Sunday, April 21, 2019

Pleasures of the OSR: Secrecy and Discovery

This is the first in a series of posts that try to say something about the theory of the OSR style of play. I promise never to use jargon, but if you don't like self-conscious reflection on what we do in practice, then this series probably isn't for you. That's why I added the label "Theory" to the posts in this series: so that you can avoid it like the plague.

My way of conceptualizing our play style is to speak about the distinctive pleasures this style facilitates. It is play after all, and so the whole point is for it to be a pleasurable activity. Each post in this series will explore how the rules and methods we use facilitate one or another distinctive pleasure. These pleasures are, in many cases, mutually supporting in OSR play, and so they come as a package, but in other cases they're in some tension with one another. So there's going to be a little bit of explaining why I'm keener for some elements of OSR play style than others.    

Recently I have been reading a lot of story games, including Apocalypse World and its progeny, "Powered by the Apocalypse" (PbtA) games, and Blades in the Dark and its scions, "Forged in the Dark" (FitD) games. I've also been hanging around the Gauntlet Community. I have signed up for my first session in their delightful and ongoing storygame version of Constantcon. I also have been listening to the excellent Dungeon World (a PbtA game) actual play podcast We Hunt the Keepers. For me this process has been tremendously clarifying. I think what they do is really neat, and seeing how it's different from what we do helps me to understand why we do some of things we do. There's nothing like seeing the space of alternatives to better understand the niche you occupy. I'm also interested in how we could get some of the pleasures they chase into our games without diluting the pleasures we're chasing. As it turns out, this is not so easy, for reasons I'll explain eventually.

One of the primary pleasures I get in playing D&D is discovery. Discovery involves uncovering  something previously unknown. When I discover something, I learn or finding out about that thing. In some uses, say in science or geographical exploration, we use as the subject of knowledge humanity as a whole, and speak of "discovering" something only when knowledge is first brought to light. This is the sense in which Einstein discovered special relativity, and the sense in which Christopher Columbus emphatically did not discover the "New World", in spite of what your junior high school teacher might have told you. But we also speak of discovery in an individual register, as I might discover that I'm really good at philosophy, or I might discover some interesting historical fact about my neighborhood--a fact which other people know and have known, but which is news to me. 

The pleasure of discovery
One crucial point is this: in the ordinary sense of the term, one can only discover something that is already there. If you make something up, that's not discovering it. Another important point is that we need to distinguish between the character (PC) discovering something in the world of the game and the player of that character discovering something about the world of the game. Those are two very different things. It is possible for the character to discover something while the player does not discover anything. One case is where the player already knows what his character discovers. Another case is where in the "fiction" of the game the character comes to discover something, but the player does not because the "fact" was made up on the spot, either by the player or by the DM. In this case, although in the "fiction" of the game there was a fact about something that existed in advance, and your character just found it out, in reality there was no fact about this feature of the gameworld in advance, and so, as a player outside the fiction, there was nothing there for you to discover.

So here is one of the pleasures of the OSR style of play: it makes available the pleasure of discovery about the world of the game and the things in it. This fact depends on a differentiation of roles between DMs and players. The DM in designing the world, building the sandbox, creating and stocking the dungeons, making up the NPCs, and so on, acquires one secret after another. On the OSR style of play, prep is essentially stocking a storehouse of secrets. The players, by contrast, go into the situations they choose to enter in a state of ignorance. They are in the dark about the nature of this strange tower their character has decide to explore; they do not know what is around the next corner, or in that chest; they do not know what the NPCs are up to, or even what NPCs and factions there are; they do not know what will happen if they put that obviously magical crown on their head. This is tremendous fun for both the player and the DM.

For the player, there is immediate tension in entering into a situation without knowing what's going on. In OSR games, the stakes are almost always high, since they include the life and death of the character, but also the success or failure of many schemes. The lack of knowledge is thus a source of peril and uncertainty. It is both an obstacle to be overcome and a hazard to be dared. There is also a thrill of discovery, of uncovering things that are hidden. If the game is being played well, what is uncovered are not boring things. Every dungeon is initially a mystery, every artifact a hidden wonder, every faction an unknown quantity. To explore a dungeon is to unravel the mystery of the place.

This is the DM's map (above) from Judge's Guild's First Fantasy Camapaign by Dave Arneson, and the blank version of the same hex map, as filled in by players.
This feature receives dramatic representation in the fact that one begins a hexcrawl with a blank sheet of hex paper, and dungeon exploration with a blank sheet of graph paper. Judges Guild for example always included both a filled in DM's map and a blank map for the players to fill in. All that white space on the map is a representation of your ignorance as a player, and the satisfaction of marking what is known is the graphic record of the pleasures of discovery. This pleasure extends to larger scale discovery of elements of the setting and world. Since the OSR specializes in highly evocative settings, from the deep geological horror of the Veins of the Earth to the mythic slavic weirdness of the Hill Cantons, this journey into the unknown is also a coming to know about a fantastical world and its secrets. 

For the DM, the associated pleasures are different. The DM sets something up and then sees how the players cope with it in their state of ignorance. First of all, there is pleasure in knowing something that others don't know. The DM is the one in the know, the one who has the synoptic vision of what's going on that others lack. This is represented at the table in striking form by the presence of a DM screen, a kind of symbolic and real veil that hides the prepped storehouse of secrets from the view of the players.

Just look at this gorgeous screen that Anthony Huso just made!
From behind (literal or figurative) screen, the DM gets to hear the player's theories, suppressing a smile when the guess is wrong (or right). They see the consequences of the players' high-stakes choices in conditions of ignorance, getting the thrill of anticipating the cascading consequences. Another pleasure of having secrets is sharing them. The DM gets the immense pleasure of letting the players in on the secret as they discover more and more. This includes the dramatic pleasure of the "big reveal" or "the Saturday Night Specials", but also the more quotidian pleasure of describing something (a room, an NPC) for the first time. But that's just the beginning. If the DM has done their job right, then the PCs are walking into a tightly coiled spring. The DM participates in that sense of palpable tension that flows from player ignorance. They don't know what choices the players will make, coping well or badly with their ignorance, and the DM is as much on the edge of their seats as the players are. In one way, the tension is greater for the DM, since the DM knows what the players are up against.  

One way to see the significance of this pleasure is to see how it is undermined by some of the basic aims of story games. This is not a knock against story games, since my view is that they're largely chasing different pleasures that are not so easy for us to get at. I also don't mean to say that you cannot pursue this pleasure in a story game. But there are certain widely shared design goals in story games that make it harder. Story games generally try to break down the asymmetry of DM and players by allowing the players into the role of creation. Through myriad techniques and rules they distribute to players the world-making, scene describing, NPC reacting, job that the OSR reserves for the DM. The idea is that the players and the DM are telling a story together in a certain genre, in a kind of improvisational mode. Reality is, in a certain sense and to varying degrees, up for grabs in accordance with the rules that dole out narrative control. This means that while their characters might discover things, it's much harder for the players to do so. To the extent that discovery is possible for the players, it's because the DM is reserving some things and refusing to cede narrative control over them. They are facts that are fixed in the fiction independently of what the players want and choose, facts know to the DM and not known to the players. The point is just: a lot of rules in storygames push against this. This steers the game away from the pleasures of discovery, whereas the OSR is on a straight road headed to that destination.

A conceptual test case is the fascinating game Lovecraftesque. First, let me say that it seems like a really fun game that I think I might enjoy playing, especially on a cold winter night in New England. Lovecraftesque eschews the asymmetrical roles of DM and player altogether since it is a DM-less (some prefer to say "DM-full") game that distributes the entire bundle of DM powers and prerogatives to the players in turns. For each scene participants occupy one of three roles, "the narrator" (DM), "the watcher" (DM's helper), or "the witness" (the one player character). It is thus on the outer limit of the common design goal of story games of democratizing control "over narrative". It's interesting for our purposes since it also concerns the genre of Lovecraftian horror, which is all about the slow burning discovery of some terrible secret. It is a genre that would seem to be tailor-made in roleplaying games for realizing the pleasures of discovery. But the game faces a basic problem: it wants to give the pleasures of discovery, but since the participants in the game are making that truth up as they go along, this is not so easy. Here's how the rules navigate this problem.

Each scene, up until the final confrontation with the horror, ends with a clue being revealed by the current narrator. At the end of each scene each player "jumps to a conclusion", writing secretly on a sheet of paper their current speculation about the nature of the events befalling the witness and the cosmic horror behind it all. Perhaps events will prove their speculation wrong (almost certainly so) as different players, with different ideas and inspirations, take control of the role of narrator. So their speculations are likely to develop or change all together from scene to scene. At the end, after the horror has been revealed, the player share all their speculations with one another. It is almost as though there had been a fact about the matter, almost as though they had assembled clues to guess about it, and almost as though they learn the terrible truth at the end. Except nothing was fixed as the truth in advance, and so it is an elaborately constructed pretense of the pleasure of discovery, rather than the real thing. If you 100% abandon the asymmetry in knowledge between DM and player, it's about the best you can do.

Towards the other end of the spectrum, In We Hunt the Keepers, a Dungeon World (PbtA) actual play podcast DMed by Jason Cordova, Cordova often keeps a sense of mystery going by reserving knowledge and control of certain facts for himself. He operates, so to speak, with a DM's screen partially in place. Although the rules and ethos of the game dictate that he cede control of most details of the mystery to the players in play. And in Lovecraftesque fashion, at the end of the whole series the "big reveal" is going to be constructed collaboratively looking back on the clues assembled.

This brings us to a fault line in the OSR play style. The element in some tension with the pleasures of discovery and secrecy is a preference among some OSR types for low-prep gaming. In part this connected with a commitment to the pleasures of emergent story (hint: that's going to be the next post) and the universal hatred of railroading in all its forms; in part it's connected with a desire not to get paralyzed by unnecessary questions. People in the OSR regularly come out with sentences like, "Start small," and, "Don't get too far ahead of your players," and "Don't invest in a snowflake of a world." Given that prep simply is the stocking of a storehouse of secrets, these dictums all say: do less of that. On the side of tools, rules, and hacks, people have developed many techniques that allow a more improvisational style of play that fits those dictums, for example methods of procedurally generating at the table a garden in Ynn, the layout of Castle Gargantua, or a space hulk in Mothership.

This point needs to be handled with some care, since methods of random generation need not be in conflict with the pleasures of discovery. Start with a simple case: a random encounter table in a dungeon. I view these as essential elements of OSR play. To some extent, a random encounter table makes a variable of the movements and presence of various NPCs, factions, and threats. There is no fact of the matter about whether on turn 3 a band of crabmen is sidewalking your way until the die comes up a '1' on the encounter check, and the result of "Crabmen" is rolled on the table. But it would be confused to say that this speaks against the pleasure of discovery. Encounter tables represent the shifting ecology of an adventuring site: the factions, vermin, threats, and hazards that move around it freely. To have a random encounter is to learn something that is an already established fact about the locale: in this case (say) that Crabmen move through this area to feed on the giant clams in the submerged caverns to the North. It is important here that encounters can be repeated, and also that a well-designed encounter table reflects facts about the dungeon factions, interlopers, and environmental hazards. If well-designed, an encounter is itself a discovery about fixed facts about an adventuring site.

A harder case is where both the encounters and the nature and layout of the locale are procedurally generated. But even here a lot depends on the case. Take the Gardens of Ynn, one of the best products of the OSR (in my humble opinion). The Gardens of Ynn are meant for successive delves. Emmy Allen writes, "Ynn shifts and rearranges itself. Until the PCs actually look, the next location exists in a state of quantum uncertainty. There is, therefore, no need to roll up locations ahead of time. Every time players visit the Gardens of Ynn, roll up a new starting location from scratch." She has three different tables to roll on, one for the location, one for features of the location, and another for ongoing events in the location. These combine with random encounter checks that are Garden wide but that take a more dire form the more deeply one penetrates it. In one way these rules do block the pleasures of discovery. The DM does not have any concrete secrets in advance (the facts are all "in a quantum state"), and so the players cannot discover them. But in another sense that's not true. Part of the fun and the key to surviving the Gardens of Ynn is to understand the strange principles by which it operates, principles that are fixed in advance, and which the players will certainly need to learn. So it is a big discovery that when you go back in for the second time, you end up in a place that is totally different, and that the map has changed. The players learn they will only ever get one crack at each location. It is also a big discovery that when you push deeper, changes happen in a certain direction, that one can, as it were, plumb the depths of the gardens. Finally, there's a kind of aesthetic logic to the whole place that will be one of the main pleasures of discovery, along with a single shared encounter table. So it's a mixed bag in this regard: it systematically thwarts the pleasures of secrecy and discovery in one way, but enables it in another way: what it takes with one hand it gives back (in some measure) with the other. I wouldn't want to play this way all the time, but I think it would be fun to do for a bit.

This also explains why I'm not so keen on the raving enthusiasm for low-prep gaming that is expressed episodically in certain strands of OSR culture. I run zero or very low prep games when I DM for kids, which I do a lot. But that's because the higher pleasures are lost on them. It's not like when I play a proper game with grown ups. Different people like different things, so I'm not being prescriptive when I say that for me, the pleasures of secrecy and discovery are at the heart of roleplaying. One reason why the OSR style of play appeals to me is that makes this pleasure easy.  


  1. Extremely salient analysis, as always. I usually end up reducing this to a discussion of immersion: I like the feeling that I'm there whenever I'm playing a game, lost in description and interacting with the PCs. Storygames' focus on genre emulation tends to produce more polished narratives at the end, but a lot of the mechanics are expressly designed to remind me I'm playing a game. Conversely, in OSR games, I usually only feel remotely removed from the setting during combat.

    That having been said, I've enjoyed my forays into storygames and still play them and OSR games with abandon.

  2. I recently "discovered" The Gardens of Ynn. Merely reading it gave me a sense of wonder and discovery.

    I think you are completely right about what OSR provides to players. Through world building and exploration of that, players and DM's have a shared experience, which is unlike any other type of game.

  3. Secrets are definitely my favourite part of prepping for my home game. Although I do regret the time spent agonizing over random encounter tables that 'make sense' to me, it's worth it when the players say "who were THOSE guys?"

  4. Great post. The player vs. character discovery dynamic is so crucial. The point about procedural generation not being incompatible with discovery is a good one... is it relevant that Gardens of Ynn has an in-universe justification for being procedurally generated? The randomness or shifting nature of the Gardens doesn't break the verisimilitudinous meniscus because of the surface tension provided by a Borgesian physics? :p

  5. I dig this post. I find myself much more on the story game side of this artificial fence, so I have some questions:

    1. How is "I discovered a thing the GM rolled just now" distinctly different from "I discovered something someone at the table just made up"? I don't see a major difference aside from the player creating the thing didn't discover the thing - but they do get the satisfaction of creation. This is often a thing reserved for the GM, but even in the D&D I used to play, it was common to ask something akin to "PC, you're hunting vampires, right? How do they kill?"

    2. I'm not sure if you're positing only OSR games as "low prep", but it feels that way. Even OSR games are higher prep that most of the story-game adjacent things I run. In OSR games I need appropriate maps, tables, etc. In other games I just use the other players' collaberations as random input (in place of tables). Can you explain your low prep point a bit more?

    1. Hi Aaron, let me try to answer your questions.

      (1) My point is that if the GM or a player has just made something up, then the other players (and the GM) can't have the experience of discovery in the sense I'm discussing it. Discovering something in the sense that goes with the pleasure i'm talking about is finding out something that's already a fact. With rolling something on a table it might or might not be like that, it all depends. So, for example, a well-designed random encounter table describes the ecology of a place, the movement of its factions, and denizens and so on. These are pre-established facts about the place. So when you have a random encounter you discover something (a pre-existing fact) about the adventure locale: like crabmen are a faction with a base somewhere in here and they travel around this joint. But it's true that you don't discover e.g. that crabmen are in this particular room right now, since that fact didn't exist independently of the roll.

      But other cases of rolling are not like this, for example, ways of procedurally generating an environment. My point was that these DO detract from the pleasure of discovery since bumping into something as rolled doesn't teach you about some pre-exiting fact.

      (2) Not at all. Lovecratesque, for example, is a zero prep game. So OSR games are certainly not the only low prep games. In fact, part of my point is that one way that OSR type games are pleasurable depends on them NOT being low prep. Since I love the pleasures of secrecy and discovery, my games are extremely high prep games for example. My point is just that there's a tension here in that people in the OSR often say they value low prep gaming (and do!), but I'm pointing out that this preference is in some tension with the getting the pleasures of secrecy and discovery

  6. Interesting analysis! Your "discovery vs. creation" dichotomy seems to suggest that if a GM made something up on the spot the players would know it and be robbed of the joy of discovery. I don't believe that to be necessarily the case.

    I guess as a DM, I don't feel bound by all the details I made up in prep, or at the very least, I'm not constantly checking my notes for 100% fidelity. I'm I robbing my players of the chance at discovery if I change some details on the fly in your view?

    Also, I would argue that as a DM, when I don't know exactly what I'm going to present, there is some discovery to for me to. A musician may write a song, but each performance may well be unique and spontaneous, to a degree.

    1. Trey, I agree with what you're saying. I don't think the pleasures of discovery are the only pleasures. Of course, there's pleasure to improvising something on the spot, to taking things in a direction that flows and fits, and is fun.

      But I do think that if you've done zero prep as a DM then you can't have the pleasures I describe of being in on the secret, feeling the tension in advance, and so on. The less you know about the joint they're walking into, the less you will have it. So the more you're improvising by the seat of your pants, the less you'll have of the sort of pleasure I'm describing.

      I also think as a player there are many pleasures that don't depend on discovering what was there. There's overcoming challenges, generating emergent stories, thinking on your feet, experiencing amazing scenes, playing true to character, lots and lots of good stuff, some of which I'll discuss later. (The next post is on the pleasures of "emergent story" and "openness of the world".) But I do think that to the extent that it's being improvised and you know it, to just that extent you can't have the pleasure of discovering things. So again, it's not the only, but is A thing, and it's a thing that story games steer you away from and OSR games steer you towards

    2. Again that's not a knock against story games, since they're trying to do a different thing, and they have their own rich pleasures.

    3. I guess I'm feeling you are defining "discovery" and its related joy rather narrowly, at least for me and what it appears to me I see players experiencing. And I'm not so sure (for me, again) that the quality of the joy is so quantitized that being 80% in on the secret is significantly less enjoyable than being 100% in on the secret.

    4. I get that Trey. I think perhaps "discovery" was overly broad. I'm OK with narrowing it a bit. (I'm not trying to bait and switch here, so I'm happy to concede that my point may have less force than it appeared to at the start. I struggle to come up with a language for my experience here.) I also get that it's not necessarily the main thing, and also that the idea of more or less being good might not really make sense above a certain threshold. This conversation is food for thought.

    5. There''s a reason theories need to define their terms rigorously. I personally like "discovery" with its connotations relating to exploration, but "revelation" might be a better choice (i.e. the DM merely reveals pre-existing facts).

  7. Love the theory! I especially love the distinct pleasure of discovering deadly gas in a wax sealed coffin!

  8. I like the general gist - discovery is a huge part of OSR play. But it seems like you are talking about two very different experiences - the experience of the players and the experience of the DM. When I run things (and let me say this is only my anecdotal experience) I don't see a huge difference in the reactions on the other side whether things are prepped ahead of time or if I'm basically prepping right ahead of them in real time. Either way the players and characters are discovering things and they are then a fact in the game world. I guess I'm saying I don't think the players can usually really tell what's planned and what's not unless you are actively telling them. I usually can't when I'm a player. The fun of seeing players interact with a very planned environment can be very enjoyable but I wouldn't necessarily privilege it over other methods of DMing.

    1. I agree with this part for sure: as a player you can't always tell what's going on behind the screen. So it's not always clear cut, and often it flows from one to the other (prep to improv) without disrupting the experience. But I strongly disagree that it makes no difference to my experience as player. I definitely have a palpable sense of anticipation that comes from knowing that the DM has a location or faction, etc worked out. When I very first enter a cool dungeon, when I'm on the threshold and anticipation is highest, knowing that it already has a concept, and that there is something "there" for me to explore does make a difference to me. Generally speaking, my experience is more enjoyable as a player, when I have the sense that the DM knows what the mysteries are, whether it's dungeon, setting lore, or NPC faction, and that I'm discovering that thing. Of course there are many other pleasures than this one, so it's not everything, or even necessarily the main thing. But still, for me, it's A thing.

  9. This article made me realize that what we call "storytelling" role-plays in Italy are quite different from those that you describe here. When we talk about storytelling we mean a game in which mood and plot sometimes overcome mechanics. Example: to keep the "momentum" of combat, combat rules are very simple and fast, so players concentrate on the fury and not on the tactical, boardgamish side. But the gamemaster role is still very separated from the player's: he's the only owner of the story and its secrets. The major risk is, of course, railroading, because there's often a plot that, in a way or the other, has to be followed. And of course a bigger focus on the emotional side of playing characters and their relationships.

  10. This has been lingering in my mind since I read it yesterday. I am not sure my reaction is any clearer now than it was then, but.

    I feel like there's a middle ground between what you describe as the necessary condition for the discovery joy and zero prep. It's what Trey's getting at I think? Mainly, that like any good plan, all the prep in the world lasts right up until the first punch is thrown.

    That is, while I might know the NPCs, know in broad strokes what they want and where their loyalties like, the expression of that and any given NPCs actions toward furthering those goals and loyalties will always be determined by what the players bring to the confrontation.

    There's no way to effect and no one would want to read an NPC description so finely detailed it can take into account anything the players say or any tack they take. The map would be the size of the territory, and people are too big to put in RPGs -- that's why we have a DM. So there is discovery for the DM as the sketches of a personality -- the NPC background -- meet the actual conditions of interaction with the players.

    Plus, there are reaction dice, which nicely reflect the randomness of mood, vibe, whim, and affect to provide yet another way for the DM to explore a given encounter.

    So ... still not sure I'm getting at this. Just that between zero prep and ultimate all-knowing prep there's the space where I think most games (definitely my game) tend to happen, and there's enough in-built randomness and unpredictable reaction to unforeseeable events that the discovery there is always going to be a reward for both players and DM.

    In other words, I barely know how I'm going to react to stuff in regular life, let alone how a personality I'm inhabiting based on a paragraph or so of text is going to react to the truly weird stuff players can come up with on the fly.

    tl;dr: The owl and the bear had no idea they'd fall in love, until ...

    1. Handy, I agree that it's not an attractive idea to work everything out in advance (whatever that would mean). First of all, knowing who a major NPC is, what they want generally speaking and one personality trait, may be more than enough information. Why would I want to know their hairstyle? Similarly, jotted room notes will do just fine. I'm not saying to overprep. I'm just saying that there's a particular set of pleasures that come from interacting with a location, NPC, setting, etc. that's already there, so to speak. I tried to say something about the role of randomness--I think random procedures are just fine; they aren't necessarily even in tension with this. I would count the reaction roll as such a thing.

      And OBVIOUSLY I'm against all forms of railroading. I 100% agree that any model of "prepping" that gets in the way of emergent stories or open worlds is bad. (My next post is about emergent stories and open worlds, so I'll say more soon.) The whole fun is to see what unpredictable things happen when players interact with the world. For me, that's the main point. Pursuing the pleasure of discovery stands in no tension with emergent stories and open worlds. If you design your dungeon (factions, sandobox, setting) right, then it enables rather than hinders open-ended play.

      For what it's worth, zero prep games could totally be railroads. The degree of prep, and how much of a railroad a game is, are two different questions, at least if you approach prep in the right way.

  11. Ben, I really appreciate you writing this, because it's got me thinking about procedural generation, and it's a topic I enjoy thinking about.

    One thing I like, as a referee, with running procedural generation, is that I get to experience the "joy of discovery" alongside my players.

    I think the "discovery vs creation" dichotomy makes sense, but I also think I believe that procedural generation is discovery, not creation.

    I guess part of it's that I think that rolling the dice at the table isn't *meaningfully* different than rolling them all in advance, making a list of the results, and just working your way down that list during the game.

    So when we procedurally generate the dungeon at the table during play, I feel like we ARE discovering something that already exists. We're discovering a dungeon that exists because the tables of results exist, and the list of numbers exists, even though we have to roll the dice to learn what the next number on the list is.

    Applying the procedures of matching dice results to table entries feels like decoding a text that was written in a cipher. The text is already written, but by decoding it there at the table, I get to discover it at the same time as my players, and I enjoy the communal nature of that experience.

    It's also enjoyable for me to discover the dungeon first, during prep, and then watch as my players discover it again for themselves, but the first of those is a more individualistic pleasure, and the second is communal, but not in the same way.

    When it comes to creation, I think there also might be a difference worth noting between "the player created the thing" and "the player prompted the ref, who then created the thing." The second of those might not be discovery, exactly, but it still preserves for the player the opportunity to be pleasurably surprised by the referee's creation.

    To be clear though, this is not me trying to argue with you. This is me feeling prompted by you to think through some of the things I enjoy.

    1. Anne thanks for this comment. It's interesting to see what everyone's response is, partly because the things I'm trying to talk about are so much about how something feels at the table (i.e. what's fun and why). So it's always relevant data when something doesn't sound quite right to someone who plays in roughly the same kinds of games I'm talking about. I hear what you're saying about the tables. I agree that's there's fun in being surprised along with your players. I also agree that having things externalized into tables can work like discovery, especially when the tables in some way communicate the character of a place. I also agree at this point that I was using the term "discovery" too narrowly, I dragooned it for my own purposes by playing up some of its connotations and suppressing other uses of it that sound just fine in context.

      I also agree that there's some room between the player makes a thing up, and the player prompts the DM who makes a thing up. It's a little too quick to argue from: "you lose discovery if you're making it all up yourself" to "you lose a sense of discovery if someone else is making it up on the spot". Maybe in a sense yes and in a sense no. The best part of writing this thing is the conversations that are coming out of it.

    2. I'm really glad you're writing them. They're obviously provoking a lot of conversation, and I'm enjoying reading the comment threads almost as much as the main article.

      And I do think that the "creation vs discovery" dichotomy taps into something real in the way we experience things at the table.

  12. Thank you for writing this. I think this matches my experience to the point. The joy of discovery as a referee is something even get for things that I don't see other people talk about all that often. I like rolling for treasure, even if I made up all the magic items and all the treasure tables, because this is a small step in the direction of my own suspension of disbelief. If I rolled for it, I find it easier to believe in the independent existence of the world.
    Conversely, as I player I started to notice that I don't like it when the referee uses no screen, and I get to see the improvisation happening right then and there. You put my disappointment into words. It's more made up now that I see it happening.

  13. I do prep and tend to "stick to the script" and not change anything. Players will *always* inevitably wander off script and will provide plenty of opportunities to improvise. Ideally, what I want is to highlight the things that games do *differently* (or perhaps better) than other mediums (like books or films). Instead of just emulating other things, you play to find out (I believe that is is a kind of discovery). Any emergent stories that appear are only due to the players choices and a series of (usually wacky) die rolls. Any story that accidentally appears is due looking backward on the events and making sense of them afterwards. Sort of like how a person's lived experience is completely different than a tidy biopic version of their life.