Several blogs spend the first post of the new year recapping the previous year. That’s not the kind of recap that I’m talking about here. I’m talking about adventure recaps!

I like talking to players about the campaigns they’re in. Hearing things from the player perspective helps me see how an adventure is communicated to the ultimate recipient. I’ve had two different friends, in two different games, recently tell me that they have a lot of fun playing the games they're in, but they’re not exactly sure what’s going on in the campaign. They go from encounter to encounter without a lot of understanding why, or what the overall story direction is.

I was initially quick to dismiss this as a GM issue. Good GMs should know to begin sessions with a recap, as in the “previously on ShowName…” that serial TV shows often do. I first noticed this being done skillfully with Smallville; instead of recapping the show’s increasingly sprawling narrative, the episodes opened by recapping whatever pieces of background you needed to know for the episode you were just about to see, and didn’t bother with extraneous summary. That’s a good model for how to do this well in a sprawling RPG campaign. Great GMs should know to end each session with a recap, too, making clear what just happened and what's likely to happen in the next session.

But it’s unfair to put this all on the GM when the adventure author can help, too. Here are some good tools for adventure designers to impart tools to keep the players informed about the relevant narrative.

Use the Imperative. Many adventures begin with a mission briefing and call to action. These should end with imperative statements. Good ones end like this: “ that’s everything we know about the fairies of the Shadow Wood. Go into the Shadow Wood, confront the Night King of the Fey, and recover the Fairy Orb.” Three imperative statements at the end let the players know just what they need to do. That keeps them focused and puts their goals in mind. But it doesn't just help the players; it's a good place for the GM to go back to in order to remind the PCs, "hey, remember what you're here to do: go into the Shadow Wood, confront the Night King of the Fey, and recover the Fairy Orb."

Use NPC Acknowledgment. If the players just recovered the Fairy Orb and need it to break a curse in a neighboring kingdom, it’s helpful to have an NPC say something simple like, “Thank you for recovering the Fairy Orb from the Night King in the Shadow Wood.” This doesn’t have to be in boxed text; it can be in bullet points, or running narrative, or some other fashion; the key is to have it in a place where the GM is providing information to players. Something simple and GM-focused will do, such as, “The vizier first thanks the players for their efforts in recovering the Fairy Orb from the Night King, and asks about any troubles they encountered in the Shadow Wood.” That lets the players know that the Shadow Wood stuff is what’s relevant, even if they had a side detour (such as routing some ogres) on the way back. It lets the players know which plot thread is important right now.

Prepare a Handout as a Checklist. Although player handouts are a whole separate topic, those useful for this subject are the types of handouts that give the players a list of tasks to perform, locations to visit, or similar things to let them know where they’ve been and what’s coming next. My favorite are blank overland maps (that is, adventure maps that don't include location tags on them). The GM can mark that map as needed with points the players need to visit, and can refer back to it so the players see how everything all fits together. “Oh, we went to all three places in the Shadow Wood…what’s Rooksedge? Isn’t that the cursed city?”

Include Adventure Markers for the GM. GMs work their best with clearly defined markers. It’s often useful to begin an adventure section with a section recapping what the players must have done before this point, then concluding with a recap of what they have just accomplished and where to go next. This does more than assure the GM stays on track for the adventure; it gives the GM tools to provide relevant summaries to the players at the table. An adventure section might start like this:

Breaking the Curse

The players should come to the cursed city of Rooksedge only after they have recovered the Fairy Orb from the Night King in the Shadow Wood. They might also have recovered the Night King’s magic staff, although they don’t need to have recovered it to help Rooksedge with the curse. The roads to Rooksedge all lead to the town square, where the Angry Mob encounter below begins.

The above tells the GM two important things: first, that they shouldn’t be here without the Fairy Orb; second, the magic staff is likely to be relevant. A GM might use this information to both recap the Shadow Wood encounters that led the PCs here, and to ask who’s carrying the magic staff. That, in turn, lets the PCs know those are the relevant points right now. And they’re off to face an angry mob!