Discern Realities: What here is not what it appears to be?

Discern Realities: What here is not what it appears to be?

Discern Realities: What here is not what it appears to be?

This is the move I still have the most trouble with as a GM.  My players get to some point where they think there must be something to find, so they say “I look around the room to see what I can find” and I say “okay, roll +WIS”.  They roll a 10, then I say, “okay, ask three of the questions.” 

We haven’t played enough yet to internalize them, so this involves digging out the moves sheet, then asking them.  More often than that, I end up making shit up (oh, I guess there is something hidden here), which is cool and all, but the whole process still feels a little awkward and contrived.

So, I’m curious, does anyone know the design intention behind having Discern Realities use a fixed set of questions?  Is it just to encourage questions that result in creative continuations of a situation that’s gone slightly stale?  I do get that it’s not really intended to be a classic ‘Perception check’, but it’s definitely still the move that causes the most pausing and breaking of immersion for our group.  Maybe we’re using it incorrectly?

55 thoughts on “Discern Realities: What here is not what it appears to be?”

  1. It’s BECAUSE it’s not a perception check. The types of questions you are allowed to ask represent the sorts of situations in which you are supposed to roll it.

    Searching a room is not “closely studying a person or situation” because a room is neither a person nor a situation. If your PCs search a room, either have them defy danger or something if there’s a time constraint, or just tell them what they find if they have time to turn the place upside down.

    The questions are there to help you understand when you should roll the move.

  2. “Looking around a room to see what I can find” does not trigger Discern Realities. Either they find something or they don’t, or they get interrupted – all of which are up to you because nobody triggered a move!

  3. The list-of-question moves don’t work well for me and my normal players in play either. It’s always jarring because the playstyle is usually:

    PC: I want to go through the books and see if there’s any magical tomes.

    GM: Ok roll Discern Realities. Cool, ask 3 questions

    PC: Uh, let me… where’s the list? Ok cool, I got it. What was I doing? Oh the books yeah, looking for magical tomes so…. what here is useful of valuable to me?

    GM: Well there’s a whole row of magical books, but you can’t seem to grab them – something is pushing back on your hand.

    PC: Ok uhh question two… what uhhh, shit none of these really work. I wanna know what’s going on with the magic protecting these tomes! Maybe what is about to happen? I dunno.

    GM: If you keep messing with the arcane field around the books, harm or injury is about to happen!

    PC: Well damnit, that was kinda obvious. I need to know like… shit, I dunno, what should I be on the lookout for?

    GM: Well, you’re a thief and not super versed in the arcane arts, but you do know that permanent spells like this usually have a power source nearby.

    PC: Ok cool, so I can shut it down

    I feel like this would be much smoother with more freeform questions.

    GM: Roll Question Realities. Cool, as 2 questions

    PC: Are there any sort of magical tomes?

    GM: How would you know?

    PC: They’d have no dust on them and the color wouldn’t have faded.

    GM: Cool, yeah, there’s a row of like 5 of them, but you can’t seem to grab them – something is pushing back on your hand.

    PC: Second question: what do I know about the magic protecting these tomes?

    GM: Very little, except that permanent spells like this usually have a power source nearby.

    PC: Ok cool, so I can shut it down

  4. This may be an unpopular response, but I really don’t much care for Discern Realities. My group has been playing Dungeon World for 3+ years now and people still have to dig out the sheet to find the questions.

    As a GM, I also generally went with the “make something (new) up that is hidden” or a complication for “who’s really in control”. Sometimes I’d fall back on the “no, everything is as it seems” as well.

    The fact is, I think most of the questions were pretty closely adapted from Apocalypse World and don’t always fit for DW. In particular, “Who is really in control here?” and “what is not what it appears to be?” are player favorites that force the GM to do a lot of mental scrambling to keep answers interesting and still maintain pacing/surprises.

    So it’s not just you, is what I’m saying.

  5. “The fact is, I think most of the questions were pretty closely adapted from Apocalypse World and don’t always fit for DW.”

    If I have any critique of DW, it’s this. It’s a great game, but if you aren’t a huge AW fan, it’s hard to love certain ways DW hacked AW.

  6. Aaron Griffin So it sounds like maybe I should just let the players ask free-form questions, choose something that sounds mostly like the intention of one of the questions on the list, then answer accordingly?  That would at least alleviate digging out the moves sheet for the players, so I just need a mnemonic so that I know the questions.  Maybe an index card with a list: ‘Happened’, ‘Will Happen’, ‘Lookout’, ‘Useful’, ‘In Control’, ‘Not As Appears’.  I already have some cards like that I made for GM move mnemonics, so might as well have something similar for Discern Realities.

  7. I agree with the others, searching a room is not diserning realities. They search you tell them what they find. If you know there’s something under the bed and they don’t say they check under the bed they don’t find it. Feel free to ask how they are checking and where if you aren’t sure.

  8. Aaron Griffin

    That’s not using the move right.  Searching a book for magical tomes should not trigger Discern Realities. That’s why the questions aren’t working for you. You’re not supposed to roll it there.   What you are doing is the equivalent of “Hack and slash isn’t working for me, because I can’t kill the unconscious goblin in one hit when I should totally be able to.”  You’re rolling a move when you shouldn’t.

  9. Dan Bryant I’d take a look at moves from other PbtA games in that case and find one you like. Otherwise you could just answer their direct questions without a roll.

    I am currently using a move where on a 10+ you ask any two questions, 7-9 ask a question and the GM will tell you the requirements to learn the answer, 6- the GM will tell you something you hoped wasn’t true.

  10. Aaron Griffin As the others stated above, that isn’t a trigger for the Discern Realities.

    PC: I want to go through the books to see if there are any magical tomes.

    GM: OK, sure, you reach your hand out, but something stops your hand about an inch away from them.

    PC: I pull my hand away quickly, that’s defying danger with DEX, right?

    GM: Not yet, no.

    PC: Then what do i roll?

    GM: Nothing, and when you pull your hand away, nothing happens.

    PC: Well, what stopped my hand?

    GM: It was like an invisible wall.

    PC: Well, i want to Discern Realities.

    GM: How are you studying the situation?

    PC: I’m reading the spines of the books in question and studying the bookcase, looking for anything magical-looking.

    GM: No need to roll for that. You notice that two of the books are labelled “Unseen Servants and Other Summonings” and they are serving as Bookends of a sort.

    PC: Ok, well i run my hand along the “wall” until it stops.

    GM: It stops right as you get to one of the Summoning books.

    PC: I take it!

    GM: right when it leaves the shelf, its pages flutter open and wind starts howling!

    PC: I slam it shut and drop it!

    GM: NOW you’re defying danger by acting fast!

    MORAL OF THE STORY: You don’t always need to roll

  11. Actually, reflecting a bit on some of the responses here, maybe what I should do is encourage the players to ask whatever questions they want, all the time, then listen for one that sounds like something from the list.  Use that as a way to trigger the move.  If they get a 10+, just keep track of that and answer two additional questions fitting the move ‘for free’ without explicitly calling for the players to ask specific questions from the list.  Savvy players will know they can get some extra free information without having to look at the list to know exactly what they can ask, though some might look at it anyway to min/max their opportunities.

    I think part of the issue is that I actually like triggering this move for the opportunity of a miss and subsequent fun that can ensue.  It’s succeeding at the roll that can add a speed bump currently.

  12. If the miss is the most interesting thing for the story just have that happen. Or save it to use as a move for another failed roll for something else that lets you pull a move.

  13. Mark Weis then I guess I’m not understanding. Can you give me a similar situation where DR would make sense to be used? I can’t really see how “I’m going through the books on the shelf” doesn’t match the trigger of closely studying a person or situation.

    And Mike Pureka the “Hack and Slash not working” mockery isn’t super helpful. DR doesn’t work for me because it takes the players out of the fiction to try to make their character actions fit into the list of questions.

  14. I’m seeing a lot of “That’s not when you roll Discern Realities” but that’s leaving me wondering when the heck you DO use Discern Realities.

  15. Jason Tocci​​ what Dan Bryant​​ said sounds like a great time to use it – when someone asks one of the questions in play (or something very similar: “that jewellery box, that’s pretty valuable right?”) There’d be other occasions, but that strikes me as a golden opportunity.

    As an aside, even after GMing Dungeon World for years, I still forget players get + 1 when acting on the answers ALL THE TIME. It’s probably not something most players have trouble with, but for me, it does somewhat short-circuit using the move in the first place.

  16. “Discern Realities is triggered when players ask the questions already on Discern Realities”

    Okay, but doesn’t that just move the onus of memorizing that list of questions from the players to the GM?

    And what is it about that list of questions that is so special that it requires its own move?

    And let’s say they do ask one of those questions, or some variation thereof (e.g., “I search the room for treasure!” = “What here is valuable”). They roll a 10+. Now they have 2 more questions they can ask that they had no intention to ask before. They’re definitely going to ask those questions, even though there was no fictional trigger suggesting that they should.

    So … is there an answer for what triggers this move other than “when players ask the questions already covered by Discern Realities”?

  17. Joe Banner

    Yeah, I’ve been really bad about remembering the +1 forward and my players don’t typically remember it either (they’re not super min/maxy.)  Especially on a 10+, I think that detail gets easily forgotten by the time you work through all the questions, even if one of the answers is very directly actionable.  This is especially the case if the directly actionable answer happened on the first question and the player had to ask two more before acting on the first answer.

    I like the idea of having it work almost more like a ‘Hold’ system where rolling a 10+ entitles you to some further answers while in roughly the same situation, but doesn’t preclude acting directly on an answer as appropriate.  I’ve pondered combining this with some sort of physical token system, like poker chips representing Hold (for this and other moves involving it.)  Best case scenario, I’d even have printed mnemonics for the Hold options printed on the chips.

  18. Aaron Griffin

    It’s not mockery;  It’s just pointing out that the move isn’t for that, even though some people have been known to try to use it for that.  I’ve heard plenty of stories of people asking for hit rolls on sleeping goblins.

    This seems like a very strange discussion to me.  The move says when you use it: When someone closely studies a person or situation.   To me it is mostly useful for Sword and Sorcery style setups like when the heroes are crouched on a balcony observing some weird ceremony or something.  Because they’re studying a situation.  It can also be used to try to read a person’s intentions.

  19. Jason Tocci yep, the onus is on the GM to remember those questions, at least enough to pick up when they’re being asked. (If you have a GM screen, put them in there. For my next book, I’m putting them on the back cover along with monster stats and other useful info.)

    I believe the list of questions is related to the typical antics likely to be going on in a Dungeon (or at least a dangerous, dungeon-like environment). If the questions arent useful (or valuable, lol) to you and your players, make a custom move to change them. Custom moves aren’t a big deal and are supported by the rulebook.

  20. Oh, related to your other question (and touching on what Dan Bryant​ says), you could always ‘play with’ unwanted questions, maybe turn them into some other fictional advantage that benefits a PC closely studying a person or place. (This sort of bonus probably shouldn’t extend beyond the immediate scene or location, I suppose. That’s like how if you stop defending in the fiction, you lose whatever hold you have from triggering the defend move.)

  21. Mike Pureka The term situation is pretty general, though, so it sounds like the core difference of opinion is about what constitutes a situation.

    In most cases where this move has come up in my group, it’s generally because I haven’t described the environment well enough to prompt more active responses.  When my players say “I search the room looking for more information”, it’s basically saying “I don’t have any good ideas what I should be doing, so either give me some interesting information to act on or, if I roll a miss, give me something more overtly dangerous to engage with.”  Either that or they’re feeling paranoid after the last trap almost killed them and are approaching the situation with an overabundance of caution.  My solution to that is to make sure the misses on Discern Realities are dangerous enough to make it as risky a move as dealing more directly with the situation.

    My current read on the design intention of the move is that it’s to help kickstart situations that are starting to stall, but the actual execution in our play has been awkward.  That said, this discussion has prompted a lot of interesting things for me to consider.

  22. Mike Pureka the book itself uses the following example for a “situation”:

    Omar: I don’t trust this room—I’m going to poke around a little. I take out my tools and start messing with stuff. I pull candlesticks and tap the walls with my hammer. My usual tricks.

    GM: Discern realities?

    Omar: Oh yes. I discern all the realities. I got a 12. I want to know “What here is not as it appears to be?”

    That doesn’t seem significantly different from poking around a book shelf to me to make one sensible and the other not.

  23. Discern Realities has never worked for me, because even when observing a person or situation the questions feel stilted. And I also like to play with some form of perception roll, because it suits the “if you don’t know the answer, roll” approach that I really enjoy.

    I wanted something that was applicable to observing anything, and that would get rid of the momentum-killing list of questions, so I wrote this move replace Discern Realities in my DW hack Freebooters on the Frontier:


    When you pay close attention to a person, place, or thing, roll +WIS: on a 10+, hold 3; on a 7-9, hold 1. Spend your hold 1-for-1 to ask the GM questions about the object of your attention, now or later. But ask carefully; if there’s no way you could reasonably perceive the answer, the GM will just say that you don’t notice anything unusual.

  24. Aaron Griffin

    The main difference I see is the fact that the book example actually details the character doing something other than “looking around” or “examining” or “looking for” something.   As was pointed out earlier, if a character is reading the spines of some books, he doesn’t need to discern realities.

    Again: If you can’t think of anything that would stop the character from doing the thing, or any interesting results of failure, you shouldn’t be invoking a move.  And if the question isn’t “does he discover the thing” but rather “Does he avoid peril in discovering the thing” then you should be rolling Defy Danger.

  25. Jason Lutes I like that Perceive move.  I might try playing with something like that in the next session and see how it goes.  I’m thinking of a trigger more like when you ask a penetrating question about a person or situation.  This hopefully encourages asking questions in general, triggering a move occasionally when the question would reasonably require wisdom on the part of the character to discern it.

  26. I think the “Perceive” move is a little weird, because it feels like it is already covered by the normal conversation and flow of GM moves.

    It feels a little too much like people being used to having a mechanic for something, and so deciding that this game has to have one too.

  27. Mike Pureka That’s fair, but my example was artificial and probably full of holes. I did have a similar experience when players discovered a hidden wizard hut with tables and papers strewn about. The questions fit better, but there was still that moment where the players are pulled out of the world to go “who is really in control here? that doesn’t make sense, oh this one… what happened here recently?”

    Jason Lutes That version feels really solid, but 3 freeform questions seems kind of high to me.

  28. Jason Lutes Also, I notice you removed the +1 forward effect in your move.  Deliberate or just because it wasn’t being used much by your players?

  29. Aaron Griffin

    I think it’s fair to ask counter questions though – if they want to know who’s really in control, you should be able to say “How are you going to find that out?”

    Also, further thinking about Dan Bryant ‘s comments – I think that if you want to reward asking questions that you should reward asking questions;  Making a move about it isn’t a reward.  Plus, it’s also screwy, because you’re now triggering a move off something with no fictional analogue.

    If you want your players to ask interesting questions, you should prompt them, and give them interesting answers.  Creating a move is the wrong way to direct focus in that direction, I think.

  30.  Jason Lutes  I really like the perceive move it I’ve had similar problems with perception style rolls in the past when I was mis-using discern realities and this is the move I was looking for.

  31. Mike Pureka

     Well, it’s sort of part of the fiction in that it’s like the character having a flash of insight into the situation at hand, due to their innate wisdom.  The fictional trigger is just internal to the character rather than in terms of their character interacting somehow with the environment.

    I do think it’s fair game to ask a player who has asked a penetrating question, “how do you go about trying to determine that?” in cases where the insightful answer could only be meaningfully obtained by doing something in addition to thinking.  That feels more natural to me than asking how they are trying to discern realities, then ask them to come up with a question from the list that may or may not fit what they fictionally just did to try to investigate.

  32. Dan Bryant

    Well, I think they should also generally be bound by the what they did to try to investigate.  So maybe it’s less “how do you figure that out?” and more “how does what you did determine that?”

  33. The question becomes: Do you want your game to be about looking for stuff?

    I don’t. I think searching rooms is boring as heck.  The faster it’s done with, the better.

  34. Mike Pureka seems like an oversimplification. I’d think it more like using the fiction to trigger a chance that you “stumble upon” something during your search.

    To play it out fictionally as has been suggested previously seems like it would get somewhat tedious… if they don’t fictionally stumble upon the right trigger while describing their search nothing is found.

    But, I’ll say that the idea that inventing a mechanic where fiction would suffice has some merit… sometimes you just wanna roll some dice!


    GM: The Goblin army breaks the horizon and their war call reaches your ears- a grotesque noise that sounds like a dying cow trying to sing both parts for Bohemian Rhapsody. Your own army of 6 stands just outside the tree line: the last line of defense for the town behind you. Ranger, what do you do?

    Ranger (R): I knock an arrow and command my Raven to circle above and start dropping down on the goblins when they get too close.

    GM: OK, Thief, you see that annoying bird fly into the air and it starts circling like a vulture, what do you do?

    Thief (T): I slink into the underbrush and draw my shortbow.

    Paladin (P): I command the Assassin Hireling to follow him and assist him should he need it, and then i’ll take the two warriors and rush out to meet the Goblin army.

    GM: Alright, are you doing anything in particular, or are you just charging?

    P: Actually, We’ll form a shield wall in front of the Ranger so that he can pick off the goblins at range.

    GM: Sounds to me like you’re standing in defense. Roll for it.

    R: Before he does, i’d like to Aid him by drawing in close behind him and making myself less of a target until i need to shoot.

    GM: Okay, roll Aid.

    R: I got an 11.

    GM: Okay, paladin, NOW roll your defend, plus 1.

    P: What?! I got a 6!

    GM: Uh-Oh, but before i say what happens, Thief, what are you doing in the woods?

    T: From my vantage point, i’d like to keep an eye on the enemy lines and watch for anything odd.

    GM: It sounds like you’re trying to Study the Situation, right?

    T: Oh, yeah, what do I see?

    GM: I dunno, roll Discern Realities.

    T: I got an 11!

    GM: Alright, ask three of the questions from that list.

    T: Uhm… What here is useful or valuable to me?

    GM: What? Uh… there’s a really good spot for cover just beyond your reach. You think you’ll be able to see out without anyone seeing in. (Offer Opportunity, with or without cost)

    T: Cool. Second Question: What here is not what it appears to be?

    GM: Really? Um… (scribbles “Shaman” on his notes) As you watch the Goblin Army, you notice that their moves are so unison, that it seems like they’re all performing 6 different actions, even though there are easily 600 of them. (Notices the look of confusion) Then, you notice that they disappear for a fraction of a second; all except a half dozen or so.

    T: Woah, cool. Illusion spell. Oh, third question, right. Uh… What should i be on the lookout for?

    GM: Finally. You see a flash of Yellowish skin and the glint of steel run through the forest on the opposite side of your friends. An Ambush! (show signs of an approaching threat)

    T: The moment one of them breaks the tree line, i’ll take a shot with my bow.

    GM: Alright, that looks to be pretty soon, roll your Volley, +1 from the Discerning Realities.

  36. Ron Thomas

    No, that’s the opposite of what I’m suggesting – to play it out completely fictionally makes the game even MORE about it.  But if you just give the PCs  the information they would want 90% of the time, and use this move when it’s actually appropriate, your game becomes less about playing “did we find the thing?” and making sure you thoroughly search stuff, and more about assuming that you have more or less complete information and can go on being adventurers.

  37. Mike Pureka so how would you fictionally go about “making sure you thoroughly search stuff” without introducing the tedium I mentioned before? Would you give the players a fictional prompt that they should look closer?

    I guess I’m curious as to how you handle that other 10% use case. I’m struggling with the idea of when players would assume they have complete info and when they’d decide a thorough search is warranted.

  38. Ron Thomas

    It took me a couple of re-reads to understand where the disconnect is here, but I get it now.

    Players get full information IF they search a place.  Like, if they tromp through a room, I don’t tell them that there’s a hidden passage, or a secret compartment under a flagstone or something.  But if they say “We’re going to search the room” then yes, I tell them that they find those things.  And they know that they have found all there is to find.  I won’t hide stuff from them or force them to ‘pixel bitch’ my clever hiding places, nor will I invoke any sort of roll.

    Discern Realities would come out when there is, perhaps, room for misinterpretation, or where time is limited, or something like that, but it’s mostly an edge case.

  39. Lot of good points here. Discern Realities is I think one of the harder moves to get use to. I think a reason it doesn’t seem to work a lot is that people confuse Spout Lore and DR. because in other games, both would use perception checks. Take the magic book – that’s really a Spout Lore move because the character is consulting their OWN knowledge to determine whether the books are magical are not. Although, yes, in many cases the DM might rule that you know their spell book just based on the title or interacting with them will tell you they are magic. I try to really dig into what the character is doing – “HOW are you investigating the books?” “HOW are you searching the room?”

    Answering the questions is hard. I’ve gotten better I think/hope by interpreting them very broadly and not forcing myself to make it always SUPER AWESOME answer. It can be subtle and it doesn’t have to affect the main story.

    “What here is not what it appears to be?” “The floor is actually very slippery despite the fact it doesn’t shine.”

    “The old merchant appears to be sleeping, but is actually paying attention.”

    “The gilded roses are actually cheap knick-knacks.”

    “Whose really in control here?”

    “Just as you thought, the giant snake controls this river.”

    “The true controller here is the land.”

    “No one is in control here. The goblins only follow the leader because she gives them food, but they are not loyal.”

  40. I reread the “Read a Charged Situation” move from Apocalypse World that Discern Realities is descended from and had a realization that helped me a lot.

    It’s something you only use when getting information is at a premium.  If you walk into a room and there’s a huge melee going on, being able to ask “what’s dangerous here”, “what’s valuable”, “where’s the exit”, “who are these people” is really important, and it’s easy to come up with GM moves for a miss.  You could also use it in a situation where you’re trying to tail someone or pick up subtle clues of intrigue at the duke’s party, you can only gather so much information without risking being spotted, offending someone with your nosiness, etc.

    For a basic “search the room” kind of action, either just tell them what they found or call for a Defy with Wisdom, if there’s something they might overlook.  If enemies are about to burst in and attack, you might call for a Discern, and then let the players decide what information they really want to know most.

  41. Mr Kalyptein “at a premium” really helps me understand this, I think.

    This has been a useful discussion. I still don’t like the list-of-question moves because the break immersion IMO, but I understand the utility better now.

  42. Mike Pureka thanks for clearing that up I follow you now.

    I’m thinking its a matter of preference at this point and I can see where there are merits for either technique

  43. When a party enters a room and you’re describing it, you should add a small layer of detail so they can guess there is a trap or not. “Dust lines the book shelves” “the torches on the wall flicker with passing air (even though there are no windows)” ect.

    This gives them a heads up so if they say “I’m just going to look around” they’ll trigger it, but if they choose to inspect the dusty floor, they’ll find a trap. Because you gave them a hint, also means you can do some really painful traps if they do mess up without being unfair, because they were careless.

    You can also add details just to throw them off “The book shelf is void of traps, they just haven’t been cleaned in a long time.”

  44. Also, always ask: what is dangerous or interesting if they CAN’T find a specific thing? If you as GM can’t come with an answer, quickly, probably you shouldn’t make the players roll for searching / knowing more about the situation.

  45. Discern Realities is also an opportunity to make a boring situation cool. Let’s say you describe a room and, in your (the GM) mind, there’s nothing particularly special about it. However, one of your players takes interest for whatever reason and wants to search the room. You could just say, “You don’t find anything interesting”, but having them Discern Realities gives you an opportunity to improvise a cooler situation than you planned. The questions they ask, even, can give you insight into what they think is special about the room, and you can provide answers to steer things in that direction as a result.

    In that sense, Discern Realities can be an improvisational tool to let your players tell you that they’re expecting something cool when you didn’t even see the opportunity in your prep.

  46. I’m thinking on making a Harem Comedy ___ World hack, and giving Discern Realities exclusively to Cuckoolanders because of how weird it comes off to me.

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