Origins of "ask questions, use the answers"

edited April 2013 in Story Games
Just wondering if the wonderful, endlessly applicable (even beyond gaming) advice "ask questions, use the answers" has any definitive point of origin? Obviously it's implied in many games, but I'm interested in where that approximate phrasing comes from.

- Apocalypse World has "Ask provocative questions and build on the answers."
- Lady Blackbird has "ask questions—lots and lots and make them pointed toward the things you’re interested in ... listen and reincorporate"


Comments

  • "Ask questions, build on the answers" is the core of improv theater.
  • I'm not exactly familiar with the advice or the games you mentioned. What does it mean and how does it apply to role-playing?

    /newb
  • edited April 2013
    I'm not exactly familiar with the advice or the games you mentioned. What does it mean and how does it apply to role-playing?

    /newb
    Well, you just asked a question and we provide information by answering it. Now, imagine doing that to the players during a session. :) Ask about anything, preferably about how the characters perceive the world, and build on the information the players give. Leading questions - "How does the captain feel about you?" - are usually more effective than general questions: "Is anyone there?".
  • Ah, ok, I think I got it. Sounds like a simple trick that could be really useful. :D
  • edited April 2013
    "Ask questions, build on the answers" is the core of improv theater.
    RIGHT. Duh. Should have thought of that right away. To rephrase my question, is there a particular actor/teacher/school/writer from which that "core" emerges? Is it from Brecht or Boal? It's taken for granted now, but I assume it has a history.

    Edit: not trying to oversimplify history, obviously these things have a complex genealogy. Just trying to get a general sense of it.
  • Improv in theater goes waaaaaay back, but if you're looking for sources, you could do worse than this guy, who wrote the book on improv theater and invented theater sports.
  • I'm not exactly familiar with the advice or the games you mentioned. What does it mean and how does it apply to role-playing?
    In role-playing, I'm most familiar with it being used as advice to the GM, as a reminder to take an interest in how the players are engaging with the fiction, rather than making assumptions or just getting caught up in playing your NPCs or whatever.

    Less frequently, I've heard it used as a technique for collaborative authoring, like when we're taking turns inventing bits of the world, and I'm trying to make up a bit that fits with the bit you made up.

    I don't think the phrase "ask questions, use the answers" comes up much as advice to players who are just playing their characters, but personally, I think "ask questions that you can build off" is a related technique for getting bang for your buck -- "Do I see any ways through and out of the room?" rather than "What's in the room?"
  • The improv connection is a good one. As far as RPGs go, the first place I ever saw that advice explicitly was in The Mountain Witch, and I remember referring to doing it as "the Mountain Witch trick" for a few years.
  • Cool, The Mountain Witch seems to be a pretty key influence on a lot of subsequent games.
    Improv in theater goes waaaaaay back, but if you're looking for sources, you could do worse than this guy, who wrote the book on improv theater and invented theater sports.
    Thanks - certainly improvisation in drama is as old as the form itself. But does anyone know when the specific practice of asking questions from the audience and using them as the basis for improv originates? Is it from Johnstone, or another source?

  • My guess is it goes further back. It could be Viola Spolin or the Compass Players.

    It's interesting, because in US style improv it's common to train you to not ask questions, but assume knowledge. It's a phenomena that my (British) teachers used to talk about a lot, because it wasn't such a rule in that case.
  • As for the use in tabletop RPGs - would this advice fit?
    Remember, your story focuses on the players and their characters. If they come up with an idea which is as good as (or better than) what you had planned or thought they would do, and you can adapt the story to conform to their ideas without ruining other parts of it or making major changes to the campaign world, do it. The players will gain a great sense of accomplishment and heap praise upon you for your excellent GMing -- and you didn't have to do a thing but listen to them and react accordingly.

    Similarly, when a player asks, "Is there a so-and-so nearby?", he usually has some neat idea in mind for using it, something you'll likely enjoy. Unless it's impossible for that object to be in that area, tell him yes. He'll feel like he's contributing to the story and the world, and you get to have fun seeing just what he has in mind.
    It is specifically about listening to the players and using the answers, but it isn't quite the phrasing in the OP.
  • "What do you do next?"
  • As for the use in tabletop RPGs - would this advice fit?
    Remember, your story focuses on the players and their characters. If they come up with an idea which is as good as (or better than) what you had planned or thought they would do, and you can adapt the story to conform to their ideas without ruining other parts of it or making major changes to the campaign world, do it. The players will gain a great sense of accomplishment and heap praise upon you for your excellent GMing -- and you didn't have to do a thing but listen to them and react accordingly.

    Similarly, when a player asks, "Is there a so-and-so nearby?", he usually has some neat idea in mind for using it, something you'll likely enjoy. Unless it's impossible for that object to be in that area, tell him yes. He'll feel like he's contributing to the story and the world, and you get to have fun seeing just what he has in mind.
    It is specifically about listening to the players and using the answers, but it isn't quite the phrasing in the OP.
    Definitely - what's it from?
    "What do you do next?"
    Yup. It's pretty much central to all RPGs. As i mentioned in the OP, though I think a lot of/most games leave it implicit, and I think a lot of people (myself included) have gotten a lot out of games that state it directly.

  • AFAIK it first enters our particular world in The Mountain Witch.
  • edited April 2013
    That's my recollection too: "The Mountain Witch Trick".

    But I also seem to recall being surprised that the text of the game doesn't actually explicitly advise you to do this. I might be remembering wrongly, and I can't presently find my copy. Does anyone else have one to hand?

    I think it might have been one of those pieces of play advice that sprang up around the game, becoming canon without being part of the rules.

    EDIT: Also, it's different to "what do you do next" because the questions are about things which are usually outside the usual authority of players - "you see a head on a spike, whose head is it?" for example. It gives players the ability to create things which are usually the GM's remit. In The Mountain Witch this is explicitly provided for in the rules in the sense that you have authority to invent details so far as they pertain to your Dark Fate. In other games this is less explicit, and in my experience, often less functional.
  • Sure, in different games different players can say different things. But the origin of the technique surely is just regular ole RPGs.

    Think about this one: "My guy opens the door. What do I see?"
  • Think about this one: "My guy opens the door. What do I see?"
    "It's warm in there. What do you see?"
  • Sure, in different games different players can say different things. But the origin of the technique surely is just regular ole RPGs.

    Think about this one: "My guy opens the door. What do I see?"
    Two can play at that game! The origin of the technique is surely just regular old conversations.

  • Excellent point, I fully agree.
  • Don't ever change, Jason.
  • Haha, well played, Simon :)

    But yeah, as an explicit technique in RPGs I, too, trace it back to The Mountain Witch.
  • Versions of this show up in Vampire Dark Ages (don't read, causes brain damage ;) ) and Over the Edge (read, causes different kind of damage). I am sure there are others. These two games focus on the ask questions, use answers before the main type of play begins.
  • edited April 2013
    Yeah...actually all the White Wolf games had "ask this list of questions, write down answers, use to mess with characters" in their character background creation section.
  • I think the issue here is not character creation, where players often have more input, but the GM crossing the traditional boundaries of narrative authority during play. There's no way that, when I ran The Dark Eye in high school for many years, I would have asked these kinds of questions of the players during play. It was clearly my job, according to the game (as well as in the others I ran: Werewolf, KULT, MechWarrior etc.), to decide everything outside of the PC's character agency after character creation was done. So the innovative thing wasn't just asking questions, it was specifically crossing this line during play.
  • edited April 2013
    Prince Valiant contains a lot of the proto-Mountain Witch and AW stuff as well. Specifically the game was setup up to cross those GM/player lines during play.

    EDIT: PV is explicit about these things, not some weird implied thing you do. Mountain Witch and AW do it better though ;)
  • I love the strange history we're tracing here. Keep 'em coming!
  • So the innovative thing wasn't just asking questions, it was specifically crossing this line during play.
    Well, I'd say it was innovative to do this during character creation, and further innovation to cross this line during play.

    I don't have a copy of Mountain Witch handy, so I'm curious what the actual text says about this. My text example said:
    Remember, your story focuses on the players and their characters. If they come up with an idea which is as good as (or better than) what you had planned or thought they would do, and you can adapt the story to conform to their ideas without ruining other parts of it or making major changes to the campaign world, do it. The players will gain a great sense of accomplishment and heap praise upon you for your excellent GMing -- and you didn't have to do a thing but listen to them and react accordingly.

    Similarly, when a player asks, "Is there a so-and-so nearby?", he usually has some neat idea in mind for using it, something you'll likely enjoy. Unless it's impossible for that object to be in that area, tell him yes. He'll feel like he's contributing to the story and the world, and you get to have fun seeing just what he has in mind.
    So the first part is about following what the PCs do (i.e. "What do you do?") - but the second part is about creating external objects based on player input, which is definitely crossing that line, in my opinion.
  • I would say that "Is there a so-and-so nearby" is more like what you do in Feng Shui and Adventure! and plenty of other cinematic/action games before that.
  • Yes, that's a good example of "ask provocative questions", as used by the players, not the GM.

    From my own gaming history, I'd say this is a very very common technique!
  • So the innovative thing wasn't just asking questions, it was specifically crossing this line during play.
    Well, I'd say it was innovative to do this during character creation, and further innovation to cross this line during play.

    I don't have a copy of Mountain Witch handy, so I'm curious what the actual text says about this. My text example said:
    Remember, your story focuses on the players and their characters. If they come up with an idea which is as good as (or better than) what you had planned or thought they would do, and you can adapt the story to conform to their ideas without ruining other parts of it or making major changes to the campaign world, do it. The players will gain a great sense of accomplishment and heap praise upon you for your excellent GMing -- and you didn't have to do a thing but listen to them and react accordingly.

    Similarly, when a player asks, "Is there a so-and-so nearby?", he usually has some neat idea in mind for using it, something you'll likely enjoy. Unless it's impossible for that object to be in that area, tell him yes. He'll feel like he's contributing to the story and the world, and you get to have fun seeing just what he has in mind.
    So the first part is about following what the PCs do (i.e. "What do you do?") - but the second part is about creating external objects based on player input, which is definitely crossing that line, in my opinion.
    I still don't know what game that excerpt is from!

  • I would say that "Is there a so-and-so nearby" is more like what you do in Feng Shui and Adventure! and plenty of other cinematic/action games before that.
    Yes, I'd agree with that. I think those are definitely a part of the origin of "ask questions, use the answers" - it's part of the tradition of saying "yes" to the players in cinematic games. I'd agree that Feng Shui and Adventure! are part of that tradition, going back to Champions / Hero System and James Bond 007.
    I still don't know what game that excerpt is from!
    Oops! Sorry. That's from the Hero System, 5th edition. (I suspect the text is from an earlier edition product, but I can't find it.)
  • In The Mountain Witch I advised a technique labelled "let the players define game elements" (p.123), where the GM asks the player to answer a question about a (potentially) story-significant object.

    It's not a huge deal in the text, there's only one paragraph and an example. But after the book got published people recognized it as a very significant technique, both for tMW and for games in general. As Clinton mentioned, it became known as "The Mountain Witch Trick" for awhile, and then later as "Fishing". I believe it was then Vincent that distilled and re-articulated the principle---as he's great at doing---as "ask questions and use the answers".

    Though I'm sure other people did it before me, for my part I can say that the asking questions thing was something I started doing spontaneously during playtests for tMW.
  • Thanks, Tim. Will this be highlighted more in the new edition of TMW (which I'm looking forward to)?
Sign In or Register to comment.