Illusionism and Wandering Monsters

Proof that riding griffons is old-school, from the back cover of G3: Hall of the Fire Giant King

At the D&D birthday party James and I ran earlier this month, while the kids in my group were flying around on their stronghold’s stable of griffons, they rolled a wandering monster check that proved to be another griffon. I decided that this one had been the mount of an adventurer like themselves; bloodstains on its empty saddle indicated that its former rider had met a bad end. In the griffon’s saddlebags, they found a map showing the location of two treasures, the horn of the valkyries and the cloak of shadows. After some excited discussion, they decided to set off after the horn.

As they flew their griffons up the hill where the map said the horn of the valkries was hidden, the players rolled another wandering monster. (A result of 1 meant it was on the OD&D encounter tables, whereas a 6 would have meant the Pokemon encounter charts my son drew up for the campaign we play together & which we also used for this birthday party). This chart yielded a group of 20 elves, which I described as using ropes to climb up the hill. A reaction roll said that the elves were unfriendly, so when the birthday boy decided to fly closer and see what the elves were up to he was met by a volley of long-range arrow fire. Three of these arrows struck and left him near death, so he flew back to his comrades to be healed. The players decided that the elves were out to get the horn of the valkyries, but that rather than tangling with them directly, the best revenge would be to beat them to the treasure.

Hearing the player’s interpretation of events, I decided to “make it so”. Adopting their take on what a wandering monster meant gave me the chance to add time pressure and a rival for their search (which itself arose from a wandering monster). I think it’s often going to be the case that going with the players’ ideas will yield better results than your own.

Basically, everyone at the table is working to interpret the events that are generated through play and fold them into an integrated narrative.  The DM sees this as “how do I take the few bits of information handed to me by these random events and turn them into an interesting & challenging situation?”. The players see it as “how do we unravel the clues handed to us by the DM and figure out what’s really going on?”. Since these are functionally identical, the side with the most brains working on the problem is usually going to reach the best solution.

Despite the advantages of doing so, there’s part of me that feels like it’s cheating to turn what the players think is going on into what is really happening in the game world.   In thinking about why that’s so, I reached for the concept of  illusionism, which John H. Kim’s RPG Theory Glossary defines as “a term for styles where the GM has tight control over the storyline, by a variety of means, and the players do not recognize this control.”

Stage illusions are fun because the magician and audience are working together to create a suspension of disbelief

The first part of this definition implies that the player’s decisions don’t matter; the DM has control over the outcome and will make it so no matter what the players do. I’ll talk about this illusion of choice in a separate post. For now it should suffice to point out that using wandering monsters (and related techniques that can make randomness highly consequential) is a way for DMs to relinquish a substantial amount of control over the outcome of the game.

What we’re talking about here is the opposite, an illusion of not being in control. Adopting the player’s ideas of “what’s really going on” to provide meaning for a random event actually gives them a lot of say in what happens next. But this control is covert, to use Ron Edward’s classification of the factors involved in illusionism. The kids at the birthday party weren’t thinking “we’re shaping the story to make these elves our antagonists;” if anything, they were thinking “we’ve cleverly discerned the DM’s secret plan!”

As a DM, I don’t want to dispel the illusion that I have a secret plan, because that would take away the pleasure that players get when they feel they’ve figured it out. But is this deception wrong? Should I work to make explicit what I see as the implicit advantage of wandering monsters: that I get to be just another participant in figuring out the story, not its all-knowing mastermind?

A discussion among the players in my White Sandbox campaign indicates that for adults at least, this is already apparent. In planning what to do next after a session that was strongly shaped by wandering monsters, MikeLyons wrote:

After the defeat of the balrogs and en route to the volcano, the party flew over a group of primitive humans. It was a random encounter, and everyone understandably filed it in the “Useless Information” folder. Often wandering monsters have no narrative import, but perhaps a few do. Granted, I’ve missed several sessions, so I can’t successfully bring together all the occasions that our swords & sorcery adventure has crossed over into the prehistoric adventure genre (I wasn’t even there for the allosaurus that chomped Chrystos’ robo-liger), but perhaps the group has overlooked a clue. What if there’s a nearby gate to the lost world of pterodactyl riders? I’d visit that world through that gate if I could find it.

foner replied:

You make an interesting point. One of the things I love about the sandbox nature of the game is that we have so much control over what happens. If we decide to track down and encounter the primitive humans, they will be important to some degree. Maybe they aren’t right now, but the more we try to figure them out, the more Tavis will be forced to flesh them out. They might not have cosmic significance, but they will be important to our story if we want them to be. (They might still be important even if we choose not to encounter them, but we won’t know that till later, and that’s part of the fun, too.)

I remember reading about a study that was conducted, IIRC, at Cal State North Beach in the ’70s. The investigators had a stage magician visit two different Introduction to Psychology courses (then as now, a fertile source of test subjects). Each class saw the magician do the same mentalist act. The difference was that in the first class, the professor introduced the magician as “a person who is going to demonstrate some abilities that science is working to understand;” in the second class, he was introduced as “a stage magician who will demonstrate tricks that look like extra-sensory perception.” When surveyed afterwards, a surprisingly high percentage of people in both classes believed that the magician had ESP. One of the comments from the second class said “he might think he’s just doing magic tricks, but really there’s no way someone could do that without using ESP.”

People want to believe that illusions could be real; that’s why we go to magic shows. I think the illusion that’s important to us as RPG players is the sense that events in the imagined world have their own independent and pre-existing reality. Even though at one level we know that some of these events are the result of random rolls on a chart, at another level we treat the dice as oracles that reveal this other world. This illusion that both dice rolls and asking “what do I see when I throw a torch into the pit?” are ways of discovering what’s out there in the game-world seems to me vital to what roleplaying is about.

Because I value this illusion that we’re discovering rather than creating so much, I prefer mechanics that leave player control over the narrative covert. When “what’s in the pit?” is determined by throwing dice and looking at a chart, it still feels like it’s an objective fact. I can speculate about the next step, “what does that mean,” as if I were my character. Knowing at some level that the DM might overhear my ideas and make them so doesn’t force me out of that perspective, especially since I won’t know whether my speculation has been adopted as game-reality until I test it; the element of uncertainty is preserved. When “what’s in the pit” is something that I gain the right to narrate through the game mechanics, I briefly lose both the immersion of looking through my character’s eyes and the thrill of discovering what is and isn’t true.

I think the way that this illusion can become harmful is when the idea of the waiting-to-be-discovered meaning that will make sense of events in the imagined world becomes too closely identified with the idea of the DM’s secret plan. For players, I’ve often seen meta-thinking about “what does the DM expect us to do in this situation?” drive out roleplaying “what does my character want to do next?”; the ability of old-school techniques for randomness and sandbox play to short circuit this meta-approach has been a major draw for me.

For DMs, the idea of the secret plan can be seductive. I know I’m all too susceptible to megalomania; at some point I internalized the feeling that I should indeed be a demiurge capable of creating an infinitely rich world in which every detail is part of the magnificent hidden plan that I alone have created. When I feel guilty about “stealing” the kids’ ideas for what the rand0m-monster elves are doing, it’s because I’m feeling bad about not really being the Wizard of Oz they think they’re outsmarting.

To hell with that! Dressing up in an exotic disguise and calling myself by a grandiose stage name would let me put on a better magic show, just as pretending to be an all-knowing schemer and cultivating a poker face lets me run a better D&D game. But I’d be crazy to think I could really do magic. As a DM my strength comes from recognizing the players’ good ideas when I hear them, and mixing them in with just enough of my own that they can never be sure what’s true until their characters have roleplayed the process of discovery.


30 Responses to “Illusionism and Wandering Monsters”

  1. March 4, 2011 at 8:30 pm

    This is exactly my approach. My current group of players are by-and-large new to roleplaying, so they don’t have a context for much of what happens, but we’ve had a number of post-game conversations about what’s happened and I try to be as transparent as possible that I’ve got no plot that I’m trying to herd them into; I just run with whatever ideas they have and try to make things as exciting and as engaging as possible.

    The whole current section of my campaign developed almost entirely from the players being intrigued by a particular NPC and wanting to interact with him more and learn more about him. “Want to learn more?” I thought, “Well, let’s see what kinds of exciting secrets I can put together about him!” And it all went from there.

  2. March 4, 2011 at 8:34 pm

    Always glad to hear about people running games for people who are new to roleplaying! I agree that it’s important at the start of a campaign to be really explicit about expectations, including that players are expected to follow their own interests instead of a pre-arranged plot (if such is the case). Putting on the magician’s hat and poker face comes later.

  3. March 4, 2011 at 8:56 pm

    I like the Wizard of Oz analogy. The element of old school DMing I appreciate the most is not having a carefully outlined master plan, but allowing a story to emerge at run-time through the synthesis of random events in the sandbox, and player agency. Tbis is a nice statement of it.

  4. 4 Charlatan
    March 4, 2011 at 8:58 pm

    I think foner makes an important point: Part of our agreement, when we sit down at the table, is that these die rolls describe things in the game-world- even if the PCs ignore it. Not that it should derail their plans, of course, but note: There’s a group of primitive humans living between a volcano and some balrogs. They might not merit an interaction, but they’re still there. What the hell are they doing there? Are they demon chow? Are the devil-worshippers? Volcano worshippers who think the balrogs are avatars of their magma god? Did they see the PCs fly by? Migrants who took the worst possible turn at Albuquerque?

    Whose job is it to remember that there’s a group of primitive humans down there? Won’t someone think of the primitive humans?!

  5. March 4, 2011 at 9:09 pm

    I think part of the agreement is that it’s primarily the DM’s job to remember the primitive humans; or “privilege and responsibility”, as the RPG Theory Review has it. Certainly one of the pleasures of running the White Sandbox is getting to experience and show off just how much lore about it has accumulated in my head, given that it started with a basically blank slate. And I feel like one of the mandates for interpreting random results is to seek continuity with the past; if folks fly over this area in a later session and find 300 orcs, I’m going to want to say that they’re there to visit the cavemen, or have exterminated them, or whatever, in order to keep that continuity. (Note that this has to be balanced against other mandates; forgetting about stuff is one way that players express that they’re not interested in it, so always using new events as reminders of old ones can be stultifying.)

  6. March 4, 2011 at 9:13 pm

    You left out the part where WE SLAUGHTERED TWO FREAKIN’ BALROGS. From the monsters’ perspective, WE are the wandering screwjob encounter!!!

    I think you’re more comfortable with inexplicability than I am. It’s a failing of mine.

  7. 7 Naked Samurai
    March 4, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    A sandbox doesn’t have to be a slightly undulated field of sand. It can have all manner of toys embedded in it. There can be matchbox cars in one section, a huge freaking plastic spade in the other. Part of it can be wet (maybe by the dog), or have those nasty, no fun kind of weedy burr growing out of it your parents haven’t noticed.

    I think the DM has to put pretty cool things to discover, litter the place with interesting critters and fun stuff to do — and with a general idea of how things fit together. But the good fun is when the players decide what to do with things. Rolling random encounters can be a wonderful process of discovery; but at times the bones show in an unhappy way. I certainly don’t think things should be railroaded, but the veneer of outside events can breathe life into a world. But it’s ultimately the players’ to decide.

  8. March 5, 2011 at 11:47 am

    One of the great pleasures of running a game, for me, is when the players put the plot together before it’s been revealed, and when they get to the reveal, they are so pleased by their cleverness (or my simple plotting!).

    The other one is when they speculate about what they encounter in my game, and their idea is better than the one I had in mind, in which case I fold it in.

  9. March 5, 2011 at 12:58 pm

    Excellent post. :)

    If people know the you’re improvising everything it changes how they approach a lot of situations. There’s no point in trying to figure out the mysteries they encounter (aka the DM’s “Master Plan”) if they know something was arbitrary and you’ll make up an explanation for it latter.

    On the flip side I don’t like the idea of being dishonest with people about how the game is being run. As people get older and more experienced interacting with others there’s a much better chance they’ll see through your illusion. They might not say anything about it, but it will change their approach to the game and possibly even their approach to you as well.

    It’s impossible to run a sandbox game that has everything pre-planned in enough detail to not require you to improvise large amounts of the game… so I find myself preferring to run each session as a “Fun House” where there are limits to where the players can go, but it’s not a “Railroad” leading them from point to point. Between sessions, and based on player interest and planning I can develop the next (or even a choice of) Fun Houses for the next time.

    I think it greatly depends on what you want to get from your game. Fiasco is all improv and lots of fun. I like games with a strong mystery / suspense factor and for these I think it’s important that I’m only improvising the details and not the main elements of the game.

  10. 10 Gregor Vuga
    March 5, 2011 at 3:14 pm

    I agree with Stuart that honesty is important above all.

    I think that “the illusion of not being in control” is awesome (and an awesome way to put it). It strengthens the fiction, the illusion of there being an objective, collective “world” out there that we’re discovering together.

    Personally, I also find “the illusion of choice” abhorrent. But when coupled with honesty, I can understand it. I know there are plenty of people who would be happy to just “play in the GM’s story”, and I’m glad for them, I just know I wouldn’t like to play in such a game. But illusion of choice without honesty is just abuse that soon leads to tensions and passive-aggressive behavior at the table.

  11. March 5, 2011 at 3:34 pm

    @Gregor, There is a difference between dishonesty and mystery. If the players aren’t sure whether the primitive humans were carefully placed there by Tavis or just a random result, they are more likely to suspend disbelief, accept the odd occurrence and even, as Tavis suggests, enter into the creative generation of the world by offering their own suggestions for why those primitives are there (with Tavis listening closely). Nothing could kill this fruitful arrangement quicker than the DM saying “Oh, those were just a random encounter.”

  12. March 5, 2011 at 3:36 pm

    I think in D&D it is indeed best that to have toys in the sandbox (to use Naked Samurai’s great terminology). These are chunks of things that really are pre-existing, and having them there enhances the sense of the game being about unraveling mysteries (which is hard to do with a fully improv shared-narrative game, like I understand Fiasco to be). A certain degree of concealment about when the players are engaging with these pre-existing toys is important; it’s good for the flexibility of the game for the DM to be able to make things out of the undulating sand as necessary, and good for the immersion for the players to approach these as containing mysteries just like the pre-made toys. (This became a problem when I was running the Savage Tide adventure path; the sections that were scripted had nifty illustrations, maps, and player handouts that were a shame not to use, but when I did it signaled to the players “you’re back on the rails now” and I could see an effect on they way they approached those situations vs. the ones I’d created myself).

    Gregor, in my next post I’ll talk about how the received definition of illusionism – that it conceals from the players the fact that nothing they do matters – doesn’t have to apply; you can create something on the fly using player input and preserve the illusion of them not being in control, but still offer them meaningful choice. I’m definitely not advocating dishonesty; I’m just saying that there is a time for full transparency, a time for concealment, and a time for pretending. For example, at the start of the campaign I might say “I’m not out to get you, but the world is lethal; some things in the world are pre-planned, but at other points I’ll be improvising.” During play I might usually be transparent, but sometimes roll dice where the players can’t see in cases where the outcome isn’t known to them, or call a dungeon I’ve just invented the “Ghost Tower of Inverness” to conceal the lines between what I’m making up and what I’m using as pre-made toys. And sometimes I might pretend to have a master plan, or to be a killer DM, to enhance the fun of the players trying to out-wit me – never taking this too seriously, and doing it only as it suits the mood of the table.

  13. March 5, 2011 at 3:51 pm

    Responding to Telecanter: actually in both of these cases the players did know it was a wandering monster; it just wasn’t clear whether it was a meaningful one or not. I like to be transparent about the wandering monster checks because they let the players strategize about travel and make the risk of encounters an exciting peril. So that part is transparent & we roll the dice in the open – at the birthday party & afterschool class we have the kids make the roll, which is fun. The part that’s covert is how I determine what the encounter will be once the check says there’ll be one. Is this a region where I’ve made a custom encounter table where the types of creature found will reveal a mystery about this area? Or am I taking advantage of a fully random result to bring forth an existing plot pattern (this tends to happen with lycanthropes because they’re a common type of encounter in the standard OD&D wilderness table, and there are only four sub-types, so when werebears come up yet again I tend to make them a tribe they’ve encountered before, a rival of that tribe, etc.)

    Note that this interpretative process of “what does it mean?” has to happen even when there are modules of pre-existing content, the more so the more open-ended, flexible, and random that content is; deciding what to do with a wandering monster or reaction roll in Keep on the Borderlands will depend greatly on what the PCs have done and what they have come to believe about what’s going on.

  14. March 5, 2011 at 5:00 pm


    I’m with Travis on this one, more or less. I don’t always signal to my players when the encounter they’ve had is a wandering monster, but the players DO know that I make wandering monster rolls, and on a couple of occasions after a really interesting plot development has arisen from a wandering monster encounter I’ve actually (post-game) let them know that it was a wandering monster and not anything planned at all.

    It helps them marvel a little bit at the spontaneous capabilities of the game as well as reinforces exactly how significant a creative and interpretive role they play in every session.

    It might help that several members of the group are improv comedy performers and so they “get” that creation in the moment isn’t less valuable than creation beforehand, but for me that’s a pillar of the style of play that I prefer.

  15. March 5, 2011 at 8:52 pm

    Good points, I wouldn’t advocate hiding wandering monster checks. I guess with “carefully placed” I was also thinking of encounter tables crafted with attention to player level, what would logically appear in the region, etc. as opposed to something that would surprise even the DM: “Balrogs here?!”

    So, the question is when to let players know you are boggled by a roll, and when to work magic from it. And it sounds like Tavis might plan on addressing that next. Fabulous stuff so far, thanks for writing it up.

  16. March 6, 2011 at 2:19 am

    I do a lot of rolling for random cool happenings on a 1 in d6 chance. If I get an idea in my head that would be kind of game-changing in the situation, I make that roll. This paid off when, the other night, the players thought I was setting up a plot point (a noble and his teenage daughter wanting an escort to see the outside of the megadungeon) when actually I was just letting things happen. When their predicted kidnapping didn’t materialize I think they got a sense of the world and campaign as real.

  17. 17 E.T.Smith
    March 6, 2011 at 6:33 am

    I really like this post Tavis, it mirrors much of the epiphany I’ve been having with Starships & Spacemen, where I dropped every pretense of pre-game plotting to discover the galactic wonders generated by the random tables only moments before the players did, then calmly listened to the conjecture those encounters created and went along with whatever sounded coolest. It was at once some of the most satisfying and also easiest GM’ing I’ve ever done.

  18. 18 delta
    March 6, 2011 at 10:27 am

    Really nice observations.

  19. 19 Gregor Vuga
    March 6, 2011 at 7:21 pm

    @Telecanter, hm, you’re giving me the impression that I’m explaining myself poorly, because I don’t disagree with what you’re saying at all, so I’m not sure where the argument is, if any.

    When I talk about dishonesty it’s about the GM saying “hey, you have all the freedom you want” and then negating every decision we make behind the curtain – illusion of being in control (of our characters). Turning a random encounter into something more important -the illusion of not being in control- isn’t dishonest, because there are no false promises (unless the players really really believe (without suspension of disbelief) that the fictional world is real, objective and completely independent, which is crazy).

    @Tavis, uh, yeah, I’m not saying you’re advocating dishonesty. Not at all. I’m agreeing with you that the illusion of not being in control is something that’s cool and works, as opposed to the illusion of being in control, which, as you say, needn’t apply. They are two different things. I was in fact just trying to draw a harder line between the two, because what you’re doing totally doesn’t relate to illusionism in my opinion.

    I hope I’ve explained myself better now. English not being my first language is a bit problematic sometimes.

  20. March 7, 2011 at 2:21 am

    A few thoughts on this:

    (1) I think using the term “illusionism” to cover this is probably going to prove confusing because it has the established definition in the RPG community of “hiding the railroad”.

    (2) With that being said, I think there’s an important distinction to be drawn between “I’m going to change the game world to match what the players are saying” and “this bit of blank canvas hasn’t been filled in yet and Bob just said something clever”. As a player, the former would de-invest me in the game world. The latter, on the other hand, is A-OK in my book: It’s simply a fact of reality that no fictional game world can be wholly pre-defined, and saying “I definitely WON’T have the balrog by a servant of Galfeshnee because that’s what Bob said” would be just as artificial to me as saying “the balrog WILL be a servant of Galfeshnee because Bob said it”.

    I’m not sure where “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players” would fall on this scale. (For example, “I’m going to design a murder mystery, but not both figuring out who actually did the murder. I’ll just wait for my players to come up with a theory that sounds good.”) But since it would annoy me to the point that I would probably quit playing with a GM who did it, I’m going to lump it into the first category.

    (3) Some of what you say about narrative control mechanics ties back into the general idea of dissociated mechanics: If I’m playing a roleplaying game, I want to roleplay my character. Giving me explicit narrative control removes me from the act of roleplaying (i.e., making decisions as if I were my character).

    I like storytelling games, but IMO storytelling games are a distinct and incompatible form of game.

  21. March 7, 2011 at 2:29 am

    I’ve got nothing important to say about the main points, since I generally agree that there should be a good balance between (1) having an evul DM master plan and (2) dumping that plan when players’ speculations are cooler.

    But I just wanted to say that, after a few years of reading OSR-type blogs and seeing a lot of scanned game art that brings back fond memories, for the first time ever, I can just turn my head 90 degrees and see those griffons on the back of a nice old copy of G3 that happened to be sitting out on a table, front cover down. :-)

  22. March 7, 2011 at 6:43 pm

    I’m not sure where “deliberately leaving an area blank in anticipation that I’ll just fill it in with whatever my players” would fall on this scale. (For example, “I’m going to design a murder mystery, but not both figuring out who actually did the murder. I’ll just wait for my players to come up with a theory that sounds good.”) But since it would annoy me to the point that I would probably quit playing with a GM who did it, I’m going to lump it into the first category.

    Being presented with a mystery that we wasted time trying to figure out when there was in fact no solution would definitely annoy me to the point of quitting the game. I think it’s important the players understand whether there is in fact anything to figure out looking back, or if it’s all about looking forward and collaboratively improvising something new.

  23. March 7, 2011 at 6:44 pm

    That last post was me again. ;)

  24. March 7, 2011 at 6:53 pm

    Justin, your comment was briefly held up by the spam filter, probably because it had links in it – which is a shame because links make comments more useful (although for me that “dissociated mechanics” post is a touchstone, it’s great to direct people there who haven’t read it).

    I’ll touch on the issue of letting the player’s investigations be the way that the GM decides on the solution in the next post, and hope you and Stewart will comment there too. However, this might be a better place to take up your point about illusionism: yes, these posts are basically me convincing myself that what I’m doing here isn’t that. Is there a better term for what I’m calling the “illusion of not being in control” as a technique for supporting the sense of the world having an independent reality?

  25. 25 Gregor Vuga
    March 10, 2011 at 11:36 am

    Two thoughs. One: Tavis, as far as I’m concerned you don’t have to convince yourself of anything. What you’re doing definitely isn’t illusionism, at least not in the sense that I understand it.

    Two: I’d say the “sense of the world having an independent reality” is Simulation(ism) in the old GDS model developed on rgfa – NOT (!) to be equaled with Simulationism as later very confusingly described by the Forge GNS.

    Events occur in the game world because:
    -someone thinks it would be cool, dramatic or whatever (“Suddenly, ninjas jump out of the bushes!”)
    -the mechanics/dice/rules tell us so (:roll on random encounter table: “Ninjas!”)
    -we judge it’s a natural consequence of fictional event described (“I punch him!” “He falls down!”)

    Sim favours the third method of deciding what happens, although by necessity we use the other two methods all the time (Bob thinks something would be cool and you reincorporate it or the rules tell us to roll something and something happens on a roll of so-and-so). In order to preserve the sense of independent reality, we then mask the results of these other inputs as having in-world reasons to exist.

    The hard thing to do here is to distinguish between this Simulation(ism) and the one described by Forge theory, because they are totally not the same. And this is why I hate RPG jargon.

    [Btw. Note Apocalypse World’s first agenda: “Make Apocalypse World seem real.” The emphasis is on *seem*. Coupled with later principles, such as “Make your Move, but never speak its name.” Point being: use the rules to make something happen, but give it an in-game reason for happening, obscure the “metafictional” triggers, preserve the illusion of an objective reality.]

  26. 26 Malchor Flubbit
    August 31, 2018 at 1:26 am

    Forgive me for arriving so late, but I really loved this post.

    A few things struck me:

    1. The Illusion of Illusionism. What was happening with both adults and kids was not Illusionism. as you pointed out, you relinquished control to the dice, the players in both cases assumed you had a plan—they were operating under an Illusion of Illusionism.

    2. You are not guilt. Your use of dice absolves you of guilt for building off your younger players’ assumptions. You rolled to see if there was an encounter, dice said yes, you rolled to find out what kind of encounter, dice said 20 elves, you then rolled to find out their reactions, unfriendly. You then built off of this with elves climbing roles. But, why are these elves there? Even if their presence was dictated by dice, their activity when found and reason for being there is up to the DM. OK, you didn’t get that far in your thoughts, you had young players to wrangle with quick minds and they beat you to it on a reason. Thing is, are they right? You could just say, “why yes, that is what’s happening,” which would be very Story Now, allowing the players to help build the universe. You could consider there is no other valid reason for these elves to be there and accept their suggestion based on that. You could also have thought about it and decided, “nah, they are on a pilgrimage to an elven holy site,” which you may or may not relay to the party somehow (perhaps a location one of the characters would be aware of). But there was one more option, to let the dice decide again—set a probability the elves are after the same thing, roll and go with that, it is back out of your hands again.

    3. Metagaming the DM’s thoughts. In your example of the adult players, that is some serious metagaming with way too many assumptions. In this example, the players are playing against the DM’s mind rather than playing in the actual game setting. If the players flew down to investigate, there should not be a 100% chance the primitive humans would instantly become important. They could just be there—randomly or planned.

    Overall though, it left me with a greater appreciation of random tables and random outcomes and a reminder of their use.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

March 2011

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