About Rail Roading and PbtA "Read" Moves

I have recently found this short 8min movie on YouTube, it is well made and quite fun.


After watching it I came to two conclusions:
  1. This is when scenario is written but for some reasons players don’t cooperate, then we as Game Masters need to advance the story anyway. (joking here ofc)
  2. Does it really look that way when I as MC answer “Read a sitch” questions in any PbtA game?

Now to the main topic.
How do you answer player questions when the answer they ask for their character could not possible have “read” from facial expression or any other way?
Examples often are “how can I get you to …” questions.

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Since the rules of AW and most PbtAs state that the GM should always say the truth, if a move allows a player to ask a question it means that getting the answer must be possible.

When you say: “the answer … could not possible have “read” from facial expression or any other way” it seems to me you are trying to establish whether getting that information was possible or not before resolving the move. Which is contrary to the play to find out principle.

In a PbtA you don’t roll for task resolution, aka whether the character manages to do something. You roll to see what happens. Then, after rolling, you might have to come up with an explanation for how it happened.

So, the player rolls a hit. They ask the question. It means the answer is obtainable
It will be fun to come up together with exactly how the character realized that. Maybe they had glanced at a clue before (brief flashback) and just put 2 and 2 together. It is also totally ok to ask the player themselves: the answer is X, how do you know that?

The player rolls a failure. They don’t get to ask questions. It might mean the answers are unobtainable, or that they’re simply not getting it.

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I agree with everything you said.
My question was about how to deliver that answer - tricks and tips, not if I should answer that.
I usually try phrase the answer as character knowledge or flashback, but sometimes it is not possible like when PC meets someone they don’t know.

Slight problem with

It means the answer is obtainable

is that answer to some of the questions is possible and to some is not - like PC can read and answer to “how is your character really feeling” but “how can I get you to tell me where the secret secret treasure is hidden?” might not be possible - how do you manage that situations?
Is it possible to say “you don’t know this guy and cannot gauge it from his facial expression, ask a different question”?

As for misses - I’m a 100% fan of what AW2ed delivered - ask 1 anyway and MC makes a move. I find that it doesn’t stale the fiction and I can put a good twist on what player wants to learn.

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I guess I don’t play that way, maybe? I approach this from the maxim of “to do it, do it.” If nothing occurs to me as a reasonable way you could “read” an answer from facial expressions, then before I tell them the answer to the question, I ask, “What are you looking for that might give you a clue about this?” Sometimes they can’t come up with anything, and I say, “That might be a little too specific to just get from asking the way you asked, then.”

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Yup. Turn it back on them. “You realize he’s playing both sides. Where in the room does he look that gives that away to you?”

“You know he loves that cat more than any of his actual human friends. Helping him get it back would induce him to forgive you eating the last donut. Why are you sure that’s what it’ll take?”

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First of all my bad, I didn’t make the connection to AW’s read a person where the player still gets to ask one question even on a miss. So yes, scrap that, they get to ask anyway.

I was working on the assumption of a move that works more or less like Discern Realities. In DR you make the fictional heavy lifting before the roll. After the roll, if the player gets to ask you have to answer truthfully.

Now you can be more nuanced than that of course. If the player triggers a DR while only looking at the ceiling you could refuse to give info on a floor hatch. Even in this case though, the fact that as a GM you are expected to always tell the truth for me means that you should at least preface the answer:

Look, since you said you were looking in particular at the ceiling, I’m going to give you info regarding the ceiling, ok? This is what you should be on the look out for…

Read a Person from AW 2ed though says that you get hold to spend during a charged situation. Now the real question is: where are the rules that say when the player is allowed to spend hold?

I’ve found this passage you might be interested in between pages 146 and 147 of AW2. I paraphrase:

X’s player says he reads Y’s mood, body language, etc…
Rolls a 7
X’s player dismissively asks “What are Y real feelings?”
GM answers: “She’s afraid of Z.”

Not one sentence is spent to explain how did X understand that Y was afraid of Z…

All in all for me this is an example of the old problem: player skill vs character skill. How much do you want to bash on a lazy player vs how much you want to acknowledge a character’s power.

I am not deeply familiar with AW on this topic. But I think this is something which you would do during a longer conversation.

During conversation you will recognize how your partner works internally: is he easy to intimidate, is bribe possible, blackmail? Is he lazy, conceited etc.?
The answer to “how can I get you to tell me, where the secret treasure is hidden” could be “You took a closer look at x and recognize his distinguished look and the nice jewelry he is wearing. He also talks a lot of money and investments. That gives you the impression, he is wide open for bribery”.
That answer is truthfully, but open for details.
That’s the way I would answer that.
With the right amount of bribe, he is going to tell you everything.

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Personally, I don’t read “have to answer truthfully” as “have to answer 100% completely with everything they want to know.” Like, if a player asks how they could get a character to do something, I might say, “Nothing you can say will get them to do this thing,” or, “How are you going to get that information? ‘By studying their expression?’ Okay, it looks like they’re nervous about something, but whatever it is, it isn’t in this room with you right now. You do spot a bunch of ledgers behind the counter—those might give more of a clue about where you’d have to look next.” These are still truthful; it’s just not everything they wanted to know.

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The move doesn’t say to answer 100% what the players want to know. It says to answer one of the questions from the list. If you ask me, all the questions in the list are pretty much outside of what you would discern “at a glance”. I’m guessing the move exists exactly because the Game wants you to know while normally you wouldn’t be able to.

My reasoning goes like this:
If a player can interact with my npc in a way that is clever enough to make them spill the beans, the npc will do just that, tell them directly or give them an obvious clue.
If I allow the player to roll and they roll a hit, it means that their character (which is conceivably more present in the scene than any of us) found a clue. Why would I withdraw it from them after they already risked a 6-?

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I definitely don’t mean to suggest you should change a success into a failure, and that is a risk of my approach if you’re not careful. Generally, if I feel like I need to say, “You can’t find that out” or “There’s nothing to find,” unless that’s a clue in and of itself (“Wait, he’s NOT the killer?!”), I’ll tell the player to go ahead and pick some other option instead.

I’m not saying I want to withhold clues so much as that I want to make sure (a) we connect every move back to the fiction, and (b) I never have to ask players to make up stuff beyond their own character, if they’re not into that. I don’t want to just give the answer without a clear explanation of how they found it (that’s “a”), and I don’t want to all them “what do you notice that tells you that?” because it forces them to change their narrative perspective and responsibilities (that’s “b”). If I can come up with a good explanation myself for how they suss our information, I’ll just give it and connect it back to the fiction myself, but I don’t think it’s unreasonable to ask them to shoulder the labor of “to do it, do it” on their end a bit too.

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Do folks feel like it’s worth warning a player in advance “Hey, I see that you’re going for >insert move here< but fictionally, it doesn’t seem like you’re going to be able to get answers to some of the questions. Are you okay with that?”

In my game experiences, often the player has 1-2 questions that they really want answers to and are trying to arrange the fiction to allow them to get, and then maybe some others that they wouldn’t mind asking, but are less concerned with and which might not fit as fictionally well, and may well be perfectly fine with you saying “There’s really no way you could figure that out from this…”?

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Yeah, in games I’ve played in and run, there’s a little bit of negotiation that goes on either before the roll (if it’s a bit of a stretch and we’re trying to figure out how the move will happen fictionally) or after (if the question the player wants to ask doesn’t exactly fit their fictional narration of the move). The MC will work to try to help the player find a fictional positioning to do what they want, and players are understanding in the cases where it doesn’t seem to make sense in the story.

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Thanks Thomas.
Your answer was really insightful that I don’t have to tell the player exactly what to say, but what tactic would be best which they can definitely read from even short interaction.

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I finished writing my take on Discern Realities for Stonetop recently, and tried to address a lot of these questions. Nothing that hasn’t been said yet, I don’t think, but maybe it’s useful anyhow?


Answer honestly, generously, and helpfully. Rely on your prep and sense of the fictional space to guide you. Sometimes (often), you’ll need to make up details on the fly. These details become true parts of the fiction! If you aren’t sure how to answer the question, ask the player for guidance. “Well, the old coins are obviously valuable, but what sort of thing were you looking for?”

Remember to begin and end with the fiction. Don’t just tell them that Siowan is about to betray them; describe how Siowan is acting nervous and keeps glancing at the door, like he’s expecting someone to burst in any second. Alternately: answer their question directly and simply, and ask them what details lead them to that conclusion.

Adjust your answers to reflect the fiction. The move isn’t magic; it doesn’t let the characters know things that they couldn’t. A quick scan of the room from the entrance should give less-specific and less-useful insights than if they get in there and interact.

You’ll feel pressure to give answers that are surprising or revelatory, but often the best answer is the obvious one. “ What here is valuable or useful to me?” “Those gold coins that I described earlier. Everything else is basically junk.” And sometimes the honest, helpful answer is basically “nothing.” “What should I be on the lookout for?” “Not much. This place seems quite safe.” “Who or what is in control here?” “No one. It’s a damn free-for-all.” Such answers remove doubt and clarify the situation (and remember, they get advantage on their first roll to act on the answer).

And as an example:

The PCs are staring up at a crinwin nest. They ask about its size (“as big as a house back in Stonetop”) and the tree it’s in (“like a redwood sequoia, the lowest bough maybe 60 feet up”) and whether they see anything moving about the nest (“nope”). Then Rhianna asks “Can I tell if there’s been activity recently? We’ll look for tracks and whatnot.” That’s looking for insight, not just data, so she’s Discerning Realities.

She rolls +WIS (with advantage as her crew Aids her) and gets a 10+. “Is the nest still active? Like, are there any signs of recent activity?” she asks.

That’s two questions, neither of which are on the list. “Are you asking ‘what happened here recently?’ Or ‘what should I be on the lookout for?’”

“Oh, yeah. Um, what should I be on the lookout for? Specifically, should we be on the lookout for crinwin right now?” I say no, nothing to be on the lookout for. The nest seems to be unoccupied and even damaged. Geralt (from her crew) calls her over and shows her the crinwin bodies he found, rotting away in the brush.

“Whoa. Okay… what happened here recently?”

I tell her that they find more crinwin corpses, and a few that appear to have killed each other. “A few weeks old, at least. But there aren’t enough corpses for a full a nest. And you find signs of crinwin dragging off other crinwin, in the same general direction they carried off Pryder.”

“What the hell?” spits Rhianna. “Who or what is really in control here? Like… who or what is behind this?”

I know that Sethra the swyn (a giant, hypnotic, monkey-headed snake) is behind the attack., but I don’t see how Rhianna could possibly deduce that. So, I give her as useful of an answer as I think the evidence would allow: “Down the path a little, you spot, like, a… scale? Like a drake scale, but bigger. Flatter. More like a snake, maybe? And it’s got a golden shimmer to it.”

“Do I recognize it?” Rhianna asks, and I say “I don’t know, sounds like you’re Spouting Lore?” And she agrees, and rolls with advantage for following up on an answer.

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