Two principles from D. Vincent Baker’s Apocalypse World (with a few props and preparation) can improve every game you will ever run under any system.
They aren’t rocket science. You probably already try to follow these rules. I always have. When you use memory aids to practice them consistently, though, their power to immerse players in the fiction are unmatched.
What’s in a name?
In How to Win Friends and Influence People, Dale Carnegie wrote, “Remember that a person’s name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language.” When you remember someone’s name, especially after a long separation, they feel that you value them. You have dedicated some of your most precious resource to them: your memory.
In making characters, your players have created alter egos. They are creating something, identifying themselves with it, and then handing you control over its fate. The implied trust is enormous. For the duration of the game, they are becoming someone else. Address them appropriately!
Call them their character’s name!
When you call them by their character name every time, a switch flips: when you talk to them, they are the character. They may joke with other players out of character, but the player fades away when you tell them about what’s happening in the game.
Many players think about their character in the third person. “Well, Joan is a paladin, so I think she’ll try to help the peasants, even if it delays killing the lich.” Even if the wonderful pronoun I enters into that sentence instead of the name of the character or the she, the syntax reveals that the character is an Other, an entity outside the player to be directed and manipulated like a game piece. Using the character’s name as often as possible while addressing the player shifts their perspective. In your game, the player steps out of the director’s chair and onto the stage, where they belong.
I have always tried to do this. You probably have, too. I frequently made it through half a session, got tired, and started slipping up. If you’re like me, you need tangible reminders. You need that name staring you in the face.
You need tent cards.
Name tags have plenty of downsides. They are too small, players feel ridiculous wearing them, they are either one time use or poke holes in your clothes, and staring at another player’s chest is a clear indicator you’ve forgotten their name yet again. Also, it’s creepy. Don’t be creepy.
Tent cards require minimal buy-in, spare players’ clothes and pride, and are visible while looking at the table. When you look from your notes to the player, your eyes will pass over the tent card, and remind you to use their character’s name. I recommend the 3 1/2 by 11 inch Large Tent Cards from Office Depot. They’re not cheap, but they are quite sturdy and retain their shape. You won’t need many cards per campaign. If you know other GMs, you can split the 50 cards among you and still be set for many a game. Any folded heavyweight paper of sufficient size will do in a pinch.
I originally bought tent cards to prepare for a convention, but now, I use them for every game. Even once you know your PCs’ names by heart, the card is a reminder to use it.
NPCs have names, too!
When a non-player character becomes important, you give them a name. That’s standard practice.
It’s also not enough.
Mr. Baker’s advice is worth quoting: “Leap forward with named, human NPCs.” (emphasis added)
Don’t wait for players to ask the character’s name. Don’t wait for them to try to find the same person a second time. Give them a name and use it as soon as the fiction can possibly justify it! Whenever you have an opportunity, pounce.
- There are people the characters have learned about through rumors. Tell the players those characters’ names when the players meet them.
- Make up an off-screen moment that revealed it: “Lerris, when you were looking around yesterday for clues about where the lich’s agents might be hiding, one of the guys you bought drinks for was a halfling named Johann. That’s the same halfling you see now talking to Grom the bartender between subtle glances in your direction.”
- Hang it on a player’s history: “Lo, you knew Tarris during the war. He dispatched you on one of your most dangerous missions. At Vries’ ball, though, he’s doing his best to pretend he can’t even see you.”
- Let the players overhear someone else addressing the character by name.
Of course, if your game takes place in a setting the characters have been to or lived in, tell them everybody’s name: “Talia, you lived in Altara before setting off on this adventure. You recognize that half-orc as Gurk. He’s acting a lot smarter than you remember. Something’s happened to him, or he’s following orders.”
Having a list of names at the ready is vital. Use one and mark it off, and write it down in your notes as soon as you have the opportunity. Depending on your setting, you may need multiple lists. I have had random names divided by species and culture. These halflings live among the humans, who have Germanic names? Scratch Johann off the list and throw him at the players. Note that they met Johann the shady halfling. Give him a quick motivation and you’re ready to go.
Using names constantly means more bookkeeping. Trust me; it’s worth it.
To players, names signal importance. Name everyone, and the world comes alive. Try it, and tell me how it goes!