Asking Questions: The BEST Thing a D&D 5e Player Can Do
A Story That Illustrates How Much Agency Players Have When They Ask Good Questions
By Riley Rath
A double-edged sword in D&D 5e surrounds "player agency": how much can they... should they have?
On one hand, players need to follow the lead of the Dungeon Master. He is given a special position at the table, and they need to defer to his will and creativity.
But on the other hand, TTRPGs are a unique game and storytelling medium... where players are FELLOW STORYTELLERS alongside the DM.
These two ideas are not opposites, but they are in a constant state of tug of war with one another. And every table resolves it a little differently.
Well... I have a story that illustrates ONE WAY your table can give dnd players a bigger role in the direction of the story: ASKING QUESTIONS.
And the best part... it WON'T take them out of the game!
It was a few years ago...
© Wizards of the Coast
And I eventually found one... my players had to get a bell.
Like... a big bronze bell. The type you find in a church tower.
They were trying to build a portal to make it easier to cross the Aaragatti Range (like the Swiss Alps... but homebrew fantasy-ish) for all of their adventures. And in my homebrew rules, creating a permanent portal required pouring rare metal into an intricate pattern in a stone floor.
In other words, they needed a whoooooole lot of high quality metal.
And just their luck, rumor had it that the nearby abandoned town of Vermillion still had its bronze church bell up in the tower.
One problem: the town was said to be cursed... or was it haunted? Hard to say... you know how tall tales grow taller every time they are whispered in a tavern...
Aaaaaaanyways, the party saddled up and made their way up and down the crooked mountain paths.
- They journeyed alongside bell cows as they strode through alpine meadows.
- They hiked steep trails where jagged, snow-covered peaks stretched across the horizon.
- They overcame a run-in with some hill giants eager for their 5th lunch of the day.
But they also learned about their destination...
From nervous villagers and fear-mongering merchants, the party heard of the town's dreadful fate. Decades ago, Vermillion was a remote settlement borne of a thriving Platinum mine. A freak accident trapped the majority of the miners deep underground. The rescue efforts lasted a torturous two weeks.
But it was after the survivors (of which they were few) were rescued that the true horrors began. Nightmares... hallucinations... disappearances. The calamity compacted with paranoia was more than enough to turn the boom-town into a ghost town.
As the party came to the end of the road, they stopped for the night a half day's journey from the town. They first stepped on its barren streets around noon the next day.
Now, it's important that you know that A Deep and Creeping Darkness is a very ATMOSPHERIC adventure. Lots of shadows everywhere where things might be lurking (visibility rules!). All the mechanics (and monsters) are built around unsettling your players. It's creepy, but not crawl-ey. It's disturbing, but not disgusting.
© Dario Bronnimann
Well... all that becomes VERY DIFFICULT when it is the middle of a bright and sunny summer day high in a mountain vale!
So I'm trying every trick in the book:
- I'm speaking with a creepy tone and cadence.
- I'm having them roll perception checks all the time and saying Dungeon Master B.S. like "You thiiiiiiiink you heard something over there..."
- I added the "monster" effect, making them roll disadvantage on all their investigation checks.
All this was a big mistake. Nothing was hitting and I couldn't reward them for exploring the town and trying to understand what was going on.
Basically, the session was quickly becoming a dud.
Well, eventually they made their way to the church in the center of town and... sure enough... up in the bell tower was a big-ass brass bell.
Now, I EXPECTED the players to simply say "Ok, so we carefully lower the bell and lower it into the cart" and I would have been like "Cool, yep, sounds good."
But instead they ask: "Ok, so how rickety is this tower? What is it made out of?"
Awesome Dice Image
I thought for a second and stammered: "Um... uh... yeah, it's a mixture of stone and wood, and especially at the top, a lot of the wood has been rotten." I mean... according to the module, it had been 70 years... makes sense.
But then, after they compare their prepared spells to see if any would be relevant, they throw me another curveball: "Are there any mattresses around town? We don't want it to just shatter once it hits the ground and cause a bunch of noise."
Completely surprised by the proposal, I blurted out: "Um... yeah, you can check the houses."
Kinda creeped out by the town, they wanted to get out ASAP, so they split into pairs Scooby-Doo style and searched for mattresses.
At first I was excited, because actually going into all the houses meant they could discover all sorts of clues about the town. And of course splitting the party meant there would be more opportunities for monsters to attack them.
But then I realized: if people left their mattresses, that means they left in a HURRY.
Which means I had to seriously up the ante on the chaotic, ramshackle nature of this town. Now, instead of barren buildings that sorrow-filled villagers had packed up and left, it became FULL buildings that TERRIFIED villagers had FLED.
This completely turned the adventure around.
It meant that the stories villagers had told had been sooooooo disturbing that burglars and bandits had avoided it at all costs. Which made sense. After all, bronze bells are expensive!
But it also meant that there was likely all manner of treasure, magic items, and clues scattered across the town... more than enough to tempt them into staying longer (temptation... an important motivation for exploration!).
Long story short: the players not only got the bell, but also a +1 spear and hundreds of gold pieces worth of platinum ore. Granted, one was nearly dragged away by some awful fey creature, but that is neither here nor there...
I tell this story for one simple reason...
Player engagement, dnd players asking questions, can determine the direction of a narrative.
BTW, this post will not be the last time you hear about Jennifer Cover's dissertation "The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games." On page 78, she says:
"From reading the narrative, it is impossible to know which details were created beforehand and which were added during the gaming session... Some stories, then, come not from the space created before the beginning of the game, but from questions asked and directions suggested by the players during the game."
I, the DM, 100% did NOT anticipate, expect, predict, foresee, consider, plan, imagine... whatever... that my players would have asked if there were mattresses in the town!
It completely caught me off guard, forcing me to go with my gut and improvise.
And while I definitely gave away that I wasn't prepared for the question, the players couldn't read my mind. From their perspective, I could have been trying to remember what the module said or looking through my notes.
My players weren't just characters making decisions. They were fellow storytellers.
They weren't just controlling HOW the story was being told... they were also controlling WHAT story was being told.
Sure, I was the one changing Vermillion from a barren ghost town to something more akin to Chernobyl, but NONE OF THAT would have happened if they hadn't used their imagination and asked questions.
And yet... doing so didn't "take them out of the game" or anything. It didn't pull them out of immersion or forbid them from being a player.
No, like a dream that someone experiences while they create it... my players remained enchanted by the adventure. It is a story-telling experience that is unique to TTRPGs.
Dear reader, you can take away from my story any lesson you wish, but my point is this:
Players... ask clarifying questions... fill in the gaps of the DM's narration... bring the adventure to life!
Dungeon Masters are people too. They can only imagine and do so much and will always forget/miss something. But since D&D 5e is shared storytelling, you are there to help fill in the gaps.
- So when the DM describes a room in a sentence or two, you can ask: "is there a safe in the corner?" if that is what YOU are imagining.
- And if the DM briefly describes an NPC and you are imagining them with their hand on their weapon, you can ask: "Are they gripping their weapon or do they look relaxed?"
- And if the DM illustrates a city that you are approaching from the road, and YOU visualize a castle on the opposing hill, you can ask "If there is a castle on the nearby hill, how fortified is it?"
Who knows... a simple question may spark an amazing adventure for you and your friends.
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Based out of Spokane, Riley is a freelance copywriter that combines his love of reading, writing, and people into something useful! He is thankful to be applying his passion for imaginative role-playing to help DnD related businesses communicate their value in the best way possible. He's kinda like a bard giving inspiration, except without the annoying pop covers!