How to improve player engagement in roleplaying games using questions

Questions help us communicate and understand each other and we can use them to improve the engagement of our players in our roleplaying games. By asking the right type questions of our players, we can establish a scene more quickly or drive a narrative forward. The type of question we ask depends on the reason for the question and the kind of information we want.

TL;DR

What is player engagement in roleplaying games?

As with most things in this wonderful world, players like to engage with roleplaying games differently.

There are players who engage by sitting back and listening to the story as if it were an audio drama, players who jump at the opportunity to ask questions about a scene or take action, and all manner of players in-between.

Measuring this engagement can be difficult, but if players keep showing up (and are not awkwardly silent when you ask for feedback after a game), then they are probably engaging with the roleplaying game.

However, even throughout a session this engagement ebbs and flows as a player’s attention span deviates. Our brains all work a little differently, thus we all have different attention spans, especially in this age of communication as seen in a study comparing people using physical and digital tools to code information conducted by Elena Medvedskaya.

So how do we bring players’ attention back to the roleplaying game and improve engagement?

Easy.

Just ask the right questions.

What are the types of questions to use in roleplaying games?

Our brains are predisposed to contemplate and answer questions (which is an underlying mechanism in sales), but as players in a roleplaying game, we require the right kind of question to be asked so we can drive the game forward.

Here are six types of questions you can use to improve player engagement in a roleplaying game:

  • Closed: Questions which have a binary answer, “yes” or “no”.
    “Do you light the toilet on fire?”
  • Open: Questions which allow for players to provide more detail and explanation.
    “What is your old school friend like these days?”
  • Leading: Questions which encourage a specific response from players.
    “Are you looking to intimidate the information out of them or something else?”
  • Inverted: Questions which provide a result and ask the player to explain how they ended up there.
    “How did the keys end up in your pocket?”
  • Redirect: Questions which invite other players to add to, modify, or interject another player’s response or action.
    “Saskia, what does Gruul do about Hancho using his private bathroom?”
  • Affective: Questions which require the players to communicate the emotions or thoughts of their character.
    “Tim, how does Hancho feel about what went down with his mother before?”

At this point, you may be thinking when and where you might use these types of questions. However, remembering these six types of questions and when to use them during a session can be difficult, especially when your cognitive load is already filled with encounters, NPC actions, and location descriptions.

To chunk this information and make it easier for us to remember during a session, we can group these questions together based on the outcome or information we require.

When do you use questions in roleplaying games?

Whenever we set a scene in a roleplaying game, we are aware of its purpose, and whenever we ask a question, we are expecting a specific type of response.

In a roleplaying game, I ask questions for the following uses:

  • To invite player action and input or clarify information during a scene.
  • To tempt players into specific actions or spur the group into making a decision.
  • To encourage roleplay through the expression of character emotions, thoughts, and opinions, or to check in with a low-activity player without demanding too much.

We can use this handy graphic to organise the six question types into three categories based on their function:

A diagram depicting a wheel split into three categories of question function to determine which question to ask.
A question wheel to help you decide which question to ask depending on the outcome you are after.

The six question types before neatly fit into the three functional categories. If you want to:

  • Clarify or learn about a character or the world then you can ask open questions to elicit detail or closed questions to clarify established facts.
  • Tempt players or incite quick action then you can ask leading questions to prime them for a tense situation or an inverted questions to have them roleplay or explain what happened.
  • Learn about a character’s state or adjust the pace then you can ask affective questions to learn about a character’s emotions and thoughts on the scene or redirect questions to gently check-in with a player or have them comment on the actions of another character.

It is worth mentioning that these questions can apply to other situations and even overlap on their function. When you are asking a question, be sure to understand the reason you are asking it to ensure you improve player engagement and drive the roleplaying game forward.

You can read more about how you can use questions to start a roleplaying game session here.

Random Table: What’s in Their Pocket?

Figure 1: A random table

The use of random tables in my games are still predominantly focused on the before aspect of the game – the preparation. However, in my most recent campaign of Mutant: Year Zero I did return to utilising random tables during a session and I found that I very much liked the random aspects they can introduce while also allowing a modicum of control.

Though random tables are in the early stages of ruminating deep in the basting juices of my mind, they have provoked me to consider where different GM tools might lie on a spectrum of chaos and control. My preparations for a game session involve a couple of possible situations tied to each PC and the plots which is derived from the drives and goals of the NPCs – it is quite minimal, but it rests on the more control side of the spectrum. Then the players bring in their moxie to add a touch of chaos to drag my prep towards the centre and this is where I feel that random tables rest – I create them and the dice bring in that delightful chaos.

In the spirit of random tables and my endeavour to use them more here is a table to be used when you need to know what is inside a person’s pocket. I have tried to keep it thematically neutral but interesting so that it can fit in any setting while providing questions with each roll.

What’s in Their Pocket?

2D4Pocket Contents
2Tracked Orb: A small glass orb that rolls after the last person who touched it. When viewed by the wielder, it shows their reflection and then fades to black with a red ‘X’ that can be viewed from any angle.
3Rotting Finger: A shriveling lump of flesh with exposed bone depicts a decaying finger moist with infection. Near the base, where it has been severed, is half of a ring mark.
4Blue Stain: The pocket is empty but the sides feel powdery. The thief’s hand is now stained blue for all to see!
5Pocket Change: A small amount of currency either in a container such as a pouch or loose inside the pocket. It can be in pristine, polished condition (1/6); worn and used (4/6); mucky and smelly (1/6).
6Scratch Pad: A tiny notebook or pad for taking short notes with. In the most common language a series of three numbers are hastily scrawled on it, e.g. 32 1 15.
7Clockwork Device: A small device that begins to chatter when in the presence of heat. In the cold if the device is squeezed it prints out a sheet of paper with a series of dots and lines on it that translate to the noise around the device during its most recent chattering.
8Formal Invitation: A letter written on heavy card stock invites the beneficiary of this letter to a private soiree. The incredibly fine print towards the bottom reads “BYO sacrifice but food and drink is provided”. It’s signed “- The Dimaryp Opportunity”.

Interested in reading more?