[RPG] How to answer “Who’s really in control here?”


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 relying solely on the players to do my job. 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.

Best Answer

"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?


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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