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Deep as a Puddle: Question Everything

Posted By Scott Martin On June 19, 2009 @ 4:29 am In GMing Advice | 13 Comments

Asking questions is a great way to get to the bottom of things. It is one reason that three year-olds master “why?”– keep asking and you’ll slowly unravel deeper and deeper explanations for events. Or you’ll drive your parents crazy– really it’s win/win for the tykes.

Answering questions is a great technique for deepening characterization. PCs and major villains benefit the most from these techniques, but asking yourself a question or two about even the smallest NPC can lead to less stereotyped bit characters. As a depth technique, you should know something about your character first– though some questions can be a good place to start digging into a character.

Where can you find good questions?


Many RPGs build a list of questions right into the rulebook. I first remember encountering “20 Questions” in the Shadowrun RPG. Some are generic and could apply to any game– why does your character do dangerous things instead of sitting in an office? Others are more specific: Where were you on the Night of Rage?

Like all lists of questions, you shouldn’t go through and answer them all in order. Instead, skim the questions until you hit one that makes you excited, or until you find a question where the standard answer doesn’t make sense. (For example, if you’re playing D&D, skip over the question “why are you adventuring?” unless you flash on an exciting reason as you read the question. If your subconscious shouts “To rescue my little sister from kobolds”, then the question’s a good one for you. If you shrug and think, “That’s just how the game works,” move along to the next question.)

Questions don’t just lurk in game books– many rulebooks omit such questions altogether, while questions lurk everywhere. Writers also try to develop characters– many books for writers are loaded with good questions to spark character development. Heather’s 365 questions for writers and roleplayers turned into a book of prompts, questions, and writing exercises. Other fun prompts include online quizzes (try taking them from your character’s perspective), party game questions (like Say Anything or Scruples), or even personality tests. (Bognar the barbiarian in an INTJ!)

Working Questions into your Game

There are a lot of ways to ask character deepening questions. Some are cleverly disguised, some are bold, and some just look like homework. Here are several approaches for introducing questions into your group.

Casual Discussion
Often players will straggle into the game session over time, rather than all showing up at 6:32 precisely. For all that we joke about players rambling about their characters, we joke because it’s true. Any kind of question can wind up explaining more about the character to the GM– and often such questions lead to new trains of thought even for the player. This also can work well during a dinner break, where you want to keep people thinking about the game, but not rolling dice with greasy fingers.
“I really liked the way Sir Jacob threw himself in front of the dragon last game, but I was sure Jacob hated his little sister. Why did you do leap in the way?” OR “You couldn’t hit the sorceress last week at all. How does your character explain missing last week– her combat skill, his reluctance to hit her, or something else?”

Conversation with NPCs
The world is filled with people impressed by the PCs, interested in their obvious wealth, or running a scheme of some sort. Innkeepers, con men, blind dates, and star struck admirers all want to know more about the PC. Pick a question and ask it in character. This can lead to very interesting discussions where the player comes up with two different answers at once– the real answer, and a bland answer for the crowd. As they explain their answer, be sure to ask them if they need to make a deception roll…
“Were you scared when that minotaur roared at you?”, (from an idolizing kid) “Do you ever think about your parents anymore?”, or “Hey, why is your tabard blue? I thought your favorite color was green.”

Ask Action Questions
Sometimes the question being asked doesn’t need to be answered in words at all. If the question is “Who would you die to protect?”, that sounds like a good adventure prompt, not tea time question and answer. Similarly, if a character is horribly racist, maybe it’s time to put them in a room with a troll where the solution to the problem requires negotiation instead of swords and guns. This can be a great way to put the characters under pressure and reveal quite a bit. It can also be a chance for the character to engage with the question and change, if the player is looking for an opportunity.

Quick Emails
If you’re looking for a good way to keep players thinking about their characters, consider asking everyone a question about their character a couple of days before the session. It makes a good exercise and a nice way to start thinking about the character again after a break.

If you’re playing a few players short, consider running a session of flashbacks instead. Depending on the amount of guiding that you’re comfortable with, you can ask very leading questions “Was it cold outside the night Fransesca kissed her first man?” or “On your seventh birthday you took revenge against the neighborhood bully. How did it go?”. Introduce something in the current adventure to prompt the associations: drugged interrogations work, but so does watching a pickpocketing child get caught, or bumping into a kissing couple in the shadowy corner of the tavern. The association doesn’t have to be perfect, though the inspiring event might shape the flashbacks. White Wolf style preludes often follow this pattern.

Choosing Questions that Enhance the World
In you’re looking to convey the world in a specific way, the questions you ask can really enhance the feeling. Instead of asking about what a character did on his seventh birthday, ask what they did on St. Phillbert’s Day when they were seven. Or ask how their character’s family was affected by the Invasion of Rats in 422. This can be a good way of establishing common threads– and subtly getting the Rat Invasion of 422 out of that paragraph at the end of the setting chapter and into the game.

What has worked for you?

Are there any questions that you always ask the players– or that you always ask yourself when creating a character? Do you have good ways to work questions into the game, or have questions that make for great discussion? Would getting a question about your family’s response to the rat invasion of 422 be something you’d look forward to as a player? Would you prefer to have the question asked at the table or between sessions? Please share your favorite character revealing questions and strategies.

About  Scott Martin

Scott is an engineer turned gnome and game store owner. He lies awake at night building intriguing worlds and plotting your character's demise.

13 Comments (Open | Close)

13 Comments To "Deep as a Puddle: Question Everything"

#1 Comment By Scott Martin On June 19, 2009 @ 9:45 am

Sorry about the temporarily closed comments everyone– though I found a pretty new checkbox. Care to guess what it does?

For a different take on questions, hop on over to the Cannon Puncture 70 podcast, where they expand on the idea of questions shaping the world. They brought up a few games I haven’t had a chance to play– like Dread, which has only questions and answers as the character sheet.

#2 Comment By Kurt “Telas” Schneider On June 19, 2009 @ 9:47 am

I really like the idea of asking the players about their character a few days before chargen. Gets their back burners a-cooking.

And thanks for the checklist of “ways to get players to define their character”. With some players, the GM needs to find a way to coax the character out of the player.

#3 Comment By Zig On June 19, 2009 @ 9:53 am

All of the ideas in the article were excellent.

Here are some I have used in the past with success.

Shadowrun — A list of questions taken from the rule book and some of my own made up ones. I give the option of filling it out or not to the players, but they always fill it out as I bribe them with extra build points for answering most of the questions. Great way to make some runs personal for the players. Love all the hooks it can give.

D&D — My last campaign of three years (just started a new one) I had them just give me a three sentence background. Let them write whatever they wanted. I didn’t expect the campaign to be much more than a few sessions at the time. Nothing offered for doing so, but they all did.

D&D — Again, my last campaign; I let the players get their hands on a scrying mirror that could be used once a day. A player could ask it a question, the mirror would mist up and then show a scene of some sort that would answer the question in an often ambiguous way, but usually enough info was gotten that they players had actionable intelligence about something. The hook was that after their question was answered the mirror would ask the character a question (I kept a list of questions I wanted to ask about each character to fill in their backgrounds). If they didn’t answer or answered with a lie (they could be evasive just as the mirror was) the mirror would break resulting in a nasty curse. They never broke the mirror, used it often and it gave me a way of helping them when they got stuck on something and let me and the players flesh out their characters quite a bit. I even got some NPCs out of it and plenty of adventure hooks that were on a personal level for the PCs.

Aside from those, I’ve used with good success the idea from the article of having NPCs converse with the PCs to learn their motivations for actions or inactions.

Oh, and one more, though I had this from the player’s side. It was an Amber play by email game. During the attribute auction the GM required a short story that would explain the reason the attribute was better. For my character I had a childhood bullying story (strength) and a mountain climb on a dare from her outdoors mentor (endurance). By the time the campaign began I had a firm grasp of who the character was.


#4 Comment By Scott Martin On June 19, 2009 @ 10:54 am

@Kurt “Telas” Schneider – I enjoy sharp little prompts to think about my character between sessions– it’s easy to come to the session rusty. During the session people often dig deeper, though I’ve had very positive responses to questions well outside of game that really enhanced my character.
@Zig – The Shadowrun book’s questions are a good mix of specific and general– and a small bribe makes many things go better. It sounds like your response to the Amber PbeM questions worked well too.

That scrying mirror sounds great– a way to consistently work good questions into the game.

#5 Comment By Zig On June 19, 2009 @ 11:08 am

I know what you mean about being rusty between sessions. I and my players are either just north or just south of 40, so have complicated schedules. We are lucky to play once every 4-5 weeks. So, naturally we all are often a bit rusty at the start of the session.

Something I’ve thought about doing for my new campaign is setting up a campaign Wiki where I can put background information on place the players go, the plot lines, etc. Then also have a page for each character where they or I can put notes in about their background. We usually have 2-3 laptops around during a session so it could be useful.

Have you, Scott, or anyone else ever tried such a thing, or know someone who has? The closest I ever came was having a Geocities page (telling you how long ago this campaign was) for Alis my Amber character with her stories posted.

#6 Comment By Zig On June 19, 2009 @ 11:13 am

Hmmm… my character’s page is long gone, but some of the auction story pages are still on the GM’s site.


Alis’s stories under “strength” are mine.

#7 Comment By BryanB On June 19, 2009 @ 11:18 am

Prior to a new series…

I like players to answer questions about their PC’s family. I like to know what a PC fears the most or what their goals and ambitions might be. I think it is fun to ask about a PC’s mentors or other people that had an impact on the PC when he was “growing up.” This can be a positive or negative impact on that PC’s development.

In our current series, we have Isao Shin and his uncle Massaki who tried to guide him about the Force, while both of them were on the run from Sith assassins during the purge. We have Doumar Creef who was haunted by the loss of his parents during the bombings of Taris. His uncle had been a mentor figure with both positive and negative results. And Jaris Nakor was a Corellian noble with Force Sensitivity whose biological father was a Jedi Master prior to the Jedi Civil War, a fact that Jaris was not aware of at the start of play.

During a series…

I like it when PC banter adds depth to the PCs. In my current series we have learned that Jaris Nakor blames the rifles for being “bent” when failing to hit the target. It couldn’t be him right? We also have Doumar Creef that tends to claim the use of “suppressing fire” when his shots are going off target.

Doumar also has the tendency to find cover first and shoot later, a sound tactic to be sure but it has become a character trademark. This has led to fun exchanges like when Doumar tried to roll a dining table as moving cover, but fumbled it badly and had the table roll away from him. Jaris yelled over to Doumar, “Do you need Katrina (younger sister of Jaris) to come move that table for you?”

So depth before play and during play are great things.

#8 Comment By Zig On June 19, 2009 @ 11:31 am

BryanB, that suppressing fire thing is great!

The watching the interaction between players is a great idea to get background on them and such. Very cool.

#9 Comment By Scott Martin On June 19, 2009 @ 11:34 am

@Zig – I have setup a wiki for the last few games, including our communally built world. Our group is bad at using it, but I know other groups that have been successful. I’d look at your players and see how many people are willing to do “homework” between sessions. If two or three are, I’d try out the wiki plan.

@BryanB – Family and close NPCs are useful in just about every system. Asking about upbringing and siblings is a good way to gather some good NPCs who can motivate the PCs later.

#10 Comment By Zig On June 19, 2009 @ 11:51 am

@Scott Martin – Thanks for the feedback on Wiki usage, Scott.

I have 3 or 4 players that I think would make use of it, and another who might use his laptop to review things during the game — kind of like if the players’ characters were keeping a journal. We used to have one player who kept infamous notes — good info, but also lots of snide or humorous observations of his comrades.

#11 Comment By Sewicked On June 19, 2009 @ 4:53 pm

@Zig – Have you ever seen Obsidian Portal? It’s a campaign wiki set up.


It has GM eyes only part on each page. The players can each have a page for their characters, there’s an NPC tracker, and an adventure log.

The only drawback: if you have the free access, then your page is visible to the public. If you pay a fee, then your page is private.

#12 Comment By Zig On June 19, 2009 @ 5:32 pm

@Sewicked – Thanks! I’m going to look into it. Sounds like something that would be very useful and fit the bill for what I’m looking for in terms of features.

#13 Comment By Harboe On August 13, 2009 @ 6:04 am

@Zig – About using Laptops to organise background information, that’s exactly what makes my current campaign possible.
Using Vampire: the Masquerade (yes, the “old” version) in Los Angeles anno 2009 would be hard seeing as how:
1) None of us have ever been to LA, yet we want a consistent experience.
2) With over 100 NPCs a notepad would quickly be filled up (goes double for the GM).
3) With mechanics, campaign log and character sheet (and more) in one file, that’s easy to navigate things are greatly sped up.

I’m using TiddlyWiki, whereas the others are using MindMan Personal. Both methods use freeware and take up little memory.

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