#6. MAKE IT PHYSICAL
Handouts are a great way of conveying information for two reasons:
(1) Players love them. Give them a handout and they will sit up and take notice.
(2) Handouts are tangible and persistent.
If you tell the players something, it can go in one ear and out the other. Or be forgotten by the next session.
But if it’s a handout, then they have a constant reminder that the information exists. And if they forget a detail, they can just look at the handout again.
Although elaborate and detailed handouts will be more interesting and attract greater focus and attention, don’t get so wrapped up in the production values that you become reluctant to include the handouts. For example, I’ll rarely take the time to write out a letter by hand on a authentic-looking parchment…. but I’ll almost always type up the letter and hand it to them on a separate sheet of paper.
#7. MAKE IT REPETITIVE
We learn through repetition of information: Mention something once, we might remember it. Mention it again, the odds go up. Mention it several times, and our brains will generally identify it as notable information and file it away.
The problem with repetition is that it can also be very boring. Getting the same chunk of information dumped in their laps over and over again is not very interesting for the playerrs, and will eventually prompt a frustrated response: “Yes. All right. We get it already. Give it a rest.”
Now they know, but they still don’t care.
The trick is to figure out how to make each repetition of the information interesting in its own right. This is actually relatively easy to achieve by varying the type and content of the information.
For example, imagine that Bairwin Wildarson — a famous half-elven hero — has been placed in a stasis chamber somewhere deep beneath the surface of the earth. When the PCs find this stasis chamber you want it to be a major WOW! moment — as if they had just discovered Robin Hood. Obviously, for that to happen, the players need to appreciate just how famous and important Bairwin Wildarson is.
First, you might have the PCs start their adventures in the town of Bairwin — which was, of course, named after the legendary hero (Make It Personal). Perhaps, just to reinforce the point, some annual festival might be held by the village in the hero’s honor. The festival could even be disrupted by an attack by the Dark Fey (Make It Plot).
Second, after defeating the Ogre Crones in the Western Hills, the PCs might recover from their treasure horde the sword that Bairwin famously lost early in his adventuring career (Make It Treasure).
Third, after raiding the Tower of Magentine Hues, the PCs might find an antique copy of The Adventures of Bairwin Wildarson — summarized by way of a handout (Make It Physical).
In many ways, this is just another variation of the Three Clue Rule, and it naturally works quite well with the Make It Mystery technique. In many cases you won’t even need to make the mystery explicit: As the players pick up various bits of information regarding Bairwin Wildarson, they’ll start trying to piece it together for themselves.
If you heed this advice, then your campaign will start operating under a new paradigm. At this point, something interesting happens: Because you’ve eliminated the common occurence of McLecture the Scottish Elf, the players will suddenly be very interested when McLecture does show up. (If you handle it correctly, of course.)
For example, not that long ago I had an NPC in my Ptolus campaign deliver a page-long lecture regarding the history and lore of the Banewarrens. Rather than serving as a chance for my players to tune out, the event actually served as the dramatic culmination of an entire session. It was a taut and exciting cliffhanger.
What made it work?
(1) The Banewarrens were not an unknown quantity at this point. I had been dropping various hints regarding their existence and their importance over the course of the entire campaign. Because of this, the players had been looking for more information.
(2) Because I had been following the “rules” outlined above, the players weren’t used to getting more than little snippets of information. So when they suddenly got inundated with information they (a) drank it up like thirsty men at a desert oasis and (b) they knew it was a portentous and important event.
(3) I also laid the groundwork for that portentous atmosphere. The NPC delivering the lecture had been known to the PCs for a long time, but when she came on the scene to deliver the lesson in lore, she seemed like a very different person. They weren’t just hanging out in a bar and having a good time any more. This was important to her. And because she had become important to them, the fact that she considered it important carried weight.
So, like most rules, you need to know when to use them and you need to know when to break them. But it’s also important to realize that what makes breaking the rules so effective is the fact that you were using them before.