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19 July 2021

Ask Loaded, Focused Questions

Everyone knows typical Dungeons & Dragons games unfold as the Dungeon Master weaves the world, and the players say what their characters want to do, asking questions and stating actions. The cycle restarts as the DM answers their questions and describes the epic failures and terrific successes caused by their actions.

While simple, asking questions is one of the easiest aspects you can improve upon as both a player and DM, leading to better games and more interesting worlds. The method of improvement is rudimentary: you must ask loaded, focused questions in your D&D games as a player and DM.

Most players do this well and ask questions constantly:

  • "Do I know the name of the Plane of Dreams?"
  • "Where is the nearest magic shop?"
  • "How deep is the chasm?"

All these questions have reason and purpose behind them. They are powerful. Players, keep asking them! They show you are present and interested in the goings on of the world.

Inspired, DMs should ask players more questions and ensure they are loaded, focused; honed more than those of players. Questions with these traits are useful tools.

Certainly as DMs, everything we say should forward or complicate the situation in the world. Every response should thicken intrigue, inspire hope, or invoke fear in the characters:

  • "Yes, you know the Plane of Dreams is called Dal Quor, but the cursed name of its nightmarish mirror also plagues your mind...Dar Zaal."
  • "The nearest shop is but ten minutes away, you should arrive before darkness falls!"
  • "The chasm's depths are endless, frightening chitters screech from below and the rotten smell of deep cattle flows into your nostrils: hook horrors and their prey."

But our own carefully crafted questions may accomplish more!

While we must know how to respond to careful questions well, we must also know how to ask better ones. What fun is it if only the players are asking questions?

Let's learn how to put them on the spot and improve our games and worlds because of it.

Use Questions to Build and Relieve Suspense

The first way to mold your questions involves the art of juggling tension and relief. This strategy is most useful while you sit back and watch your players plan something. You must learn when and how to interject in their conversations. Once you do, you will layer suspense atop the current situation and relieve that tension when necessary.

For example, the characters are planning a heist on a local interdimensional bank. As they imagine how they'll get past the front door, but forget a key aspect, such as the iron golem duo who guard the door, interject and ask:

"Ruaka, you remember twin iron golems guard the entrance to the bank. What is the plan for those?"

Some DMs would let their players forget about this key aspect of the situation even though the characters likely would not.

Instead of allowing the players to become frustrated upon their heist of the bank when two iron golems block their path, as the DM you can prop them up, remind them the golems exist, and build the suspense of the upcoming heist. If this hitch halts progress entirely, if they are too frightened to perform the heist with this added detail, you may interject again:

"Na, the last time you passed by the bank, you noted a peculiar orb-shaped amulet around the neck of its gnome guard captain. Perhaps that is the key to defeating or disabling the powerful iron golems?"

With that question, you relieve tension in the moment, providing the players with an opportunity to move the game forward and stop mulling over decision after decision. The heist will happen this session, instead of not happening at all or happening in a few session's time. All it needed was a bit of careful questioning on your part.

Use questions to build and relieve suspense. When the players stumble or are stuck, ask proper questions to help them progress or give them new ideas. These loaded, focused questions will drive the story forward and improve your time at the D&D table.

Werewolf Pack Leader, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Miranda Meeks, 2021 Wizards of the Coast

Player Character Development Through Questions

The next method you may form your questions around relates directly to the characters. Enacted at any time during the D&D session, it is simple but effective. Sometimes, the best way to develop a character is to simply ask questions about said character, in or out of game. Ask the players to elaborate on why their character does something, call out their character as an NPC, or pose table-wide questions everyone can (and should) answer about their character.

Here are six examples:

  1. Noah, why are you not actively seeking out a cure to your deathly disease?
  2. Milandra, how does your parent's connection to Bahamut impact your life?
  3. The mysterious high elf interrgator to Luna: "Why are you in Ba-Livil? Who are you? What is your purpose?"
  4. The excitable illithid novice to Jason Urso: "What is your contribution to the Neverwild Cabal?"
  5. What's your favorite drink in this part of the world?
  6. What's the most frightening battle you've been a part of?

Each question, no matter how simple, develops the characters. Ensure they are loaded and focused, with specific goals in mind when asking them. Over time, these questions will help build the characters outlooks on the world, their personalities, and much more.

Worldbuild Via Collaboration

The final method of carving careful questions helps you construct your world alongside the players. As I've discussed in previous articles and recently on the Worldcraft Club Podcast, when playing inside a world of your own design, you must remember the world also belongs to the players. While the characters peruse it, adventuring, slaying, and growing in fame and strength, they are contributing to its legends and lore just as you are!

Take this a step further and ask them questions about the world. Have humility and show you trust the players with the world in their hands. 

Here are ten example questions you can ask the players about your setting, allowing them to craft it alongside you:

  1. What is the most famous dish in the Overard Expanse?
  2. Why do the elves of the Asgasa Forest despise the fey who live there?
  3. Who is the most feared warrior in this fighting pit?
  4. Where do the orcs of Emar receive their weapons from?
  5. How does Magmaphor keep escaping death?
  6. What monster roams the caverns below the Fellguard Hills?
  7. Why do the citizens of Ba-Livil hate the Kothians?
  8. Who helped build the Glittering Reef tavern and why are they still remembered?
  9. Where does Bahamut currently reside?
  10. How are the weapons crafted from living coral, oalisc, commonly found?

By asking loaded, focused questions to the players, you can construct a world collaboratively. As long as your questions are well-crafted, suited for your world, the responses should please you and add organic layers to your setting. Not only does this allow the players to build the setting too, it immerses and invests them in a setting that they might soon call their own. That is true collaboration, true D&D worldbuilding.

Going further, you may add a section of questions such as these to the setting primer provided to the players before a campaign or adventure's start, such as this one for my setting of Haltor. It's an excellent way for the players to wrap the world around their characters while concurrently adding bits and pieces to the established setting.

Hand of Vecna, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Irina Nordsol, 2021 Wizards of the Coast

Actionable Advice

  • Asking questions is one of the most powerful and easily improvable tools at the table for players and DMs.
  • Loaded, focused questions have various uses.
  • Masterfully use thoughtful questions to build and relieve suspense or tension.
  • Constantly ask provocative questions to provide greater insight on the characters and their stories.
  • Have humility and pose powerful questions to build your world collaboratively.
  • Include a set of questions with the setting primer for your campaign or adventure.

Until the next encounter, stay creative!

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Art in Order of Appearance

  • Instrument of the Bards, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Randy Gallegos, 2021 Wizards of the Coast
  • Werewolf Pack Leader, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Miranda Meeks, 2021 Wizards of the Coast
  • Hand of Vecna, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, Irina Nordsol, 2021 Wizards of the Coast

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