If You Can’t Remember, Then Your Character Can’t Remember!

If you haven’t ever heard the Dead Ale Wives skits on D&D (here is a video for the first and here is a video for the second), then I recommend checking them out. They are staples of D&D culture (“I magic missile the darkness!”) They are also wellsprings of everything you should not do as a player or a Dungeon Master. The second of the two skits is particularly edifying, and it is the source of the title of this blog. One of the players in the skit asks where one of the nonplayer character is, and the DM declares that if the players can’t remember, then their characters can’t remember.

I’m ashamed to admit that I used to believe in this draconian policy but have since learned the err of my ways. I still sometimes forget myself, forcing the players to recall some obscure piece of information I mentioned seven sessions ago. As a DM, I can rarely recall every facet of my plot, so why should I expect the players to remember? I encourage players to take notes. I even offer fun points for the task, because a player’s notes help me—both to see what I’ve told the players and also to identify what they consider important. Then again, as a failed note-taker, I have come to appreciate that sometimes, you just want the DM to tell you what subtle clue you missed weeks ago.

It’s a tough balance, especially for DMs who have plot-driven campaigns. I have a glossary of names I sent my players that is 4 pages long. I’m not sure they really ever look at it, but it’s there in case they want to use it. The glossary is as much a reminder for me as it is for them. I like using sites like Obsidian Portal to keep track of that information, but I rarely have time to update my campaign’s wiki. Usually I’m scrambling to get all my facts straight and to weave in elements of plot, so I don’t have time to work on a resource that the players are unlikely to actually use in the game. If the players are trying to remember something they heard in a previous session, chances are they’re just going to ask me, and I’m going to tell them.

The challenge comes with trying to keep track of what you’ve told the players and what you haven’t. In heroic tier, the players only see the tip of the ice berg. Once they get to paragon and epic tier, you start to reveal all the facets of the plot. Sometimes it’s difficult to remember what you revealed from one session to the next. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter all that much. It’s fun to get the players speculating on who might be the villain, or what the bad guy’s plans might be, but I think the “big reveal” is a little overrated. It’s something that works really well in other forms of storytelling, particularly movies, television, and some fiction, but it’s not all that effective in roleplaying games. As a player, I want tangible villains and threats so I know what I’m doing. I want to feel heroic, not like someone blundering blindly through a series of plot hooks, unable to comprehend what’s going on. That’s why I want the DM to remind me what I learned—so I don’t have to take notes and I can focus on roleplaying and on the story. My character is a hero in a fantasy world, he should be able to remember all this crap—but me? I live in a different reality with a humble Intelligence score of 10 or 11. I don’t have a hero’s memory. So please, DM, tell me what my character remembers so I can enjoy your game.

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3 thoughts on “If You Can’t Remember, Then Your Character Can’t Remember!

  1. I’m currently running a play-by-post game with an overarching plot I’ve only hinted at. Perhaps it’s because this format just takes a long time, but I feel like I should just tell them what’s going on so they feel like they’re moving toward something.

    Other times (and partly in the game I mentioned) even _I_ don’t know where things are going, so I lay lots of seeds for myself, things that might just be mysterious and interesting on their own, but which I might be able to reincorporate into an even bigger mystery down the line.

    Then again, most games I’m in peter out even before the first couple of levels are attained, so any payoff to long-term mysteries anyway….

  2. Aye. I’ve had more than one “big reveal” ruined by blank stares around the table. The campaign I DM has been running for years now, so some of the plot hooks are rather old. (We just closed two side quests that were over two years old.) This means that it is very often the case that nobody realizes the significance of things that just happened. If its something big, sometimes I’ll run an impromptu skill challenge to make sure that there is a sense of accomplishment associated with the information.

  3. I agree. Another practical reason is simply that their characters are “living” this world of names and faces. Between combats and difficult skill challenges, the reality is that they are stoking a fire at the camp or traveling countless miles together, likely discussing the events as they unfold. They would literally spend every waking hour thinking about, considering, or dealing with that world of theirs.

    Players, on the other hand, “live” this world for only a few hours a week (if your group can meet weekly). It’s not reasonable to expect the players to be as immersed in the world their characters are. It’s not a romantic notion, but it’s the truth.

    And the bottom line is that it’s a game. Like you said, it’s not fun to play heroic characters only to have them awkwardly stumble through plot hooks. All of us, DM and players, are there to have fun and no one should be punished for a faulty memory or even one merely filled from their life away from the table.

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