I’m going to go a lot deeper into player agency in this post, so be warned it’s a little bit denser than my usual fare. Reader wylliamjudd wrote the following comment on a post about setting the tone of a game to enable players.
I thought we were talking about player agency. I thought we were talking about a sandbox RPG, that gives players the freedom to explore and choose their own path through the game.
Maybe it would help if you explain what you see as the alternative to this.
Storytelling vs Gaming
There are two extremes that most RPGs live somewhere in between: A storytelling game, and a strategy game.
On one hand, you have the players telling a story about their characters, and the GM enables them to do so by playing the supporting cast. In this scenario, the GM is usually reacting to the players as the players take actions in the story.
On the other hand, you have the GM who has prepared a challenging adventure with some built-in series of events and the main variations from two different groups running in the same session will be how the players deal with those events. In this scenario, the players are usually reacting to the GM, as the GM’s actors take actions in the story.
There is a certain art in picking the right balance between the two extremes. Players being able to choose their own path through a game is a bare minimum requirement for player agency. The players should be able to decide from the full extent of actions that their character could take. The GM should never actually be taking control of the player’s character, unless the rules of the game dictate that they do so.
The real question of player agency is whether that agency should extend beyond their character to the other aspects of the world (player storytelling that goes past their character), and/or whether the GM should conceive of events outside of the game that happen to the players, or whether the GM should be conceiving of events inside the game that are responding to the characters. For an RPG, the more reasonable question is how much of each should be employed. While my post on setting the tone sits squarely in the tone of players need more agency, in the comments between you, Andy, and I, I referenced (poorly) two problems that arise as players begin exercising more and more agency:
1. Players agency spills out of bounds into the game world, draining the game of conflict
2. The GM has to make more and more meaningful decisions without an impartial system, which robs the players of an impartial victory (or an impartial defeat)
Extended Player Agency
Player agency extends too far when their complete control of their characters and their characters actions isn’t their limit. Let’s say the players want to play pirates and want to know if there is a ship at dock on which to sail. Because they decided to be pirates, the GM rules there is one (because the GM feels that otherwise they are taking agency away from their players by preventing them from being pirates). The players then ask if there’s a fat merchant ship to go rob. Once again, the GM rules there is one. As the players make their escape, they think of an idea to use local knowledge of a barrier reef to navigate an impossible getaway. A great idea! The GM rules there IS in fact a barrier reef, and they are able to escape.
I don’t have the definitive answer on how much of this is good and how much of this is bad. Players investing in the world and creating content in the game isn’t a bad thing in my book. However, at some point, the players have obtained so much agency over the world itself, that they and/or the GM will come to realize that the game is gone. It’s just a story that the GM is enabling the players to tell, but the conflict becomes diminished. Once you realize that there was only a pirate ship because you wanted one to be there, and there was a near certainty for a juicy target because you wanted there to be one, your sense of achievement begins to fade.
GM Deciding Meaningful Outcomes
Having an impartial system in place to answer some of these questions; or as I’ll do sometimes, announcing what seems to me to be a fair and impartial system, tends to counterbalance this. In the example above, if the player asks about a fat merchant ship, I might say “you’re in trade waters, so the chance that you’ll come across an unguarded merchant ship is X%, modified by these potential factors.” By doing this, you restore some of the game back into the system, you add unpredictability, and if the players win, they’ve done so based on an agreed-to system, not because you the GM thought they should.
Having the GM decide the outcome of meaningful actions (in our out of combat) without an impartial system removes some player agency. If in the end, your ability to bluff or lift a gate is left up to the GM to just decide, the players have lost control even if they can DO anything they want. I say meaningful outcomes, because the GM is there to facilitate and decide a lot of information (is the tree alive or dead, does the cup break when it falls, etc.) that really does just need to be decided on and conveyed by the GM so that the game can move on.
The more player agency exercised by the actions of the players, the less the GM can be prepared for what they’re going to do, which means the more the GM is going to have to improvise. The more the GM has to improvise, the higher the danger of the GM removing some of the player agency by making decisions on a whim. This dichotomy between needing the GM to make decisions on behalf of the game world, and for there to be some system for determining success and failure other than the GM’s mood, is one of the balancing acts of an RPG.