Generally questions that I want to know the answer to and don’t. They can be as broad as “What do you do?” the GM’S staple, or as specific as “Why does the bartender hate you?”. The key, for me, is that my questions come from a place of genuine curiosity.
Different games will have different questions, because by nature of the game and how I prep it I will come in knowing different things. A location based dungeon exploration game probably won’t have a question about what the players find in the location, because I will have prepped that by the nature of the game.
a) Questions about what the PC is doing? E.g. the player says something like “I want to make a Perception check” and you’re looking for different ways that you can interrogate that to help nail down their approach and intent?
B) Questions you ask the PC/player to help develop a scene/the fiction/their character/the world? E.g. “Thelemvore, who do you know in this one-horse village, and why aren’t you looking forward to seeing them?”
(To me, as a primarily PbtA/storygame GM, I tend to think of B when I hear “leading questions,” but from the context of your question, it seems more like A.)
Great advice so far, so I’m going to zoom right in on this. I used to teach 5e beginner tables at my local game store. For 4 weeks I’d take 4-6 people who’d never played before and get them to a point where they could run a game without me. It was a real joy, and I evidently wasn’t in it for the money.
I had this concern a lot. People look to their sheets for verbs, for help, to know how to interact with the game. While the merits of 5e are outside of the scope here, I will say this is a common issue because of how 5e presents characters to the players. As my mother would say: “You’re not Robinson Crusoe, mate!”. So they look down and they see +5 longsword and +5 intimidate, and they say “well I can’t longword here. So I’ll use intimidate!” That’s far from their fault, but as you say, it’s not what we want (for mostly reasons of ontology).
So I am really clear when this happens:
“What does that look like?”
“What do you say?”
or sometimes “Hey, c’mon, help me out. Sprinkle a little fiction on this for me!”
For players that find that difficult, I tend to break down into an option (or two).
Options are breaking down the infinite nature of fiction into small choices: “Do you intimidate him in common or orcish?” “Is the threat explicit or implicit?” “Do you keep your sword away while you do this?” The questions you ask here are actually pretty important, because you’re trying to encourage certain behaviour, which requires the decision to matter, and for that mattering to be visible. So there’s a cool little technique I drop: “Because you do X, what happens is Y”. “Because you intimidate him in Orcish, he responds in Orcish too: I’ve slain bigger beasts than you when I was still nursing.” “Because your threat is implicit, your result of 6 means it just doesn’t land. He’s a dumb town guard burning away in the sun. He just stares at you blankly.”
Creating a cause-effect relationship between not only the action, but the FICTION begins to train them in the nature of fictional positioning (this how the Blades in the Dark Position/Effect conversation does the same: Because you’re outnumbered, your position is desperate.) The important thing is to create a single, very quick, responsive feedback loop. Even if it leads to the same outcome, data shows that a single responsive sentence is enough to make a narrative feel expansive and responsive (Pocket Gems’ Cassie Phillips talks about this here).
It’s important that “demanding fiction” is always an offer to the player, not an obligation. Only ever use it to empower them and their choices in those early stages. If you have a player who is trying really hard to get their fiction on, and the first time they go from “i use longsword” to “I do X and Y and Z to generate ABC effect” and you say “no that wouldn’t work”, you’ve got to start at square one again. Maintain enthusiasm. I cannot express the number of stupid fucking ideas have caused me to stare at new players with wide-eyed amazement and say “oh my god, that’s so great. Yeah yeah roll some dice let’s see how it goes!”. Sometimes you just gotta be good to 'em.
This is brilliant, and I love it, and I’m going to try to start using it.
Sid covered a lot of good ground on the “get players to elaborate on their actions” angle, especially for those cases where the player is, like, smashing the mechanical button. Like they suggest, I’ll fall back on questions like “Cool, what does that look like?” or “Okay, sure. But help me picture that… are you doing it like X, or like Y, or something else?”
I do think it’s important to reply enthusiastically, and then dig in for detail. I’ve seen a lot of folks in the Dungeon World communities suggest actually correcting the player by saying stuff like “no no, don’t tell me what move you want to make, tell me what you do.” I… really dislike that. It’s always struck me as a great way to shut players down rather than get them to open up.
One other thing that I’ve just realized that I do, is when the player says they do something vague I just sort imagine what I might say if I was that player with a character in this situation, and offer that up as a starting point. “I attack him?” “Okay, so, like, shield up and stabbing underneath it? Or chopping furiously overhead? Or something else?”
Oh, and I always like to leave the “or something else?” option on there when presenting A/B choices, to make it clear that I’m just asking for clarification, giving examples, not limiting their options.
Shifting gears: another angle to this is, you ask the player what they do, they say something fairly specific, but you’re left going “huh?” Like, what they’re saying just doesn’t jive with your sense of the fiction, or seems patently stupid, or you just can’t figure out what they hope to gain by doing that.
If they seem to be doing something dumb–like, something that I think would have obvious, unavoidable consequences–then I assume that we’ve got a misunderstanding and try to get to the bottom of that understanding first. Sometimes this is as simple as stating the consequences/requirements and then asking if they’re sure. “If you do that, you’re going get a face full of arrows for sure, do you still do it?” or “If you want to attack him, you’ve got to dodge inside his spear first and that’ll require <whatever mechanic/check this game uses>, do you do that?” Other times, it’s a matter of restating the situation and how you’re picturing it. Like, the Thief says “I cut his tendons” when I pictured the violence happening on the other side of the room, I’d say something like “Huh? No, this is happening on the other side of the pub, I don’t think you’d have let it get to this point if you were right there, do you?”
On the other hand, if the player says they do something that’s, like, plausible but weird, and I just don’t see where they’re going with it–or if they start asking a ton of specific questions–then I’ll ask “what exactly are you hoping to accomplish here?” Jumping to the intent can cut out a bunch of swirl.
I’ve rambled long enough. I’ve bot lots of thoughts on the “leading questions to establish scenes/fiction/character/the world,” but I gotta get some other stuff done tonight. More tomorrow, hopefully!
I talked a little about this on the BitD Discord a few days ago. I know that “leading question” has become something of a term of art in ttrpg circles, but what we’re looking for generally aren’t leading questions in the common sense of that phrase. Leading questions are what lawyers ask witnesses when they already know the answer and want it entered into the record, but that’s (hopefully) not what we’re after. We may have an idea of what the player could answer, and maybe their actual answer will match that expectation, but we’ll be just as pleased (and maybe more so) if they come up with something we couldn’t have anticipated.
The problem, generally, is that we want players to contribute to the fiction, and they’re sometimes not sure how to do that. Okay, why? Well, a lot of times, it’s because they’re not sure about the state of the fiction they’re being asked to shape. The players encounter an NPC, and the GM, having a solid, largely unspoken conception of that character, says, “What do you do?” but the players aren’t sure what makes sense because the NPC is still just an abstraction to them. In that situation, “Why does the bartender hate you?” is a good prompt because it adds to their information about the state of the fiction. The prompt gives them a little more expertise about the world, and that’s something they can build on.
They can build on it not only because it gives them a better command of the state of the fiction, but also because it relates the fiction back to their characters, which is the part of the game over which the rules give them the most authority. So we want a question because we’re trying to elicit something from the player, but we want that question to nudge them, not toward any particular answer, but into a position where they feel competent to give a good answer. And, depending on how you’ve structured the rest of the game, the standard for good might have more to do with honesty about the fiction and its characters than it does with finding the optimal way to overcome an obstacle or achieve some goal.
Extrapolating from those two points — framing the state of the fiction and giving the player authority), one way to elicit less mechanical actions would be to prompt with questions that tie the situation back to the character. In a situation where the player is answering both for themself and for a character, “What do you do?” can be ambiguous. If you the player, or they character they’re playing? Ultimately, what the player is doing will boil down to a check or a move, but if you ask, “How does Atreyu deal with this insult to his honor?” that phrasing highlights the state of the fiction (insult to his honor) and throws the player back onto the element of the fiction over which they have the fullest authority.
This whole post is fucking phenomenal and I’m so glad to see some of it put to text. We have to consider that we are actually in the best rpg forum around rn.
I actually feel like, and I’m kind of going “back on my bullshit” here, that we’re heading that way. Going back to the old John Harper “The Line” theories, there’s a lot of stolen narrative authority in leading questions that we (we the culture, we the community) use.
There’s a real obsession with GM/MC using leading questions to offer the illusion of narrative authority to the players, while still wholly owning it as a GM/MC. An example is “Balls hates your guts. He’s previously run you out of town and threatened you if you ever come back. Why was that?”. That’s not actually offering the player much narrative authority (and again, by way of Harper’s The Line the failure is in the pretending, not the holding of authority). The thing that tingles my brain (and sorry I’m on mobile, if I misquote) is what J.Strand said: You should be genuinely curious. And I think that’s the biggest failure of Leading Questions in indie RPGs at the moment.
“Balls ran you out of town, threatened you, and you’re back. What happened?” Isn’t genuinely curious. You’ve already asserted all of the details that matter. Sure there’s stuff to scatter around, but what matters is already dealt with, and pretending otherwise is condencending.
“Balls and you have history. What is it?” Is genuinely curious. There’s so much detail that hasn’t been put down in text yet. This is basically an Urban Shadows Face-to-a-Name move, which is wildly enticing.
I know I mentioned whatever era Atomic Harper before, like 2009, maybe? But this is where Blades in the Dark deviates specifically from Apocalypse World in text: The Line is much clearer. The player isn’t asked “Balls and you have history, what is it?” Rather they’re asked “how do you feel about Balls?” because the player’s narrative authority starts and ends at the character.
And there’s value to the Very Leading Questions, insofar as they support players who might need some help in generating fiction (I do find, for example, that the best way to start a PbtA thing is “this person is violently out to get you now. Why?”, Because players are at the start of a game rarely empowered to make good “what do you do” decisions). But when you have players who have a strong control over shared storytelling, or who can generate clear ideas from loose prompts, “stealing” the shared authority to assert conclusions and ask for their token input is at best a real let down and at worst insulting.
But again, very visibly me on my bullshit about Indie Back-Patting congratulating each other for being so much better than those dirty Trad GMs.
I think this means that you try to see who’s at your table and what their strengths are, right? If you’ve got beginners, or people not comfortable with improvising, The Line is handy. It teaches/helps them. Otherwise, if everybody is comfortable with improvising, it might not be needed.
It might also be a good idea to talk with the players before the game starts about what their expectations are. Do they want to tell a story, search for drama and see their characters grow, or do they want to solve problems creatively with the tools given to them? Is it a storytelling game or a tactical/puzzle game?
Of course, most games probably fall somewhere in between, but it also tells all involved what is expected from each other. (The GM what kind of conflicts or obstacles to provide, the players how to engage with the fiction/game world.)
I would love to get into this more, but it will start drifting us waaaay off topic. I love your thoughts @TheBeardedBelgian and if I get some time over the next few days I’ll make a topic where we can chat about this more
Anything from actions to spells to magical effects.
Do you need more context? Ask me some questions while I draw this ugly-ass map to give you an idea of where you are…
Folks will think outside the box and use their environment if you give them the opportunity to do so.
What is your character thinking as they X?
Could be climbing a ladder towards a battle to killing someone while they sleep. Sometimes learning what the character is thinking from the player is a cool way to learn more about where their head is and what they are thinking about the game.