It's common in Powered by the Apocalypse games, as a part of the narrative flow, to ask players questions about the world to which their character would know the answer.

For example you might say:

As you browse the wares, you notice the imposing form of Tlexkirash the hunter only a few stalls away. Tik-tik the elf, why does she want your head?

These questions (when done well) are great, because they give an opportunity for players to add characterization to their characters, and having everyone at the table involved with the creation of the story just makes it richer in my experience.

However it seems that in other sorts of games it is not common for GMs to ask this sort of questions of their players. And when I GM games for beginners with experience in D&D these question are often one of the things that trips them up. With confused players I get two types of responses to this. Either they ask a question back:

Who is Tlexkirash?

or they just respond with:

I don't know.

I can't really know why players respond like this, since I am not in their head. It could be that they just don't know they have permission to have fun with the question. They might think it's some sort of cruel quiz, with right and wrong answers. Or maybe they are just not comfortable with improvisation yet and so they want me to do it for them. Sometimes it's probably a mixture of the two.

I usually respond to these with two different strategies:

  1. "Show them the ropes". In this case I stop the game and explain what I am trying to do as a GM. I tell them that they have full permission to answer the question how they want. "You may not know, but your character does! I'm asking you to come up with an answer that fits how you see your character."

  2. "Lead by example". In this case I take their words at face value. I answer their question honestly as if they were an experienced player asking it, but still giving them a hook to improvise. If they say they don't know then I assume their character doesn't know and I play with it. "Tlexkirash is out for your head and you don't even know why?!"

The first way is nice because it gets everyone on the same page. If a player is ready to answer but doesn't know that they have permission to then this works great. However it can also feel like a lecture or a scolding. I think players can interpret this as you can't ask questions back, or you need to be ready to come up with something cool at any time. And players who are just not ready to improvise something can end up feeling a lot of pressure to do something that they are not ready for or confident in.

The second way is nice because it keeps the energy of the game flowing. It also gives the players some practical experience with questions like this. Hopefully they will begin to experiment with other ways to respond and get comfortable at their own pace. The issue is that sometimes you need some nudging out of your comfort zone. I think this risks a player simply passing on all these questions because they feel like the GM would do a better job, or they are unsure what the point is.

I could cover this when we explain the rules. And that would probably be nice, but there are a lot of things being explained then, and (in my experience) players have a huge tendency to forget or ignore non-mechanical aspects of the game that are explained to them. And even if they do remember it is my experience that even when players definitely remember me explaining this to them (often from strategy 1) they will still react this way sometimes.

So my question is: What strategy can I use in this scenario? It obviously doesn't have to be one of the above - that's just to show where I am at.


4 Answers 4


As a player who started with D&D and didn't get into cooperative storytelling style games like PbtA and FATE until much later in my gaming experience, you should use a mix of both.

Nowadays, I've played Pigsmoke, Apocalypse World, Legacy: Life Among the Ruins, and many others, but my first interaction with PbtA was playing Blades in the Dark, and I was completely thrown for a loop when I, a mere player, was asked by the GM to tell me something about their NPC. Up until that point, the GM was always the person telling me what the NPCs were like, what they wanted, where things were in the world, in general they were the ones who determined How Things Were™. At that point, I had very little experience with improvisation and wasn't really sure what was expected of me. My GM explained what exactly was going on and what kind of different expectations there were for that style of game.

Obviously I didn't immediately become a master of improv, so even though I knew what was expected of me, I still had trouble coming up with ideas off the cuff like that, so I tried, and of course most of my initial responses tended to be short responses. If I was asked "Why is Tlexkirash after you?", I might have responded with "I don't know" more often than I would like to admit, but occasionally there would be responses of "Uuhhhh, I owe them money" or "The target from our last heist found out it was me". "Fortunately", whenever I couldn't think of something, my GM would "help" by just taking the next thing to come out of my mouth and running with it.

Now, all of this is a rather long foreword as to why you should use both. If the player obviously doesn't know what's expected of them, then just going off of what they say might confuse them even more, so a base expectation should be laid out:

Hey Tik-tik, this system is a little different from what you're probably used to with D&D. Rather than making up every little detail of the world myself, I'll be having you and the other players help here and there. I'll put you in a situation and ask you to describe some portion of that situation to me.

Then, once you present them with a situation (such as the bounty hunter scenario you presented), they'll be able to understand what's expected of them and hopefully they'll be able to come up with something. If they do come up with something, then great, your work is done! Tik-tik now has an understanding of what can be expected of them and is providing you resources to work with to enrich both your playing experiences.

Obviously, we can't expect that everyone just picks up the ability to improv changes to a situation immediately. If they can't come up with something in whatever you might feel is a reasonable amount of time, then you fall back on option 2. Use something from the next thing they say as inspiration. This will both keep the game moving, and sort of show the player how it's done. As a bonus, if the other players are already experienced with this style of game, having them around will help accelerate the "learning how it's done" process.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Ideally, the conversation about the expected roles and responsibilities of the GM and players would happen earlier, when the game is being floated as a proposal. There are players who get their fun out of discovering external truths about the fictional world of the game, and being required to answer questions like this will lessen their enjoyment. \$\endgroup\$
    – sptrashcan
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 2:08
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    \$\begingroup\$ @sptrashcan I pointed out in my question that I don't think this really actually helps very much. There is a lot to take in when starting a pbta game, and in my experience players just don't retain all of it, or have an idea of how things will fit together. It is not until actual practical experience playing the game comes in, that players can start to build their skills and understanding. I can say "You are going to be expected to participate in the world building process when it comes to your character and their backstory", but it's just one of many new things mentioned only in the abstract. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 9:11
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    \$\begingroup\$ @WheatWizard As you've discovered, people forget things that they aren't actively involved with. Have you tried, as part of Session 0, asking players how they feel about this particular playstyle, and if they've ever played with it before? If they haven't, or they don't feel confident, you could run them through a quick 5 minute example of how it works to get them used to it, solidify it in their memory, and let them practice a bit before the game. Right now it sounds like maybe they aren't understanding, or forgetting, and in that case it could seem like a surprise in-game, which isn't ideal. \$\endgroup\$
    – Onyz
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 10:28
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    \$\begingroup\$ @Onyz In my experience it is just impractical to run through examples of everything before play. There are much more important concepts to grasp than this which we do cover before playing. Would it help? Probably yes it would. But it takes up time, and these questions tend to happen a lot at the beginning of the game since that's when we are creating characters, so it is natural to ask about their backstory. This is more of a minor hangup that I don't know how to deal with well than it is a game stopping issue. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 10:49
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    \$\begingroup\$ I'm writing this with the assumption that if a player hasn't played with a certain system before, the core mechanics would be discussed prior to actual play, aka what you need to do to actually play in the game, perhaps in a "session 0", or when the player is first invited to the game. Failing that, discussing it when it becomes relevant is certainly acceptable. Imagine trying to go over every D&D 5e mechanic before starting actual play, it would be a nightmare. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 20:21

You ask far too much.

(Offer up another suggestion which is lesser in scope.)

Before I get into the meat of this, an acknowledgement: yes, it can be hard to transition from a game where when the GM asks you questions they mostly just have "right" and "wrong" answers. Part of my standard spiel when I'm teaching PbtA games goes something like:

As part of this game I'll be asking you questions about your character's past experiences. This isn't to set things up to your advantage or disadvantage, just let you talk more about your character and add color to the world. You can always say that you legitimately don't know or don't remember, or bat it back at me: "I'll let you answer that."

We all have to be okay with all the answers everyone gives to those kinds of questions.

That's usually worked out okay, but people who show up for demos of a PbtA game are maybe a little more willing to engage with that sort of thing, just on principle.

However, there are good questions and bad questions to ask. What makes for a bad question has to do with

Crossing the Line

John Harper (designer of Blades in the Dark) has some relevant commentary on this from the earlier days of Apocalypse World. Sorry for the long quoteblock but I think it's pretty well set up. (emphasis and censoring mine)

In Apocalypse World, the players are in charge of their characters. What they say, what they do; what they feel, think, and believe; what they did in their past. The MC is in charge of the world: the environment, the NPCs, the weather, the psychic maelstrom.

Sometimes, the players say things that get very close to the line. Usually this happens when the MC asks a leading question.

MC: "Nero, what do the slave traders use for barter?"

Player: "Oh man, those [guys]? They use human ears."

That's a case of the player authoring part of the world outside their character, however -- and this is critical -- they do it from within their character's experience and frame of reference. When Nero answers that question, he's telling something he knows about the world.

Compare that exchange with this one, which is crossing the line:

MC: "Okay, Nero, so you get the box of barter away from the slave traders and haul into the back of the truck."

Player: "Cool. I open it up."

MC: "Okay. What do you see when you open it?"

Player: "Um... uh, a bunch of severed fingers?"

See the difference? In the first case, the MC is addressing the character and asking about some knowledge he has. In the second case, the MC is fully turning over authorship of the world in-the-moment to the player, which is not part of the player role in AW.

When you ask a player "Why is Tlex after you?", it probably just seems to you like you're asking them to describe some past pecadillo, which is well on their side of the line. The problem is that in order to answer that question, they need to know why Tlex would go after anyone, which is firmly on your side of the line. Intentionally or not, you've left them to define that, too.

How Not to Cross

"Who is Tlex?" is a legitimate question, and not something you're supposed to leave up to a player to define. It's on your side of the line. You can see how the past events leading up to things might be different depending on your answer to the question, like:

Tlex is a bounty hunter. A really high-end one, only works contracts from the back room, 500 coin and up. So, Tik-Tik, any clue who from your past is 500-coin interested in you?

Tlex was a bounty hunter, working high-end contracts, but she made enough to retire on. Or at least, she would have enough to retire on, if she wasn't constantly bribing local officials to look the other way while she "tested herself" on strong targets. So, Tik-Tik, where and when was your last big boast?

Tlex was a bounty hunter, but then she found religion, and by "religion", I mean "the cult of Sussurax, Bleak King of Sorrow". So, Tik-Tik, any idea how you got on the cult's bad books, or did your name just happen to cohere out of some incoherent sobbing?

Tlex is a bounty hunter, and you've worked with her in the past, but the last job you were on went disastrously, grudge-holdingly wrong. What happened out there?

Asking provocative questions is a good skill to develop, as a GM of PbtA games, but you always need to think about what's in the answer you're expecting your players to give you. If you're asking them to cross the line, fill out things more from your end so you can meet them halfway.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Thank you. That clarifies a lot of the problems I've been having as a player in a PbtA game: trying to handle my character trying to ponder mysteries without me providing the answers to the mysteries... \$\endgroup\$
    – Dragon
    Commented Jun 18, 2021 at 17:38
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    \$\begingroup\$ This is a great answer. The headline threw me though: I parsed “You ask too much” as You ask too often, and only understood it should be parsed as You ask for too much after scrolling back from the end of the answer. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 4:44
  • \$\begingroup\$ @SevenSidedDie It's actually a reference, but I forgot a word in it that probably helps with clarity. Corrected, and linked. \$\endgroup\$
    – Glazius
    Commented Jun 22, 2021 at 16:51
  • \$\begingroup\$ @Glazius I thought it rang that bell after I re-parsed it. Nice reference. It's just harder to read as "you overreach" than as "you're asking too often" out of its original context, and in a context that inherently involves multiple questions. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Jun 25, 2021 at 18:21

You need to be more open with information and improv.

Often the confusion comes because a player doesn't really have enough information to make a decision. It's hard to quickly off the cuff come up with a load of information that fits the scene. Some people can, but it's a lot easier if you add in a bit of spicy information that helps them make a decision.

So, if you say:

As you browse the wares, you notice the imposing form of Tlexkirash the hunter only a few stalls away. Tik-tik the elf, why does she want your head?

They can see the weird name, but don't know what race you imagine they are, or what they want in general. You're asking them to do a whole load of world building without much information. So, if they ask you:

Who is Tlexkirash?

That's a fair question. They have to improvise her race, her nature as a hunter, and a whole bunch of world building stuff to answer, which is a large mental load.

Present it like this instead:

As you browse the wares, you notice the imposing form of Tlexkirash the hunter only a few stalls away. Her massive trollish form looms over you, and you can see the pile of shrunken heads on her shoulder twisting to stare at you with fear, the heavy rune covered spear in her hand. Tik-tik the elf, what have you done to piss her off enough that she's decided to add your head to her pile?

Note that there's a few seeds of information—her size, her race, her collection of shrunken heads, a spear, and the fact that she is pissed off for some reason. That gives a lot more room to improvise something. It's a large mental load if they need to improvise everything, giving them a bit of extra info helps a lot.

This fits the normal sort of agendas PBTA games have. For example, with Dungeon World, your agenda is:

  • Make the world fantastic
  • Fill the characters' lives with adventure
  • Play to find out what happens

You should make sure there's enough fantastical stuff in their descriptions that they can respond.

If they reply that they don't know, clarify further without going into system philosophy.

They might just not understand the question. Say. "I don't know your character as well as you do. Hypothetically, what would they have done that would annoy a troll?"

You don't need to go in depth into system philosophy. Most people know how they could annoy someone.

Teach them with praise. If they do it right, or improvise some good details, compliment them: "I loved how you improvised that detail, makes my job a lot easier."


From what I learned from Urban Shadows, you should really be explicit about how the game is supposed to work. Everyone is supposed to understand how to play, not to get it from subtle hints. That is, you should really show them the ropes, preferably before starting to play. I suggest telling them a couple of examples.

Because there are players that can get really quickly what you intend, but there are others that will probably be confused, specially if they're expecting a more traditional way of playing.

Once you have explained everything, and you have started the game, try to hide the ropes, and make it look like a natural dialog, like in question 2, but maybe something less aggressive. Like "So, you, , don't really know why Tlexkirash is after you, but you must have some ideas. Tlexkirash usually don't make enemies lightly. You must have something he wants, or you pissed him off somehow, any ideas?"

Addressing him by the character name you are emphasizing that you are talking about character knowledge, no player knowledge. You are not asking for something the player is supposed to know, but you are stating that the character should (and he can make up). You are also giving more details to help him focus more.

If after some questions they are still not flowing, you can stop and explain again how the dynamic is supposed to work. That is no different to any game. With beginners, you stop sometimes to explain the basic rules. It's not easy to get everything at the first time, even if they explained it to you, and provided examples.

My last advice is that if you see a player is still confused about how to answer, you just answer yourself the question, and change focus to another character. That way the player can see how the system works with others' example.

  • \$\begingroup\$ An explanation of the downvotes would really help me understand what is wrong with my answer and learn and even improve it. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 11:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Is that an oficial rule? If you have actually read the game, you are able to answer many questions about it, it's not as you are moving just by your suppositions. I understand that unless the person who asks the question is asking for experience, what you learn from books can be relevant. It may be possible that my lack of experience can make me mistaken, but in that case is the content of the answer what should be voted, or that's what I think. \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 11:52
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    \$\begingroup\$ It's not a rule, but it is baked into the principle that answers should come from a place of expertise. Opening an answer with “I have never played this game” is a fast way to show your answer likely lacks it. Your answer is somewhat lacking in specifics given PBTA has actual principles to apply here. Compare Glazius's answer which talks about the specific expectations PBTA has for GMs and for players, how to handle this situation consistent with those, etc. Book reading is fine, but expertise from actually playing a game gives an answer grit that can't be offered otherwise. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 13:59
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    \$\begingroup\$ I downvoted the answer for the lack of very relevant game-specific details. It's a fine answer for, say, freeform, but not a suitable or complete answer for PBTA. Your statement you'd never played the game tipped us off to expect it, but the answer would've still been missing either way. In other words, I believe this gives an erroneous solution to the problem, and downvoted for that. The benefit of having played a game is that we get to learn what works and what doesn't in a way book reading simply won't show us. \$\endgroup\$ Commented Aug 24, 2021 at 14:23
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    \$\begingroup\$ @doppelgreener Well, there is something erroneous on my answer. That's what I'm interested to hear. What is that? \$\endgroup\$
    – Flamma
    Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 7:33

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