Zen and the Art of Dungeon Mastering #7: Asking Loaded Questions

This is part of a series I started way back in 2011.

As I was getting ready for last week’s Hoard of the Dragon Queen D&D adventure, I noticed one encounters featured an adult blue dragon. As written, the encounter assumed level 1 characters would attack it. It then made quite a point about how lethal that could be.

I totally forgot about it until Dave poked me last Friday asking how I was planning to hack the adventure.  That got me to crack open the Monster Manual to look the Dragon’s stats up…

I hit me, hard.

  • Size: Huge
  • AC: 19.
  • HP: over 200.
  • Breath Weapon: deals on average 33 damage after successful save.

What.The.Hell? That’s a level one adventure?

Old schoolers may just shrug their shoulders and say “That’ll serve as a lesson about D&D returning to its roots!”

That’s no longer my style. I had to do something… I just didn’t feel like spending time doing actual hacking.

Later that evening, as everyone was settling down, I got an inspiration. I decided to have a discussion, not with the players… but directly with the characters.

(That’s one of the GMing Principles of both Apocalypse and Dungeon World: Address the characters, not the players.)

Me: Hey Thinel (Drow Paladin), how do you feel about this raid on Greenest?

Chantal/Thinel (caught off guard): Huh…  I think we need to help the city as much as we can.

Me: Knowing you wouldn’t survive a direct confrontation with the Dragon, how do you think the party should go about it?

See what I did there?

I went around the rest of the party asking a mix of open-ended and leading questions,  everyone got smoothly into character.

They never faced the dragon, in fact, the more the town’s governor screamed for someone to take care of it, the more interested in doing other missions the heroes became. And a great game it was and I didn’t need to spend time hacking the adventure’s actual content.

As I mused on the session during the ensuing weekend, I realized that I might have rediscovered some of the best dirty GMing tricks I’d read in small-press RPGs like Dread. Asking loaded question can indeed steer a player’s action.

Having to limit choices available to players is a very common occurrence, it’s not a deadly sin to do it. There’s only so much you’ve prepared or are comfortable doing on the spot. The issue at stake here is not so much imposing limits to choices, but how you do it. Many players hate feeling railroaded or worse, being told they can’t do things their characters should be able to do “just because”.

So I suggest the following: Don’t railroad characters, ask them leading questions based on their backgrounds, beliefs and perks instead.

GM: Now that you screwed up and got surrounded by Carnage Orcs, how do you expect to keep the chancellor’s son unharmed?

GM: Okay, so you won your bet and snuck up to the Eternal Warden, you know he can’t be killed right? What’s your genius plan now?

GM: Congrats, you stole the duke’s daughter’s jewels, you’re now the most infamous thief in Camoor. No fence will touch it. How do you plan to get rid of it in less than 24 hours, smartass?

In that, your role becomes much closer to that of a movie director. You ask loaded questions that clearly state your high level intent for the adventure, yet you still grant your players sufficient agency to let them act to impact the story within their character’s beliefs and motivations.This is where you can tap into D&D’s new background, perks and flaws.

(Or 13th Age’s One Unique Things, or Fate’s compels, or Burning Wheel’s and derivatives Beliefs, all RPGs have those now it seems…)

In fact, if you tap into those, you’re holding a hand out to the players to participate in the fiction you want to create. You acknowledge the choices they made at character creation by using it as leverage to get the action go in a direction you’re comfortable going.

This can also help with some of the more stereotypical problematic characters. For instance, a paladin becomes much less of a pain when you work with its player, by asking loaded questions.

GM: Are you willing to sacrifice your life and that of your friends to try to save this village rather than investigate the source of this evil so you can cut it at its head?

Lawful Stubborn Paladin: When you say it like that, I think I’d rather go for the big bad.

GM: Good talk.

Giving players significant choices within the confines of the world you manage, is where lies one of the most fundamental GMing lessons.

The approach I discussed today is but one way of doing it.

What’s your approach to deal with limiting player choices?


  1. I actually really love this advice. You sort of give them a moral dilemma (or similar) and have them figure out what their Character would do.

    just brilliant.

    • That’s mighty nice of you. And trust me, the closer you hit to the PC’s belief, the easier the players will be willing to follow your lead.

      Good luck!

  2. I’ve never thought of it as asking leading questions. That is actually really great advice. Thanks, Phill!

  3. Love it. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Rather than say it as the GM, I prefer to have a friendly NPC bring up these kinds of things. The NPC can highlight things that would be obvious to a resident of the game world but might not be known to the players. It’s nearly impossible to impart to a player everything that would be common knowledge in a game world so it’s not all their fault and sometimes we have to give the players a break.

  5. Why would you ask a leading question instead of directly talking to your players about the situation?

  6. I’v found that developing an in-character dialogue with the players, by asking them a mix of questions, some leading, some open, facilitates what many DMs seek out as “roleplaying”.

    Yes, I could go through NPCs or just flat out tell my players, but in this particular case, I listened to my instinct and it paid off.