Ask Story Questions
Now that you have a really grabby problem, you can flesh the situation out a little and figure out precisely what your scenario is intended to resolve—in other words, what are the really grabby questions at the heart of this problem?
That’s what you’ll do in this step: create a series of questions that you want your scenario to answer. We call these story questions, because the story will emerge naturally from the process of answering them.
The more story questions you have, the longer your scenario’s going to be. One to three story questions will probably wrap up in a session. Four to eight might take you two or even three sessions. More than eight or nine, and you might have to save some of those questions for the next scenario, but that’s not a bad thing at all.
It is recommended asking story questions as yes/no questions, in the general format of, “Can/Will (character) accomplish (goal)?” You don’t have to follow that phrasing exactly, and you can embellish on the basic question format in a number of ways, which will be demonstrated in a moment.
Every problem you come up with is going to have one very obvious story question: “Can the PC(s) resolve the problem?” You do need to know that eventually, but you don’t want to skip straight to that—it’s your finale for the scenario, after all. Put other questions before that one to add nuance and complexity to the scenario and build up to that final question. Figure out what makes the problem difficult to solve.
To come up with story questions, you’re probably going to have to embellish on the problem that you came up with just a bit, and figure out some of the W-How (who, what, when, where, why, how) details. That’s also fine, and part of what the process is for.
An Arcane Conspiracy: Problem and Story Questions
Cynere is Tempted by Shiny Things, and Zird has Rivals in the Collegia Arcana, which implies that the Collegia’s wealth might end up on Cynere’s radar at an inconvenient time for Zird. Therefore, Cynere getting a lucrative contract to steal one of the Collegia’s sacred treasures at the same time that Zird’s rivals try to put him on trial for crimes against creation would probably be a big problem for both of them.
Two obvious story questions spring to mind already: Will Cynere get the treasure? Will Zird win his trial? But Amanda wants to save those answers for the end, so she brainstorms some other questions.
First of all, she doesn’t know if they’re even going to go willingly into this situation, so she starts there: Will Cynere take the contract? Will Zird allow the Collegia to arrest him, or will he resist?
Then, she needs to figure out why they can’t just go straight to the problem. She decides Cynere has an anonymous rival for the treasure (let’s call it the Jewel of Aetheria, that sounds nice), and her mysterious employer would be most displeased if the rival beat her to the punch.
Zird, in the meantime, has to secure a legal defense that isn’t a part of the conspiracy against him, and will probably want to find out precisely who has it in for him this time.
So, that gives her three more questions: Can Cynere sniff out her competitor before her competitor does the same to her? Can Zird find an ally to defend him among the Collegia’s ranks? Can Zird discover the architects of the conspiracy without suffering further consequences?
Then, because she wants some tension between these two, one that relates to their relationship: Will Cynere turn her back on Zird for the sake of her own goals?
Notice that each of these questions has the potential to significantly shape the scenario’s plot. Right off the bat, if Zird decides not to go quietly, you have a very different situation than if he chooses to submit to custody. If Zird’s investigations get him arrested, then the trial might end up being a moot point. If Cynere decides to help Zird rather than pursuing the Jewel, then they’re going to have another source of trouble in the form of Cynere’s employer.
Also notice that a few of the story questions have something else that modifies the basic “Can X accomplish Y?” format. The reason why you want to do this is the same reason you want to avoid rolling dice sometimes—black and white success/failure isn’t always interesting, especially on the failure side.
Look at one of the questions for Cynere: “Will Cynere discover the identity of her chief competitor for the Jewel before the competitor discovers hers?” Without the emphasized part, it’d be kind of boring—if she fails to discover her opponent’s identity, then we’ve pretty much dropped that plot thread, and part of the game stalls out. No good.
The way it is phrased it, though, you have somewhere to go if she doesn’t do well in this part of the scenario—she may not know who her rival is, but her rival knows her now. Whatever happens with the Jewel, that rival can come back to haunt her in a future scenario. Or, we take it as a given that we’re going to reveal the rival’s identity to Cynere eventually, but we can still have a tense set of conflicts or contests leading up to that reveal as they suss out each other’s abilities.
There’s also some room to extend material from this scenario into the future. Maybe the identity of Cynere’s opponent doesn’t get answered this session at all—that’s okay, because it’s a detail Amanda can always bring back in a later session.
If you end up with a really large number of story questions (like eight or more), keep in mind that you don’t necessarily have to answer them all in one scenario—you can bring up the questions you don’t answer, either as foreshadowing or to set up stuff you’re going to do in the following scenario. In fact, that’s exactly how you make strong arcs—you have a pile of related story questions, and you take two or three scenarios to answer them all.