Monday 25 January 2021

Ask the Stars - The Right Questions

As the name might suggest, Ask the Stars relies heavily on questions.

While the Signs and Positions give you the answers, they're not much use unless you know what to ask.

Open/Closed Questions

It can be easy to think of open questions as good and closed questions as bad, but I think there's a spectrum of opportunities beyond those two.

If you just use the Yes/No column of Ask the Stars then you can still ask a question that leads to interesting places, or one that might end up hindering your creativity.

A good Yes/No question should:

  • Give interesting results for both Yes and No
  • Allow a distinction between soft and hard Yes/No
  • Provoke further ideas rather than searching for a definitive judgement

That third point is the tricky one here. Asking "is the tavern open?" doesn't do much to inspire on results of Yes/No, so maybe reframe the question before you roll. 

Instead you could ask:

  • Is the tavern busy?
  • Does the tavern feel dangerous?
  • Has the tavern burned down?
Yes, you're making some assumptions with each of those questions, especially the third, but for this sort of game I think you need to run with what feels right. 

You can push this even further, especially if you're playing solo, and ask some genuinely provocative questions like you would see in something like the prompts in For the Queen or the Quiet Year. 

Pre-Chaining Questions

Back in an earlier iteration of this idea I wrote about chaining questions. A fun twist on this idea is thinking of a set of questions before you roll any dice. Adding a question after each result is great for digging down on details, but you sometimes lose sight of the bigger picture. 

Instead, think of the three most interesting questions you can ask about a particular thing, then only roll the results after locking them in. Sometimes the first two results make your third question an odd fit, but that's the sort of stuff I love! It forces you into some strange explanations and drives you into places you wouldn't have thought of on your own.

Of course remember you can roll 2d12 and keep the higher/lower to nudge the results in a specific direction if it makes more sense, especially following on from the previous answers.

For example, let's go back to that stock-fantasy tavern and think of three questions before rolling anything. We could even use all three questions from our previous example.

  1. Is the tavern busy?
  2. Does it feel dangerous?
  3. Has it burned down?

And we roll...
  1. [7 - Yes] It's a bustling tavern. Not especially interesting, let's hope things build from here.
  2. [1 - Hard No] Everybody is super friendly, in fact you know a few familiar faces in here. Seems like a genuine safe haven from the world outside.
  3. [10 - Hard Yes] Well, after getting cosy you feel an explosion blast one of the tavern walls to pieces, fire spreading among what's left standing. Now we're somewhere interesting!

You could argue with question 3 I moved the fire from past-tense to present, but you're not being held to account here, there's no audit of your authorial integrity at the end of the session, you've just got to agree what feels right with the others at your table, or your own conscience if you're playing solo.

Don't Sweat the Balance

Try to think of the Stars as another person at the table, whether you're playing solo or with a group. Sometimes it feels right to let the Stars run and run, chaining one answer after another, throwing out signs and positions, almost acting like a procedural content generation algorithm. Other times you might get carried away with your own ideas, realising after an hour that you haven't actually rolled any dice.

You don't need me to tell you that these are both perfectly valid, and I expect the reality is you'll sit between these two extremes most of the time, occasionally drifting into one direction or the other before snapping back.

I love games that focus on problem solving challenges and have the sense of an impartial system run by a neutral referee, but that isn't really how Ask the Stars is best utilised. It's built to allow for a bit of floaty inconsistency, and more of the focus is on indulging in creative interpretation of those results and rolling with the consequences that arise from them.

1 comment:

  1. Hello. Not a perfect place for this, but I am watching your Monster Manual video. The inventor of the 'Bulleit' is a man named Tim Kask. He was at TSR with Gygax and Arneson, and was the 1st editor of Dragon Magazine. He is still alive and on YouTube as the Curmudgeon in the Cellar. He made the name pronounced 'boo-lay' like 'ballet' to add to the ridiculousness of the creature. Saturday Night Live had a Land Shark skit back then, and Jaws was around, leading to the 'Boo-lay'.Not that you'd think it was ridiculous if you ran into one. Love your work.
    100% POSITIVE. It is pronounced 'Boo-lay'. You could ask Mr. Tim Kask if you still are not convinced. He is very accessible. Nice guy.