Session Zero


Several times now, I've come across GM advice on the importance of leading questions. The problem such questions aren't meant to address is that we sometimes want players to contribute to the fiction, and they’re not always sure how to do that. The solution some GMs have struck upon is to ask questions that guide their players toward a playable response. So instead of asking a player how the NPC bartender feels about their character, the GM asks something more pointed: “What happened in your past to make the bartender hate your guts.”

“Leading question,” in that sense, has become a veritable term of art in GMing, but what we’re looking for generally aren’t leading questions in the popular sense. Leading questions are what lawyers ask witnesses when they already know the answer and want it entered into the record. Sometimes, they're used to surreptitiously suggest what the witness ought to say, as opposed to what they would say on their own, much to the judge's ire.

Hopefully, that's not what most GMs are after. We may have an idea of what a player could answer, and their actual answer may even match that expectation. But if the questions we're asking are genuinely leading, then the GM is still dictating the fiction, just behind the guise of involving the players. In such cases, everyone's better off dispensing with the pretense that the broader fiction is, in any meaningful sense, collaborative.

Nevertheless, asking well-calibrated questions can be a good strategy for nudging players to shape the world beyond their characters. Understanding why is essential for figuring out how to.

Why are some players reluctant to contribute ideas about the world of the game? The range of possible reasons is broad, but often it’s simply that they’re not sure about the state of the fiction they’re being asked to shape. The GM is given general charge over worldbuilding, and will typically have a more substantial — and often underplayed — conception of the setting. As a result, players aren’t always sure what additions would makes sense. The question cedes some of the GM's authority to the player, but they don't necessarily feel competent to exercise that authority. What we need, then, is a question that nudges them not toward any particular answer, but into a position where they feel competent to give a good answer.

The NPC bartender for whom they're being asked to improvise a backstory was introduced only moments ago and is still just an abstraction to them. “Why does the bartender hate you?” is a stronger prompt than “Tell me about the bartender” precisely because it adds to their information about the state of the fiction. That, in turn, gives the player a bit more expertise about the world, which is something they can build on. They can build on it not only because it gives them a better command of the state of the fiction, but also because it relates the fiction back to their characters, which is the part of the game over which the rules give them the most authority.

#worldbuilding #GMing

Having finished up an initial reading of ARC, I'm faced with a question: What is its setting?

In many ways, it's a cipher. The game has no geography, no economic system, no lore. It is built around a framework for facing down a particular kind of threat, but the examples it provides merely gesture at the sorts of world they might threaten. A few particulars may be gleaned from the procedures. Magic of a particular kind is a feature of the world, which puts us in the realm of fantasy. But what shade of fantasy? High, low, dark, weird, urban, medieval? The appendix on non-player creatures includes fairies and knights, but also automatons and a smattering of Philippine and Indonesian folk legends. (Designer and illustrator momatoes is a prominant figure in Southeast Asia's thriving indie RPG scene.) Couple all of that with the book's vibrant, evocative art, and the sense I get is that a syncretic setting works best — something like the varicolored mélange of early Final Fantasy games, compressing a range of cultural reference points into some beautiful and volatile compound.

Volatile because this is, after all, a game about apocalypse. That conceit may be key to understanding the function of so much ambiguity. Spelling out a setting would give the world (and its status quo) a solidity that it is the impulse of the game to destroy. And having destroyed it, what then? Do the players start over, playing subsequent adventures as though nothing had been irrevocably altered? That would sap all gravity out of the notion of doom. Or do they start building their own world out of the wreckage? But if that's the natural next step, then why not just start there? For wreckage, you can draw on the tropes of every fantasy story you've ever known.

What's going on here, I suspect, is that the game is prompting us to explore a fantasy by imagining it in the act of tearing itself apart. Maybe the most definite thing you can say about the world of ARC is that we come to it in the midst of two simultaneous processes. At the same time that it is being destroyed, it is also being created. Saying more about it in advance would only serve to dissipate that fundamental tension.

#ARC #worldbuilding

Reading through Perilous Wilds and Slumbering Ursine Dunes, I've started to form some ideas for how to address my frustrations with Dungeon World. One way role-playing games express the character of their respective worlds is through encounters. The party is given an opportunity to engage with some other person or creature. Sometimes, the subject of the encounter is a proper noun, like the principle antagonist of a written adventure. Others times, we're dealing with common nouns, the conventional fodder of the setting or scenario, usually summoned up by rolling a die and consulting a table.

It's the potential of those tables that I find interesting. As noted previously, my goal is to inject more specificity into the game world. The proper nouns might seems like the most obvious vehicle for that. They talk. They recur. They follow their own agendas and have names that conjure fictitious languages. They're better developed qua character — or, at least, they should be. But it occurs to me that you can do just as much worldbuilding by designing thoughtful tables for random encounters. Indeed, table design may even be better for worldbuilding.

For my purposes, what's left off is almost as important as what's included. The DW rulebook includes a catalog of monsters. A GM could very easily number the entries and use the section as a table for rolling random encounters. It's even sorted by environment. But the list is a hodgepodge of elements, compiled mostly from the greatest hits of other RPG settings. Each on its own may deliver that small jolt of enthusiasm we demand from genre adventures, but all thrown together they're a hodgepodge. Rather than a thematically cohesive world, what they suggest is, well, Dungeons & Dragons, and since this is not D&D, it often feels generic. Throwing in bespoke creatures is one way to assert an identity, but unless it's accompanied by a process of winnowing away the vestiges of other games, that identity is apt to get lost.

Just as importantly, building the world this way goes a long way toward preserving the flexibility of a game like DW. Yes, I'm talking about prepping stock creatures for encounters, but because they're the common nouns of the game world, they can be deployed randomly, as part of the process where you “play to find out what happens.”

#DungeonWorld #worldbuilding