GMProv – Ask Me No Questions

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This week, we’ll look at another rule of improv: Questions!  The improv rule is this:

Never Start a Scene with a Question.

Personally, I don’t think this rule is as steadfast in RPGS as it is in improv, but what is thatbefore I explore the exceptions, let me start with the rule itself.

In Improv:

As we mentioned last week, an improvised scene is all about set-up.  A 2 minute scene will succeed or fail based on the 20 seconds spent establishing the characters, conflicts, and locations. The setup is all about facts: what is true, what is concrete. Of course, a truth has two opposites: denial, and uncertainty. We covered denial/negation in a previous blog post, so today we cover questions & uncertainty. But what harm can asking a simple question do?

Let me start with a tangent: how many of you out there have ever seen the Improv Comedy tv show, “Whose Line is it Anyway?” If you’ve never seen it, (first off, I highly recommend it), it involves seasoned performers creating improvised sketches and songs before a studio audience.

75% of the show, and it’s resulting humor, is purely cooperative. The performers help each other out, deliver straight lines (giving the partner the perfect chance at a punchline), and generally have fun together. While it has a “winner” of sorts at the end, the beginning of the show even starts with the host saying, “the points don’t matter.” These are the types of scenes that I proudly showed my students (when I taught) as good examples of theatre sports.

25% of the humor, however, is derived from a different type of improv. It has gone by many names, but the one that captures the pure essence of it is “F@#$-Your-Buddy.”  F@#$-Your-Buddy is based on intentionally putting your scene partner in the most awkward and difficult situation you can. If a crisis needs solving, you put her on the spot to give the solution. If you’re playing a rhyming game, you force the partner to make a rhyme for “orange” or “silver.” It’s a theatrical demolition derby, in which the audience shivers with anticipation at the gaping chasm opened up before the performer. They delight in watching the unease and horror on the performer’s face. Don’t get me wrong, it’s just as harmless and hilarious to watch as the cooperative stuff, but it’s not the stuff I show young improvers as behavior to emulate. At the core, it is based on either competition (at best) or humiliation (at worst.) *

 * F@#$ Your Buddy – Colin & Ryan Style – The majority of F@#$-Your-Buddy on “Whose Line” is done between Colin Mochrie & Ryan Styles, who love throwing each other into tight spots. However, they have been doing improv together for over 20 years, and both know how talented the other is- I doubt they’d ever set-up an obstacle that the other player couldn’t honestly overcome. So, you could argue that they aren’t REALLY f*&^ing each other over most of the time, but rather putting on the appearance of F@#$-Your-Buddy-atude for the audience. Don’t try this at home, they’re professionals.

/End Rambling Tangent.

So, what does asking a question do?

Imagine two performers, Abel and Baker, who have to set up a scene. Depending on which universe you are in, Abel starts the scene one of two ways:

Variant 1-
Abel: Fan-frickin-tastic! I’m sick and tired of winding up in jail because of your shenanigans, Bob!

Using last week’s guide, let’s see who supplies the facts:

Who: Abel provides half- he gives us Baker’s name, “Bob.”

What’s the relationship: Abel provides implication that Bob & other person are partners or friends; the relationship is strained to the point of breaking.

Where are they: Abel provides that they are in jail.

When: Abel provides the past (there were previous arrests.)

Why are they having this conversation:  Abel provides that he wants to stop the arrests or stop the relationship with Bob.

NOW, let’s see an alternative opening:

Abel: What are you doing?

I could repost the “who, what, when, etc.” and fill in the information, but for the sake of time, I’ll go ahead and say that the answer for each is the same: Abel provides NOTHING.  Instead of verifying a fact or providing a new one (see the “Yes / And” blog post,) Abel foists all creative decisions on Baker’s unprepared shoulders. If Baker’s good, he’ll recover and make it work. If it’s not good or he suffers a mental block, Baker looks like an idiot in front of a leering audience, through no fault of his own. Whether you mean it or not, to suddenly ask a question is to play a game of “F@#$-Your-Buddy.”

HOW DOES THIS APPLY TO RPGS?

So, does this mean that you should never ever ask any of your players questions? No, that would be terrible. However, every question you ask should be a conscious decision on the GM’s part, because the type of questions you ask have a profound effect on shaping the game.

Questionless Adventure: In theory, you likely could run a game in which the player is not prompted to answer any questions or make any decisions. Just like last week, I’ll cite the Maltese Falcon. (Why? Because it’s an awesome movie!)

The Maltese  Falcon is a film noir mystery film. From the very beginning, there are many unknown factors: who killed Spade’s partner? Where is the missing girl, if she even exists? Who can Spade trust?  That being said, Spade doesn’t really have a chance to make many active decisions until halfway through the film. Until then, a revolving door of odd characters show up at his apartment and his office, pulling guns on him and tailing him wherever he goes.  This might seem strange that a detective does very little detecting, but remember: the story was originally a pulp story. I remember reading that one famous pulp author would count out his pages- if a certain number went by without any action, he would insert a pistol whip, a shot, an explosion, or a dead body into the story, just to liven things up. Why would there be a dead body or violent action? Doesn’t matter, the author would justify it later.  Pulps (and Dan Brown novels) depend on the hero being the subject of action- he could sit in his arm chair at home, and events would still find him, forcing him to react first, and to answer questions later.

Likewise, it is possible to have an RPG in which the characters spend most of the time reacting to events. This means you don’t have to ask them many questions, like, “where will you go next?” or “what’s your next step?” as the next step comes to them. This shows up a lot when running “on the rail” adventures, which is why “railed” adventures are commonly used with newbie groups. Gamers who are new to RPGs are likely overwhelmed enough by the rules and stats without throwing additional questions at them- all they have to do is react, until they feel comfortable.

The Question-full Game: Of course, you can also run a game based around entirely asking players questions. I know that Fate is a collaborative game, which requires the players to creating everything together; from the theme of the entire universe to the contents of a dirty linen closet.  At Gen Con, I remember asking for room ideas from my playgroups: I had some seasoned gamers blanch at the idea (as they were never been asked these things in D&D!) By the end, the players loved the idea, but there was definitely a learning curve. Once you get them going, I’ve seen a group take over the story completely, with the GM acting merely as the mediator. This gives players more chance to ACT, but less chance to react- as such, they spend more time building the world outside of their characters, and less time inside their character’s head, playing the character. Thus, a question is like breaking the fourth wall: on a subconscious level, the player is answering, not the character.

Easing Players In: To avoid shell-shock and not put players on the spot, here are a few tricks.

  • Start with little questions; instead of making them plan a giant caper from scratch, start with them brainstorming the items of a room.
  •  Give examples first. “The room is dank and foul. You see a slimy bucket containing something that’s definitely not water, and an algae covered drain is in the floor. What else do you see?”
  •  Ask the group, rather than the individuals. For example, during the scene set-up, don’t call out individuals to come up with ideas- propose it to everyone at the same time, and let those who are feeling comfortable speak up.
  •  Give people time to think. If each player has to think about what their character will do (ex. “What kind of action will you take this turn?”), propose the question to all players at once, and let them respond as they will- this means players who are more confident will talk first, while those who are less comfortable and like taking their time get to answer after. This might mean bending the normal turn-order, or just tossing it out completely.

 YOU SHOULD ASK FEWER QUESTIONS WITH:

  • Gamers new to rpgs
  • Gamers new to a system
  • On the Rail Adventures (see “The Golden Rule” below)
  • Horror rpgs / Dramatic / Tragic rpgs – fewer questions gives the player less feeling of control and more time in the character’s head, making the danger all the sweeter.
  • Cooperative Games- all of the players are collected together into a solid team
  • Groups/ games that focus on the players being “in-character”

YOU SHOULD ASK MORE QUESTIONS WITH

  • Fate Games
  • Campaigns with experienced players
  • Comedic Games – players get to spend more time setting up the joke, and feel less sensitive to having their characters be the butt of a joke.
  • World-Building Games– i.e. Games in which shaping the world is essential to the theme, such as games in which the characters are gods; my dungeon building game, Dungeon Tours.  Open-ended questions are jarring at first, but will remind them that they are in control.
  • Competitive / Cruel  Settings – If the setting involves characters regularly clashing with characters controlled by other players, then the more questions you can ask, the better. The more a player gets into the head of their character, the more likely they will take attacks against them personally.

THE GOLDEN RULE

So, whether you end up asking one question or one million, I suggest one golden rule; it harkens back to the “Never negate” rule I mentioned a few blogs back:

If you ask player a question, always be ready to go with their answer.

Asking a question means you are allowing the player to influence the game, and that you are interested in what they want to contribute. Imagine the following:

GM: What do you want to do?

Abel: I want to fly!

GM: You can’t fly, you don’t have the ability. What do you want to do?

Abel: I want to build a flying machine!

GM: There are no supplies. What do you want to do?

Abel: I go buy supplies!

Gm: The shops are closed. What do you want to do?

The GM’s saying “What do you want to do?” but he’s shutting down every answer Abel is giving. If he doesn’t want to Abel to do any of the things he wants to do, then why is he even asking? Don’t merely ask until you get the answer you’d give. This rule doesn’t mean you have to ALWAYS say yes, but if you’re going to ask, be prepared to throw away your carefully planned adventure.

NEXT WEEK: NO IDEA! What would YOU like to see?

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