I think every GM probably has a story about the time that they spent hours carefully detailing some piece of lore or a particularly intricate conspiracy… only to discover that their players didn’t really care. Or you complete a dramatic and powerful series of adventures featuring the unraveling of a conspiracy wrought by the Dark Gods of Keht… but three months later you mention the name “Keht” and are met by blank stares from the players.
But often — even as you’re meeting with this kind of frustration — the players are still having a great time. They’ll tell all sorts of tales about the time that their characters did X… and do you remember that time that Y did Z?
In discussing this problem with other GMs, I’ve seen many of them come to the conclusion that players just don’t care that much about the game world. And that they never will. So don’t waste your time with all that world-building stuff — focus on statting up the next combat encounter.
Well, there’s a grain of truth in that. But I think it’s an over-reaction. While there may be players out there who really don’t care about that sort of thing, I don’t think that’s the general rule. I think if there’s a failure in processing, understanding, appreciating, and remembering these types of details, then the failure lies as much on the GM as it does the players (if not moreso).
#0. STOP PLAYING POKER
Are you sure you actually want the players to know what’s going on? Or are you subconsciously playing poker with them — keeping your cards hidden behind an implacable poker face reinforced with a GM’s screen?
This should almost go without saying, but based on what I’ve seen it needs to be said: If you want your players to know something, you have to make sure that you actually tell it to them.
I think we often slip into the trap, while plotting out conspiracies and mysteries, of forgetting that the PCs are actually supposed to figure it out eventually. GMs often wonder why their players don’t remember all the wonderful details they had worked out… when, in point of fact, the only way they could have learned those details was by secretly mastering the art of telepathy.
Hand-in-hand with this is a basic principle: Details which the PCs can never learn of or interact with aren’t worth wasting time on.
There may occasionally be times when you need to work up some sort of background detail to make the foreground details hang together. But whenever you find yourself designing a detail like that, I’d like you to ask yourself a few questions: Is there any reason why the PCs shouldn’t be able to learn this detail? And if they shouldn’t learn it, why are you designing it? It can’t be information necessary for the scenario to make sense (because if it was actually necessary, then the PCs should be learning it). And if it isn’t necessary and no one will ever know about it, why are you spending time on it?
For example, I was recently re-reading the Darkness Revealed adventure trilogy for White Wolf’s Trinity roleplaying game. I like the potential of these adventures a great deal, but large swaths of them are given over to describing the detailed activities and personal dramas of the NPCs. The PCs rarely have any way of learning about these dramas, which means that their experience while playing through this campaign is a little like the captain of the Titanic observing an iceberg — he’s only seeing the top 10% and the rest of it’s a wreck.
The other example I always think of when talking about this wrong-headed design approach is the Ravenloft adventure Touch of Death. I found this module in the public library when I was twelve or thirteen years old. I remember reading through it and thinking that it had a pretty amazing story… and then I realized that there was absolutely no way that the PCs playing through the adventure would ever see it. The entire thing dealt with an immense and ancient power struggle between legendary NPCs. The PCs had no way of learning the history of the conflict or even, in many respects, knowing that there was a struggle going on. If you played the adventure as written, it would consist of the PCs stumbling from one incomprehensible sequence of events to another.
These are extreme examples, but they impart an important lesson: If the players never see it, then it might as well have never happened.
And look at it from the opposite point of view: If you’ve got this really interesting bit of history or lore or back story that you’re developing… well, don’t you want the players to see it? Wouldn’t it be nice to share what you’ve created?
#1. MAKE IT SHORT
Okay, so you’ve developed the character background for Lord Dartmouth. This conniving fellow has a long history of Machiavellian murder and mayhem to his credit and you want the PCs to learn of his villainy (either because you want to motivate them to oppose him or it’s necessary information for stopping him or just because it’s interesting).
The first thing you have to remember is that the players have a short attention span. If you try to give them the entire history of Lord Dartmouth in a single sitting, they will tune out.
They’ll partly tune out because they don’t want to listen to a three minute monologue about some esoteric piece of lore that doesn’t mean anything to them. But they’ll also tune out because it’s actually not that easy to process and remember all of that information. Maybe if they were taking notes… but taking notes isn’t particularly fun for most people.
We’ll be delving into more specific methods for actually delivering the information. But regardless of the method you end up using, you need to focus on giving out small bursts of detailed information. This doesn’t mean that everything in the game needs to be simplistic — it just means that the players are more likely to process, remember, and care about complex ideas if they’re delivered in smaller and more comprehensible pieces.
In many ways this is also a more effective technique from a dramatic standpoint. Slowly revealing the big picture piece by piece is usually far more interesting than having McLecture the Scottish Elf explaining it all in a big lump.
#2. MAKE IT PLOT
Option 1: McLecture the Scottish Elf spends three minutes explaining that Lord Dartmouth was responsible for destroying the village of Cairwoth, explaining in detail exactly how the horrific destruction was carried out.
Option 2: The PCs go to Cairwoth and discover the tale of destruction for themselves — the scorch marks from the fireballs; the decapitated heads jutting from spikes; the mass grave; the diabolical laboratory of blood.
Players are more likely to remember things that they have done than things that they are told. Quests or missions can be particularly straight-forward ways to incorporate setting detail.
But please note that I said “plot” not “background”. The distinction between the two is subtle, but important. If the PCs get sent on a quest to deliver the Starfury Blade to the Elven Tribune of the Silverwood that doesn’t mean that McLecture the Scottish Elf’s five minute oration on the background and history of the Starfury Blade has suddenly become part of the plot.
In fact, about the only thing you can really hope for in that scenario is that the players will remember that there is something called a “Starfury Blade”. And even that might be hoping for too much because what they probably heard was, “Deliver the McGuffin to McGuffin Land.” Everyone loves a good McGuffin, but, much like McLecture, nobody really processes the content of one.
On the other hand, if during their escort mission the PCs are put in a position where the secret powers of the Starfury Blade were to manifest themselves and, thus, force them to engage in a conspiracy of bribes and cover-up to keep the details of that event secret from the Elven Tribune (who would be furious that outsiders have learned the secret of the blade)… well, now you’ve made the details part of the plot. The PCs will remember the powers of the blade and they’ll remember that the Elven Tribune wants to keep those powers secret.
Making something a part of the plot, however, doesn’t always mean making it a huge and convuluted affair. Here’s another example, this one drawn from my current campaign:
The PCs are seeking information that can be found in Alchestrin’s Tomb. As part of this scenario I want to establish some lore and history around the character of Alchestrin. One piece of information is that Alchestrin was the Third Lord of Castle Shard.
“Third Lord of Castle Shard.” That’s a title. Nothing is more likely to go in one ear and out the other than a title. (This isn’t just about RPG players, it’s pretty true in real life, too. For example, take a look at the full list of titles and honours belonging to Queen Elizabeth II. Did your eyes glaze over half way through? I thought so.)
But I can make that info part of the plot pretty easily.
Player 1: We need to find the location of Alchestrin’s Tomb.
Player 2: What do we know about him? I make a Knowledge (history) check.
DM: He was the Third Lord of Castle Shard.
Player 1: Let’s go to Castle Shard and see if they know.
Honestly, they probably still won’t remember that Alchestrin was the “Third Lord of Castle Shard”. But it’s very likely that they will, at the very least, remember that there was a connection between Alchestrin and Castle Shard.
(In reality, the PCs actually blew up my clever little scheme by independently involving Castle Shard in this sequence of events before they’d even heard the name Alchestrin. Ah well.)