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Thrust Player Agency Upon TTRPG Players with Questions to Engage

Whether I’m acting as Game Master or not the thing I dislike the most about any tabletop roleplaying game experience is a group who interacts in isolation from each other. As a player I want to interact with the other players through our characters and as a GM I hope to see this behavior from the people in the group. There’s several reasons for this and a technique I began using a few years ago helps tremendously. So let’s get into it.

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Take your TTRPG agency and like it!

I’ve played a lot of TTRPGs with lots of different groups over the decades. Ever since exploring the hobby more deeply as a writer and designer and especially since segueing into this job as content director for Nerdarchy I’ve grown fascinated by the way people interact and play these games both as an observer and participant. One of the things I’ve noticed turns me off in both situations is groups where the players primarily interact with the GM individually but rarely with each other.

Advice and tips for GMs related to this often approach from the perspective of getting players to engage with the people, places and things in the game setting, which is certainly worthwhile. But to me the greater issue when it comes to engagement is encouraging players to engage with each other. Characters in a TTRPG presumably band together for common cause. Often these causes bring them into mortal danger together in some fashion. A large number of TTRPGs incorporate combat and other inherently hazardous circumstances as obvious examples but even games without these conventions include some form of danger or tension. It only makes sense the characters involved in such scenarios together would develop feelings about these events and their companions.

To this end whenever I run a game one of the first things I do is throw the ball to the other players. They hear the premise for the session, the scene is set and before I utter the words indicating game play begins the players — and their characters — need to answer a few questions. To me it’s more important to start building connections among the group before I collectively ask, “What do you do?”

Every month Nerdarchy runs a fan one shot. We pull names from subscribers to Nerdarchy the Newsletter and play a short fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons adventure together usually as a way to preview and playtest our monthly Patreon rewards. Since my month to run the game just passed I’ve got a fresh example to share. Incidentally if you’d like to sign up to receive our weekly newsletter with new ideas, tips and concepts to drop right in your games along with ways to save you money on RPG stuff, special offers, news and more right to your inbox you can also snag yourself a free gift and $9.99 in credit for Nerdarchy the Store right here.

When we started playing Winter Lord’s Throne the other day the first thing I did was ask a question of each player about their character once everyone was on the call ready to go. Here’s what I asked:

  • DRACE. What is a rumor you heard about Ipator through the NAG?
  • IPATOR. What is an impressive deed you heard about Sam through the NAG?
  • SAM. What is something you did during travel to keep Swampy’s spirits up?
  • SWAMPY. What is a secret you know about Xan Ax?
  • XAN AX. What is a secret Drace knows about you?

The reason I begin one shots and new campaigns with questions like these is twofold. Based on the topic of this post it’s not hard to guess the first part is to get the players to establish some connections. This is particularly helpful for groups of players who don’t know each other. Everyone rolls in with a character they created on their own and before the players can get too comfortable they’re on the spot. The second part involves me. Like so many other GMs I’ve got anxieties and feel socially awkward so once I get through my GM spiel I pass the ball and put everyone else in the spotlight. Take that, anxiety!

The conceit included with pretty much every new campaign I run is the party has already mustered and the game begins en route to some destination. This part is tailored to each group and the premise of the campaign or adventure. My go to scenario for new 5E D&D campaigns is traveling by ship across the ocean to a small coastal village on a continent none of the characters have been to before. For this setup I ask characters to describe something amazing they saw during the trip and which of the other characters they shared the experience with, how they saved another character from a dangerous situation at sea and similar sorts of questions.

The goal with this technique is letting the players flex their imaginations and create some connections between each other. As an added benefit their responses tell me something about their characters and themselves as players. I might glean seeds for future adventures or get a clearer understanding of their perspectives. Most importantly it establishes player agency right away. I want the players to know they are welcome and encouraged to contribute more than their characters’ mechanical prowess. Exploring and sharing who their characters are and how they relate to each other is so much more important to me and the style of games I run.

Player engagement in TTRPGs is intrinsically tied into their immersion and agency and I’ll take any opportunity to thrust these things upon them. In my experience this is more than welcome from all sorts of players, who often appear taken aback but only briefly. By asking direct questions about their characters’ interactions with the others in the group I find their camaraderie develops very quickly and their answers to these early questions tend to become important elements to their stories. In a roundabout way establishing some connection between the characters draws the players closer together and usually results in a lot more interpersonal communication from the group in both the real and imaginary worlds.

And also there’s the deflecting my own anxieties thing, which if you ever feel this way as a GM I very highly encourage you to give this technique a try. It’s terrific!

How do you feel about player interactions in your games? Do you use this technique of asking direct questions and thrusting agency onto players in your games? When you’re a player in a group is it important for you to interact with the other players and their characters? Let me know in the comments below and as always — stay nerdy!

*Featured image — After accidentally ingesting a Truth Serum Poison characters are embroiled in a long night of deception and revelation in Dinner Party, one of 55 dynamic encounters ready to drop right into your Fifth Edition games inside Out of the Box. [Illustration by Kim Van Deun]

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Doug Vehovec

Nerditor-in-Chief Doug Vehovec is a proud native of Cleveland, Ohio, with D&D in his blood since the early 80s. Fast forward to today and he’s still rolling those polyhedral dice. When he’s not DMing, worldbuilding or working on endeavors for Nerdarchy he enjoys cryptozoology trips and eating awesome food.

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