It’s almost cruel in an election year to talk about polling in gaming, but when it comes to new games and especially new groups, a little poll goes a long way.
A GM of mine years ago introduced me to the idea of the new game questionnaire, a quick set of questions to make certain you and your players are on the same page about what you all want from the game you’re about to run.
While a new game questionnaire might seem overly formal, especially to groups who already know each other, it has reliably helped head off issues in games before they became a problem for the other people at the table, and revealed no shortage of flawed assumptions among groups with a long gaming history together.
The questions will vary slightly for the setting, the nature of the game, and the nature of the group’s existing relationship, but you’ll want to include questions from three key areas:
- What tone the players want
- What each player expects for their character
- What each player expects from the other players
Those should help set the boundaries for the game and get it heading in the right direction for everyone.
When it comes to the tone players want or expect from a game, most players will have difficulty putting it into finite terms, or worse, will use terms that mean something different to them than they do to you. To avoid that, I recommend using popular media as your common ground:
- Are you interested in a more lighthearted and/or slapstick-y game, or a more serious and/or emotional game?
- What movie, show, book or comic would you like this game to feel like in play?
- What’s your favorite thing about that movie/show/book/comic?
- What’s your least favorite thing about it?
Emphasize that these can all be short answers – you don’t need an essay, you’re just making sure your understanding of the popular property is the same as theirs. If they pick a property you’re not familiar with, look for a synopsis online.
Beyond tone are the players’ specific expectations for their characters:
- What’s one memorable scene or interaction you’d love to see this game?
- What’s your idea of a crowning moment of awesome for this character?
- What’s this character’s greatest fear?
- What’s this character’s greatest regret?
- What’s this character’s greatest hope?
- What trope(s) would you like to avoid this character falling into?
- How comfortable are you with your character being in the spotlight?
Again, you don’t have to use all of these if you’re worried about overwhelming your players – any few will still give you a better guiding star than the average character sheet about what they want and expect.
Then there’s the question of the other players. The first two parts of the questionnaire are great to make available to the other players if everyone is on board, as it gives them a good sense of the other folks at the table, the other PCs, and also the tone the others are approaching the game looking for.
The last section is best kept private between you and the individual players, with just a summary given to help them come to consensus on a gamer contract. That will free up especially established groups to voice desires or concerns that may have been consigned to silence in deference to the louder voices in the room.
- Do you generally prefer to act out or narrate your character’s actions?
- Do you generally prefer frequent checks to help guide the action or fewer interruptions and more narrative play?
- How comfortable are you with intra-party conflict? What about player-vs-player combat?
- Do you generally prefer teamwork victories or individual triumphs?
- Do you typically feel like you’re able to contribute as much as you’d want to a game? If not, why not?
- (For groups who know each other) Are there any players whose general play style you’re concerned about for this game? If so, what behavior has you worried and why?
The last few questions are just general logistics for campaigns, but they may help you anticipate interest levels and know how to time your story arcs or module pacing:
- How long of a game are you interested in?
- How long would you like to play this particular character?
These questions may become less and less necessary as you continue to game with the same people, but if you’ve never asked them, don’t trick yourself into believing you already know the answers. even people you’ve played with for years can surprise you, and you never know when a particular player is going to choose to try something completely new.