In this semi-regular RPG column I’ll be focusing on practical solutions to common problems, as well as suggestions for enriching the game. 

In the previous part I’ve introduced the concept of the weekly question: emailing everyone in the party with a question about the happenings in the game, to keep the interest going even between sessions.

Uses for Weekly Questions

Weekly questions can serve various needs. A skilled player or GM can use a weekly question to encourage a specific atmosphere, or to instill specific ideas or doubts in the players’ minds. They can also be used for worldbuilding, or for retroactive justification.
All of the following examples are based on actual weekly questions from the last few years.

Reminding everyone of the events of the last session

These questions take the players back to the previous session, usually to a specific emotional event, in order to increase its impact.

Example: In a previous adventure the characters escaped the destruction of a large city; for some of them, it was home. The memories of this destruction were brought up again during the last session, which is an opportunity to have the players face this loss again, from a different angle.

Think of something from that city (structure, person, organization) that your character suddenly realize they’ll miss. A few long weeks have already passed – and suddenly, the character realizes that something, which was important to them, simply no longer exists, and won’t be waiting for them on their return. What is it?

Example: The last session ended with a surprising cliffhanger, when the shadowrunners got a phone call that completely changed their view of their run, their enemies and their allies. In order to build on this tension, and to help develop character background (see below), this question discusses the idea of “a phone call that changes everything”.

We finished the last session with a surprising phone call. When did you last receive such a surprising call, and what was it about?

Example: The following text is an example of a full email, including the introduction.

In our last session, Brin almost died. Now, this isn’t the first time this happened – it’s the second – and both of them happened within 3 days of each other.
Before this, Brin was the perfect huntress. We all knew that – she killed more demons than the rest of us combined. Efficient, quick, stealthy, always striking from a safe distance – it seemed that Brin not only tried to match some demon hunter ideal, but was that ideal herself.

And then we all saw her break under the arrows of some other sniper, and as if to make sure the message is clear, a large Vrock demon almost snapped her head off with its claws.
This picture, of an ideal huntress, cracked. We were all reminded that she’s human, and even when you’re mythical, sometimes you fail – you might even die.

Brin is not the only person who’s considered an ideal by some. Which heroic characters did your character admire, and what did you feel when that character failed to stand up to that ideal? And if that didn’t happen yet – what do you think you’ll feel when it does?
Such characters can be parents, mentors, an NPC we’ve met, or even, well, Brin.


Retroactive Justification

Also called justification in hindsight, this is a specific kind of retcon, in which you establish a justification for something currently happening in the fiction by inventing something that happened before. (“normal” retcon usually refers to changing things already established; here I’m talking about establishing facts that were never discussed before. The end result is similar: we did something to the past, in order to have a believable reason for what’s currently happening.)
When players write their own retroactive justifications, it’s easier for them to accept it as part of the story; when it’s dropped on them by a GM, it might feel like a sudden hit (if they feel the justification doesn’t hold), making them defensive.

Example: A loyal NPC was revealed as a traitor, and even worse, we learn that she used some hidden magic in order to plant suggestions in the characters’ minds, during the past few weeks. She weaved these suggestions into stories and tales she told the characters, in her roles of an entertainer who escorted the party. In the last session all of this was revealed, when in the middle of combat this NPC activated all of these suggestions, making us think our friends are actually our enemies!

Tell us about the time the NPC planted the suggestion in your mind. You can describe the story she told you, or the conversation she had with you, during which she used the magical spell, undetected. 


Building towards future events

The opposite of retro justification, this question helps the GM establish facts that’ll help with a coming development in the story. It’s an excellent way to bridge adventures and a useful tool during a long downtime, in order to explain what the characters are doing. It allows the players to make up some interesting things that can be used later on.

Example: The following question was asked in a group playing Fate, in an urban fantasy setting:

Looking forward toward our upcoming third adventure, I want each of you to write three things your character is planning on doing in the two weeks or so following the last adventure:
1. Something your character is doing by themselves.
2. An NPC your character met (explain why they met).
3. A different NPC your character met, and what they did together.
Each of these should be one or two sentences long, and I plan on playing out some of them at the start of the next session.

Since they were playing Fate, the GM added compels, to add a gaming element, and remind the players what the characters are “supposed” to do based on their Aspects, planting some seeds toward themes he’s interested in exploring as a GM. For example, here’s what he wrote to one of the players: “Rotem, on the 2nd thing, Elba meets with her partner from the police department (she promised him).” In Fate, a player doesn’t HAVE to do the compel, but if they do, they get a Fate point, an important resources that can help influence the story.


World or character building

These sort of questions are used to add colour to the world or backstory to the character. It might be something small and cool, like adding some small details to flavour a scene that wasn’t played in full during the previous session, or it can be something very important, like the motive behind adventuring, or the connection between a character and a villain.

Questions that help in building personality are useful especially during the first part of the campaign, in order to help the player get a firmer hold on their character. Later on, when the character is feeling more robust and established, it’s harder to come up with such questions; that’s when you should focus more on questions that encourage worldbuilding, or give the players way to express this established persona by describing how the character acted in an “off screen” part of the previous session.

Specific is better than general. A question such as “when was the last time your character felt such intense fear” makes it harder for the player to answer, since it gives them a too-wide space in which to create something new. It’s better to focus and limit the scope, for example with “the first time your character faced a demon” or “the previous time your character was thrown into a dark pit/closet/whatever”. Both are scary events, but they’re specific – based on something that happened during the previous session.

Example: The last session was mostly a social event, but moments before the end, a dangerous creature burst into the scene, threatening everyone. We ended on this cliffhanger.

Describe a short encounter that happened between the arrival of the guests to the party, and the creature attack. Some interaction between your character and an NPC. You can create a new NPC (a local professor interested in the artifacts presented, a noble from a minor house, an inebriated family member, etc). It doesn’t have to be long or complicated – just something that happened and wasn’t played out during the session.

Example: Last session a lot of things happened, but we already discussed many similar subjects on previous weekly questions. I’ve decided to take one specific element and make up a question that allows players to show an interesting tidbit from the character’s past.

Last sessions we discussed the importance of books. What text had the most influence on your character? A book, an epitaph, a “dead or alive” poster, anything. Something that she read, and had a huge influence on her.

Example: Sort of the opposite of the previous question, again I chose something general from the last session, but while the previous question didn’t seek to evoke emotions, this one defines that an emotion was evoked, and let the player decide on the specific object that did so. It serves a second function as a worldbuilding exercise, adding interesting details to this nation’s past.

We’re currently in a museum. It’s filled with ancient objects, things the city and the nation consider important. The gear of ancient heroes, the loot from old wars, stuff like that.
What thing in this museum provoked an intense emotion in you? Something like “Dear gods, why do they think the toilet paper of some ancient heroine is worthy of being preserved, such fanatical admiration”, or maybe “I can’t believe it, the Crimson Silver Dagger from the legends that inspired me to go on adventure!”

Example: Here’s an opportunity to surprise and go against expectations; after the 10th battle we had against demons, they’re no longer as scary as they were the first time, so I decided to start exploring other emotions relating to them.

Every encounter with a demon is ruinous and disastrous, and your character probably remembers most such encounters: maybe from training sessions, or when seeing one from afar, or perhaps when escaping one. She obviously remembers the times she had to actually face one in combat.
But what encounter with a demon had her leaving smiling, maybe even laughing?


Breaking routines

A lot of things can give inspiration for a weekly question. The trick is trying to get a different inspiration each time, in order to keep everyone interested in the concept (so they’ll answer it). After a deep or heavy question (“The death of X came as a horrible surprise. What feature of him you’ll always remember?”) it’s fun to answer a quick and simple question (“What sort of imaginary game did you enjoy as a kid?”)
Remember! When a player doesn’t answer the weekly question, it’s usually not because of “laziness” or “not investing enough in the game”. It’s because the question didn’t grab their attention.

Example: Mechanical changes, especially leveling up, deserve some attention.

Our characters are already level 3, with some combats behind them, but a relatively short time ago we were level 1, clueless, our own abilities new to us. Choose one of your class abilities – when was the first time you used it successfully, or the first time you discovered it, or the first time you suddenly realized you’re using it as second nature? In short, tell us the moment in which it became important to you.

Example: One of the sessions, I couldn’t come. I knew it beforehand, so I wrote a question that built on this absence. It’s not an obstacle, it’s an opportunity!

In our last session, Zamlofia remained behind, in the fort. While the rest of the party went to the dungeon, the paladin sat down with the captain of the guard, talking about the state of the town, paladin to paladin. 

The captain asked her about the rest of the party, this group of adventures that came together in defense of the city. “What do you know about them?” She asked Zamlofia, in a tone that paladins use only when speaking with other paladins.

“Well,” Said Zamlofia. She tried thinking about the most positive thing she had to say, something that impressed her, from her time together with your character. What did Zamlofia say about your character?


Was this too long? Too short? Feel free to comment and criticize.
ased on the original Hebrew post, from the podcast On the Shoulders of Dwarves (על כתפי גמדים).