Sunday, August 19, 2018

Discern Realities v. Spout Lore v. Just Describing Stuff

This is another retrieval from the archives of the Dungeon World Tavern. Gerke Bouma posted about how "I still struggle sometimes with when to use discern realities and spout lore, and when to simply provide information or make them do a different type of roll." This was my response. Mostly the same as the original, plus formatting and some editing.  The examples section, though, was pretty heavily expanded on.   

Here's how I distinguish between Discern Realities, Spout Lore, and me just telling them stuff.

If they're just asking for clarification on the environment, what they see and hear and feel, what should be immediately obvious, then I'll just tell them.

  • "What are the paintings of?"
  • "Is the tunnel, like, worked stone? Or natural?"
  • "What sort of stuff is on the shelves? Anything valuable?"
  • "How many of them are there?"
  • "I drop a coin down the pit... do I hear it hit bottom?"

All of these are basically the player asking me to do my job and describe the situation. But they're also invitations to make a GM move (because they're looking at me to see what happens).

Are they asking something that really should be immediately obvious?  Tell them! Is there a looming threat you can point to at the same time?  Do it!  "Yeah, the tunnel is like, raw stone and not bricks, and it doesn't look, like, hewn... it's more like it was... melted? There are these ripple-marks, and parts in the ceiling where it looks like the stone was almost, like, dripping? What do you do?"

If you've got no idea what the answer is, you could ask questions and build on the answers. "The paintings? I think they depict a number of important historical figures... you recognize a couple of them, who are they?"

If they ask about something that wouldn't be immediately apparent, then tell them the requirements and ask"The stuff on the shelves? Just a few ceramic pots, a couple rotting wooden boxes, and a bunch of dust and spider webs. None of it looks valuable, but who knows? You'd have to like open the containers to find out. Do you?"

Now, if they they take action in order to figure out what's going on, then they're Discerning Realities. "I shine my torch all around the opening to the tunnel, looking carefully at the walls, those dripping stalagmite things, the ground."  "Sounds like you're Discerning Realities to me!"

But if they ask whether they know something (or assert that they do, or ask what they know about __, or something like that), then they're Spouting Lore"Do I have any idea what could have made a tunnel like this?" or "Do I recognize the style of the pottery? Like, can I tell where it came from or how old it is?"

If it's not clear which one they're doing, either interrogate them and/or the fiction until it becomes clear, or just ask them which move they're trying to trigger.

Also: there's nothing wrong with giving them an opportunity and just being like "Ovid, I bet you'd know something about the scenes in these pictures, what to Spout Lore?" or "Well, you could search the shelves to find something valuable, that'd be Discern Realities."  In Apocalypse World 2e, they specifically call out "Push Read a Sitch" and "Push Read a Person" (etc) as GM moves for certain threats.

(And: the GM principle of "never speak the name of your move" is talking about the GM move. There's no prohibition against using the names of PC moves, and in fact you pretty much have to name those moves in order to play the game.)

Now, for some specific examples.
From Gerke's post
Situation 1: I described one of my room in a dungeon to have various pictures of rituals etched into the wall. The room was known to belong to a cult they were investigating. One of my players wanted to examine the pictures more closely and figure out if they provided them with any more information. I did not have anything specific in mind up front.  
Discern realities' questions didn't really seem to apply to this. I went with Spout lore (which resulted in them finding a riddle pointing to a hidden door), but i'm not entirely sure this was the 'proper' way to handle this.  
What would you have let them roll, if anything? 

"Figures in a Basement," Joseph Mallard William Turner, via the Tate
Seemed appropriate.

I'd have told them what the paintings were of (generally), maybe asked a couple questions ("You recognize one of these places, where from?") and then maybe prompted them to Spout Lore ("You want to Spout Lore to see if you recognize the significance or anything?").

Assuming they Spouted Lore, on a 7-9, I'd have made up something that connected the paintings to the cult, but given only fuzzy details about it:
"You're pretty sure your recognize most of these portraits and places... and the thing that jumps out at you, is that they all were people who came from humble beginnings and rose to prominence in society."
On a 10+, I'd give them some last piece of info to make it all relevant and immediately useful, like:
"So either these guys were all cultists and the cult is responsible for their rise to power, or the cult respects their rise to power. But hey, now that you think about it... the merchant who hired you to investigate this place... didn't he used to be a lowly wainwright?"
or maybe...
"You notice something a little weird, though. In each painting, there's this strange ankh shape... all the portrait subjects are either wearing one, or holding one, or it's on the wall behind them... and you're sure it's not a heraldic device. In fact, you're pretty sure it's the sigil of a demon lord, Ahtraxis, known for enriching mortals at the cost of their souls! Hey... how did you come to learn about Ahtraxis?"
(editorial note: in the original post, I suggested that they notice the ankh in the paintings, and then notice an ankh-shaped inset in the wall, but that felt more like a Discern Realities result to me)
If, instead, they described searching the room and the paintings, I'd have gone with Discern Realities.  (Yes, of course it's a situation... you're in a dungeon, right?).

  • What here is useful or valuable to me? "The paintings are pretty nice, and would fetch a decent price if you could get them safely to a collector." 
  • What here is not what it seems? "There's a recurring ankh motif in the paintings, like all of the subjects are holding one, or the walls behind them feature one, that sort of thing. Also, there's an ankh-shaped depression hidden in the far wall." 
  • What should I be on the lookout for?  "Yeah, that ankh-shaped depression is definitely the trigger to something, like a secret door. You even find the edges of where you think the door is. But you also find a number of faint runes all around the edge... you're pretty sure it's some sort of magical trap."  
    • Or perhaps, if they'd previous Spouted Lore about the contents of the painting and gotten that 7-9 result above.... "You know, looking at these important men and women from humble beginnings... it dawns on you... the wealthy merchant who's funding this expedition... didn't he start out as a lowly fishmonger?" 

  • What happened here recently?  "Well, the paintings have clearly been here a while, though some are definitely newer than others. And this room doesn't get a lot of use, but you can tell from the dust that someone's been in and out of here somewhat recently, like in the past few days at least."
  • What is about to happen?  "What, if you poke and prod that ankh-shaped depression? Probably nothing, unless you have an ankh to put in there. Or it might set off that magical trap, if they 'key' isn't right."
  • Who or what is really in control here?  "Well, I mean, this place is pretty obviously controlled by the cult.  Hmm.  Oh! You know, you can tell that these paintings were all added over time, like based on the people in the portraits, maybe every 20 or 30 years?  And there's one that's relatively recent, showing a colonel in the King's army, Sir Montrose. He's still alive, last you heard. Is he maybe the head of the cult?"

Notice how some of the answers are affected by the previous answers, or the information garnered through a previous use of Spout Lore.  I find that this happens a lot. You establish a seed of information and truth, and then future questions/moves grow from it.

Also from Gerke's post
A player obtained an artifact belonging to the cult I mentioned before. The use of the artifact (a bracelet) has not been established yet (for the players, I do have something in mind). One of the players wanted to fiddle with the artifact around the room to see if it reacted to anything.  
Although I wasn't really planning on them doing this, it seemed cool to me. The answer "It doesn't react to anything" would be unrewarding and lame. However, simply telling them 'oh it reacts to XXX' might be a bit too easy. This action uncovering something potentially dangerous felt unfair without there being a roll involved.  
How would you have handled this?

Since the bracelet was discovered elsewhere and clearly the PCs thought it was important at the time, I'm assuming that it's already been described and the players already asked the obvious questions. If not, I'd start there.  "It's a metallic bracelet, with this blue lacquer. There's a red, glassy stone set in it, maybe like a carnelian? No, no markings, but it'd clearly be worth a fair amount of coin. The way your fingers tingle when you touch it, it might even be magical."

Now, when the PC pulls it out in the room with the paintings, if you (the GM) had something planned about the amulet and the room, you might offer an opportunity right then and there. Or, you could decide on the spot that there was a connection (even if you hadn't planned one) and do the same thing. Something like "The red carnelian is glowing; it wasn't doing that before. What do you do?" (and I bet that whatever they do, it triggers Discern Realities).

But if you didn't have any planned connection between the amulet and the room, and didn't want to introduce one... you have established to yourself that the amulet is magical and dangerous. So the player is sort of creating their own situation by waving this thing around to see what happens.  Sounds like Discern Realities to me.

  • What here isn't what it seems?  "Well, this clearly isn't just a bracelet. You feel a warm... thrum of power when you put it on, and when you move your arm about."  (Or, alternately... "The bracelet, there's a powerful, subtle magic in it... how can you tell?")
  • What here is useful or valuable to me? "Well, it doesn't seem to react to the paintings or anything. But when you move the bracelet towards a torch, you notice a slight flickering of the flame. it's, like... bending towards the bracelet, just a little.  Maybe more when you concentrate on it."
  • Who is really in control here? "No one, right now. But you sense that you can control the bracelet's power through practice and force of will."
  • What is about to happen? "As you move the bracelet closer to the flame, the flame like... leans in.  You're pretty sure the flame is about to jump onto the bracelet!"

  • What should I be on the lookout for? "Well, if this bracelet is going draw flames into it, you better watch out. Use it wrong, or lose control, and you'll probably be flinging fires around all over the place."
  • What happened here recently? "What, to the bracelet? Or this room?  Nothing. You guys are the first people to enter this room in years, maybe decades!"


  1. I'll be honest, as a player the line between "just describing stuff" and Discern Realities always seemed a little fuzzy. I can't come up with any specific examples off the top of my head, but there were definitely some times where I *felt* like a question I'd asked should have triggered DR but I got an answer "for free" (no roll). The line between DR and Spout Lore definitely seems much more clear cut: what can I observe about my surroundings vs what did I already know.

    I'm still not quite sure where the line is for DR. "Anything valuable?" sounds like literally one of the DR questions, and if the trigger is "player takes an action" then the "I drop a coin into the hole, do I hear it hit" would be a DR move. I'M BEING PEDANTIC AND I KNOW IT but honestly this is an interesting distinction.

  2. I do know that if your character would know all about whatever it is, like, she's native to the place so is familiar with this religious symbol, or it's flame magic, and he's a sorceror specialising in flame - so they don't have to roll. They naturally know all about it.