Mystery and the Burden of Memory

Who’s on the suspect list? Who have we eliminated? What clues haven’t we come up with explanations for? Who was there on that New Year’s Eve when Minna “Munchkin” Maxwell was found with a bag full of dice shoved down her throat? Did we ever establish a motive for the Looney? Does anyone remember? Why is everyone looking at me?

One of the biggest hazards of a mystery is the amount of memory it takes to keep it together, on both sides of the table. The GM needs to remember which clues she’s delivered and which she hasn’t, and the players often find that not being able to remember the clues is usually a recipe for having to do everything over again so they can remember what they were supposed to have learned. What else do you expect from a plot that’s made to challenge the minds of both player and character? Like anything else at the table, this can provoke arguments: whose job is it to remember what’s going on?

Some people say it’s the GM’s job to keep this stuff straight. She needs to remember how far the group’s gotten anyway, right? And she already knows the clues and the suspects, the circumstances and the contexts; would it be that much harder for her to be the one to provide the clues and the refreshers? And the players are here to have fun, not to do homework, or so they’re likely to argue. On the other hand, that’s a lot of information already, and it’s easy to get parts mixed up. How many GMs have accidentally slipped bits of information they didn’t realize they hadn’t disseminated yet? And how easy is it for a GM to forget that, while she’s given the group information, they might not have come to the conclusions she wants them to? As for the homework argument, it’s understandable, but it’s hardly fair if the GM (who already has more homework than the rest of the party by default) has to do theirs as well. If something like that were happening in school, the person stuck with all the assignments would have every right to call foul.

Others argue that it’s the player’s job to keep track of things. It would seem only fair, and avoiding GM burnout is a very important thing—and more relevantly, a player is likelier to remember the conclusions that he drew and why he drew them than the GM is (the reasons should be obvious). Moreover, it’s often seen as a sign of appreciation of the GM’s efforts, or as a GM’s yardstick to see if their work is engaging enough. On the other hand, sometimes the makeup of the group shifts enough that you can’t count on a group memory to step forward, or the one who usually engages in memorization is missing; you can run a game without a player, but without a GM is a lot harder.

While I tend to favor it being the player’s job to memorize, I think the burden of memory should not be one person’s alone no matter which side gets stuck with the job. GMs should be allowed to ask players to refresh their memories on certain events (I’ve been the one asked, a time or two); on the other hand, players should occasionally be given a chance to ask, “Okay, what happened last time?” For different groups, different balances are appropriate—but the one rule is that both sides should be comfortable with it. Stressed gamers are unhappy gamers.

It isn’t just a mystery thing; sharing the burden of memory is something that every group has to figure out an answer to at some point. But mysteries tend to intensify the problem, and the intensified problem can in turn have a negative impact on the game.

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