Player Agency

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.

7 thoughts on “Player Agency

  1. wylliamjudd

    This post is extremely helpful in understanding your previous comments, and what you see as the challenges of player agency.

    I would never extend player agency beyond their characters. Let me follow what that means through your example. Let’s say the setting is coastal. It seems really unlikely that there isn’t a ship at dock. I like your solution of rolling for whether there’s a merchant ship, but I think that a DM decision here is OK (it’s your setting). For me the barrier reef is where I draw the line. I’ll describe the scene to my players, and I’ll decide based on how I imagined my setting whether there would be a barrier reef here, and how hard it would be for them to navigate it. They can look for a barrier reef, and I might have them roll a perception check. Then if someone rolls a 20, I’ll tell them “you know for sure there is no barrier reef” and if they roll low I’ll tell them “you’re not sure.” Unless of course the barrier reef getaway was something I planned to have available for them to find. Again, it’s your setting. It doesn’t take away player agency to make decisions about the setting.

    Another issue here is if there is an applicable Knowledge skill used in the system, and one of the characters possesses it, then I would not want to make that knowledge skill obsolete, and I would give the player a chance to make a roll and see if they can outsmart another ship because of this skill they invested in.

    If your story isn’t really at sea, but your group decides to become pirates, there are some things you can do. One is, maybe your setting isn’t coastal. Your group decides to make the journey to the coast, and on the way there they play through your whole campaign, only getting to the coast when you’re done with the story you prepared. Or if your setting is coastal, or if you want to be a little more accommodating, you can give your group some real challenges as pirates, and hook them into your original story – maybe the loot they can get in a dungeon will allow them to buy a better ship, or maybe there’s some kind of intrigue at sea that leads them back to the story you prepared.

    To me the question isn’t “how much agency do I give the players?” It’s, “how do I handle it when my players venture away from the parts of the world I’ve prepared?” I think that whether the game is sandbox, or story driven, is totally up to the DM. If the DM wants to run a sandbox game, the DM needs to be highly prepared with the setting. If the DM wants to run a story driven game, they need to be prepared with the story. (I prefer a mix of both where the setting is well imagined and can be explored, and there is a framework for a story prepared for the players to participate in.) In either case, the players should have full control of their characters, and the DM should have full control of the setting.

    I think you’d be right to make a distinction between an RPG and a storytelling game when control of the environment bleeds to all of the players.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      As an interesting side note on this topic, in the past I’ve had fun letting the players create something in the setting as a mission reward. For example, if they successfully liberate the city from an evil oppressor, they can create one “contact” they’ve gained in that city, and what that contact’s area of expertise is.
      This allows players to extend into the game world, but in a way that adds some emotional investment by the players, and gives me some new tools to work with creatively. I’m not opposed to players getting some agency beyond their characters, it’s just something to be careful about.
      When players go off onto areas that are unexplored, there’s going to be a lot of pressure to start populating the world with the things they want to see. You start risking giving them so much agency that the games starts to feel flat. It’s just a danger to be aware of as you’re going towards a sandbox.

      1. wylliamjudd

        I love the idea of letting players create something in the setting as a mission reward, especially the contact with a specific area of expertise.

        Players already create non-character content. For example, a back story populates the world with characters that aren’t planned by the DM. Getting player input into what exists in the setting can be a good thing. It can spread out some of the burden of creativity and increase the overall texture of the world. But I see what you mean about the dangers of this course. I personally don’t mind frustrating player expectations sometimes. There’s nothing wrong with a player searching for something specific in the setting, but that doesn’t mean it needs to pop into existence. A setting is defined as much by what isn’t there as what is.

        I think that one of the things we haven’t talked about that impacts this discussion is role-playing vs. meta gaming. Staying “in character” has always been important in my play groups, and I think a lot of the danger you’re talking about is alleviated when players stay in character. When the character’s actions are guided by the character’s goals, it becomes absurd to strike off into the unknown with specific expectations.

        One other thing on this topic that hasn’t been mentioned is a mutual respect between players and DM. Out of session conversations between the players and the DM can be productive here. The players can clue the DM into what they might want to see in the setting, giving the DM the opportunity to plan for it. The players and the DM can work together on expanding the characters’ back stories as the game progresses, etc.

  2. wylliamjudd

    I don’t mean to underplay your point here, which I think is summarized as whether the players react to the DM or the DM reacts to the players. The DM needs to find a way to balance these two things, so that the players react to the DM, and the DM reacts to the players. Any game in which only one or the other is happening, is I think missing something about a role playing game. If the players are only reacting to the DM, they lack agency – they also lack responsibility for how fun the game is. If the DM is only reacting to the players, there’s no real challenge for the players (I’ve never actually seen this happen).

    But I also partially disagree. I don’t think that a sandbox game means a game in which the DM reacts to the players. I think that it means creating a vibrant setting in which there are many but not unlimited ways for your players to interact with that setting.The players will still be reacting to the DM. It’s not exploration if the players take part in creating the world. To strip this down, think of players going “north” – the DM already knows what’s there, that content is already created, and the players are discovering it. “You go north and find an abandoned cathedral (more description). What do you do?” The players are reacting to the DM (technically the DM is also reacting to the players, since they chose to go north, but the DM has planned for this). They could have just as easily gone east west or south where they would have encountered other things the DM has prepared. That’s exploration.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      No doubt that a good game requires both sides reacting to each other. You’re really backing up your earlier assertion that you like a mixture of both. The flow of the game, to me, is that in a pure sandbox, the “assertive” party is the players, and the “reactive” party is the GM. Of course there’s a game of tennis going on here where the GM plays back to the players who then play back to the GM, but the players are dictating where the game takes place, what the game is about, etc. in a pure sandbox.

      In a strongly story-oriented version of the same game using the same ruleset, the GM is dictating to the players where the game takes place and what will happen in the game, and the players are generally reacting to that. Still, of course, there’s back and forth as the players try taking approaches the GM didn’t anticipate, but the game still feels flipped from a sandbox.

      As you’ve said, you like something in between the two, which can be a difficult balance to find sometimes.

  3. wylliamjudd

    “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. ”

    Good point. I had one player who exerted some impact on the world. She wanted a “MacGyver” skill, and she would ask each player to name an object she might find nearby (a broom, a string) and then she’d come up with a way to make them into a trap, make a roll on her skill and see what happened. It was fun, and didn’t detract at all from the main story and setting that I created, so I allowed it (though I didn’t feel that I had to).

    It’s difficult for me to imagine players who take agency to the point where they deviate entirely from what the DM has planned. I think players know it will decrease their enjoyment of the game. I also think that players need to be reminded sometimes that if they put some creative energy into their character and the story, it will make the game more fun for everyone, than if the DM is the only one being imaginative.

    1. JackOfHearts Post author

      That’s part of my fear as a GM. I don’t want my players to feel like they “have to go along with the telegraphed adventure.” If you’re playing a more story-oriented game, the players are going to get used to this though, and they’re not going to be sure when they should start heading off the map somewhere – or even if they are supposed to. If the game is nearly always laid out by the GM, the players might not feel comfortable setting out on their own agendas, and they might be afraid the GM will be offended, or that the GM won’t be able to put together something interesting.

      Some GMs are great at improvisation, and you’d never know if they had the setting all prepared in advance ahead of time or not. Others are great at building a deep setting. The best GMs are good at both. Either way you get there, I think it’s the GM’s job to find a way to make the game interesting to the players regardless of what they decide their characters are going to do.


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