Paul O'Brian writes about Watchmen, trivia, albums, interactive fiction, and more.


Good Questions, part 4

Sad to say, I just found out I’ll miss the next Basement Bowl, due to vacation. Drat! On the plus side, I’m scheming to attend the Trivia Championships of North America, a weekend-long trivia explosion scheduled for Las Vegas in July. In any case, it’s time for one more installment of this series. Previous posts have focused more on the philosophical aspects of question construction, but in this one, I’ll get a little more technical — more about the craft than the art, as it were. I think I’m about out of gas after this, so let’s call it the season finale and get rolling.


Ambiguous questions are the bane of trivia players, and the scourge of trivia writers. Unless it clearly specifies otherwise, a trivia question should have one and only one viable correct answer. The trouble is, it’s all too easy to write a question that you think has only one answer, but in fact has more than one, especially when your question consists of some kind of fact to which the answer must be matched. For instance, this:

For what animated film character does George Clooney provide the voice?

Clooney voiced the title character of The Fantastic Mr. Fox in 2009, and that’s probably what the writer of this question would be going for. However, the actual answer isn’t quite so simple, because ten years prior, Clooney provided the voice for another animated film character, Dr. Gouache in South Park: Bigger, Longer, and Uncut. This is an intentionally simple example, but it should give the flavor of how easy it can be to inadvertently write a bad question.

How to avoid asking an unclear question like this? Hedge your bets by including more information in the question. Paul Paquet calls this “doubling up”, and explains it very well. I repeat it here because it is a crucial technique in trivia question writing.

In fact, the question above already tries to hedge a bit by specifying that the animated character is from film rather than, say, TV, and a good thing too, because Clooney also lent his voice to South Park on TV, as Sparky The Dog. It says here. But the “film” clue isn’t enough, so we can rewrite to:

George Clooney provides the voice of the title character in what 2009 animated film?

Now we’ve added two pieces of information: that the character voiced by Clooney is a title character, and that the film came out in 2009. That should sufficiently narrow the field to ensure that the right answer is the only right answer. The other effect, you’ll note, is to make the question easier. This is where knowing your audience comes into play. For an audience of film buffs or fairly experienced trivia players, the above question is fine, but pretty clearly on the easy side. For a general audience, it’s probably straight down the middle. For a trivia-averse audience (not hostile, but not particularly likely to know recent films), we might consider adding another dimension of hedge: triangulating literature and film knowledge:

George Clooney provides the voice of what Roald Dahl title character in a 2009 animated film?

Or perhaps even book, film, and a bit of vocabulary:

George Clooney provides the voice of what vulpine Roald Dahl title character in a 2009 animated film?

There are any number of ways to calibrate the difficulty of a question — the question writer’s job is to find the sweet spot of fun, challenge, and audience-appropriateness. Hedging your bets ensures both that your intended answer is safely isolated from other possibilities, and that players get the appropriate level of challenge. There are other ways, though…


Consider, for instance, the format of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?. Making the answer one of four multiple-choice options goes a very long way towards eliminating ambiguity. In addition, making the answers part of the question adds a vital dimension to the way players figure out how to respond. As my friend James once said, the question they ask you is often less important than the answers they give you. Here’s a question from a recent session in the (excellent) Facebook version of Millionaire:

What is the name of the family featured in the long-running comic strip “For Better Or For Worse”?

A. Patterson B. Montgomery
C. Walker D. Sanger

Hardcore funnies fans could certainly give the answer to this question even without the multiple choices. Given these choices, however, someone who had a basic knowledge of the strip could likely identify the answer as A, “Patterson.” One way to make it harder for that person would be to inject more familiarity into those choices:

What is the name of the family featured in the long-running comic strip “For Better Or For Worse”?

A. Patterson B. McPherson
C. Mitchell D. DeGroot

The McPhersons are the family in Baby Blues, the Mitchells are from Dennis The Menace, and the DeGroots inhabit Luann. By using other names from the comics page, the question can throw a little more doubt on a player’s certainty. We could even take it closer to home:

What is the name of the family featured in the long-running comic strip “For Better Or For Worse”?

A. Patterson B. Johnston
C. Milborough D. Poirier

Johnston is the name of the strip’s creator, Milborough is the fictional town where the Pattersons live, and Poirier is the name of another family from the strip. (That last one starts to skirt dangerous ground — a player could claim that the Poiriers are “featured” as well.) You could even try to hide the answer in a bunch of decoys — Patton, Pattinson, Potter, etc. Without adjusting the actual question at all, it can still be possible to control the difficulty level, depending on your format.


On the other hand, you can ask your question in such a way that you may as well not have bothered to write the whole thing out — some phrases are just so suggestive of a specific answer, that when you hear one, the rest of the question simply doesn’t matter. For instance, here’s a question I heard a few months ago at a Geeks Who Drink quiz, in an “Art and Artists” category:

Ralph Steadman is an English artist who is primarily associated with what gonzo journalist?

Here’s another way of asking that question:

Gonzo journalist.

Because, let’s face it, when you hear the phrase “gonzo journalist,” do you think of anyone other than Hunter S. Thompson? Leonard calls these “Ginger questions,” based on this old Far Side cartoon:

Far side cartoon with two panels. The first is labeled "What we say to dogs." A man is angrily pointing to his dog, saying "Okay, Ginger! I've had it! You stay out of the garbage! Understand, Ginger? Stay out of the garbage or else!" Second panel is labeled "What they hear." The same drawing, but this time the man's speech balloon reads "blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GINGER blah blah blah blah"

In other words, you may be asking, “Ralph Steadman is an English artist who is primarily associated with what gonzo journalist?”, but your players hear “Blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah blah GONZO JOURNALIST.”

This kind of thing is particularly irritating to players who would actually know the answer without the giveaway. Such a player goes from feeling kick-ass and smart to feeling like it doesn’t matter whether he knows the answer, because everybody knows the answer. (Can you guess that I was such a player for this Steadman question? It’s possible I’m still a little bitter about it… 🙂 )

One way to fix this would be simply to remove the word “gonzo”. If that question seems too hard for your audience (and it may be so for something like Geeks Who Drink), it may be tempting to throw in the giveaway clause, but there are more nuanced ways to do it:

Ralph Steadman is an English artist who is primarily associated with what author of Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas?

Ralph Steadman is an English artist who illustrated the movie poster for Where The Buffalo Roam, a biopic of what writer?

Ralph Steadman is an English artist who created the characteristic look of Raoul Duke, the alter ego of what journalist and author?

Last one:


Okay, I got caught up the delights of alliteration there. What I mean is this: you can enhance the drama and fun of your questions and your game by making difficulty directional — either getting harder and harder or easier and easier. Sometimes it’s great to start out easyish, then ramp up the difficulty. You can see games like Jeopardy! doing this on several levels — both within each category and throughout the game. In quiz bowl style trivia, you can do it within the space of a single bonus question. The advantage this brings you is that your players don’t feel blasted and demoralized after the game or the question has barely even started. Missing hard questions is a lot easier to take after knowing easier questions.

On the other hand, sometimes getting easier and easier can create a lot of fun too. This technique creates the sense of a fuzzy picture gradually coming into focus. For instance, a list-style toss-up frequently benefits from this sort of approach:

Extreme. The Lemonheads. The Pixies. The Modern Lovers. New Edition. New Kids on the Block. The Cars. Aerosmith. And, of course, Boston. All these bands hail from what Massachusetts city?

Because players in quiz bowl competition can buzz in at any time, this sort of slow build rewards intuition and risk-taking. And if nobody is particularly dialed into where the question is going, it becomes more or less a buzzer-beater at the end. On the other side of the verbosity spectrum are pyramid-style toss-up questions, which start out with very obscure information about a topic, then progress to more and more blatant clues:

Bluestreak, a Nissan 280ZX Turbo. Skyhammer, a cybertronian jet. Hydraulic, a blue truck. These are some of the many Autobots who fight alongside Optimus Prime, a Freightliner tractor-trailer. They wage eternal war against Megatron, a Walther P-38 pistol, and his vast army of Decepticons. Name this toy line, which would later expand into comics, Saturday morning cartoons, video games, and most recently, a series of movies directed by Michael Bay.

This style of question drives some people crazy, but personally I’m a big fan. It rewards players with deeper knowledge of the topic at hand, and can create really fun moments in gameplay, either from a player jumping on the first hyper-obscure tidbit and nailing the answer, or with the question going on and on (keep in mind this style is intended to be read out loud) as the players get more and more anxious to jump on the buzzer. (The answer, by the way, is Transformers.)

In any case, introducing directional difficulty gives games and questions a sense of narrative, which makes them more compelling and more fun.

And that, believe it or not, is just about all the advice I can think of. To date, anyway. If you’ve actually read it all, I salute you, and hope to see you across the trivia table sometime soon.


Good Questions, part 3


Good Answers

1 Comment

  1. Anonymous

    Thanks for this series! I have greatly enjoyed it.

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