When I first played a Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) game, the magic happened within 5 minutes when I asked a player – a friend of mine with whom I had played trad games for 30 years – to add an important place to the map and to tell me why his character was afraid to go there. His eyes lit up and he produced a grim tale about the Island of the Finstermann, where shadows roam, whispering secrets and lies. Months later, in the final session of our epic Dungeon World campaign, they finally reached the island, slew the antagonist, and brought hope and light back to a place that was cursed for centuries.
For this first session I had prepared: a starting situation, a rough map from a D&D module, and a million questions: who is following you? Why do they follow you? What monsters are rumored to be in the dungeon? Etc. What happened at the table was the emergent story of a duke who had sent his guards after the players, a dragon that was rumored to have inhabited the dungeon, which in turn was actually an abandoned dwarven city, and so forth. Not necessarily Hugo Award material but it didn’t matter: it was our story.
In PbtA games, almost every decision by the players is a flag waved at the GM: this is what I’m interested in. If they pick a Driver in Monster of the Week, there better be a car chase, a Fighter picked in DW demands epic fights against epic foes. Questions allow the players to more intimately contribute to the fiction and to give them a more personal stake in the world. A good question has enough context to inspire them and is open enough for the answer to surprise everyone at the table.
Last year, we had a similar "Eureka!" moment. We were playing Uncharted Worlds and they botched their Wild Jump. I had prepared a couple of random tables inspired by Impulse Drive and Stars without Numbers about what could go wrong, which ship systems were affected, what kind of place they would end up at, etc. We found out that the star system was dominated by a gigantic black hole, had a mysterious ship graveyard just outside the gravity well and that the character's life support had stopped working. Eventually they managed to transfer their warp core to a freighter carrying precious metals, escaped the system, and started a trading mini-campaign. I never asked a single question about the world around them, instead every twist and turn that changed the course of the adventure was randomly rolled and it felt… somehow more relevant, more consequential, more “real” than if I had just picked it from a list or if I had asked the players to contribute to the fiction.
In sandbox games, tables can reinforce the themes of a setting (swampy results in a swamp, fairy-tale results in the dark wood) but can allow for surprising results, especially when using the synergy of two or more tables at the same time. A table where all results are aggressive monsters is boring. A monster table linked to a reaction roll is better: maybe the blink dogs are aggressive and attack immediately, maybe they are curious and can be tamed by treats and the ranger finds a new companion. Even better, if there are linked tables like two encounters and a Die of Fate (see John Harper's World of Dungeons 1979 for more info on the Die of Fate). A good recent example of the synergy from rolling on multiple tables is The Gardens of Ynn where a random location, detail, and encounter give rise to hundreds of interesting results.
Loaded questions and random tables ultimately serve the same purpose: to prevent railroading, to unburden the GM from coming up with all the cool stuff, to allow emergent story and to surprise everybody at the table. Using random tables requires an additional risk: we completely surrender ourselves to the fates, we resist the urge to just pick the coolest result from a list. Sure, we might end up with a boring or unfitting result, but I claim it is well worth taking that risk.