Friday, April 5, 2013

Crutch Questions

There are a category of questions in RPGS which are both tremendously potent and tremendously annoying to me. I refer to them as "crutch" questions because they are incredibly useful if you haven't considered them before, but are potentially banal and technical if you already have.


A great example might be something about a character's essential nature, such as "What would you kill for?". If you don't have a solid purchase on the character, then that can be a really interesting question to chew on to help you understand your character.


However, once you know the character, the question changes a bit. It's still interesting, but because you know the character well enough that the answers come easily, but the answer will also probably be more nuanced than it would have been previously. The better you know your character, the more aware you are of the things that make them human, the things that make it very hard for a real question to have a single, simple answer.[1]


And that's where the problem comes in - when the question is used initially then they idea is to get a clear answer which you can draw conclusions from. When creating from nothing, it's useful, but once you're past it, it's reductive.


This would not be too big deal, except that newer games often hang mechanics off these questions and ideas. And they're right to do so - starting from a blank piece of paper, it's a fast way to get you to something meaningful and toothy, and though it may offer no route any deeper, that's still not a bad bar to hit.


Which is why this is far from a clear cut issue. Crutch questions are absolutely a useful tool in the right situation, and if your in the position where they're unwelcome, then you're probably already doing ok, so it's hardly a world-ender of a problem.


It's something I have to admit bothers me disproportionately, largely because that space where they're impediments is my *personal* sweet spot, so I can end up chafing in the face of them.


Anyway, I made a passing comment about this on Twitter, and realized it really wouldn't make any sense without a longer explanation,



1 - Unless you really prefer that kind of clarity in a character.



  1. I understand what you mean. In the Apocalypse World game I'm running, certain characters have moved past the point that they can derive personal growth from some of the stock questions.

    I wonder about the potential utility of a clause that said "or instead of asking question X, ask them to elaborate one situation why one of their previous answer would not apply."

    "Oh, I would do anything to protect my boyfriend? What is the one thing that would have me break that axiom? What if I wouldn't protect him from having his heart broken by other men."

    I feel like a yet-but or a yes-and off the existing crutch questions could restore some of their former glory.

    1. My brain immediately starting working in the same direction as Jason's above. I'd love to see a game that incorporated the clutch questions, asked players to refine them throughout play, and gave the GM tools to bring those very situations into play.

  2. I wonder about that in long-term Smallville / Cortex Plus Drama play, with Value and Relationship statements. They're basically the inverted crutch question, in that they state a simple, unambiguous position related to a person or idea. Great for when you're starting play and can take it all in at a glance and go.

    But, what happens when you're far enough along in the game where your statement for your best friend Sam is, "He'll always have my back, unless ex-lovers are involved, and I can't really trust him with money come to think of it..." etc etc.?

    And while I dig the idea of challenging your statements and rewriting them to show how a character changes, it can be kind of a bludgeon even over time. "I don't have time for Love" becomes "Love can find even the hardest hearts" becomes "Love makes you weak" becomes "Love is in my past, not my future", and so on.

    Because any absolute statement is sometimes wrong, and the mechanic depends on challenging statements, one could argue that nuance doesn't really develop the way we tend to think it does in people.

    Food for thought.

  3. I find the "what would you kill for" question useful in my current game, Kerberos Fate, because it helps me calibrate. This means that it's actually doing double duty. So, it does mean, "What would your character kill for?" But, it also means, "Okay, folks, how much killing do we actually want the PCs to be doing?" and "If I want opposition to be interesting enough not to kill, what lines should I not cross? If I want opposition to make the PCs seriously consider killing, what lines should I cross -- and what lines should I still not cross?"

    And that means I have a scale:

    -- Kill? That's not even on the table, even if that Person was terribly rude at the ball.

    -- Not evil enough to kill, but not interesting enough to do more than take off the board (hand over to authorities, send off for a long rest, whatever)

    -- Interesting enough not to kill, so long as certain lines are not crossed. This includes No One Could Have Survived That! situations where we all know I'm going to bring the NPC back.

    -- Despicable enough to kill (trying to cause mass death to power a ritual, murdered someone the PCs particularly liked)

    -- Not necessarily despicable, but it's a life and death situation, and the person or being in question just isn't interesting enough not to kill. This could mean not bothering to pull one's punch in battle with an enemy warrior who is trying to kill one, or making sure that laser shark is dead, dead, dead.

    -- Not interesting enough, useful enough, or non-despicable enough to spare. This generally applies to unnamed mooks or critters.

    -- It may also include what Brian Rogers referred to as "Life is cheap in the Savage Land" in his X-Men PBEM. That is, X-Men Don't Kill and are penalized for doing so -- but not so much in the Savage Land.

    -- That's not technically alive, you know. This included mummies animated by someone who lived and died thousands of years in the past.


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