is attunement to the environment, and charisma is people handling. I would be inclined to let the player choose, actually.)

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    \$\begingroup\$ Another example of why the PCs might remember/recognize something the player doesn't - the players only hear a description of what a particular NPC looks like (artistically-inclined GMs notwithstanding), but the PCs actually get to see it with their own eyes. If the players don't realize that your description of "a middle-aged, blue-haired elf with an oaken walking stick" is a verbatim repetition of one you gave 6 weeks ago, this shouldn't automatically mean that they "don't recognize" the elf; the PCs saw his face, and brains are much better at facial recognition than at phrasal recall. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Apr 6 '16 at 20:03
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You provide the "resistance" of the game world for the players to push against, test the boundaries and have fun. That even extends to the characters' interior experience. Part of this can be saying things like "of course, you recall when [NPC X] told you to take the left path... which do you choose?". This is one thing I love about being a DM; there's no one formula that will cover this point because you need to constantly adjust how much you "offer resistance" to player agency, depending on a lot of different factors, including how much the player has paid attention to the narrative (for me, this works in the opposite direction, I appreciate my players reminding me of plot beats too - unless they're disputable).

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