Of all the GMing techniques in all the Kingdoms of all the Lands, my very favourite is the humble question. It is versatile, editorial, creative, and narrative. It allows the GM to shape the story while giving ultimate say to the players. And it’s a relief to share the narrative burden GMs typically bear with everyone else at the table (sharing narrative authority is awesome).
But while asking questions is just one GMing technique, it has far more than one purpose. Questions can be used to perform a number of important GMing functions – even several at the same time. In this article, I will be discussing the key uses of questions for GMs, and giving examples of some of my favourites. Buckle in, and prepare for some wild interrogatives.
Paint the scene
What does the throne room look like?
What does the appearance of the army camp tell you about the state of the war?
As your sister turns away, what expression crosses your face?
The first, and most obvious use of the question is to “paint the scene.” Painting the scene means describing sensory details – what does something look like, smell like, sound like? What is he wearing, how does she knock him unconscious, what does the throne room look like, how does the mage cast the spell?
Descriptive questions are great as they bring the world to life, and allow players to contribute to the look and feel of what is happening. But the best scene painting questions don’t just add pleasant sensory details, they also reveal realities.
In most settings, a brown robe and a grey robe are fundamentally the same. But a tattered robe, and an ornately embroidered robe say something very different about the wearer. When asked descriptive questions, players will often choose to reveal important details like these. However, scene painting questions can also prompt players to reveal these realities. They can do so in two ways.
Firstly, the question can ask the players to reveal realities about a certain thing. For example, the question “what does the appearance of the army camp tell you about the state of the war?” seems to be about the army camp, but actually asks players to reveal realities about the state of the war. If there is a specific reality you wish to reveal, you can also narrow your questions even further, for example by asking “what does the appearance of the army camp tell you about the disastrousness of the war effort?”
Secondly, you can ask players to paint the scene about something that is always telling. For example, the question “as your sister turns away, what expression crosses your face?” will always reveal a juicy detail about a character’s inner state.
Drive the story
What do you do?
You’re running short on supplies, what do you do?
Do you let him get away with that?
Perhaps the most useful function of a GM question is to drive the story forward by prompting a character or group of characters to act. The classic question used in this case is the simple, but effective, “what do you do?”
“What do you do?” is a great story driving question, but it’s not the only story driving question. It can fall short if it is too general to prompt player response. For example “The path leads to the town, what do you do?” In this case, you can improve the question in one of two ways.
Firstly, you can give players a choice of two options to help them decide, for example “This town is known for its drinking and its fighting, and you know where to find both. What do you do?”
Or, the second way to improve this question is to give the characters a reason to act in a particular way.
Giving a reason to act
Using a question to give characters a reason to act is my all-time most favourite question technique. It is simple, but very effective, and drives the story forward in a meaningful way. Think of something that the character needs, values, or has planned. Then, connect that to the situation via a question.
For example, continuing on the above you might say “The path leads to the town. Elrin is here, didn’t you swear revenge on him? What are you going to do?” Or, “the path leads to the town. You’re running perilously short on supplies, what do you do?”
You can also use this kind of question to ratchet up the tension, and create a difficult moment, or hard decision. For example: “Farrin you saw that – you saw how he insulted your brother, are you going to let him get away with that?”
Should we end that scene there?
What if she already has the sword?
You easily grab it and return to the inn. But now you have it, what are you going to do?
One of the most important functions of the GM is to edit the flow of play. Editing the flow of play helps skip the boring bits, zoom in on juicy narrative moments and share the spotlight evenly among players. Primarily, editing questions move the spotlight, across both characters and events.
As a GM, you’ll probably find you use questions to edit play instinctively all the time. Common editing questions are used to:
- Move the spotlight: “What is Elizabeth up to?”
- Move from one scene to the next: “Should we end the scene there? And pick up with the scene at breakfast the next morning?”
- Move from one event to the next: “You easily grab it and return to the inn. But now you have it, what are you going to do?”
Notice something about that last question? Yep, it also drives the story forward. The best editing questions often drive the story while also accomplishing an editing function. Take for example the question I used in the previous section. Say the spotlight had been on Richor, and his argument with Elrin, who insulted Richor publically in front of the council. This argument goes on for a while, and you as the GM realise you need to move the spotlight to another player. You think of the perfect question: “Farrin you saw that – you saw how he insulted your brother, are you going to let him get away with that?”
Are you the older sister?
When did you leave Boom Town?
Was that before the grenade went off or after?
In an ideal world we could all read each other’s minds (I’m going to keep going before you have a chance to think about that) but the fact is, we can’t. And even when we say things out loud, we aren’t all perfect listeners either, especially when we’re concentrating on our player characters. It’s an important part of the GMs role to ask clarifying questions and make sure everyone is on the same page. It’s worth stepping in with a clarifying question when:
- Things become very vague, and that vagueness is making it hard to tell a story
- Things are starting to contradict each other, or be difficult to marry up
- Players clearly aren’t aware of important aspects of the story or each other’s characters
Highlight themes and bring home realities
Charlotte, you’ve just been snubbed by someone far below you in rank and wealth—are you really going to let that stand?
Henry, you’ll control Lydia’s entire fortune once you inherit—are you going to let her talk to you that way?
Emma, Lady Thorn is far above you in the social pecking order, and is very influential—and here she is asking you for a favour. How are you going to respond?
Geoff, Charlotte has been a good friend of yours, but her reputation lately has become enveloped in scandal! Are you just going to allow her into your drawing room in such a public way?
The four questions above are all from the Facilitator section of the Good Society rule book (the Facilitator is similar to a GM). Good Society is a Jane Austen RPG, and these questions are from the section entitled “highlighting setting elements through questions.” They are example of how you can not only remind players of realities and themes that are important, but also prompt action on those realities and themes, bringing them into the story in a direct way. The exact questions you can use to bring the themes of your game into the narrative will depend, but it is important that they prompt action. And if they prompt action that creates a hard decision or creates more complexity in a player relationship, even better.
Above, I’ve outlined five ways you can use questions to up your GMing game. What’s your go to GM question, and why?