I have been experimenting with using questionnaires as an integral part of character creation. This is an idea that I got from the horror roleplaying game Dread, and have seen used fairly successfully with that game.
I ran two Dread games at Buckets of Dice. As a general comment, I found that players shied away from leading questions: anything that might make their character a not-nice person or lead to intra-party conflict troubled them. Most people were very satisfied to write a short answer to any question: questions that are obviously leading and inviting some detail. But, the games ran smoothly because however spineless you might be at character generation, there’s really no way of pacifying the tower. Either you let horrible things happen, or you pull. There is no escape in the scenarios I ran at Buckets of Dice – they’re both effectively lock-boxes.
At KapCon this year I ran two games which rely more heavily on player initiative sparked by responses to questionnaires. This is more in line with the excellent experience I had when Luke ran Beneath the Mask at KapCon. My Succession and Trail of Blood groups all exhibited the tendencies I’ve noted above: there wasn’t the willingness to go dark that made ‘s run of Beneath the Mask so spine-chilling 2 years ago. In addition, they introduced a major problem that I hadn’t encountered before: just understanding the answers! Let me quote a few selections for your amusement and derision:
Why did you agree to guide the others and return to Morse after all these years?
Because I have something I do not want and wish to sacrifice
Just how the GM is supposed to do anything useful with this, or how this is supposed to inform how you roleplay the character is a mystery to me.
What are you afraid the Diplomat knows about you?
Nothing – my heart is completely pure.
I guess this is a legitimate answer that makes sense, but this is a pretty much blatant refusal to engage with the character or the story. It’s not even a deflection. How about an answer “Some unfortunate timing may have given him the impression I’m sleeping with his daughter even thought I’m actually not.” You’re still a squeaky-clean dullard, but at least you’ve got something to roleplay against.
Most of the answers, particularly for KapCon’s Trail of Blood ran like that: tepid. One player even wrote his mono-syllabic responses in a giant script so from a distance it looked like he’d had a legitimate go at answering the questions. But the prize goes to one of my Succession players who managed to spend the whole half-hour I allowed without actually even ending up coherent:
Who do you plan to kill now that Vito is dead and his protection meaningless?
one more big score, get enough money to flee with Jenny
I realize my standards are somewhat higher than most people’s, but I don’t think you’ll find anyone who will agree this is actually an answer to the question on the sheet, or one that makes a huge amount of sense. Instead, the player has answered their own question entirely, and in this instance, not one that’s easy to do much about because of the main plot centres around revenge against a person. Unless I want to spontaneously invent a caper sub-plot, I can’t really make use of this answer.
I now understand that there’s actually quite a bit of skill involved in devising useful answers. A lot of answers that look useful just really aren’t. Answers need to be detailed, and they need to point towards a conflict of some kind, otherwise they’re just not going to make any useful impact on the game.