Meaning of "Play to find out"


Could a 100% improvised game, where everybody at the table establishes facts about the world all the time, be covered by the term “play to find out” or would that be a too laissez-faire interpretation?
Is there a narrower path along which “play to find out” is understood?

There is the imperative to “exploit your prep”. Does that refer to actual prep?

What about “plot changes”?

Say, a player says “wouldn’t it be cool, if x is a traitor”.

Could you establish that in the fiction and sum that under “play to find out”?


I feel like the terms “improvisation” and “play to find out” are both getting in the way of what you’re really interested in.

It sounds like what you’re interested in is games where players take a stance toward the fiction more like an author writing a story, rather than being wholly immersed in their individual character’s point of view. That’s absolutely something that games can do. Many games are explicitly built that way, and others can be played that way even if not intended by the designer. To say more, we’d have to know what game you have in mind.


Yes, you are right. This is at the heart of what I wanted to explore.

After reading some rulebooks from PbtA-Games (Dungeon World, The Veil, Uncharted Worlds) and listening to several podcasts, reading interviews etc. I got the impression, that - though not explicitely written or intended - these kind of games would at least allow this kind of play.

My socialization - so to say - with TTRPGs was way back with what would be now perhaps be called OSR (e.g. ADnD 2e). And what was common to these types of games was the narrative control / authority of the game master.

Having taken a 20 years pause, I come back to the hobby, there are games like Dungeon World which in comparison to the games I ran seem to be more democratic(?)

Part of the narrative control seems to have shifted from the GM to the players.

I got the impression that at the core the mechanics of the various PbtA games provide (at least to a certain degree) a framework for “co-authoring” a story - which would be what you “found out”. Not that these games are written under this premise, but effectively work that way. The PCs could be wholly immersed - but aren’t bound to that perspective.

In Ironsworn - not a direct PbtA but I think related- are mechanics provided for solo-play. So the Player takes both roles (MC and PC) and the story unfolds along the interpretation of the oracle-mechanics. That led me to the question:

When in Ironsworn (solo-play) the story works out via “interpreting the dice” with the “MC-role” and playing with the “interpretation”, wouldn’t that work too in games like Dungeon World? No plot is preplanned and the story depends solely on the interpretation of the dice rolls? And I thought, that would be totally possible.

In consequence, PbtA like games provide a vehicle to share narrative control over the story by setting the rules for the dialog partners (who speaks when) and incorporating a dice-oracle.

That is my interpretation of these games.

And I wanted to know if that’s too far fetched.


You can play many PbtA games with a more authorial stance, but I think if you want to get fully immersed into that style of play you should check out some GMless games. We had a big thread of them here: What's your favorite GM-less game and why?


Ironically, I recently did a podcast on the overlap between play to find out and the principles of improv. I don’t know if it’s exactly what you’re looking for, but it could be interesting. Hasn’t come out yet, but it should be coming out on the +1 forward podcast produced here within the next few days.


What a nice coincidence :slight_smile:
Yes my question is about improv too. So, I am looking forward to the release of this episode. Thank you for the hint👍


Getting on board with the “play to find out what happens” mindset was an impetuses for me to really fall into the bottomless treasure trove of indy gaming.

To my mind it represents a particular conceptual conceit of many modern roleplaying games that the system we use isn’t so much about winning or achieving our own personal ends but adapting and reacting to the inputs of others at the table. We are equally players and observers.


Can you? Yes.

Should you? That depends on preferred play style and table culture.

You are absolutely right that pbta encorages this. It’s a system designed for no one to be in charge. Democracy is one word for it. I know another.


Thanks @William_Nichols

But now, I am curious about the word you left out :wink:


If I understand you correctly, you’re asking if playing to find out how or why something comes to be is still playing to find out. It most certainly is!


@EricVulgaris The problem I ran into is, that I found so far no hard definition of what that motto means in extenso. So far, I found two interpretations:

  • Having some kind of given scenario prepared by the MC and “asking questions” about that. And the game will give an answer to that. E. g. the MC creates a power vacuum and the question is how it will be filled by whom.

  • Establishing every fact about the scenario at the table and asking questions about that. The game will generate a possible answer.

For me both interpretations are not exclusive - though some people suggest that only the first one is covered by the motto “play to find out”.

For me “play to find out” gives you something like a dial for improv, you adjust to your table’s needs.

In theory it would be totally possible to improv a murder mystery at the table without having prepared anything. Of course whether that works out is on another sheet of paper :wink:

But every question could be answered with everybody at the table interpreting dice rolls and establishing facts about the world. And if the table agrees on who the murderer was, than they played to find out that.


It’s a specific idea from Apocalypse World, so I’d go back to the 1E text (p.108f):

It’s not, for instance, your agenda to make the
players lose, or to deny them what they want, or to punish them,
or to control them, or to get them through your pre-planned
storyline (DO NOT pre-plan a storyline, and I’m not fucking
around). It’s not your job to put their characters in double-binds
or dead ends, or to yank the rug out from under their feet. Go
chasing after any of those, you’ll wind up with a boring game
that makes Apocalypse World seem contrived, and you’ll be
pre-deciding what happens by yourself, not playing to find out.
Play to find out: there’s a certain discipline you need in order
to MC Apocalypse World. You have to commit yourself to the
game’s fiction’s own internal logic and causality, driven by the
players’ characters. You have to open yourself to caring what
happens, but when it comes time to say what happens, you have
to set what you hope for aside.
The reward for MCing, for this kind of GMing, comes with the
discipline. When you find something you genuinely care about
— a question about what will happen that you genuinely want
to find out — letting the game’s fiction decide it is uniquely

Then Jason D’Angelo’s commentary (which is on the 2E):

As MC of Apocalypse World you need to govern your emotions and check your power in order to make the game do what it’s built to do.

But you’re only human, right? Everyone else in the game gets to have their bleed and play it too, why not you? Because, as the text reminds you several times, your power is too great to give in to those desires. That’s why the word “discipline” is key in this section. Here, “discipline” is applied principally to the “Play to find out what happens” element, because let’s face it. How your group works socially is nothing the game can control (or wants to). What the game can insist upon is that you play a reactionary role as the MC, responding to the characters rather than forcing them to go where you want. You will of course give them things to respond to, but how they respond and what comes of that response is up to them and the game, putting you back in a reactionary role.

And that’s the real challenge for the MC as it’s presented here. You have to “genuinely care” about what happens but not control it in any way. What this really emphasizes is the MC’s role as audience to the drama unfolding.


The list of MC wonderings is a beautiful thing. It’s like watching Act I in a movie or the first episode of a TV series and noting all the plot potential of the story about to unfold. There are all these places that things can go wrong, paths that the story could follow. But unlike those other art forms where the story is crafted long before we actually experience it, here everything is still wide open, and each possibility is as likely as any other to make it into the story. So we are encouraged to write it all down in this first session and even to start pushing right away on that which is most interesting to us. And it’s an intuitive process turning your wondering into a push; what would they do to protect their well? To find out all you have to do is threaten their well. Done.

That’s the heart of playing to find out what happens, yeah? By structuring the MC’s engagement with the emergent story as wondering observation, the game demands that the MC play to find out what happens. You have questions, the answers to which can only be discovered through play. The MC may surprise the players by threatening the well, but then the players get to surprise the MC by their reaction.

On the object of Play to find out:

Several times during the talk, Vincent makes it clear that the driving principle of his designs is what the game is asking the players to play to find out. Once that is known, the game needs to give everyone involved the tools they need to do that and to structure play such that that discovery is reliably made during play. To that extent, the game cannot place its own “thumb on the scale,” nor can it allow the GM to place their “thumb on the scale.” That thing that is being played to find out can only result from the players’ actions and decisions.


And to your traitor example (p.115):

Sometimes, disclaim decision-making. In order to play to
find out what happens, you’ll need to pass decision-making off
sometimes. Whenever something comes up that you’d prefer not
to decide by personal whim and will, don’t. The game gives you
four key tools you can use to disclaim responsibility: you can put
it in your NPCs’ hands, you can put it in the players’ hands, you
can create a countdown, or you can make it a stakes question.
Say that there’s an NPC whose life the players have come to care
about, for instance, and you don’t feel right about just deciding
when and whether to kill her off:
You can (1) put it in your NPCs’ hands. Just ask yourself, in this
circumstance, is Birdie really going to kill her? If the answer’s
yes, she dies. If it’s no, she lives. Yes, this leaves the decision in
your hands, but it gives you a way to make it with integrity.
You can (2) put it in the players’ hands. For instance, “Dou’s
been shot, yeah, she’s shuddering and going into shock. What
do you do?” If the character helps her, she lives; if the character
doesn’t or can’t, she dies. You could even create a custom move
for it, if you wanted, to serve the exact circumstances. See the
moves snowball chapter, page 151, and the advanced fuckery
chapter, page 267.
You can (3) create a countdown. See the countdown section in
the fronts chapter, page 143. Just sketch a quick countdown
clock. Mark 9:00 with “she gets hurt,” 12:00 with “she dies.”
Tick it up every time she goes into danger, and jump to 9:00 if
she’s in the line of fire. This leaves it in your hands, but gives
you a considered and concrete plan, instead of leaving it to your
Or you can (4) make it a stakes question. See the stakes section
in the fronts chapter, page 145.“Will Dou live through all this?”
Now you’ve promised yourself not to just answer it yourself, yes
or no, she lives or she dies. Whenever it comes up, you must give
the answer over to your NPCs, to the players’ characters, to the
game’s moves, or to a countdown, no cheating.

Jason D’Angelo comments:

This is the only principle that is directly concerned with playing to find out what happens. Making everyone human, making your move but misdirecting, responding with fuckery—they all concern themselves with making Apocalypse World real and the characters’ lives not boring. Asking provocative questions demands that you use the answers to inform your understanding of the world, so in a sense it prevents the MC from controlling all the details, forcing them in the direction of playing to find out. But this final principle is the only one that tells us how to play to find out and what playing to find out looks like .

According to this principle, it is all about “decision-making.” Specifically it is about letting the Fiction, the characters’ actions, the rules, and your prep work inform your decision-making rather than simply relying on your “personal whim and will.”


@Thomas_Junk What do we call a a non-hierarchical, voluntary associations among agents?

In the AW case: The MC has a specific and different role, but isn’t more important. Right? The games we play are voluntary, right?

That is: We don’t really think one of our friends is in charge of the group, and we think we can all leave the group.

I’ll leave the missing word as an exercise for the reader.


A(h), now I see, where you go.


Thank you very much @Julian. Quite a bit of a long read :]
This helps a lot, enhancing my view on the topic.


Podcast just released! Here’s the link for you if you’re interested.


Thank you very much!