My background is in theatre. I was a theatre kid as far back as middle school – and where I went to school, that meant you were probably also a gamer. It’s a trend that I don’t think is overwhelmingly common but it follows logically. Roleplaying games, at their core, hinge on the notion of portraying a character – their attitudes, gestures, voice, objectives, etc – just like in theatre. Specifically, the freeform nature of the tabletop RPG makes it much akin to improvised theatre; which was, coincidentally, my theatrical High School/College sweetheart (and if you were wondering, we’re still together). There’s such a strong link between the two that the 4th Edition Dungeon Master’s Guide even explains the most fundamental rules of improvised theatre as a guide post for how to run your characters well at the table (‘Yes, and…’ Always ‘yes and…’!).
So…what does this have to do with a story encounter, exactly? While working on a really marvelous show during my college days, we implemented an acting exercise that really hit the mark and helped the whole cast hone their characters. That exercise stuck with me as one of my favorites, and recently it dawned on me just how well it could be translated to the tabletop – not just as an exercise to play eith before the dice get rolling, but as a dramatic scene within the actual gameplay.
The point of the exercise is not dissimilar to those “100 Questions About Your Character” questionnaires that you see floating around. your character is more than just a paragraph of biographical narrative or history text-book backstory page. A lot of tiny details can really flesh your character out, inspire illustrative quirks, or add layers of complication in his or her relationships. A question as simple as “what do you have in your pockets” can force you to ask big questions about who your character is…the ones you never really thought about answering until now. That’s the crux of this exercise – to get at the details of your character and ultimately to brighten the broad strokes with the short ones.
This exercise/encounter also plays a bit with meta-game and in-character knowledge. In general I think meta-game knowledge is an unfortunate evil, but in this circumstance I feel it can do us some good in helping the PLAYERS to be active participants in crafting an engaging story, without violating the conceits of the world too much. That sounds vague right now, but it will become apparent as you read through the steps of the encounter.
But anyway, on to the action! (I’m certainly not done talking about the value that theatre has to the tabletop gaming world. And incidentally, video games are also benefiting from the influence of stagecraft).
For the best execution, this encounter involves some particular circumstances. The PCs have been taken in for questioning by a legitimate authority; an organization. This group shouldn’t be an enemy, at least not in any direct way – a suspicious militia, proactive counter-espionage agents, cautious courtiers interviewing those who wish an audience with the duke, stern-faced elven march wardens who are wary of those crossing their borders – any of these agencies would be perfect for this encounter. Do your best to emphasize that lying to these individuals is neither necessary or a good idea. It’s a cheap but effective tactic to explain that the PCs are in the presence of a zone of truth or similar spell, but sometimes preserving the spirit of the exercise is worth the strong-arming.
Whoever the group is, they separate the adventuring party, questioning them in isolation and one at a time.This is not a brutal interrogation, and the investigating group is only trying to determine what side, if any, the PCs are on, so do your best to prevent things from getting ugly. The interrogators are cool and calm, even toward belligerent PCs.
At this point, have all but one of the players leave the room. Tell the player that when you re-enter the room, you will be portraying the interrogator, and this next scene is entirely in character (as best as can be done). That player should take a moment to think about their character – their attitudes, the circumstances, their past, and respond accordingly. You will then leave the room, and join the rest of the party to explain to them the terms of this exercise.
The remaining players will join you in portraying the NPC interrogators – questioning this busy-body adventurer and finding out if he or she means harm for the citizens they are protecting. But they have a meta-game goal as well: to find out things they did not know about the waiting PC. It’s reasonable that characters might keep certain secrets from their close companions that they might not mind giving to a disposable stranger. Or perhaps the group dynamic prevents a lot of questioning and prying into one another backstories in a logical way. By giving the players a third-party persona, they can ask hard hitting questions, or ask about details their own characters might be unwilling to inquire after.
Regardless, they must do their best to stay in character the entire time as well (an easier goal, as the interrogators are likely to be stoney and aloof).
Once the players (and now fellow interrogators) are prepared, go into the room and begin the questioning. As DM, you are playing the leader of this group, and you will decide when the “interview” is over. Have a few good, hard-hitting questions of your own ready to steer things in the right direction if this prompt doesn’t give your players any immediate inspiration.
Once you are done pick a new player to sit, and repeat the process.
By the end of the exercise, you will have accomplished a handful of goals:
- The players understand their characters better, and have developed their personalities further
- You have dredged up some good personal plot hooks
- Meta details will help steer the group towards interesting conflicts without requiring further meta-gaming. For example: let’s say in our exercise; we learned that one of your players has had trouble in the past with agents of the Raven Queen. Later in the game, the players have a chance to pick between a series of side quests to go on – and one involves exploring a haunted shrine dedicated to the Raven Queen – The players are more likely to pick that quest as it pertains to one of their backstories and will be grounded in personal motivation. It’s a way that a little meta can go a long way in making the game better without getting intrusive
Too Much Meta, and a +17 to Bluff
That all said, it’s not a fool-proof plan. If you think your players will need the extra nudge, remind them that the knowledge they gleaned by playing the interrogators is available to them as players but not at all available to their characters. It’s better this way, as it adds an element of paranoia to the whole situation (did somebody snitch…is there anything they could even snitch about?) Encourage them to have some care when using meta knowledge to steer the game in a direction inspired by this encounter – this information is meant to inform otherwise arbitrary choices, not to allow the players to harass one another about their backstories.
The other potential problem is a likely one – characters not wanting to give up their secrets or much information at all to the interrogators. This makes sense; PCs tend to have shady pasts, criminal backgrounds, or monetarily motivated intentions, and nobody wants to share that information. However this exercise is about sharing information and thinking about characters, and that requires a little honesty.
Split the difference – tell the player that if they feel like their character would be lying to the interrogators, to go ahead and lie, but indicate to the DM and the other players somehow (a raised hand, a wink, etc.) Sometimes the lie itself, or more importantly which answers are answered honestly and which aren’t, can be just as telling about a character.
Similarly, you don’t want to sabotage any secrets you and the player have worked out ahead of time – especially if you are banking on a dramatic reveal later! Use your authority as the lead investigator to belay any questions that or too pressing, or even to broach the secret carefully, setting up a little foreshadowing to its eventual revelation.
Many of your questions will be tailored to the specifics of your characters, but below are a smattering of possible inquires to get your mind going:
- Were you born in the country you were raised in? As a wanderer, do you consider yourself a citizen of…anywhere?
- Do you have children? Might you have children you are unaware of? Any heirs?
- If I told you one of your companions was a criminal, wanted for high crimes, would you testify against them?
- Do you suspect any of your companions of turning traitor? Which one is most likely to betray you?
- You’re an adventurer, you raid tombs and ancient places I suppose. Are there any kinds of artifacts you would not remove from a tomb or ruin?
- Do you find slavery acceptable under any circumstance?
- If you were to pass a traveler in your journeys, who was beating and admonishing his own child severely, what, if anything, would you do?
- Is it proper for a captain of a vessel to go down with his ship?
- If in your delvings you came across an undeciphered text of no magical value, what would you do with it?
- What of the three is worth more to you: gold, knowledge, or a favor repaid?