The single most important question every player should be asking, often
There's one question every #player should be asking and it should be asked often. Nope, I'm not referring to the favorite question we hear a lot "can I roll for this ability check?"
The question I'm talking about is "tell me more about..." I guess that is technically a statement. "What more can you tell me about [this thing]?" There.
In D&D (#dnd), and other tabletop games (#trpg) that follow a similar structure, there's only so much the Dungeon Master (#DM) can describe or reveal at once. Likewise, there is only so much information a player can process at a given moment. Yet, any complex scenario hinges on information being conveyed, processed, and interpreted. Any NPC with nuisance, any scene with a puzzle, any side quest with secrets, or any set piece to be explored requires this transfer of data from the DM brain to the party hivemind.
Most Dungeon Masters will have stories of frustration about players not getting the clues, not listening, and not putting the pieces together. On the flip side, some players get overwhelmed by the barrage of intrigue, hints, and threads to follow and connect. In the DM's mind, everything links up fairly obviously because they conceived it or they read the module and know how it all comes together. To the players, a slew of clues may go unnoticed or even actively ignored and avoided. That's because the player may have already made up their mind about a given situation or have mentally moved on from it and are no longer absorbing the information.
As I level up my own DMing skills I've learned that less is more. At least during the initial introduction of whatever the object, place, quest, or person is. I'm still working on putting this into practice, but I find it helps not to overwhelm the party. This is a topic for a more Dungeon Master focused piece, so I will leave it at that for now. Back to the player's side of the table!
Dungeons and Dragons is a dialogue. The DM opens the conversation by setting the scene and introducing the speakers. It is up to the players to pick and choose where to focus their attention. This is where that "single most important question" is paramount. Now is the time to engage in the scene, pick up on names and keywords, and dig deeper.
"You enter a well-appointed room. There are shelves lined with books on the far wall. Directly center is an executive desk with papers and a crystal orb ontop. The room is dimly lit."
A simple scene, but many questions can be asked.
"Tell me more about the crystal orb on the desk."
"Does the desk have drawers?"
"Tell me about the bookshelves. Any suspicious books?"
"What are the papers on the desk?"
If no one asks these questions, the party may move on and miss the clues that the Dungeon Master sprinkled into the scene. A door hidden behind the bookshelf, an incriminating note on the desk, a magical property of the orb, and so on. Such an issue recently took place in Accidental DM's session 7 recap, which partially inspired this post. Of course, sometimes a room is just a room, a little fluff to make the world feel lived in, and it's okay for the DM to gloss over this with a simple "you look around carefully but find nothing of interest" and move on to avoid misleading the party or wasting time.
Asking "what more can you tell me?" doesn't stop at rooms and dungeon dressing. It can apply to people, too.
"You're approached by a dapper gentleman. A human in his sixties. He greets you and asks for a moment of your time. He claims that Lady Mirabelle sent him."
The party has never met this gentleman nor have they heard of Lady Mirabelle. Players, ask about this man and ask about this Mirabelle! Usually, named NPCs have some importance. They may be a small piece to a bigger puzzle or central to the plot, itself! No one will know if no query is made, lest the DM has to force information into the open jarringly. And no one likes that.
So, ask "what more can you tell me about Mirabelle?" or "is there anything peculiar about this man?" Or both!
The question "what can you tell me about..." can be made in-character or out of character, depending on the situation and the comfort level with roleplaying in-character. It can be phrased in so many ways, and I guarantee it will become increasingly natural to ask this question more fluidly.
"Do I recognize the name Mirabelle?"
"Does the gentleman have any identifying insignias on his person?"
"I'd like to search the room for clues, starting with the desk."
Information now flows from the Dungeon Master to the party at a pace the players control. It helps the DM from feeling like they have to forcibly dump information onto the party, unprompted. Which in turn, makes obtaining information and discovering details far more natural and satisfying to the players because they do prompt it and can be choosey about what information they want. "What can you tell me about..." helps establish the cadence I mention in my DM Advice post "Command the dice, command the table." That cadence between Dungeon Master and the party is supremely important, otherwise, the game will feel one-sided and stilted.
Essentially, be like Ash Ketchum. Pull out that Pokédex and ask "what's that?" Often.
As it turns out, the "single" question is all of the questions. But "what more can you tell me about..." is a fine place for players to start if they aren't asking enough questions. What ways do you like to engage in a session and what advice do you have for others to participate, too?