I call my particular style of GMing “lazy GMing.” This is kind of tongue-in-cheek, of course, but grows from the fact that the players outnumber me. Now, I’m fairly creative but so are my players. It stands to reason that four or five of them are probably, collectively, more creative than me all by my lonesome. Not only that, but they know more about what will interest them than I do. Take those two together and it makes sense to get them to do as much of the creative heavy-lifting as possible, whether it’s creating setting or brewing plot.
One of my favorite tools for this is probing questions.
Why you should use probing questions
No matter how thorough the setting book or the GM prep notes, you can never detail everything. Even worse (or better?) you can never predict with complete accuracy the things in which your players will invest their interest. “What would interest you?” can give you broad themes but rarely lets you zoom in on those bits of colour that lead to gut-wrenching scenes and immortal tales at the local watering hole.
Probing questions help because they let you flesh things out at the level of focus that you want, ensure player investment and also give you enough control to prevent things from flying outside your comfort zone.
When you can use probing questions
Probing questions are extremely useful when you are playing a game where there is shared character creation or shared setting creation. It gives you the opportunity to both give some direction to character and setting creation while at the same time building connections in which the players will be invested. They can also be useful in games where you can have the flexibility to incorporate plot points or character details on the fly into your game. Games where the mechanics try to emulate the drama of the action rather than the physics (such as Spirit of the Century or Apocalypse World) work well for this but you can use probing questions in even the most number-heavy game if you’re comfortable enough.
They can also be used to start scenes with a bang, putting the players in the position of defining their own troubles and potential avenues of escape.
How to build a probing question
Start with an anchor. An anchor is something that is already known to the players. It could be an element of the setting (like an organization, a magical creature, a political body), or a character (like the head wizard, the great Snorflegus of the Caves of Mourning, Susan the bartender). Whatever it is, pick something that you and the player can get interested in. If you’re stuck, pick the PC!1
ChimeraCorp, a highly successful organization involved in producing unique organisms with cybernetic enhancements to act as guards, servants and pets.
Maria, a PC paladin.
Examine your anchor and look for implications. Every organization has a structure, an agenda, methods and rivals. Characters have motivations, jobs, relationships, wants and needs. Don’t try to define the details of implication too much. The whole point is to get your players to do some of the creative work!
ChimeraCorp’s services don’t come cheap and they have an exclusive (and very rich) clientele.
Maria belongs to an order which consists of criminals atoning for their crimes by protecting the weak on whom they used to prey.
When you have an implication that you’d like the players to help you flesh out, ask a question about it that incorporates emotional tension or resonance. The PCs don’t necessarily need to care one way or the other, but the player ought to get some kind of emotional surge when they answer. This is the hardest part and depends on what you and the players want out of the game. For instance, if you’re looking for a game about intrigue, your questions should incorporate things like secrets that have dire consequences if revealed, hidden agendas, backroom deals and shady types. You can get your players to define brand new NPCs they have to contend with, obstacles they have to overcome and plots which have failed in the past.
Which client raised a ruckus about being dissatisfied with a ChimeraCorp service and how was it/she/he silenced?
Though ChimeraCorp claims to take payment in local currencies and has very impressive tax records and accounting books to back it up, how do clients really pay for their goods?
Which client does ChimeraCorp never say no to?
You’re posing as a client for ChimeraCorp and you need to see one of their specialist designers. That means you have to have a special order. What is it?
Who thinks that Maria’s choice to join the order isn’t genuine?
What was the most arduous test that Maria had to pass before joining the order and what scars does she bear from it?
Is there a crime for which Maria is secretly unrepentent? Who knows about it?
You’ve been assigned to escort an ambassador to a series of peace talks to end a civil war. It isn’t until you arrive to meet the ambassador that you realize you’ve met him before, before you joined the order. What did you do to her and does she recognize you now?
Once you have an answer, if you’d like to keep going, look for implications in the player’s answer and try to build another question that gives you emotional tension or resonance. Rinse and repeat as often as you need but don’t go too far! If you get really excited about something someone has said, leave it there. That’s exactly where you want to bring in the characters and get some play.
Audience participation time!
The game setting is a modern American city. The character is Rachel, a police informant in a gang who has made surprising in-roads in long-established criminal territories. The game is one of intrigue, action and hard choices.
What are some implications and questions?
- I shouldn’t have to tell you that if you aren’t interested in the PC something terrible has happened along the way. ↩