This is the second post in a series of DND DM tips that are designed to help first time Dungeon Masters/Game Masters as well as give experienced DMs/GMs some new perspective to improve their games. The information here applies to all TTRPG games.
As a Dungeon Master (DM), we all aim to entertain our players. We do this by sprinkling our games with the types of combat, role playing scenarios, and story elements our players love. But sometimes it’s hard to know what encounters they will love, and which will leave them reaching for their phones.
A great way to get inside the heads of your players is to ask them to recap the previous session. Kind of like a “Last Time On…” at the beginning of a TV show, a recap reminds everyone at the table the important information leading up to where you are now. This little gaming tool is wonderful because it lets you get inside the mind of your players to see what they care about. And it has a great added bonus: it lets you know what they think is going on in your game. You may be surprised to learn their point of view is radically different from your own. And that information is a goldmine to give yourself the building blocks to design exactly those enjoyable elements you should be focused on.
And you may find, your players enjoy it!
But The DM Already Does the Session Recap
As the DM, you may find yourself already doing this task. You want to keep the players engaged with the plot. Maybe you don’t want them to veer off track from a fun game encounter you have planned. So you feel you have to remind them important plot points. And you’re not wrong to do so.
But if you ask them to do it, they will still remind each other. If they missed something, you can make a note. If it’s important, remind them at the end of the recap.
You’ve probably seen famous DMs like Matt Mercer of Critical Role doing recaps himself. But that doesn’t make it the best method. DMs putting out an actual play stream are there to entertain the viewer. We are watching a professionally polished product, which most people don’t have at their home (or online) tables. DM lead recaps are no less valid a method than Player led ones. In this article I’m going to dive into what added value a Player led recap gives you as a DM. Then you can try it in your game, and determine for yourself.
Why not Just Ask Them What They Want?
You may think directly asking your players what they like is the easiest way to find out. That may work sometimes. But in reality, many people can’t tell you what they want, because consciously they may not know. Not everyone has the social awareness to answer helpfully, even if it would benefit themselves. The answers you’re going to get could be what they think you want to hear. This is especially true if you have the type of players who don’t want to hurt your feelings. Don’t settle for the dreaded, “Oh it’s all good!” Other players may merely agree with what another said to avoid feeling put on the spot. You also could be running into your own confirmation bias of what you think is happening and working in your game if you don’t seek outside perspectives.
Asking your players what they like is an important early step to giving them a fun game. Direct questions have their place. You need to know if they want to play a heist, or a wilderness crawl. But it is not the best way to get them to share their thoughts with you about your current game as it evolves. If you really want to know what someone thinks about something, you need to ask them an indirect question that makes them think about whatever you want to know about. And that’s where Session Recaps come into play.
Have The Players Do the Session Recap
When asking the players to summarize previous sessions, I find it best to let them decide who wants to do it each time. Asking them to volunteer will prevent someone who may have a harder time remembering from feeling bad. Depending on your group, you may find some resistance at first, but politely insist. You can tell them it’s important for you to know what they remember and they don’t.
I also find that if only one person volunteers session after session, you’re going to start learning only their perspective and preferences. You goal is to get so make sure to spread it around so everyone gets to contribute.
Let Them Show You What They Think
TTRPGs are a form of storytelling game. The cardinal rule of all storytelling is to show, not tell the story. Don’t tell me it was a beautiful sunset, show me the beauty and let me put two and two together.
Which example is better at conveying the amazing beauty?
- As I walked home from work, I stopped to admire the most beautiful sunset. I was amazed. I even missed some text messages because of it.
- Walking home after work, I was texting with my friend. Suddenly I caught a glimpse something colorful in the corner of my eye. I looked up and stopped in my tracks. The western part of the sky poured forth bands of purples and oranges as the sun set. Rays of warm colored light shined across the yellow field of buttercups dancing before me in a warm breeze. I didn’t even notice the new text message notifications on my phone until ten minutes later when I got home.
The first tells, and is more direct. The second shows, and never uses opinion shortcuts (beautiful, amazing, etc.). It is better than the first at conveying what was important about the scene.
While the players are likely going to tell you matter-of-factly their version of the previous session, rather than give a flowery description, the important thing here is that in their telling, they are going to show you what parts were important to them. They aren’t going to say some abstraction like “we really like combat.” No, with the clues I lay out below, you’ll learn which combats they found engaging, as well as why. They will show you what they are thinking. And these direct examples will come right out of your game!
Clues to What’s Important
As they recap, look for these clues to get a bit deeper into their minds. They may show you things you never considered to be important to your very own game. They will show you what they like not only with their words, but how they convey the information.
- Look at their body language, which emotions they show and when. See just how excited they get as they tell you about some parts, and not at others – read the subtext.
- Listen to what they choose to focus on first. That information is at the front of their minds, especially at the start of their recap if they are not recounting 100% chronologically. If they jump to some event and skipped over others, you learn which was more important to them.
- Listen to what elements they give the most detail to. This works even if they recount chronologically. The parts they add more details to will show you what they consider the most memorable and important.
New Points of View To Inspire New Directions of Fun
Maybe what the players thought was important wasn’t as important to you, but now you have a better view of what really happened at the gaming table, coming from the POV of the people who lead in the decision-making processes of the game. (It’s the DM’s job to present the challenges to the players, but the players get to decide how to approach those challenges).
When the player point of view comes into conflict with the DM’s, it is generally a good idea to change things behind the scenes to accommodate your players, rather than contradict them. If you go along with the player’s ideas, you build up good will within your game and make sure the players are having fun. When a DM recaps the previous session, they are forcing the player’s to accept the DM’s point of view of what happened, but maybe the players saw something differently. If you constantly contradict the players, playing the Authority Figure who tells the players “you are wrong, here are the facts,” you might be taking some of their pleasure as co-storytellers away, as well as some of their agency to control the game. Remember, part of the fun of TTRPGs is that we are playing a shared game.
When changing tacks to accommodate the players’ ideas, you can use the new information to pull the magical gaming levers hidden behind the DM screen:
- Perhaps the players thought they were going into a big fight, but you didn’t see it that way: increase the stakes and excitement by changing the encounter to the fight they expected.
- If the players thought some throwaway idea was important, focus on that idea to further encourage player engagement and fun.
- If the players believed they solved a big problem, but you see it differently, you can tie their belief into further story elements and foreshadow things more clearly to move them towards the vision you have.
If all the players are expecting something to happen, and it doesn’t happen, it would be a let-down for them! You can avoid their disappointment by incorporating the thing they have built their excitement over.
To Change, Or Not To Change: That is the Question
With the above examples, you can either choose to change course to fit what the players think, or keep on the same track, while clarifying and reinforcing the situation to subtly guide your players towards a more fun adventure path.
However, you must take this on a case-by-case basis so as not to let every incorrect player assumption completely derail your game: sometimes it may be critical to correct a point to make sure the game remains fun in the bigger picture. And as the DM, you are supposed to be having fun too, so always bowing to the crazy whims of the players will grind you down over time (especially if they get a lot wrong, but then it may be helpful to work on your own clarity and foreshadowing). Only you can tell when that will be necessary based on your game and your players.
It doesn’t matter whether you’re the type of DM who runs a game from a published adventure book, or the type who homebrews your own intricate world, it’s always helpful to know what parts of the game your players are engaging the most with. Once you know what your players dig and what they think is happening, you can give them more of it!
Having your players present a recap of the story so far at the beginning of your session allows you the benefit of seeing the game from a new point of view. It will give you the tools to make changes to your game based on your players interests. And let’s face it, sometimes it can be hard to keep coming up with fun plans for the game. Letting the players come up with things will take some of the burden off you as DM.
Try introducing Player Session Recaps to your game to better dial things behind the scenes to generate more fun.