So for example, the last time I ran Homebrew World, I asserted the premise: “You’re trying to get something out of the ghoul-infested catacombs of Kravenghast Manor. Make characters.”
They made characters: a Wizard (Fae-Touched), a Thief (Operative), and a Paladin (Paragon of Virtue). They did some intro questions… the Wizard and Thief had a… complicated past. The Paladin knows that the Thief is a better soul than he lets on. The Wizard thinks the Paladin has a beautiful soul (“so naive, its precious.”).
The I start by asking the Wizard about the goal: “Who or what are you seeking you need to rescue from the crypts beneath Kravenghast Manor, and why is it so important?”
She answered “Ugh, my TA” (teaching assistance… the player had recently escaped from academia and was maybe channeling). “He stole something from my office and disappeared down the Crypts.” What was it? “Oh, a hunk of starmetal. Not really sure what it does, been in my office for ages, in the back, collecting dust.” (Of course, because the Fae Touched background means starmetal is anathema to her magic.)
She didn’t really answer why it was important, so I think I asked the Thief why rescuing the TA was important to him. He established that he was a fixer and troubleshooter for the University, and it’s bad PR and a crap ton of paperwork whenever students go missing. “Easier to get out. Or at least confirm he’s dead.” This led to the Wizard and Thief deciding that their “complicated past” was just decades of them working together on crap like this.
Lovely! We’ve got a couple PCs who seem to be largely motivated by bureaucratic nightmares, so I look for some more motive. I ask the Paladin “Why did these two come to your order for help with this mission?” (Asserting that they came to him, and that he is part of an order, and he’s helping them on the mission, but asking him why.). He came up with this wonderful bit about how his order serves The Light (non-personal source of all life and hope), and that their order is charged with monitoring and containing Kravenghast Manor, which is shrouded in perpetual darkness. “Oh, interesting! So where is the Manor, relative to the university?” (looking for detail).
“Oh it’s on campus.”
Delightful! So we’ve got an old, dilapidated sprawling manor with its own necropolis, constantly shrouded in night, on a hill in the middle of the pre-eminent University in the world.
I still feel like we need a little more danger so I ask the Paladin: “Why has your order been so worried about the Manor recently? What’s changed?” (Asserting that they’re worried, there’s something wrong, but I don’t know what.) “Oh, the pillar of darkness that enshrouds the place? It’s been growing. Quickly.” Ooh, nice. I think he threw something in about a prophecy re: a force of primordial darkness breaking loose. “So, when the Wizard and the Thief showed up, looking for someone from your order to help, why’d they pick you?” “Oh, I’m the only true believer here, and everyone else is like HAVE AT IT, KID.”
I want another complication and a little more urgency, so I asked the Thief “Who else have you heard is here, looking for this missing TA? Or at least the starmetal artififact? And why is it so important that you find them first?” (Asserting another interesting party is in the dungeon, and that this is a bit of a race!) He answers that it’s a rival agent from another university, a guy he’s crossed paths with before and who never hesitates to put lives in danger. “He’s just… unprofessional.”
Finally, I want a little more information about the Fae-touched Wizard professor, so I ask her what her studies focus on and how this starmetal artifact is related to them. “Well, I study portals. And this thing is like a key. But it was just shoved in the back of my office because my magic can’t do anything with it”
OH REALLY? A KEY? AND PORTALS? And a PROPHECY about some great DARKNESS being RELEASED?
And from there the adventure almost runs itself.
I guess my point is: making sure to ask questions that establish motive, stakes, dangers, urgency, details, and complications… these all make sure that your story has a lot of hard edges for creativity to crystalize on. And by making assertions while you also ask questions, you give the players hard edges for their creativity to crystalize on while they answer–and at the same time, you’re putting your thumb on scale and push their answers into things that are on-theme, or that introduce new themes, or that are at least sufficiently significant.
How, exactly, do you know what to assert and what to ask for? I have no idea. I think if you’ve done it enough or have a natural talent for it, you do know instinctively what will work and what won’t. But every time I’ve thought about how to proceduralize it, I’ve stalled out.