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Anatomy of 20 Questions

Posted By Phil Vecchione On August 13, 2009 @ 4:00 am In GMing Advice | 9 Comments

Hi. I am away at GenCon, but I wanted to leave you with something to talk about while I am gone. I will check the comments as soon as I can, but I trust you can keep the conversation going in my absence….

One great inspiration for me as a GM was reading, Amber: Diceless Roleplaying. Of the many things I learned from that book was the concept of using a series of questions to help flesh out the backgrounds of characters before play starts. Since my first reading of the Amber in 1992, I have used the “20 Questions” tool in the opening of nearly all my campaigns. It has provided me a wealth of potential plot hooks and information that have allowed me to tailor my campaigns to the characters. Upon reflection on the questions I have asked in the past, I have found that there are several categories of questions that one should ask in the body of 20 Questions. The categories and some example questions are listed below….

Fleshing Out Character Personalities and Backgrounds – The first goal of 20 questions is to get the players to think more about their characters. Questions from this category are designed to provide additional details about the character that are mostly “window dressing.” These questions are good for the group as well, because the information provided by the player helps the other players imagine the character.

Examples:

  • What type of clothing does your character typically wear?
  • Does your character have any distinguishing marks? If so, what are they?
  • What is your favorite/least favorite food?

I like to start my 20 questions with a few of these types of questions, to ease the players into the process. In a way it helps the player to center himself on the his character, so that they are in the right mindset to answer some deeper questions. None of the answers at this level are really going to give the GM anything to use other than the ability to play off of a small quirk, using it as color commentary in a scene.

Generate Character-Specific Hooks– This group of questions are designed to allow the GM access to specific plot hooks for each character. They are presented such that when the player answers them, they will hopefully create interesting relationships and opportunities for the GM to tie the character into the campaign. Often players will try to downplay these questions, but as a GM, I challenge them. Not everyone in the group can be an orphaned loner with no family or love interest. *grin*

Players, do not feel threatened by these questions. The answers to these are a road map for the GM. The way you answer these says to the GM, “This is how I want my character to relate to the campaign world.” The object is to flavor the answers. Don’t just have a significant other, have one who does not like your occupation (super spy, adventurer, super hero, etc). By adding some depth to these questions you can help to create sub-plots that you want to explore. These questions are designed for the players to create opportunities in the game for drama and role playing.

Examples:

  • Are you married, dating, etc? How serious is it?
  • Who is your best friend?
  • Do you have any enemies? Who are they?

Use these questions to make the players describe family and friends, and then put them into your trusting hands for you to protect, and not to dangle over the open mouth of a dragon…{evil laugh} Ok…don’t dangle all of them…

Highlight The Campaign World– Since 20 Questions is done when you first kick off your campaign, you can get your characters to think about specific parts of your campaign world, by asking for their opinions on different features. This gets the players to actively think about the setting and to incorporate their feelings about it into their characters.

Your campaign world likely has some unique elements to it that the characters will have experienced as they grew up, but the players will experience for the first time when the game starts. By asking questions about their reactions to the various elements, you allow them to incorporate those experiences into their character attitudes. The GM’s goal with these questions is two-fold. 1) The players should take away a better understanding of what makes your campaign world unique, and 2) the characters should have properly formed reactions to the world.

Examples:

  • Have you ever encountered a Red Wizard before? What happened?
  • Has any member of your family been taken by the Demons?
  • Where were you, and what were you doing when the asteroid hit?

The other effect these questions can have is to open up a discussion about certain aspects of the world, so that when your campaign starts, the players are all on the same page and have an equal understanding about some of the more unique elements. This will help to clear up any misconceptions the players may have, which could lead to in-game frustration.

Setting An Emotional and Moral Baseline– This group of questions is used by the GM to get a feel of where the characters are in regard to various moral dilemmas that may come up in your game. If you are running a superhero-style game, these questions are a great tool for determining how far your players think they will go, in essence telling you where to challenge them through story. The answers to these questions are also a way to look for potential intra-party problems, based on how they answer questions about loyalty, etc. If your game has a specific moral tone to it, these questions are a good way to find out if your players on the same page as you are.

Examples:

  • If a super villain threatened your family, would you kill him/her?
  • If you could only save one, a bus full of people being dangled off a bridge or your girlfriend being dangled off the same bridge, who would you save, and why? (aka the Spider-Man question)
  • How far would you go to protect your wealth?

Added bonus: With these questions, you can always ask the players the same questions again, at a later date in the campaign, and see if any of their responses have changed because of the events of your campaign.

Administering the 20 Questions

Depending on how much time I have or how anxious I am to get my game started, I will either have a face-to-face session for the 20 Questions, or do them by email. I find that the face-to-face tends to be more exciting, for several reasons. First, is that when done face to face, you can have your players answer them in character. As the session goes on your players will get more and more comfortable with their characters and begin to develop mannerisms for them. Second, is the interactivity. In many cases the answers that the players provide, will prompt me to ask additional questions to the player or may prompt another player to ask a question. These side questions allow for a deeper discussion and understanding by the group.

Once I did the 20 Questions for a Vampire game in a coffeehouse, in downtown Buffalo on a Friday night. We sat in a corner, drinking coffee, being very inconspicuous, just talking; there were no dice or rule books, just a few journals and pens. It was the late 90′s; we did not look like a group of gamers, but perhaps some post-grunge literary discussion. The setting was perfect for the questions and really set a tone for the campaign. If you can arrange to have your 20 Questions session somewhere like that, I highly recommend it. The players left that night with a very clear impression of who their characters were and what the setting of the game would be like.

If you are going to do your questions by email, I recommend having the players answer the questions and CC-ing the group on the responses. It is good for the players to see the responses from all the players, and it may spark some side email discussions. You can always reply to a player’s email and ask follow-up questions. The only real downside is that unlike a face-to-face session, where answers are immediate, there may be some delays in people in your group responding, depending on their email practices.

20 Questions is a very powerful tool that a GM can use just before the launch of their campaign. With a well thought out collection of questions, a GM can gain invaluable insight and information into the characters, to use in making their campaign more appealing and engaging to the players. In turn it gives the players a venue to express to the GM possible types of stories in which they would like to take part, giving them input on the upcoming campaign.

Do you use 20 Questions in your campaigns? What are some of your favorite questions?

About  Phil Vecchione

A gamer for 30 years, Phil cut his teeth on Moldvay D&D and has tried to run everything else since then. He has had the fortune to be gaming with the same group for almost 20 years. When not blogging or writing RPG books, Phil is a husband, father, and project manager. More about Phil.




9 Comments (Open | Close)

9 Comments To "Anatomy of 20 Questions"

#1 Comment By Zig On August 13, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

Excellent article!

I’ve used the list of questions in past campaigns — mainly Shadowrun. I think they usually number between 20 and 30 questions total. In the past I have had the players fill out a form and email it to me. As incentive for them to fill out all the questions I give the player something of value like build points in SR.

However, after reading this article I am quite taken by the idea of doing this live with the group. I can really see a gathering of my group at our old time favorite diner having a meal and lots of coffee while we go through some background questions. It would be a lot of note taking for me, but I think the environment would work (in SR the players usually have a favorite diner they haunt for planning and post run short stacks of pancakes). Also, I would imagine the cross fertilization of ideas amongst the group would be very interesting. One of the players might chime in that they think they were with the player talking on some occasion, or the idea of one will spark another idea in a fellow player.

Aside from that I’ll add my one experience playing Amber. It was a play-by-email game. In it, we had a questionnaire that was lengthy, but also had to write stories about our character for each round of attribute bidding as well as for any items of power or personal shadows we had.

I’m a big fan of the question list to get some background for the players and give them a pre-taste of the campaign. Plus it’s a good way to get an idea of what your players are looking for in the campaign.

In closing, I love the idea of the live question session with the group. I can’t wait to give that a try for some game I run.

#2 Comment By Zig On August 13, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

Oh, I should have added some of my favorite questions…

The ones I like the most are questions that give me story hooks. There is always a question about family and closest friends (in SR I’ll even give the player free contacts for fleshing out some friend they have).

I also like to ask about the characters’ child hoods, what was the biggest events in their lives, marriage/dating status, big dream or goal they are working towards.

I’ve also asked questions like if you got a million nuyen what would you do? Or, moral compass kinds of questions with a “what if?” question.

Again, great article!

#3 Comment By Scott Martin On August 13, 2009 @ 2:41 pm

I like the breakdown– in many ways, your advice on categories of questions is a lot like the advice on mixing up types of Aspects in Spirit of the Century.

I know that I’ve been light on “highlight the campaign world” type questions in the past– and I can see that I’ve been overlooking a great expectation setting tool. I’ve usually been longer on hooks and personality questions, but that’s only half of the tool. Thanks!

#4 Comment By Lucivious On August 17, 2009 @ 1:09 pm

This really is a great article. I have been looking for a way to get my players more engaged with the story and out of their old habits.

This might do it. If I get them to stop playing the same characters I can at least get them to flesh them out a bit.

#5 Comment By Knight of Roses On August 20, 2009 @ 2:49 pm

This is a neat idea. Are there any examples of ones that people have used posted anywhere?

#6 Comment By robinmotion On August 23, 2009 @ 11:09 am

I knew it would happen. I found a great idea for shared character backgrounds here on Gnome Stew, and thought to myself, “I should save this!” and then lost it.

Can anyone help me out? It was basically a round-robin wherein each player would answer a few questions (such as “Who is your arch-nemesis?”), and then the GM took their answers and used them to craft questions for the NEXT player in the circle, who got to provide the answers (such as “Player 2, where does player 1′s arch-nemesis reside now?”).

Search isn’t turning anything up; perhaps it was in someone’s comments?

Thanks!

#7 Pingback By Choice Cuts, 2009/09/01 | Atreus's RPG Works On September 1, 2009 @ 4:53 am

[...] post above, Chatty takes it and restructures it to a single adventure.Creating Depth in Roleplaying:Anatomy of 20 Questions – A dissection of one of the more interesting methods for fleshing out characters [...]

#8 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On July 20, 2012 @ 10:21 am

Followed the link from “Don’t Skimp…” and I thought of one tweak: When the players answer ‘in character’, have them answer questions from a superior or prospective employer, and make sure they reply with what they’re saying and what they’re thinking.

#9 Comment By Phil Vecchione On July 22, 2012 @ 9:57 am

I have had a similar thought about this, turning this into its own session, with characters answering to an NPC. Not only do you get the answers but it gives them a chance to start working on their voice for their character, and to get into their head.


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