Jun 6, 2012

Question Answer-Question

The whole debate over the "Mother May I?" thing is asinine, in that rule design neither encourages nor prevents communicative breakdown, which is the real cause of most rules disputes at the table (followed by poor sportmanship). Communicative breakdown is where relevant information is not being communicated in a clear and timely fashion. It's an interpersonal issue, not one of rules design.

Preventing communicative breakdown and repairing the damage when it does occur are critical to the long-term viability of a gaming group. This post will discuss one pattern of interaction that helps accomplish these goals: the Question Answer-Question form of interaction.

Questioning and answering questions are two of the most fundamental activities that occur at the table. While long descriptions and dialogue between players are useful, adventure games are fundamentally about making choices and decisions. Those choices and decisions are bound up with asking questions and receiving answers to them, which inform characters about the world, the effects of their actions, what their capabilities are, etc. It is possible to run an engaging and extremely interesting adventure game session without anyone ever actually acting out dialogue or pretending to see things from one's character's point of view so long as questions, answers, choices and decisions are present.

Breakdowns in communication basically happen due to conflicting assertions, which are just statements about the fictional world and how it operates. You think the world works one way, another person thinks it works another way, and this difference is not realised in time. A decision gets made based on one understanding but the consequences are imported from the other person's understanding. This can often be quickly rectified with a "takeback", but if you're playing "No Takebacks" (and many people do) then people start to feel cheated and look for rules to ameliorate or exacerbate the consequences until they match their understanding. This can be particularly galling when it's the referee inventing spot rules to cover some lapse in their knowledge. Even if people do accept the consequences, it can lead to frustration - it wasn't supposed to go like this - and feelings that a scene or encounter has been "ruined".


A: "He punches you with his superhuman strength and does 30 points of damage. It's the hardest blow you've ever felt, and your chest buckles"

B: "Naw. I have damage resistance 30. It doesn't even affect me."

A: "But he's the strongest man in the world!"

B: "DR is cheap, bro."

A: "Goddamnit. Alright, he flails futilely at you. There's no way he can even hurt you. So much for my cool supervillain."

This also plays out in things like the "You forgot to look up" school of killer trap design.

As a preventative to this, I recommend that you, whether a player or referee, end almost any and every assertion you make, especially one that answers another player's question, with another question, one that either asks what their response is, what further information they want, what the foreseeable consequences of doing something would be, even just confirming their choice. In a game session, I'll have a lot of interactions that go something like:

"You can see some vertical grooves in the wall ahead. They look pretty deep. Did you want to go for a closer look?"
"Sure! I'm staying at an angle to them. What can I see?"
"OK. Keeping at an angle reduces how deep you can see into them. They're definitely more than a finger-length deep. They're big, pretty much the height of the corridor, there's two of them, and they're aligned with one another. What are you looking for?"
"I want to know if this is a trap?"
"Maybe. What kinds of traps are you looking for?"

The idea is to keep a constant flow of answers and questions on both sides, rather than just having one side asking all the questions, and the other providing all the answers. This keeps the relevant visions of the fictional world aligned with one another. If you as a referee do it, you'll often find your players start to mirror you, and vice versa. Even if you don't allow takebacks, or occasionally screw up the rules, you'll find that other players begrudge these things less. When someone dies in my games, it's almost always possible to reconstruct the series of decisions that led them there, and because the player of the dead character owns the decisions, having chosen at each step what to do, they don't feel cheated or that the decisions were unfair.

Give it a try.


  1. I agree with you you that poor sportsmanship is a big part of the issue (as a former sportsman myself, that is what I usually detect going on behind most of these disputes). Cook did raise a good point though of the role rules play in making it easier for the GM to operate in areas the system doesn't cover. I find rules that establish a predictable pattern are easier to implement without dispute when the pcs try to do something the rulebook doesn't cover. But that said, at the end of the day, it is (like you say) about open communication. I find players appreciate it if you explain to them how you plan to resolve an unncovered action before they take it (giving them a chance to weigh their chances).

    1. I agree with you about the effectiveness of communicating how you intend to resolve a situation before a PC attempts it - that could really be a post all on its own. It's highly effective, and my experience has been that it encourages PCs to problem solve, by considering the ways various actions will be resolved, how they can alter the probabilities, etc.