If you asked me, and no one did but I don’t care, what the hardest part of trying to be a good DM is, you would be in for a treat. I wouldn’t mention engineering balanced encounters, planning unique and interesting dungeons, crafting tricky, but not too tricky, riddles, or running multiple NPCs while simultaneously conducting massive multi-army battles.
The hardest part is obviously when the PCs take a long, hard look at the beautiful adventure you just made, then decide to go the other way. I will kill my players someday, I swear, but that’s a topic for another article. The second hardest part of being a DM is keeping your player’s interest up throughout the session, and that’s what I’ll be tackling today.
One of the best tools for making an exciting session is staring out with a strong foot forward – but before you start retooling even the first line of dialog, don't forget about the real way most sessions start – with a session recap. Unless you're lucky enough to play with a group that meets weekly, you're probably starting with a quick recap of what happened last month/fortnight/year . If you're not doing this – you should. Even the most enthusiastic players are apt to forget key events, people or place names after a month rolls by. Not everyone has the privilege of living inside the DM's head and probably deserve a little leeway for forgetting that the King's son went missing in the War of Felgard, or whatever.
These sort of pivotal but easy forgotten points are often crucial to keep fresh in the PC's minds, but recapping the last few sessions in any thing approaching detail can make the players feel like they're sitting through a history lesson when they just want to roll the damn dice. After all, the players don't know that the Prince is going to return from the dead next session, so they can be forgiven for not giving a rat's ass about what some dead kid's name is.
If only there was a way not just to make recapping a fun and exciting part of the game, but also incentives players to want to pay attention to all the colorful backdrop you spend so much time on.
There's one simple trick that does exactly this – turning your pre-game recap itno a trivia contest – and hand out in game rewards for correct answers. The questions are easy enough to figure out, just decide on the handful of key points you want to rehash and summarize them, the important part is actually giving the players a reason to want to answer.
There are a couple obvious ways to reward players, namely loot and XP, but both of these have share a common problem. Once you start handing these out to different players at different rates, as will undoubtedly occur in this situation, you tend to end up with the huge logistical headache of managing different players at different power levels. What I much prefer are giving out “bonus” actions – essentially Action Points that are limited in their functionality, Fraction Points, if you will. I've created a set of these bonus action reward in card form to hand out, making it easy for player's and myself to keep track of their rewards.
You can find the set of Fraction Point cards that I made HERE. When I put these together a kept a couple guidelines in mind.
- I wanted a variety of different cards with different actions to keep the rewards interesting. To that end, some cards give bonus actions, some give re-rolls, and some add modifiers.
- I wanted the players to pay more attention to each other's actions. To encourage that, I made some of the cards only grant bonus actions to another.
- I wanted the cards to add to the fun in game. Not only did I add a little line of flavor text to the top of each card, I also ruled that when a player wanted to use his card he had to say that line out loud.
Once the player's figure out that they get free crap at the start of each session if they just jot down some quick notes while you're prattling on, you'll find that suddenly character names leap to the lips of your players.