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.

Using questions to start a roleplaying game session

For myself, engaging with roleplaying games means engaging with a conversation. This conversation typically focuses on a central question to be answered. At a mechanical level this could be something like “can I use this skill in my roll?” or “what is the player willing to sacrifice to succeed?”, and at a narrative level, questions can help drive the narrative forward or support collaboration between the game master and the players such as questions like “what gives rise to the iron smell in this room?”. I think it is safe to say that the more questions that are genuinely answered the greater an understanding of a character, world or a system is achieved. I believe this allows for a better experience and to sooner reach this experience we could begin our sessions with a few brief questions to help everyone ease into the game.

Questions are a versatile tool and can take many forms depending on the different purposes for them. For example, questions can be open or closed depending on what type of response you are hoping to receive (Susan Farrell, Open-Ended vs. Closed-Ended Questions in User Research) or they can be targeted towards a different aspect of play. This could look like asking the player, the character, or the whole group a question to either provide an opportunity for a player to inject something into the story; allow a character to express themselves, drive the narrative forward, or highlight themes that a player would like to explore; or check how interested the group is within the current scene (Hayley Gordon, The Power of Questions). Questions are far more expansive than I have described here and a quick search around the internet will hopefully reveal that for you. In this post, I want to focus on questions to help us start our sessions.

There are many tools or strategies to start a roleplaying game session (Johnn Four, The First 15 Minutes – How to Kickoff Great Game Sessions). I often see groups begin sessions with a recap of the previous session to provide context to what is happening and remind players where they are within the narrative, dungeon, or both. This is done sometimes as exposition by the game master, a single player, or shared between multiple players. At a basic level, the question here could be something like “What happened last time on Dragonball Z?”. At other times, sessions begin with a situation that demands action from the players in which the hope is that players will be thrust into action and playing their characters, making decisions, and answering those overarching, campaign implicit questions like “Are you the kind of hero to sacrifice your fame in order to save someone?” or “How are you going to stop the BBEG?”. I am sure there are a range of other manners to start a session that could even be system-dependent, however at the heart of them all are questions.

We need to ask the right question. The right question is going to depend on what the goal of the group, campaign, and session is. The reason for this is that questions help us direct the flow of the narrative for the reasons described above and they help us shift the spotlight from player to player. At the beginning of a campaign more character grounding questions may be asked to support contextualising that character in the world compared to a session that is halfway through an adventure where the questions will be more tailored towards a recap. Similarly, questions may be used to elicit emotion from players or cue the player to what their characters would likely be feeling at that point of the narrative if that plays a role in your game, or you may just have questions that relate to a strategy that group will use to overcome a perceived challenge. In any case, the questions that are asked should be tailored to supporting the type of answer that is required to help the session progress.

Questions that begin the session should support players and the game master. Players need to achieve the right frame of mind for their characters and reminded of the narrative and what is at stake while indicating to the game master what the players intend to do. To accomplish this, I prepare at least one question per player in regard to what happened previously and what they intend to do now – quite often this is broken into two questions. My first question is about the feelings of a character regarding something that happened in the prior session. I typically ask a player this question and provide them time to contemplate it while I ask the other players their questions. This is a slower start to help them ease into the role of their character. I compensate for this slower start by then asking a second question after I receive an answer to the first. The second question will either introduce a new threat or something that demands action from them. I find that these second questions are often better to be asked to multiple players at a time to help bring the group together now that the players have established themselves as their characters. Overall, the question that is asked should accomplish the goal of starting the session in the manner that the game master desires.

In summary, questions are a versatile tool that are inherently ingrained in any roleplaying game at any point. Questions can be used to elicit emotion, drive the session forward, or support collaboration within the group depending on who was asked and how it was asked. To use questions to start a session, the right question must be asked to support players with recontextualising themselves in the narrative and as their characters while indicating what they intend to do so that the game master can facilitate the rest of the session.