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I'm currently GM'ing my third Dungeon World game (and playing as a PC in an ongoing game), and while there are many things I have learned how to do better as I've started to get the hang of GM'ing, there is one thing that tends to throw me off. It's the Discern Realities question:

Who's really in control here?

As a GM I always have trouble answering this question in a way that is both helpful for the players, and that tells a good story. As an example of what I mean here is a retelling of a portion of a recent game:

The players have just finished causing quite a bit of trouble with the local authorities and are itching to get out of the city so they can lay low (cause trouble elsewhere) for a while. They've found a caravan driver that is a short staffed and willing to take them as long in exchange for some help and protection. Their driver goes off to fill out some paperwork leaving them in the middle of the supply depot.

Our thief, who has lived in the city for a while and is easily recognized by the city guards, wants to take their time to make sure that there isn't anyone in the area that might recognize him. He carefully surveys the crowd of people going about their jobs. His player rolls a Discern Realities and succeeds. Now the player gets three of the listed questions.

The first question is, of course, "What should I be on the lookout for?". I tell him that his character sees a grizzled guard in uniform only a few meters off, inspecting boxes for contraband. I ask him if he recognizes the guard. He tells me that he does and the guard probably recognizes him. Back when he was a fledgling thief he robbed the guard's house, and now the guard (as seemingly all do) has a personal vendetta against our thief.

Now his second question is "What here is useful or valuable to me?". He sees a pile of boxes that have already been marked as checked. He'll have to momentarily move past the line of sight of the guard but he can hide behind the boxes and the guard would be unlikely to check them.

Now the player has all the information he needs, but he still has one more question, so he asks the question I dread most "Who's really in control here?". The previously tense scenario come to a standstill as I try to think of a good answer to this. I take a minute to deliberate (not the end of the world a slow good answer is better than a fast bad one) and I eventually decide to answer "You can see that there is a foreman that oversees the transactions of the trade depot".

This is really a non-answer, it doesn't provide the player with any new information about the scenario nor does it drive the plot forward. And I find that pretty much every time I'm confronted with this question in a Discern Realities I end up with some similarly unhelpful answer. I've even asked my players to avoid this question, telling them that if they ask it they are pretty unlikely to get a good answer from me. I think that this has lead them to be instead be more eager to ask the question.

What ways are there to improve my answer to this question? Some solutions I've considered.

  • Ask the players

I once had a Discern Realities check with this question where a player suggested an answer to their own question, I ended up not using their suggestion for what seemed like good reasons, but I now regret not trying out the players suggestions. I however don't really feel comfortable using the players as a crutch. I feel like while it might be helpful, if they can think of a good answer to the question I should be able to do so as well.

  • Refuse to answer the question and instead tell the players to select a new question, or have them forfeit one use

This is something the GM for DW game I play as a player does sometimes for questions in general. I often feel this is pretty frustrating as a player. It kind of feels like the GM has a good answer to the question but doesn't want my character to know. However giving a non-answer as I currently do doesn't feel that much better than this, they are basically forfeiting their with the only difference being that I technically answered the question.

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    \$\begingroup\$ "Our thief, who has lived in the city for a while and is easily recognized by the city guards, looks around to see if any guards are patrolling the area. His player rolls a Discern Realities and succeeds" - didn't you skip an important step in-between? Why did he roll Discern Realities? \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jan 26 '18 at 9:20
  • \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor Yes, a few steps are skipped in my retelling. The exact details of the Discern Realities is one of those. \$\endgroup\$ – Wheat Wizard Jan 26 '18 at 9:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ I mean, can it be there was no trigger for Discern Realities at all? The PC goes forward "to see if any guards are patrolling the area". If he succeeds, he notices the guards and the guards don't notice him. The patrolling guards are not hiding. So the only risk he takes is the risk of being noticed (and caught). Sounds like Defy Danger to me. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jan 26 '18 at 9:47
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    \$\begingroup\$ @enkryptor The PC wasn't looking specifically for guards. They spent some time surveying the crows of people coming and going. The guards only really appeared because they asked "What should I be on the lookout for?". \$\endgroup\$ – Wheat Wizard Jan 26 '18 at 10:40
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    \$\begingroup\$ Mind clarifying this in the question? Unneeded asking for Discern Realities rolls might be an issue. \$\endgroup\$ – enkryptor Jan 26 '18 at 10:51
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"Who's in control" has several distinct aspects, which I'll detail below. But, for starters, you're probably overlooking the most obvious answer:

"Clearly it's you, killer. What do you want to do next?"


What does "in control" mean?

(This answer is mostly based on experience with Apocalypse World, which has a similar move that includes most of the questions in Discern Realities.)

"Who's really in control?" can be a tough one, yeah.

Generally, to figure out "who's really in control," think about:

  • Which side has the "initiative" or "advantage" in a tense situation? Why?
  • Who caused the situation in the first place?
  • Who is the leader of the opposition?
  • Is anyone pulling the strings behind the scenes?
  • Who has the ability to change the outcome of what's happening now, a lot, with the least effort?
  • Who's "responsible" for what happens here?

Respond with any combination of these that seems interesting.

And, importantly, scope it to the situation at hand.


Scoping the Questions

So, in your example, since you've already zeroed in on the guard, "Who's in control?" could be used to spell out:

  1. What's motivating the guard? Is the warehouse foreman you mentioned his boss? Is he beholden to someone else, like the town's watch captain or the rich-and-absent owner of the warehouse?

    • For a player, this offers up avenues for interacting with the situation. The thief could decide to knock over some stuff and hope the boss comes in and tells the guard to go stand outside instead of scouring the warehouse, for example.
  2. Who's winning the game of cat and mouse currently playing out? Is the guard zeroing in on the thief, or does the thief have all the informational and positional advantage?

    • For a player, this implicitly answers "How desperate should I feel?"

Alternatively, it may be a better answer is to go back and broaden the situation. You've focused in one the thief and the guard, but is that already the situation at play? Or is the situation just sneaking around and the guard is one part of it? An alternative approach could be:

  1. "What should I be on the lookout for?" Tell him about the guards.

  2. "What here is useful or valuable to me?" Sure, you can hide behind boxes. But why is he here? To steal stuff? Tell him about how his experienced eye allows him to identify where the most valuable, portable stuff would be stored.

    Now we've got both a threat and a potential reward, if he wants to risk something against the threat.

  3. "Who's in control here?" Your range of interesting responses to this question becomes broader, since the scope of the situation as a whole is broader now:

    • Tell him whether he or the guard have the upper hand.
    • Tell him something about the power structure at play that he could leverage against the threat.
    • To fit into the whole theme of thievery, tell him something about the broader situation that speaks to other dangers and rewards. Whose wealth is this, overtly or covertly? Which deep dark secretly criminal-underworldy things are going on here?

"You"

If none of the above really makes sense, that's because, most likely, there is no NPC "in control." So, who is in control? Obviously, the player character. So, tell them that, straight up: "Clearly it's you. What do you want to do next?" That's a useful answer in and of itself because it affirms that they have significant room to act.

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    \$\begingroup\$ I think that last bit is really important to emphasise, maybe even up top, because it's so often overlooked by DW GMs: “Tell him whether he or the guard have the upper hand” and “Clearly it's you”: sometimes, the answer really is “You are!” I find it's really helpful to remember that, because I stumble when I discount that possibility and search fruitlessly elsewhere to invent someone in control… the fruitless stumbling being due to ignoring the obvious answer right in front of me. It's super-useful to confirm that yes, Thief, you have the initiative! What do you do with it? \$\endgroup\$ – SevenSidedDie Jan 26 '18 at 6:26
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    \$\begingroup\$ Given that OP asked the Thief “I ask him if he recognizes the guard.” who determined that “... he does and the guard probably recognizes him. Back when ...” the You answer is, ironically, largely literal :o) \$\endgroup\$ – Will Crawford Jan 26 '18 at 11:03
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You know the story of the blind men and the elephant right?

A group of blind men heard that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: "We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable." So, they sought it out, and when they found it they groped about it. In the case of the first person, whose hand landed on the trunk, said "This being is like a thick snake". For another one whose hand reached its ear, it seemed like a kind of fan. As for another person, whose hand was upon its leg, said, the elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk. The blind man who placed his hand upon its side said, "elephant is a wall". Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, stating the elephant is that which is hard, smooth and like a spear.

In some versions, the blind men then discover their disagreements, suspect the others to be not telling the truth and come to blows. The stories also differ primarily in how the elephant's body parts are described, how violent the conflict becomes and how (or if) the conflict among the men and their perspectives is resolved. In some versions, they stop talking, start listening and collaborate to "see" the full elephant. In another, a sighted man enters the parable and describes the entire elephant from various perspectives, the blind men then learn that they were all partially correct and partially wrong. While one's subjective experience is true, it may not be the totality of truth.

A question such as "Who is really in control here?" Seems to me to be a blind man feeling just part of the elephant situation.

Everything is helpful, it just might not be a complete picture.

So when they ask "Who is really in control here?" Think about the relationships between all the people who are there. Who has power? Who doesn't? If there are two guards, which is the dominant guard who takes the lead?

Also, if a cat is in the room, the answer is nearly always, the cat. Everyone else is just staff.

Everything is useful (unless there is a cat)--but it is very broad.

Step one, step back. Look at the micro and macro that's available to you in the scene. "In control" is a funny way of putting things--so it really can mean whatever you need it to.

So the way I would break it down is to have subquestions, and use whatever might apply

Who is in control here? Can mean:

  • Who is the dominant personality in the room?

  • Who is trying to fade into the background but is more than they seem?

  • Who is allowing others to be in charge but is a very good influencer?

  • Who is taking cues from everyone else?

  • Who is giving everyone else cues and what might they be? Or even, WHAT is giving someone cues--could be a book they are checking--or a symbol discreetly included in all the coats of arms--you can make it a clue instead, what leading to the who in this case.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ The cat indeed :D \$\endgroup\$ – edgerunner Jan 26 '18 at 11:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ My character in one current campaign has developed an obsession with cats. He would definitely agree that the cat is in control - even if it's not even in the same room. Anywhere in the same city is enough. \$\endgroup\$ – rosuav Jan 27 '18 at 13:59
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First, consider the trigger for Discern Realities: When you closely study a situation or person. It's up to you if just glancing around for guards is really close study in this case. If it's not, you can give an answer as a GM, since it's your job to describe the world. Better though, if you're not convinced they're studying the situation, prompt, “You slipped past a city guard getting over here. There are probably more around. Are you going to look around carefully and try to avoid being spotted?” or the like. They can describe their active investigation and that will prompt the Discern Realities roll. This is an especially useful case, because it gives you an obvious opportunity if they roll a 6-. Remember: Ask questions and use the answers. What exactly they describe themselves doing should color your response.

Second, if nobody's in control, you can honestly tell them that nobody's in control. Or that, until they're spotted, that they are in control. It can seem that they're wasting their time asking this question, but that's what they wanted to know. Both of those are fine answers for your example, but the latter feels more empowering.

Remember that a 7-9 result promises complications or trouble. You can let them get their question off but escalate. Maybe they spot the obvious guard, but then notice two more guards in plainclothes who are blocking the exits to the square… Since you've already established in the fiction that the characters are persons of interest, after they get their one question you can follow up with a soft move like reveal an unwelcome truth, show signs of an approaching threat, offer an opportunity with or without cost, or put them in a spot.


It's not a crutch to solicit answers or advice from your players, at least not in Dungeon World! If they ask something you don't have an answer for and can't come up with a good response, my first instinct is to review the GM Agenda and Principles to fish for ideas. At the very least, ask questions and use the answers is a safe bet and gives you time to think. “You're at the edge of the city with some caravaners. Is there something else you're expecting to be here or to find you here?” When I truly am at a loss, I'll admit it, “Sorry, I got nothing. What do the rest of you think?”

Flat out refusing doesn't help and directly goes against your Agenda. You want the characters to succeed, you want to play to find out what happens, and you are a fan of the characters. Honestly, you'll get better at coming up with answers on the fly the more you play.

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    \$\begingroup\$ My main concern with soliciting help from my players is that if that is my primary method of getting around the question I am might end up high and dry when the players don't have an idea either. I'm always happy to ask my players even when I have an idea, but I don't want that to be my only plan. \$\endgroup\$ – Wheat Wizard Jan 26 '18 at 5:17
  • \$\begingroup\$ @EpsilonNeighborhoodWatch That sounds to me like a "say yes or roll the dice" situation. If neither you nor the players have any ideas, then neither of you really have anything at all hanging on the determination of who's in control. In that case, either just say "Clearly you are", or, ask the player "Who do you WANT to be in control?" And just say yes to whatever they say. The "...or roll the dice" part doesn't come in, until another player move is triggered. Nobody loses anything if you just "say yes", by letting the player either be in control or tell you who they want to be in control. \$\endgroup\$ – Beanluc Jan 26 '18 at 17:05
  • \$\begingroup\$ A 7-9 does not always promise consequences or trouble. That's a general guideline, but moves can overwrite it. In this case, the 'trouble' is that you only get to ask one question and you can't just reroll to try again. \$\endgroup\$ – Glazius Jan 26 '18 at 19:04
  • \$\begingroup\$ The move was triggered, @okeefe. Now we're talking about how to decide how to react to it. I understand that DW isn't supposed to give GMs too much creative license, but I feel like "say yes" is a useful way to convey that there's nothing lost if the GM doesn't come up with a conflict instead of just leaving the player or their character in control. \$\endgroup\$ – Beanluc Jan 26 '18 at 19:20
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    \$\begingroup\$ @okeefe No, that's a rough summary of all the moves in the game. The rules are above it on that same page: on a 10+ or a 7-9, the move will tell you what happens. Sometimes that involves consequences or trouble, or a choice between player-controlled and GM-controlled consequences. Sometimes that just involves a reduced effect. A GM who regards every 7-9 with a special negative animus, even on moves like Defend or Hunt and Track with no specified downside, is being unfair to the players. \$\endgroup\$ – Glazius Jan 27 '18 at 13:43
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"It depends on what the definition of 'here' is."

This is more of a problem in urban areas than in dungeons, where the boundary between the territories of Great Goblin King One-Eye, Long May He Reign and The Green Mass That Waits Below is clearly delineated, usually with spikes, skulls, and skulls on spikes.

But let me back up a second.

Discern Realities provides generic templates to cast questions into, to prevent things from getting too open-ended, but that doesn't stop those original questions from still existing. So that question can mean any one of:

  • here and now: are we being watched by someone who might tip that guard off about a suspicious figure behind the boxes, or am I free to get my sneak on?
  • here this building: is this a front for the Smuggler's Guild or do I have to deal with these guys like a legitimate business?
  • here these streets: are the guards or anyone else closing in from outside?

The thief is probably looking for an answer to one of these questions, and it is completely legit to ask which one. Or heck, maybe they had something else in mind. The thing about Discern Realities is that it gives you a +1 forward when acting on the answers, not just in the here and now, so the thief may be trying to clarify the situation in front of them or looking for something they can use later, at least until they need to make a roll or the answer becomes irrelevant.

Either way, if this question is perpetually filling you with dread, it's probably because you can't decide what "here" should mean. And that's a perfectly fine thing to kick back to the player. Just make sure they've actually got a sufficient grounding to be able to gather information about their "here".

What To Ask

Begin with what you want clarification on. In this case, probably the question that will get the clearest answer is:

In control of what, exactly?

But since an entirely open-ended question might just end up moving the dead air from you over to the player, it's best to toss them a couple of lifelines in the form of possible answers.

The inspection? The business? The neighborhood?

And they'll probably have a good idea of what they were asking after at this point, at which point you feed them their answer and keep going.

Best of all, after you pull this a few more times, they may even start volunteering "in control of what, exactly" all on their own.

Now, this doesn't mean you need to give them alternatives that all legitimately have different answers. You're trying to get a better idea of what the thief's player was asking so you can give them a fitting answer.

So let me step forward a second: neither Great Goblin King One-Eye (long may he reign!) or The Green Mass That Waits Below are quite as enthusiastic as the city-folk to share control, after all.

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