Eric S. Raymond of The Cathedral and the Bazaar fame also maintains a FAQ/guide on How To Ask Questions The Smart Way. I find it a useful document and have read it several times over the years, but it’s steeped in Open Source and code-hacking culture. Even though it’s aimed at non-technical users seeking answers for technical questions, it isn’t a document I would point people to regularly, if for nothing but the length.

Questions about roleplaying, board, or card games are often very technical and deep, whether they are about mechanics or an elaborate setting. Good questions get good answers—but recently I’ve been seeing more and more questions that are either ill-formed or lacking necessary information. Dare I say it, I’ve been seeing questions that are “twitter length” when they don’t need to be.

Before I move forward, I am going to issue two standard disclaimers:

  1. Don’t interrupt a game to look up a rule online, phone a friend, etc. Make a ruling that is satisfactory to all players and agree to play by that ruling until the end of the game, then work on a solution for future games or play sessions. Take some quick notes or a photograph of the game state so you can remember the exact problem. I almost always have my laptop nearby, so I just record an audio explanation of the issue so I can fully remember it later—any easy recording device will do!
  2. In a non-competitive game like most roleplaying games, what “the company” or “other gaming groups” think or do is not relevant to your gaming group. Any solution that pleases everyone in your gaming group is the correct solution [if not the most correct solution] to a rules or setting problem. This is true in competitive games within your group, as well.

Now, onto asking questions!

Before You Ask

  • Do your research: first, re-read the relevant sections of the rules. Memory or oral renditions of the rules may not be accurate. The first person I played Magic: The Gathering with told me that if you had zero cards in your hand when it was your draw, you drew seven cards instead of the normal single card!
  • If the rules don’t answer your questions, do a web search, check for an official FAQ or errata, discuss the question with your gaming group, and ask a local expert in the game.

Ask the Question

  • Start by listing the edition/version of the game you are playing, and then ask your question in the simplest and most compact terms. You want readers to quickly figure out if they can help you and move on if they can’t.

Explain What You Know

  • List out the rules/books you have so far used to research the problem, and the other books/expansions to which you have access.
  • List out any other things that may be relevant, such as house rules you are using that may interact with the canon rules.
  • List the page references for what is confusing you: if you have looked for specific rules on p. 191 and there are additional rules on p. 256 that you have not found, a reference to p. 191 only will give someone a good clue where to lead you next. If you’re talking about a board or card game, explain the relevant things that are on the playing field. Remember that in some board or card games, the rules change slightly depending on the number of players, so list that, also.

Provide an Example

  • If it’s a rules question, a specific implementation example from your game will help the readers understand your question and will give an answer more context when it comes to back to you. If it’s a board or card game giving you trouble, take a digital picture of the playfield if you think that will help.

Provide Options

  • If you have researched the question to the point where you have multiple possible answers, present the options and your logic behind them as if they were answers to a multiple-choice test.

Proofread

  • Go back and proofread your question; make sure that any numbers are correct and that you start with the basics and work to the more complicated parts of the problem. If your question is broken, getting an accurate answer will be even more difficult!
  • Use the standard terms that the game uses—even if your local gaming group has its own slang, the more your question hews to the game-as-published, the easier it will be for people to answer.

Thank Yous

  • Thank people in advance for reading and thinking about your post, and after you receive answers, thank them.
  • Point out the answer that you plan on using.
  • Include any additional notes you may have from other research or reading you’ve done.

Similarly, many of these hints can help you when answering questions, too: include book and page references, quick examples as necessary, and don’t devolve into too much slang, shorthand, or netspeak.