by Jason Cordova
I exclusively run one-shots or short series of 4-5 sessions. One of the trickiest aspects of running games with limited sessions is getting players invested in what’s happening. In a long campaign, you have plenty of time for the players to grow into the setting and/or the group’s goals. But in a one-shot or short series, you need some shortcuts. One of my favorites is a technique I call Establishing Questions.
Establishing Questions are highly specific questions posed to the players that help develop their characters’ reasons for being involved in the events at-hand. In answering the questions, the players are likely to suggest story elements the GM may not have considered–story elements the GM should then try to work into their prep.
General Establishing Questions
When creating a set of Establishing Questions that are generally applicable, keep the following two points in mind: 1) the questions should help define or explore an existing aspect of your scenario and/or 2) the questions should take into account the broad character types your players are likely to bring to the table. Let’s take a look at an example of some Establishing Questions I wrote for my Song of the Milk-White Putrescence Dungeon World scenario. For context, the scenario was about a remote town, Frostdale, and the heretical monk who was hiding among its people. The characters were there to ferret out the heretical monk and kill him.
- Someone close to you moved to Frostdale years ago and you haven’t heard from them since. Who are they?
- The mayor of Frostdale is a veteran of a recent war. They say he has an extremely valuable memento from that war. What is it? Why do you want it?
- There is an ancient temple complex, abandoned and partially in ruins, higher up on the mountain. Why do you want to get into to that temple?
- You have heard rumors about a new saint who is ministering in these lands. What is he or she a saint of? Why do you want to have a meeting with this individual?
You can see how these questions adhere to the principles I’ve discussed above. For starters, none of these is so specific that they couldn’t be posed to literally any type of character. And yet, you can see how some of them might be better suited to certain character types. When I wrote these, I knew I would probably have a wizard or a cleric, and the third and fourth questions, while suitable for any character, are particularly good for a wizard or cleric-type character. The second question, while certainly of interest to most adventuring-types, is particularly good for a thief-type character (thieves usually being motivated by heists and treasure). And in all cases, the questions help explore certain pre-existing aspects of the scenario: the residents of Frostdale, the temple higher up on the mountain, and the idea of new–possibly blasphemous–religious movements.
Tailored Establishing Questions
If you are already familiar with the player characters when prepping your session, you can go even further by tailoring the Establishing Questions to specific characters, which helps create an even deeper level of player investment in your scenario. I recently ran the original Ravenloft module in World of Dungeons. I asked the players to create their characters a few days beforehand, which presented an opportunity to make the Establishing Questions really special. In this example, I have also included the players' answers so you can see how powerful the Establishing Questions technique can be.
- Question for Goro, a loner and outcast from a religious order: Someone important to you went missing in the land of Barovia. Who was it? Why have you so far refused to investigate their disappearance?
- Player’s answer: Goro’s mother, who was an outcast from their religious community before he was. He refused to go find her because he was scared that he, too, would be shunned by the community. Now that he is an outcast himself, he is determined to find her.
- Question for Pali, a thief who was raised by a powerful witch in the woods around Barovia, and from whom he is now on the run: The old witch used to speak of an object in Castle Ravenloft, possibly magical, but definitely very valuable. What is it? Why do you want it?
- Player’s answer: A doll or puppet that Pali believes contains all the memories from the witch’s childhood. He wants it so he can gain power over her.
- Question for Stosh, a religious warrior dedicated to a sun cult: A foundational myth of the sun cult you belong to has its origin in Castle Ravenloft. What is it? In what ways does this inform why you might be interested in exploring the castle?
- Player’s answer: Creation story - the planet rose up from the primordial darkness. In the early days, the physical manifestation of the sun, an avatar, would walk the earth, clearing out remnants of this primordial dark with her lance of pure light. A few generations back, some distant cousin returned from Barovia saying he’d heard rumors that a demon in Castle Ravenloft had the lance.
Incorporating the answers into your game
If you are familiar with the old Ravenloft module, you know that the answers given in my example above do not conform to the events of the module in any way–these are entirely new ideas that will need to be worked in somehow. Fortunately, this is much easier than you might imagine. In the specific case of Ravenloft, the dungeon has many rooms that are essentially empty. There is no reason why you can’t populate some of these empty rooms with the elements suggested by the answers to the establishing questions. Incorporating answers into your prep is even easier when you are running a scenario of your own design. Simply leave some empty space in your scenario, whether that be physical locations on a map or NPCs that aren’t quite fully fleshed out, or adapt some of the central story elements of your scenario to be about these items the players have provided.
The trickier question: when do you do this incorporation? Well, if you’re running multiple sessions, you can spend time between sessions figuring out how to work these new elements into the scenario. When I’m running a short series, I usually have enough events planned for the first session that I can keep the players busy and don’t need to worry about incorporating their answers to the Establishing Questions until the second session (more on this later). For a one-shot, you have to be a little more improvisational, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it. Learning to work with Establishing Questions in a one-shot is an extremely valuable GM skill to cultivate, since injecting that high level of player engagement makes the single session you have with the players much more impactful. You can also plan ahead for a one-shot and pose the questions to the players before the session starts.
Presenting Establishing Questions to the players
I’m going to wrap-up by backtracking in the process a little bit: how and when do you actually present the Establishing Questions to the players? I imagine there are lots of ways to go about it, but this is what I do:
- I begin the session with an in medias res situation–a fight, an intense negotiation with an NPC, a daring escape, or similar. I do this so the players can stretch their legs a little bit and get acquainted (or re-acquainted) with their characters.
- Then, I present an overview of what the the adventure or scenario is about. In my first example above, this is where I would tell the players about Frostdale and their mission to find the heretical monk.
- At this point, I assign the Establishing Questions to each player and then take a lengthy break, around 10-15 minutes, so the players have time to think about their answers.
- When we get back from the break, I might ask for all their answers at once, or I might give them the opportunity to reveal their answers in play (depending on the immediate needs of the scenario and/or whether we’re playing a one-shot).
Another effective method, if you have the time, is to ask the players the Establishing Questions before the session begins, but a note of caution here: given this extra time to consider their answers, some players go a little overboard or, worse, become paralyzed with indecision. The way I do it, by asking them on the spot and then giving them a short break to think about it, encourages the players to be succinct and to go for the most obvious answer, which is often the best answer. That said, as with my note about one-shots above, sometimes a little extra time to work with the Establishing Questions can be helpful.