Thursday, April 12, 2012

Framing Your Questions. Framing Your Scenes.

I spent a good chunk of my free time yesterday reading the Marvel Heroic RPG Operations Manual. It's a good book, and a damn fine system. The boys working the Cortex Plus system have done it again, and I'm once again completely floored by the design work in this system. The depth that these mechanics can cover with a very simple and easily understood mechanic (yes, mechanic. singular) is amazing. However, something else got me even more. Something that is applicable to every game you run as a GM. Namely, how you can frame your scenes with questions.

The Questions We Ask
How many times has this happened to you as a GM? You're sitting at the table with your players. You lay out the situation. Perhaps the PCs are just entering a city, or are meeting up in a tavern. Honestly, it doesn't matter. What does matter is that it is sort of a quiet time. Anyhow, you set the scene, look to your players, and then go "What do you do?" It is a simple question really. Hell, it is probably the most asked question at the gaming table. Nothing wrong with it at all, right? Right.

But your players tend to freeze a bit when you ask the question. The most common response I've gotten to this is more questions about what's going on. Is the bar full? Is the barmaid here? Where is X, Y, or Z? Now granted, I could cover those with my description, but that doesn't mean they'll be picked up on. Either way, it makes for a slow start because the players are instinctively doing something very important right now: they're trying to find the boundaries for this scene.

This comes up with other questions asked all the time by GMs as well. "Where are you," "where do you go," "what are you doing," and other similar questions. There's nothing wrong with the questions themselves, but couldn't we do more?

Questions We Should Ask
The MHRPG asks GMs to ask different questions. What the book says you should do is frame the scene and then ask related but not as wide open questions. For example, instead of "You're in the Last Oak Inn meeting up for the first time in several years. All of you are sitting around your usual table and are enjoying a bit of ale and food. What do you do?" You could instead add the lines, "as you're catching up on the last few days when one of the barmaids is tripped and spills a flagon of ale over Steve's head. How do you react?"

See the difference? One is open ended, the other is an immediate prompt for action and response. The Players can take this and run with it. Maybe a brawl starts when Steve pounds the guy who tripped the barmaid. Maybe Steve gets in an argument with one of the players who thinks it is really funny. Heck, maybe Steve starts to flirt with the barmaid and starts a relationship. Not just Steve is involved here either. Players now have freedom to jump in. Perhaps Laura wants to use this to show her mages wickedness and starts to berate the stupid bar wench for her clumsiness. Maybe Josh takes the chance to show his disdian for the lesser races. These are all options that are there with the open ended question mind, but they're not as obvious.

En Medias Res
 Or, in English, "in the middle of things." This is a narrative structure where we begin the story in the middle of things, then go back to see how we got there. You see it a lot in every medium for stories out there with the possible exception of RPGs. However, framing your questions - and scenes - can also give the players more power here as well. Let's say for example that we want to get a new player's barbarian into the group I mentioned above. Instead of just dropping him into the game and asking what he does, you could isntead address the player with something like, "You punch the man hard enough to send him through the inn door and sprawled out on the floor. His friend is coming at you from behind with a knife. How did you get into this mess?"

Yes, this is a bit more cruel to the player. It also gives the player narrative control though. They can introduce their character with style. They can stress an aspect of their personality right from the beginning. Also, they get to show up in the middle of an event in progress - which cuts the need for awkward introductions - and define how that scene works. It makes for a more memorable opening then "another adventurer walks into the inn and looks around."

So Much More
I don't want to go on for pages - the MHRPG does when talking about scenes though, and you should totally buy it - but the power this has can be staggering. It is something I've done in my best games and best sessions but for some reason had forgotten about. It is a tool to help start scenes, introduce players, and get things going. Yes, it takes some prep-work from the GM, but not as much as you'd think. My plan is to try and adopt this as my more default method for handling things. I can see it working very well in almost any game.

Your opinion?
Curious to see what you guys think of this. Do you frame your questions and scenes to prompt immediate action or leave it more open for the players? Do you find that one works better than the other in certain situations? Sound off in the comments.


  1. I am so trying the medias res thing. That sounds awesome. Not something I'd spring on a newbie player, but for players who have been doing this for a while it has so much potential.

    I played a game of Lady Blackbird recently and the rulebook recommends asking questions as well, fairly specific ones, like asking the players to define relationships between their characters or how their character not only reacts to but thinks about something another character did. That, I think, would do a lot for character development in any game, even if it may not drive the action.

  2. Whoops. this went out early.

    Still, good comment. There are a lot of things we can do with questions. The trick is finding the right ones to ask at the right time. In general I'm starting to think that, in game at least, making them less open ended will help the game out. Players can always do what they want, but when you are asking questions be more direct on things with them.

    Having players define relationships before the game is always a good move. Rogue Trader has a neat system for this where you trace everyone's life path and make points where they intersect. Dresden Files also does this where you write an event in your past, then the next player writes how they helped and a third player writes how they solved the issue. You do the same for other players, and everyone has a connection to at least two other people from it.

  3. Great food for thought. Got me interested in at the MHROM.