I’m designing one or more games around the leading question, so I’ve been working on how to teach the skill. (Also, check out For the Queen.) Here’s what I’ve got, briefly:
Leading Questions serve the purpose of sharing narrative agency with your fellow players, creating a more collaborative story that invests everyone. Any question will do that and the reason we want to use leading questions is to support players answering them. “What happens next” is a question so broad as to paralyze most respondents in most contexts. “Who started the fire that breaks out” and “What puts the entire block in immediate danger” are much better because they offer something players can build on.
When a GM in a standard RPG would tell the players what happens next, what they see, or whatever, we can instead ask a leading question. The formula here is to figure out one option—whatever you would’ve said as a standard GM—and offer half of that instead, leaving room for your partner to fill in the other half. It’s fine if they say what you would have, but they never will… assuming your question wasn’t so leading as to box them out of a choice.
These questions somehow grant you just as much power as GM fiat, and the art behind them is just as nuanced, but you grant so much more agency to your partners in play, and can replace hours of prep with genuine surprise and excitement, on your part.
Instead of “Thunderbird is shocked to find the mastermind behind the controls is… her father” which is some pretty good storytelling, ask “How is Thunderbird deeply related to the mastermind behind the controls?” The vast majority of possible answers are just as good, and many are just better: “It’s… it’s my twin!” “It’s my wife. I thought she was dead!”
Again, whatever you would state as a GM in this moment, share half of that in the form of a question. “You walk into a room full of dwarves. What were they all focused on that you interrupted?” “The amulet gives you constant visions of your father. What strength does it lend you? Which part of yourself do you hide away?” “You hack into the mainframe and find the dirt you need. How does it incriminate Senatron?”
The second big approach comes from attentive curiosity. We’re all following the story, wondering about the mysteries afoot (and there will always be mysteries in a shared narrative game). There’s a question on your mind. “How can the Duke be the killer when he was next to me at the ball all night?” “Sure Nanuk took the ice wand, but why?” “Wait, where are we right now?” Ask it. That’s a great question, guaranteed. If it’s one you think others know the answer to, don’t embellish the question, just get the answer so we’re all on the same page. If it’s not, make it a leading question (because it’s not real helpful to ask over-broad questions): “Who might want to frame the Duke?” or “What did you notice was off about the Duke and why wasn’t I hearing you at the time?” “What evil does Nanuk think he can only undo with the ice wand?” or “Who made Nanuk take the ice wand, and what do they have over him?” “We’re in the deepest chamber of the Orbital Temple. What’s its purpose?” or “We’re at Yagslak’s Hopper. What’s the crowd here to see?”
Sometimes you catch yourself asking a yes/no question, or one with just one answer. Just rephrase it. We do that all the time in live human conversation. “Is Trogdar going to get aw–How does Trogdar get away?” Nice save. Sometimes we’ll ask a too-broad question. Just follow it up with context. Trust me, you’ll have time while your friend’s mind reels at the possibilities. “Who’s behind the door? Uh, you hear clinking and clattering and a faint cursing.”
Be mindful of which part you make concrete and which part you leave fluid. Don’t ask “When will the lost souls be reunited” if you’re not fine with “right now,” “never,” and everything in between. Try “what event will signify the lost souls reunification today” or whatever time frame you’re counting on. If you care that a character is overcome but adversity, but not how, ask “how does Megatron bring Optimus to his knees” rather than “how does Megatron’s mind-magnet affect Optimus?”
My final pointer is a reminder that really interesting leading questions hit the same notes that really interesting narrative interactions do: No one cares what shape the key to the chest is, but you can make us feel something by revealing why the princess locked her heart away. Get to the character-defining personal motivations, and relationship-altering events.
What makes this story human?