# How can I keep central NPC characters in focus across short sessions with long gaps?

I'm running a solo Mist game for a friend. Unfortunately, we can't play more often than 4 hours every couple weeks. The game revolves around a close-knit group of friends engaging in various diplomatic missions for well-intentioned extremists of a very particular sort. The relationship between the PC and the friends in question is very much the focal point of the story; we see how they change and adapt to each other as they are all changed by their experiences and the conflict between their ideals and the flaws in the world, their organization, their squadmates, and themselves. In order for this to be meaningful and fulfilling, the player needs to be intimately connected with the NPCs in question as well as her character.

Ordinarily, this wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, the short time schedule means that we spend more time getting into character and re-invoking those connections each session than actually making meaningful progress. This is going to be a problem.

I'm already familiar with the basics of running a character-focused solo game in short, split sessions: We don't end sessions mid-dialogue; we have short, striking characterizations for minor characters and save delving into the complex morass of an identity for the central group (and the Pope); we skip over anything that can be skipped, including some things that it seems like shouldn't be able to be skipped, in pursuit of important stuff; and everyone who we want to explore relationships with is dramatically and emotionally attached to the protagonist and vice-versa. Nonetheless, it seems like between sessions too much is slipping.

We can't have her do 'homework'-type material for the same reason we can't play more sessions: she doesn't have time for that.

How can I make it take less time from the beginning of a session to get to a point where the central characters are all back in focus for me and my player?

Further info in case it is useful:

There are 4 central NPCs for whom the increased focus is necessary. The most important things to remember are who each character is (in great detail), what the spiritual connection between the character and the PC is (in great detail, from both directions), and what the spiritual connection between the character and each other core character is (in moderate detail, from both directions).

An example:

Snitch is a Darkwing, a giant crow. His real public name is Broken Wing, while his fake public name is Poverty. Snitch is his real middle name (The fake one is Tom-Shill); you don't know his real real name, but you do know he has one. He kind of resents your continued subtle manipulations designed to get him to reveal it, and he's smart enough to notice them most of the time. He's lonely, because he's isolated by his false identity from the culture in which he feels most comfortable, and by the necessity to maintain that identity from you and the rest of your group. He is happiest when your missions allow for him to spend a couple of weeks alone with you guys for every couple of weeks he spends undercover, as is generally the case when you work within the American sphere of influence. Unfortunately, your group is ill-suited to the particular demands of near-American operations and so this sort of experience is infrequent.

He likes thinking, which for him means analysis, especially the sort used for wit in conversation, but also the sort used in games of strategy. None of you are any good to play against, but he appears to only be of middling skill in Darkwing society, at least at the Stone Game. He's hell at cards-- you've never seen him lose and he's beginning to draw perhaps too much attention to his abilities in his 'Tom-Shill' persona.

He gets along best with you, due to your shared familiarity with Darkwing culture and your similar abilities with respect to interpersonal manipulation. While operating under cover in the presence of the group he can still frequently communicate somewhat openly with you, as it is rare that an observer with appreciably similar skill levels is present. He likes messing with you, which is fine, but it makes you uncomfortable that he sometimes beats you in social contests-- you aren't used to that being possible, and it undermines your sense of absolute control. Fortunately (or unfortunately), you are better at these things than he is (by a success), so you don't lose unexpectedly very often (about 3.47% of the time), but when it does happen, it reminds you how controlling you really are, which renews your commitment to your ongoing therapy-work and makes you feel like a bad person for a while.

Snitch relates least well with Salma, whose unabashed yet not-always-100%-genuine optimism grates on his nerves when directed his way. She's also often the first to point out the problematic implications of his desired forms of cultural participation, which Snitch finds immensely frustrating as she lacks the emic perspective to really understand the culture she's arabsplaining. While both of them like voice acting, Snitch doesn't really go in for plays and musicals and such, and Salma doesn't really have an interest in becoming a mountebank. They do take time to discuss together in a general sense the techniques of oration and the differences between their ways of doing things, but they do this more as an easy way to relate to each other positively than to learn anything.

Snitch gets along quite well with Maria, who shares his appreciation for technical competence and sarcastic, black humor. They also have a shared understanding of privacy and the desire for solitude when dealing with difficult emotional or spiritual problems, though Maria is comfortable with you in her 'private' space, and Snitch is not. Snitch also particularly appreciates Maria's sort-of objectivity on questions of cultural ethics and her camaraderie in really wanting to do things that are immoral.

Snitch and Ashley don't have a whole lot in common, but Ashley's bitterness and Maria and Snitch's black humor can feed off each other to create a cesspool of reassuring-for-them negative emotion when you and Salma fail to stop it. Snitch is somewhat curious about Ashley's experience of magic, as it's very different from his own, but obviously asking about that is tricky on account of it being such a sore spot.

Snitch's background spiritual state is an absolute trust in God coupled with intense reservations about trusting anyone or anything else, including himself. In very positive states his fundamental trust in God's judgment allows him to put aside everything else and fully commit to whatever he receives in prayer, which can provide a path out of dark places if the Lord chooses to provide. In positive but less positive states, the brightness of his faith is somewhat diminished through distraction, but the depth and character remain. There is, however, a sort of feigned ignorance, hidden in positive states, that reveals itself through occasional negative surges: Snitch has yet to reconcile his identity as a Darkwing with his identity as a Christian and views these subject positions as in a way mutually exclusive. In trusting God he attempts to cast off the shackles of his ethnicity but he cannot reconcile his inculcated shame regarding each of his identities with God's unconditional love. He believes it is to his discredit that he continues to desire participation in Darkwing culture and continues to allow parts of his upbringing to influence his identity, and he contingently believes that the path to righteousness is through the annihilation of his self, citing verses such as Romans 7:6, 2 Corinthians 5:17, and Colossians 3:1. Thus far his reluctance to 'fix' himself without some sort of affirmative sign from God has kept him from destruction, but the 'solution' presents itself anew each time he recovers from a strong negative spiritual twinge associated with his unresolved identity issues.

Maria influences his auto-racism strongly in a healing direction. Her experiences developing a syncretic balance within her own identity have led her to advocate for self-love and the embracing of a 'messy' identity preserving the important parts of his culture while placing them in the context of his new Christian perspective. However, there is some minor tension regarding the argument as she draws support from the idea that, like her, he can't change to be 'normal' and he isn't sure even that she couldn't change, if she really wanted to. Whether or not she could stop being an elf (or he could stop being a darkwing), in a cultural/ethnic sense, is something that they disagree on and also something they both are far too emotionally invested in to discuss easily, so generally he avoids insinuating that she could do things differently if she really wanted to and just takes her advice with a grain of salt.

Ashley has a mildly harmful influence on the auto-racism on account of he doesn't respect her opinions on matters of culture, politics, philosophy, religion, or identity (basically, everything you think is important), but she doesn't really realize this yet because she's really really bad at understanding what's going on. He knows that he's supposed to discuss his working towards a better relationship with God with the group as a whole, and he does, but since he doesn't value her input it's just noise which makes it feel like it's not worth talking about in the first place.

Salma has a strongly detrimental influence on his auto-racism as she thinks it's really cool how he manages to be a good Christian, even though he's a darkwing and knows he'll get over all that backwards darkwing stuff eventually. Basically, she's super racist but has no idea and thinks she's being helpful/supportive. It's a problem.

You have a mildly healing effect on the auto-racism; you're way too busy with your own bazillion problems right now to give coherent advice/support, but seeing how messed up you are helps him to feel better about himself, like being this frustrated and exhausted at what feels like it should be simple is normal. Plus, you speak darkwing.

• Giving a rough estimation of the amount of information that has to be conveyed might be helpful. Depending on the number of these friend characters, number and complexity of relevant details per friend, longevity of these details' relevance and amount of other (plot-related e.g.) information that has to be given to get a session started, useful answers might vary. Having an example for one friend's info might help, too. – TheNickOfTime Apr 20 '17 at 7:52
• @xNGTMx alright, I can see how that's helpful. I went ahead and added that info but, as you can see, the example is very long... I'm not sure if I want to keep it because it might detract from the visibility of the question. – the dark wanderer Apr 21 '17 at 4:23
• Wow, that really is long. Thanks for adding it! It is helpful with judging the scope of the issue but I understand your worries. Maybe keep the additional info bit and link to the example in an external doc for further, optional reading? I'll think about it for a bit but I fear it's beyond experience and out of solid answer territory for me. – TheNickOfTime Apr 21 '17 at 6:14

## "Previously on _____________..."

I generally write a synopsis of the previous game and publish it to the players a few days in advance. These are Google Docs, but could just as easily be done with any word processing solution. In it, I hit all of the highlights of the previous games, but put special emphasis on the threads that are likely to be picked up on in the upcoming session. I illustrate it heavily with consistent graphics (you aren't going to publish this beyond your group, so steal shamelessly), and embolden every key phrase for even more emphasis: character names, setting, major plot points, etc.

In short, watch any modern episodic TV series that starts with "Previously on..." because they deal with exactly this problem: Engaging viewers quickly who have dealt with a week's worth of other entertainment and diversions since they last saw your show.

• This is a huge help even for groups that meet weekly. It allows the DM to potentially point out how NPCs might be reacting to the PCs actions, and for PCs to point out where maybe the DM remembered incorrectly. Also, helpful is for the PCs to message the DM to indicate interest in their next actions. – JPicasso Apr 13 '17 at 15:10

## NPC Pictures

When I want players to remember and become attached to NPC's, I print-out card-sized images of each one (with name and role/occupation below it). I then display the picture (often hanging it from my GM screen) whenever referring to (or talking as) the NPC.

Most people tend to be visual oriented - especially in regard to faces, so this seems to cement connections and jog memories ("a picture is worth a thousand words"). The images can quickly be obtained via a Google Image search, using a few keywords to describe your desired NPC.

Electronically, I have used both graphviz's dot and ikiwiki either stand alone and in conjuncture to do just that. In dead tree form, I have used cards for all NPCs with notes. Both have advantages and disadvantages which should be obvious.

ikiwiki, being RCS based, offers you the ability to have a main .dot file that generates time snap shots .png files that can be easily displayed. You can even have one file per major NPC where all the links are from them outwards to other NPCs (or faction then NPC) for their relationship with those. Graphvis radial mode works well there.

Dead tree wise, we had some massive spider diagrams that sprawled many pages of A4. Sometimes, after long breaks, we would update those using a black broad where we had one. A summary of the state of play was easily reached with that, mostly based of the notes of all the players.

Where that method shine (regardless of medium) is that they are very visual (similar to mind maps) and thus your brain takes very little time to process the information within. The cost is in updating your already existing model(s) with new interactions.

PS: I used to have plenty of example of those but a series of hard drive utter failures (including backups) trashed most of them. I am so happy⸮ No really⸮

• Some of the wording in this answer is confusing. I had to read through it twice, slowly both times. I now get the main idea you are trying to convey, but some specifics I still don't get, ie: "have a main .dot file that generates time snap shots .png files that can be easily displayed." I don't understand what that means. What is "a black broad"? Also, describing what each of those tools is, even if very briefly, will help readers at least as much as a link to each, and it's preferred to describe what is being linked to anyway. Also, "I have used cards..." is that a ikiwiki thing? – Aaron Dec 22 '17 at 0:21
• @Aaron This is not a question about graphviz, git, or ikiwiki. Those are tools. If you want more information, there are links. – Sardathrion Dec 22 '17 at 12:55
• That is not how StackExchange works. It is a common mantra, and is even in the explanations of how to make good posts, to explain what is on the other side of a link. Not only so that people have an idea of what you are linking to, but also in case the link ever dies. – Aaron Dec 22 '17 at 18:10
• And besides that, I should never be forced to use links just to understand the basis of a StackExchange post anyway. If it is difficult to understand even the basic idea of a post without clicking the links, then it has been addressed a lot of times over that this is detrimental to that post. – Aaron Dec 22 '17 at 18:12
• For the record, I did up-vote your answer because of the idea that you supplied in it, but I still stand by my constructive criticism and believe your answer would be better if tidied up. It would go from a reasonable answer to a great answer. – Aaron Dec 22 '17 at 18:13

A fun method is to have the player write journal entries of the session. The key point is to do it In-Character. Not only do you get a summary of last session, but since it is in the PC's "voice", by the time the player is done reading, he should be getting his groove on.

A friend of mine did a wrinkle on this by making it "write a letter" instead of a journal. It puts the player in a different frame of mind trying to write something to make it clear to another person, rather than a private diary entry. By creating/choosing an NPC confidante to correspond with also added new facets to the PC's backstory.