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In a game where the GM has the traditional role of answering all the questions about the world, what is the benefit of building open-ended questions into the scenario for the GM to answer during play, and what is a good method of answering these questions?

For instance, in tremulus, an example scenario about dealing with mysterious creatures in the woods is provided, and the nature of these mysterious creatures is left undefined to start with. How would this work in a game with a traditional GM role?

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Remember, just because the GM knows the answer, doesn't mean he has to tell it. Rolls and Gods willing, the mystery of life will remain so. –  DampeS8N Dec 26 '12 at 13:48
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3 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The benefits of leaving things undefined even in a traditional GM driven game are:

  1. Flexibility of plot from a GM point of view
  2. Ability to tailor the game to your players/characters

Flexibility

Especially in large campaigns, too much pre-planning can paint you into a corner. If you have a lot going on, as a GM you can easily get into story deadlocks and other problems if you have a highly rigid and predefined sense of the plot.

An important point here is that there's effectively no difference to your players between something you haven't figured out yet and something the players haven't come into contact with yet. There are three levels of definition in a game:

  • Things the PCs have encountered (and think they understand, though they may be wrong)
  • Things they haven't encountered but you already have a clear plan for
  • Things they haven't encountered but you are leaving open

The difference between the latter two is only a matter of how inflexible a thinker you are. The first one is the only one you should be concerned about preserving. GM driven doesn't mean the GM can't change their mind behind the walls of the scenery on stage.

Did they kill your "big bad" ten levels too early? Well, there's nothing except some piece of paper that either a) you scribbled down while sitting in your underwear or b) some other guy scribbled down sitting in their underwear and you paid $20 for it that says the game is done now. Being open ended leads to more possibilities and more options for fun gaming.

Tailoring

You don't have to go in for newfangled indie hippie-dippie player input to tailor a game to your PCs. I actually find in-play player agency in the world/plot to be disruptive to immersion and prefer not to have it (as a player, mostly, it ironically bothers me less as a GM). But maintaining an interesting plot has a lot to do with subtly tailoring those events to your players - to make them more invested, to avoid deadlocks.

One of the PCs invested in heavy mind reading/control cheese? Well, let's make the BBEG a robot so that they won't just roll over him. What's causing the world storm (tm)? Well, the one scientific PC took a lot of points in botany and none in space science, so let's have the cause be something plant related instead of solar storm related so that it's more relevant to them.

In my games, NPCs frequently become more or less important to the plot based on whether the PCs engage with them or not. Which shopkeeper in that town is the cultist? You could just say 'the butcher! Done." Or you could make it whichever one the PCs interact with and like! Simulation and immersion are maintained for them, but narrative goals are furthered in the bargain. GM does stand for God in the Machine after all.

Examples

In one long AD&D 2e game I ran, the players were investigating a swamp and came across an abandoned plantation house I put in just for color. They got so interested in it for no reason I could fathom that I made it haunted, and the whole day's session turned into them crawling all over this house (and eventually flinging themselves out of the doors and windows shrieking, and the house disappearing). That's an example of changing what I had in mind - initially in my notes it was "abandoned house" and then the rest of the adventure was finding the goblins. But love of the game >> love of your GM notes.

But it didn't end there - I deliberately had left open and undefined what exactly the point of the Big Evil Underdark Aboleth Cthulhuey Plot that was going on was. Who was the prime mover and what were they trying to do exactly? Eh, too much work and then the risk of having the players get off track. I'd figure that out about 10 levels down the road. Well, when I brought that house from above back the players were more into that than any of the other leads I was spinning out. After a while, as I made real-time plot decisions with passive input from the players, it turned out that the house was that of a Cthulhu type sorcerer and naturally that was why it was haunted. And he was part of an adventuring party back in the day but something went wrong between them. And the PCs find out that they're each related to a member of the original adventuring party! And the party wizard is getting really interested in the Cthulhu magic in the house. An epic campaign, including very personal bits, was effectively created on the fly as the campaign went on.

And that's attributed to being able to take "abandoned house" and "there's some big aboleth cthulhu underdark plot," leave them open, and spin out the details in play.

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I'd take a look at PSI*RUN by Meg Baker where the entire game is based of off four (or five) questions from each player that go on to define the world, plus the unknown Chasers that push the players and the plot forward. Player questions are answered as a side effect to rolls and when all questions are answered the game ends. Players tend to tailor their answers to previous answers to create a coherent narrative. To bring it back to your question, the GM uses the chasers and the initial scene setting of the crash (what kind of crash etc.) to provide the impetus and the chaser scenes can be used to attempt to guide the players.


As an example of play in PSI*RUN (as requested in comments), the game always starts with the player characters in some form of crash whilst travelling. They know they are wanted by the chasers and that they desire the answers to their questions. Chasers can be anything, in games I have played in they have been anything from sterotypical g-men to rival transdimensional memetic gods (that was a fun game). The chasers are powerful and functionally immortal (dependant on your GM they might actually be immportal or if you kill one set more come after you).

You as the player also know you have vaguely defined "powers". In theory, you can do whatever the hell you like. In practice, players tend to pick one set of powers that fit their questions and run with them. When you use your powers you roll a D6 for each of a number of categories that fit the current situation (harm, powers, chasers, see the character sheet for details) and then assign each die to a category. High numbers are good. Low numbers kill people (anyone who has played any amount of PSI*RUN will know what I mean when I say national scale disasters.).

The main aim when rolling dice on the risk sheet is to further the story. Often players will sacrifice current success to get one of their questions answered if it is more appropriate to the story. This isn't so much a game for people who feel that "winning" is the most important aspect of the game.

Finally, the game ends when any player has had all their questions answered. Then players choose their character's ending from the crossroads table in the order of who had the most questions answered and each gets a little scene about what happens to their character. It's all quite sweet. Except for most of my characters, who end up being eaten by evil dream stealing psychopaths or being the subject of questionable medical experiments by military black ops.

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While it's definitely true that having open ended questions gives you story flexibility and the opportunity to tailor your adventure to your adventurers, I think the real value of open-ended questions is their ability to pull adventurers deeper into your world. That is, in trying to figure out what is going on, they become more deeply immersed in their gaming experience.

With this as a starting point then, the best method of answering these questions is with further open ended questions (a la “Lost”). Don't give away the mystery all at once. Give as little certain detail as possible, and always throw in an extra detail that you don't have an explanation for yet.

Say you have mysterious creatures in the woods. Don't let the characters immediately encounter the creatures when they set out to find them, have them find the remains of other unfortunate adventurers who have perfectly undisturbed corpses save for missing eyes (or buried for later retrieval, or completely dessicated like egyptian mummies). Let them find the finally find the first creature in a scenario of some ambiguity – heavy fog, darkness, smoke, or drug induced hallucinations – that not only gives the creature anonymity but tactical advantage. Make a trivial detail important. Perhaps these imposingly large and dangerous creatures have a mortal fear of field mice or the wizard's familiar, perhaps their unscented sex pheromones cause the elf to get a migraine as they approach. If you find it too hard to generate these random characteristics on the fly, write some ideas/free associations on a deck of cue cards to be pulled out randomly when you need more mysteries, or, if you play a more open style game, ask the players themselves to each create some of their own on the cards.

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