I’ve spoken before about the roles characters play in a group, but there’s also merit in considering the roles of players. Various books talk about the sorts of players a DM might find at his or her table: the thespian, the min-maxer, the person who’s not really paying attention, and so on. For a decent primer on that I recommend the curiously-capitalized Pathfinder GameMastery Guide. But that’s not really a list of roles. I’m not talking about personalities or payoffs, I’m talking about at-the-table duties and the people who fill them.
For the most part groups tend to have people who regularly volunteer for certain tasks or to whom those tasks are naturally assigned. For example, there’s the rules expert, who can answer questions about the system faster than most players can look them up, so she naturally becomes the person players (and/or the DM) ask about tricky situations. There’s the cartographer, who lovingly sketches dungeon maps on note paper or takes charge of the markers on the battlemat. There’s the accountant, who keeps track of loot so the party neither forgets their spoils nor needs to adjudicate doling out money after every battle. Some groups have a career DM, or a person who brings the best snacks, or a person who has the house or dorm room where the game happens. Like character roles, not every group has all roles and some players fill several, but there’s wisdom in finding the relevance for each role.
Over time we’ve added a role to our gaming circles, one we didn’t engineer specifically but one that developed naturally over time: the story accountant. This is the player who keeps track of what actually happens during game, jotting down important NPCs, key plot points, fun battles, and generally the scene-by-scene minutia. We first called it the “story accountant” as a tongue-in-cheek reference to the loot accountant, and since we’re nothing if not subversive, it’s the term that stuck. I guess we should properly rename it the “narrator”, but inertia is a powerful force.
Unlike a lot of roles, the DM can’t perform this one. Yes, the DM should be doing a lot of this, but the story accountant does it from the player perspective. It’s not the DM’s record of everything that did or didn’t happen, it’s the players’ record of what’s important.
The format of these records varies from player to player. Our most prolific story accountant keeps a Scrivener file where each session gets its own entry, so we know what happened in every week of every campaign even years later, but they’re just quick stream-of consciousness notes. In Faith, our accountant meticulously records what we do and properly formats key terms so they’re easy to find; I understand he’s also working on a comprehensive campaign index. In the campaign I had before this, The Eight Arms and the Day That Wasn’t, records took the form of an in-character journal posted on a blog to which I have linked before. Once we had the illiterate barbarian make MS Paint sketches for each session, and boy, was that a trip. On the sole occasion when we lost our minds and decided I should be taking notes, I did it in the same style I took notes during school: somewhere between a PowerPoint presentation and the mad ravings of a conspiracy theorist. Just look at this noise:
There is no zoomed-in version of that picture. You’re welcome.
When we started gaming, we didn’t have anybody doing this. Mostly, we were bad at stories and there was little ongoing plot we needed to remember from week to week. But I started to see the benefit of it when one of my players asked me what had happened in my first good campaign, the Unnamed Monster Campaign*, years after it had finished. I legitimately had no idea. I managed to get a very vague campaign outline by cobbling together testimony from the few players to whom I still had access, the dates on which I wrote certain monster stat blocks, and the one-word names of my note files. Unsurprisingly I couldn’t piece it all together. An excerpt:
- 23/04/2006 — Malfurious — In which the party conquers a demon prince
- 07/05/2006 — TPK — In which the party suffers a total defeat
- 27/08/2006 — Phobos 2 — In which the party escapes the realm of the dead and retrieves their bodies
- 10/09/2006 — xWSG — ?
- 17/09/2006 — Water — In which the party infiltrates an underwater castle and scares a poor woman
That large gap in dates is because we took a break for the summer while we lacked quorum. That much I remember. But that empty session was when I put the players in front of some elves feuding with orcs over a disputed section of forest (WSG stands for Warsong Gulch, a battleground in World of Warcraft with a similar backstory) and expected them to either pick a side or find a third option. The players considered the situation and opted to up and leave without addressing it at all. What did they do instead? I don’t know! I have no notes from the session that actually happened, so that part of the campaign is lost to time. I think somewhere around then the players met an awakened gloomsteel golem and fought a water beast named “Scrreeeeeeee!” but I couldn’t tell you when, where, or why.
I consider this unacceptable. I like having extensive knowledge of the things I care about—ask anybody who knew me when I had the Core rulebooks memorized down to “what monster is on page 86?”—and learning that I didn’t even have passing knowledge of my own campaigns struck me as a problem. My notes got better, but as I started doing more improvisational DMing I found it was better to outsource the role to a player. I run the game, I make things up as I go along, and they write it down. Since we declared a dedicated story accountant for each campaign, we don’t lose entire sessions any more, even when my notes are woefully inadequate.
I’m not going to pretend this role is mandatory. Some groups know everything that happens in the campaign so there’s no need to write it down. Some groups don’t care. But in campaigns with recurring characters, deep callbacks to earlier adventures, or a backstory so thick it needs footnotes, a story accountant gives players and the DM a resource from which they can get anything they don’t remember. As our campaigns get more complex I’ve found more and more use for it, to the point where we’ll designate a player for it during Session Zero, right along with our regular accountant/lootmaster. It usually ends up being the same players every time, but the same happens for snack duty. Don’t fix what isn’t broken.
* — I legitimately never got around to naming this campaign. But the monstrous PCs ended the story as celebrities to some, mostly other monsters, and criminals and mass murderers to others, mostly humans and other traditional PC races. I’ve since decided that if I ever go back to that world, the PCs have faded into mystery for most people but their legend lives on. That is, even though their deeds inspired generations of monstrous heroes, their names themselves are lost to all but a few. Thus Unnamed Monster Campaign actually means The Story of the Unnamed Monsters, and I’ve retroactively decided that’s intentional.