by Mike Shea on 14 March 2016
Many GMs have begun embracing the fine art of "asking questions" to fill out our game worlds. This gives our players agency to build out parts of the world and parts of the story outside the boundaries of their character sheets. "Do they die?" is one such question along with one of my favorites "describe your killing blow!" Not really a question but you get the idea.
Proposing questions to our players is a powerful weapon in the arsenal of the lazy dungeon master. It creates aspects of the story we would never consider and offloads some of the creative burden we would otherwise keep to ourselves.
Not all questions are good questions, though, and it's not always clear which questions are good and which ones are bad. Today we're going to look at a few of the wrong questions or the dark paths that lead us to these questions. Let's begin.
As writers and as GMs, proper nouns are a pain in the ass. No one can easily come up with a name for a NPC, the name of a gang of thugs, or the name of the local bar easily off the top of their head. That's why there are about a million random name generators. Here are a couple of good ones:
If we don't like coming up with good proper nouns on the spot, why would we force this on our players? We get upset when we ask our players to name their favorite uncle and they come up with "Grumpstershorts" but what do we expect them to come up with? "Aragorn" probably took Tolkein four years to come up with.
This doesn't mean we can't ever ask a player to name something, but give them the time and the tools to do so the same way you'd do it yourself. "What is the name of the fencing school you got kicked out of?" is fine if we follow it up with "Here are some interesting names, take your time and get back to us later."
Some theatrical players are more than happy to join in all your whimsical improvisation but others don't have either the experience or the desire to leap into the world of improv. Putting players on the spot to come up with some bit of creative genius can cause all sorts of problems. First, it can embarrass them, which is a terrible feeling to invoke at the table. Second, it can screw up your pacing if it takes them time to come up with stuff.
When posing general questions, ask the group and let any one of them answer it. You can start with the one most likely to be comfortable with it but you might be surprised who happens to have an idea.
That said, you don't want to ignore folks who might be a bit more quiet. Try them out and see if they're comfortable answering the question. You might be surprised.
Give everyone a chance but don't put everyone on the spot if they aren't comfortable there.
The best questions to for player-driven storytelling are built to steer things in a general direction and still hands over interesting details to the player. If you're whole game is heading down one path, you're better off asking questions within that path rather than asking a wide open question and letting the answer screw things up.
"Which way do you go?" in an overland scenario can cause all sorts of problems unless you're able to shift the entire world around to ensure the most interesting stuff is always in the direction they choose.
"What strange ruins did you run into during your journey to Terokar?" is a more focused question with clear directions but an opportunity for the players to fill in the details. "What difficulty did you run into during your journey through the Mere of Dead Men?" is a 13th Age style montage question that can add quite a bit of fun but still makes the journey's destination clear.
Player-driven storytelling is a wonderful technique to tap into the imaginations of your players. That said, we're still playing a game with structures and boundaries. Our players may still not be comfortable thinking outside of these boundaries. Knowing the right questions to ask and the best way to ask them is a key to making this great tool work as well as it can.