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A Question Of Agency?

zarionofarabel

Adventurer
So I don't prepare plots, or adventures, or stories, or scenes, or anything for the PCs to encounter in advance. What I do is come up with stuff on the fly as the game is being played.

I do have a world that the PCs adventure in, sometimes a published setting, such as the Forgotten Realms or the Star Wars Universe. Sometimes a homebrew world made up in my imagination based on the players desires and the premise of the campaign as decided in Session Zero.

Between sessions I do daydream about the Imaginationland that the campaign will take place in. I wander around in it and see the sights. I fly above it and watch as the peeps that inhabit it go about their lives. I think upon what has happened so far in the established narrative and how that has affected the world and it's inhabitants.

But I don't write anything down, or get stats ready, or prepare encounters for the PCs to take part in. I just imagine stuff between sessions, at times even dwell on aspects of the established narrative to make sure that I have that part of the story that was told at the forefront of my mind for the next session.

So this has made me wonder about the existence of meaningful player agency within my campaigns. If I do not plan ahead and plot out various choices for the players to make, this surely means they lack agency.

So my question is whether or not a no prep GM such as myself is actually able to offer my players meaningful choices? Or am I actually only offering them the illusion of choice and thus robbing them of any agency they might have in a campaign that has choices plotted in advance?
 

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So I don't prepare plots, or adventures, or stories, or scenes, or anything for the PCs to encounter in advance. What I do is come up with stuff on the fly as the game is being played.

I do have a world that the PCs adventure in, sometimes a published setting, such as the Forgotten Realms or the Star Wars Universe. Sometimes a homebrew world made up in my imagination based on the players desires and the premise of the campaign as decided in Session Zero.

Between sessions I do daydream about the Imaginationland that the campaign will take place in. I wander around in it and see the sights. I fly above it and watch as the peeps that inhabit it go about their lives. I think upon what has happened so far in the established narrative and how that has affected the world and it's inhabitants.

But I don't write anything down, or get stats ready, or prepare encounters for the PCs to take part in. I just imagine stuff between sessions, at times even dwell on aspects of the established narrative to make sure that I have that part of the story that was told at the forefront of my mind for the next session.

So this has made me wonder about the existence of meaningful player agency within my campaigns. If I do not plan ahead and plot out various choices for the players to make, this surely means they lack agency.

So my question is whether or not a no prep GM such as myself is actually able to offer my players meaningful choices? Or am I actually only offering them the illusion of choice and thus robbing them of any agency they might have in a campaign that has choices plotted in advance?

I would say that in an 'improv' method such as yours (which I have used in the past), is going to be a shallow pond. Working off the cuff, improvising as you go, you can certainly come up with memorable gaming; it can even allow for some player agency.

But for real, dynamic player agency, I believe that you need more detail and depth of plot than a GM can come up with 'on the fly'.

But at the bottom line, if your players keep showing up week after week, you're doing it right.
 

macd21

Adventurer
I would say quite the opposite - that the players have far more agency in your game than in most. It’s not that they lack choices, it’s that you’re reacting to their choices, and just not bothering to flesh out the choices they didn’t take.

Sure, you could think about choices A, B and C ahead of time, and let them pick one. But this tends to actually limit their agency, as the GM pushes them to pick one of these three. Your method of GMing doesn’t presuppose they’ll go with one of these options, so you’re more open to accepting option G, Q or X when they go for that.
 

pming

Hero
Hiya!

So my question is whether or not a no prep GM such as myself is actually able to offer my players meaningful choices? Or am I actually only offering them the illusion of choice and thus robbing them of any agency they might have in a campaign that has choices plotted in advance?

Is everyone having fun? Yes? Ok, so what's the problem?

Seriously. If everyone is having a blast and nobody is complaining...you're doing it right. Keep doing that. :D

^_^

Paul L. Ming
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
So this has made me wonder about the existence of meaningful player agency within my campaigns. If I do not plan ahead and plot out various choices for the players to make, this surely means they lack agency.

So my question is whether or not a no prep GM such as myself is actually able to offer my players meaningful choices?

That depends.

How the content comes about is not the important bit. Meaningful choice and agency happen when player choices make a difference in what happens.

So, let's say the PCs are traveling long distance cross-country, and you imagined beforehand that a tribe of orcs was in the way. If the PCs negotiate with giant eagles to fly them over much of the intervening territory, but they then have to fight the orcs as soon as they land anyway, then you have rendered the choice to negotiate with the birds meaningless, and thus removed some of the player's agency.

If the players can make their own lives better (or worse) thorugh their choices, they have agency.
 
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So I don't prepare plots, or adventures, or stories, or scenes, or anything for the PCs to encounter in advance. What I do is come up with stuff on the fly as the game is being played.

I do have a world that the PCs adventure in, sometimes a published setting, such as the Forgotten Realms or the Star Wars Universe. Sometimes a homebrew world made up in my imagination based on the players desires and the premise of the campaign as decided in Session Zero.

Between sessions I do daydream about the Imaginationland that the campaign will take place in. I wander around in it and see the sights. I fly above it and watch as the peeps that inhabit it go about their lives. I think upon what has happened so far in the established narrative and how that has affected the world and it's inhabitants.

But I don't write anything down, or get stats ready, or prepare encounters for the PCs to take part in. I just imagine stuff between sessions, at times even dwell on aspects of the established narrative to make sure that I have that part of the story that was told at the forefront of my mind for the next session.

So this has made me wonder about the existence of meaningful player agency within my campaigns. If I do not plan ahead and plot out various choices for the players to make, this surely means they lack agency.

So my question is whether or not a no prep GM such as myself is actually able to offer my players meaningful choices? Or am I actually only offering them the illusion of choice and thus robbing them of any agency they might have in a campaign that has choices plotted in advance?

I don't know if this will answer your question or not, but I also had a dilemma with this around 2002-04 or so. Where I was running a lot of very typical type adventures at the time (mostly at the request of my players who wanted the mainstream 3E experience). This was a bit opposite your problem because those were high prep games, but the prep was all oriented around stuff assumed to happen (structuring adventures around encounters, using encounter levels as a guide, and having a kind of clear set of events or scenarios that were expected to occur). As a GM I found it incredibly unsatisfying, because I had been experimenting with looser structures focused on player agency in the past couple of years in other campaigns. What I realized was, for me, it was no fun to realize I might as well just hand my players my notes for that session. There just wasn't enough agency for me and there weren't enough surprises at the table holding my interest. I found a solution to my problems by going back to the older material that embraced the luck of the dice, exploration and not being so focused on things like is the session paced and building toward something, are the encounters all perfectly balanced and exciting, etc. I think you could call the issue I was experience "the tyranny of fun", where there was advice about how to run the perfect session that had become the default, but it just wasn't working for me: because for me the perfect session has a lot of imperfections in it and is centered around players having the ability to make meaningful choices that legitimately shape the direction of the campaign and the events that unfold.

For me this led to focusing more on characters, more on creating a world to be explored, and embracing the randomness of the game component (I realized it was the not knowing how things would turn out that was driving my excitement at the table, and that sometimes that meant PCs and NPCs dying in anti-climactic ways, or the adventure wrapping up earlier than expected). I don't think in your case you need to prep a lot to provide player agency but you probably need some amount of concrete. If I were you I would focus on NPCs. Your style, if you want it to be more about player agency, would probably work with a character driven adventure (where you flesh out your NPCs, give them clear goals and motivations and deploy them in the world). That way while you may be deciding what happens on the fly and in response to player choices, you are responding through characters who have a logic to them. So you aren't just saying "Would it be cool for Lord Agitator to join forces against Lady Death with the players right now?" you are saying "Would Lord Agitator take the players up on their offer to join forces against Lady Death?".
 

billd91

Hobbit on Quest
So this has made me wonder about the existence of meaningful player agency within my campaigns. If I do not plan ahead and plot out various choices for the players to make, this surely means they lack agency.

So my question is whether or not a no prep GM such as myself is actually able to offer my players meaningful choices? Or am I actually only offering them the illusion of choice and thus robbing them of any agency they might have in a campaign that has choices plotted in advance?
It depends on what you mean by agency, I suppose. Your players' choices are both all-determining in the sense that aside from a little bit of framing, you're entirely riffing off of them. And yet there seems to be no road not taken to give meaning to the choices they made. Both ideas - responding to choices freely made and the implications of choices not made - inform aspects of agency.
 

MGibster

Legend
So this has made me wonder about the existence of meaningful player agency within my campaigns. If I do not plan ahead and plot out various choices for the players to make, this surely means they lack agency.
My primary concern is that we're all having fun, and while I admit I don't look too deeply at issues like player agency I would agree having it makes the game more enjoyable for players. But we all have such idle thoughts and what would this message board be without them? I handle adventures a bit differently. I figure out what the bad guys have planned and I know exactly what they'll do if the PCs don't interfere.

I'm running an adventure for Alien this week where the PCs are the crew of a rescue ship responding to an SOS from the USCSS Cronus. A member of the crew has attempted to sabotage the Cronus and only did it half right. The ship is flooded with radiation, Schultz has murdered several of his crewmates, and the cargo is loose and also stalking the crew.

I know exactly what's going to happen if the PCs decide they don't want to board the Cronus and attempt a rescue/salvage. Schultz will continue to murder the crew as best he can until he succumbs to radiation poisoning and the cargo will stalk them until they are all gone.
 

That's a question I go back and forth on - if there was never a planned outcome for the PCs to have an effect on or completely change, do their decisions matter? If the all-improv adventure has a world that's defined, has places and NPCs that will react to the PCs' choices, that's enough. If everything is just appearing before them, the track being laid before them as they go, then is that just another form of railroading? I don't really have an answer.

I tend to go with a mix of improv and planning, to try to get the best of both worlds. One thing I read is that your mind will come up with different things based on whether you're doing it in the moment or thinking it through at leisure.
 

MGibster

Legend
I tend to go with a mix of improv and planning, to try to get the best of both worlds. One thing I read is that your mind will come up with different things based on whether you're doing it in the moment or thinking it through at leisure.
I've found that failure to plan on my part leads to lackluster games. There might be some GMs out there whose improvisational skills are off the hook but that's not me. Though I do find every Gm needs to be willing to improvise at times as player characters will do things you never expected. And a lot of times that's fun.
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
That's a question I go back and forth on - if there was never a planned outcome for the PCs to have an effect on or completely change, do their decisions matter? If the all-improv adventure has a world that's defined, has places and NPCs that will react to the PCs' choices, that's enough. If everything is just appearing before them, the track being laid before them as they go, then is that just another form of railroading? I don't really have an answer.

I tend to go with a mix of improv and planning, to try to get the best of both worlds. One thing I read is that your mind will come up with different things based on whether you're doing it in the moment or thinking it through at leisure.
I tend to do something similar to @MGibster describes above, and think through what will happen if the PCs don't interfere, and usually some of the obvious reactions/responses/results. I don't try to plan everything, because that way lies madness.

I think the only pitfall in total improv, as far as avoiding railroading, is that you as GM might be sub/un-consciously railroading yourself. If you're improvising everything it can be hard to prove either way, but the possibility seems there.
 

zarionofarabel

Adventurer
Well, I do keep notes on what has happened in the narrative after the fact. I do think about what NPCs may be doing when the PCs are not around so if the PCs encounter them again it will not be as if they existed in a vacuum while the PCs were gone. I also allow the players to drive the narrative where they want to take it.

I just wonder if any choices I present them are real as the above mentioned road-not-taken could be said to not exist...
 

prabe

Aspiring Lurker (He/Him)
Supporter
Well, I do keep notes on what has happened in the narrative after the fact. I do think about what NPCs may be doing when the PCs are not around so if the PCs encounter them again it will not be as if they existed in a vacuum while the PCs were gone. I also allow the players to drive the narrative where they want to take it.

I just wonder if any choices I present them are real as the above mentioned road-not-taken could be said to not exist...
I'm inclined to suspect that if you're worrying (or worried) about this, you're probably doing fine. Even if you aren't thinking this way when you're deciding in the moment, the thoughts are in your brain somewhere. I'd be more worried about a GM who didn't even give agency a thought.
 

Agreed on all counts. Even if where I think the adventure is going to go never happens, I find it much easier to improvise if I have that material. A good DM has to be willing to do some amount of improvisation, because yeah, players will always end up doing something you didn't expect.

I also don't like building combat encounters on the fly. I've done it, but I really prefer to put the time and effort into making them interesting and more than just a room full of foes.

I've found that failure to plan on my part leads to lackluster games. There might be some GMs out there whose improvisational skills are off the hook but that's not me. Though I do find every Gm needs to be willing to improvise at times as player characters will do things you never expected. And a lot of times that's fun.

I tend to do something similar to @MGibster describes above, and think through what will happen if the PCs don't interfere, and usually some of the obvious reactions/responses/results. I don't try to plan everything, because that way lies madness.

I think the only pitfall in total improv, as far as avoiding railroading, is that you as GM might be sub/un-consciously railroading yourself. If you're improvising everything it can be hard to prove either way, but the possibility seems there.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
So I don't prepare plots, or adventures, or stories, or scenes, or anything for the PCs to encounter in advance. What I do is come up with stuff on the fly as the game is being played.

I do have a world that the PCs adventure in, sometimes a published setting, such as the Forgotten Realms or the Star Wars Universe. Sometimes a homebrew world made up in my imagination based on the players desires and the premise of the campaign as decided in Session Zero.

Between sessions I do daydream about the Imaginationland that the campaign will take place in. I wander around in it and see the sights. I fly above it and watch as the peeps that inhabit it go about their lives. I think upon what has happened so far in the established narrative and how that has affected the world and it's inhabitants.

But I don't write anything down, or get stats ready, or prepare encounters for the PCs to take part in. I just imagine stuff between sessions, at times even dwell on aspects of the established narrative to make sure that I have that part of the story that was told at the forefront of my mind for the next session.

So this has made me wonder about the existence of meaningful player agency within my campaigns. If I do not plan ahead and plot out various choices for the players to make, this surely means they lack agency.

So my question is whether or not a no prep GM such as myself is actually able to offer my players meaningful choices? Or am I actually only offering them the illusion of choice and thus robbing them of any agency they might have in a campaign that has choices plotted in advance?
You can improvise a railroad as easily as you can prep one. It's a bit easier to engage player agency while improvising, though. It is a very different way to play from prep, though. I think the key thing with enabling player agency in either is to follow through on resolutions. By this, I mean that success should move the game towards the PC's goal every time, and failure should complicate or impose a consequence that makes the PC's goal harder or that changes the fiction such that the PC's original goal no longer applies. And don't renege on either -- don't reduce a success through a following piece of framing or narration, and don't soften a failure. If future PC's action resolutions do this, fine, but don't blunt the impact without player action.

If you do this -- follow through on resolutions from actions the players choose -- then you're engaging player agency. They get to make important decisions and those decisions have consequences -- good and bad. As long as you're not forcing choices (railroads, illusionism, etc) and you don't blunt resolutions, you're doing just fine. And this goes for prep or improv.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I would say that in an 'improv' method such as yours (which I have used in the past), is going to be a shallow pond. Working off the cuff, improvising as you go, you can certainly come up with memorable gaming; it can even allow for some player agency.

But for real, dynamic player agency, I believe that you need more detail and depth of plot than a GM can come up with 'on the fly'.
This is wildly incorrect. It can apply if the focus is on exploring the GM's ideas, yes, but this isn't at all the only approach to take. If the focus is on the PCs, then an improv-style can have deeply immersive and detailed play because it's the players themselves that are helping. On the other hand, as I just said, if the focus is on exploring a detailed setting not focused on the PCs, then, sure, prep helps quite a lot unless you're just very gifted.

Take Blades in the Dark, my favorite non-D&D go to game. It has a loosely defined setting with only a few hard points that act as boundaries to the game (you can't easily leave the city, so you have to deal with the consequences of your actions -- no murderhoboing). As settings go, it's got a very light touch -- almost no details past some thumbnails for some gangs and neighborhoods. The game itself is entirely driven by player actions and the resolutions of such. It's very improv -- you can't prep the game because the way the mechanics work the first few checks thrown will spiral out of any possible prep you could have done, and if you try to use prepped material, you'll break the game mechanics. But, within that, I've run games of shocking depth and detail, largely because Blades spreads that load by focusing play on PC goals and using PC actions to build the fiction, so the players are right there with you helping detail out the game. It's not the players exploring the GM's game, but rather everyone at the table discovering the game together.

And, this isn't to knock D&D -- I'm ending a Blades rotation shortly and diving right back into my 5e campaign. Covid and the fact I play with some first responders while I started in a new project at work has made things pretty hectic, so the Blades campaign game, where a consistent player group isn't much of a problem, made more sense. Still, excited to get back to my Planescape game. Although, to be fair, I don't prep too heavily there and still have a pretty detailed and intricate game going.
But at the bottom line, if your players keep showing up week after week, you're doing it right.
Now, this... this is absolutely 100% right. If everyone's having fun, you're playing the right way.
 


Well, this turned anxiety-provokingly philosophical! I don't know, is there a DM out there planning my adventures? Is there a player running me? If so, I have some complaints to voice - I hope those extra points you got for picking the Male Pattern Baldness flaw were worth it!

Is there a planned outcome for your real life for you to have an effect on or completely change? Do your real decisions matter?
 


angry star trek GIF

I'm afraid that decision was just made for the lulz.
 

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