Dealing with agency and retcon (in semi sandbox)

pemerton

Legend
We're once again conflating ludic and narrative agency.

<snip>

Ludic agency, playing a game with meaningful decision points, requires that more than one strategy be possible and that player choice has an impact ultimate success. Narrative agency requires that the scenario yields to player authorship, and the latter is not necessary for the former, and can easily conflict with it.
The principal significance of a player move in a RPG is to establish some element of, or contribution to, a shared fiction.

So when @chaochou says that player agency depends upon the following:

*Transparent goals for characters - often through authorship of them by the players

*Facilitation of that authorship through group creation of setting and/or situation such that character goals are given meaning and context by player choice, not secret GM backstory​

I do not see any problematic "conflation".

If the situation is created solely by the GM - which is to say, if @chaochou's final dot point is not exemplified in play - then when a player declares an action they don't know what is really at stake in its resolution. Because that will flow from the GM's decision-making alone ("secret GM backstory"). Which means that the relationship between (i) the player's decision as to what their PC tries to achieve, by performing this action, and (ii) what happens next, is not under the player's control. It is being decided entirely by the GM. Hence low player agency.

Conversely, the way a scenario "yields to" player authorship, in a RPG of the sort chaochou has in mind, is because the players are able to declare actions for their PCs that, if successful, result in the fiction changing in ways that give affect to the players' visions and aspirations for their PCs in the situation. The RPGs he has in mind are exemplified by Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel. And the way these RPGs secure that connection between declared action and result if the action is successful is by giving the players input - whether direct or indirect - into setting and/or situation.

In Burning Wheel, this is achieved principally (not exclusively) by (i) the player establishing Beliefs, Relationships, etc as part of PC build/development, and (ii) the GM being required to frame scenes that speak directly to those elements of the PC and put them under pressure. In Apocalypse World, this is achieved primarily (not exclusively) by the fact that GM moves are characterised by reference to the concerns and orientations towards situation brought by the players: "announce badness", "put someone in a spot", "provide an opportunity", etc - the bolded terms all get their meaning only by reference to those player-authored concerns and orientations.
 

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Good last series of posts!

PSA: I preemptively apologize for any/all the jargon below!

@Pedantic , I like the bulk of your post (and I certainly like your clear thinking on this subject even if we have disagreements around the edges). I’m curious about your thoughts regarding what @pemerton has written above. But I’ve got am add-on to his comments that I’d like your thoughts on.

Even in games with minimal challenge-based priorities, the following is true (which you seem to dispute):

1) A player’s facility with “playing the fiction to array the imagined space such that it more likely leads to a new desired state” is a component of play that can’t be decoupled from narrative trajectory.

2) The ability of a player to marshal character build + action resolution dynamics can’t be decoupled from narrative trajectory.

3) Depending upon game engine, the ability of a player to pursue xp triggers and reward cycles will both directly affect narrative trajectory (in the moment of their pursuit) and indirectly because of how advancement will affect (2) above.

It seems to me that TTRPG that isn’t Pawn Stance dungeon crawling or railroad APs (where narrative trajectory is irrelevant or the control of which has been settled before play), narrative trajectory cannot be decoupled from the above.

EDIT - Quick addendum. Texas Hold ‘Em (poker) has a huge dimension of skill that isn’t related to risk assessment or odds of any particular array of hole cards + face cards leading to “the nuts” (best possible hand). That skill is related directly to my (1) above. Players “tell a story (in order to leverage it)” with all of (a) their betting patterns, (b) the historical hands they’ll play and when they situationally will play what hands, (c) their willingness to, and capabilities in, misrepresenting their hands (which is directly related to self-assessing (a) and (b) and leveraging that information). “Generating a fiction (a metanarrative about the player’s boldness, “straight-play,” and tendencies that play will reveal and other skilled players will attempt to leverage) and playing that fiction” of (a), (b), and (c) above is a massive portion of skillful execution in poker.
 
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pemerton

Legend
A player’s facility with “playing the fiction to array the imagined space such that it more likely leads to a new desired state” is a component of play that can’t be decoupled from narrative trajectory.
Just focusing on the can't.

If the GM has largely unlimited authority over secret backstory, then they can use that authority to decouple a player's play of the fiction from the narrative trajectory.

I don't think this is disagreeing with your point - it's intended to reinforced the significance of remarks upthread (from @chaochou, and probably from you too) about the importance of clear rules that determine who can change the fiction when.
 

pemerton

Legend
Thanks for the read through very enjoyable. An interesting example of solo playing characters that reads well and flows nicely.
You're welcome, and thanks!

Looking at the mysteries you mentioned though I can’t see how they’re being resolved by player agency in a way that’s different to normal D&D play. That there was a hidden basement was determined by the DM. What was in the basement was decided by the DM.

Are you saying that if the player had been successful with their ritual check they would have been able to decide where the portal lead, and therefore the mystery could have been solved by the players agency? As it stands it looks like the DM has decided where the portal leads and therefore there is a solvable mystery there as it stands?
If the declared action to open the portal, using Ritual and based on "conjecturing that it led to Auxol or the vicinity" had succeeded, then yes the player's intent and task would have been achieved.

But because the roll failed, the GM - as per the rules of the game - narrated a consequence which defeated the intent. In this case, the destination was unfamiliar (a cave) and the portal was unstable (flickering, about to close). The successful check on Symbology established that it opened about 100 miles east (closer to Auxol than Evard's tower) - this is intent and task being honoured given the success. But then the failed check to hold the portal open meant that the GM narrated a consequence that defeated the intent (ie the portal closed).

It's also worth noting that the whole reason that opening in Auxol or vicinity is a relevant concerns is because of player choices made during the build and play of Thurgon: those choices (i) establish Auxol as his home, and (ii) establish that he cares about it and wishes to restore it to its former glory. Likewise the whole reason that Evard and Xanthippe are connected, and hence that it is suggested in the fiction that there might be a magical means of moving between Xanthippe's home and Evard's tower, is that Thurgon has a relationship to his mother as part of his (player-established) build.

It’s a bit difficult to work out how this would work for Rufus’s master or Evard’s lineage because we don’t see those mysteries resolved. Are you saying there would be similar checks to see if the player gets to decide or the DM?
To begin, the same note as above applies: the whole reason that Rufus and his master feature in play is because of the player-established backstory for Thurgon, its mechanical manifestation (the Affiliation with family), and then the action declaration that triggers the Circles check.

Likewise for Evard: the whole reason this is an element of play is because, in an earlier session, Aramina succeeded at a Great Masters-wise check when she (as played by me) seemed to recall that Evard's tower was in the general vicinity of where she and Thurgon were travelling.

As to how those mysteries will resolve, it would depend on the details of play. For instance, the GM might frame a scene which reveals Rufus's "master". Or it might make sense for me (as player) to declare an action in which something about Rufus or the "master" is recalled.

In my view, these examples show that RPGing in which the players establish what is at stake can also be RPGing in which there are mysteries. It works by using different ways of resolving action declarations from the approach of the GM reads their map and notes - that is a common in D&D and many other RPGs, but not the only possibility.
 

Pedantic

Legend
Sorry about the delay, I've been traveling.
The principal significance of a player move in a RPG is to establish some element of, or contribution to, a shared fiction.

So when @chaochou says that player agency depends upon the following:

*Transparent goals for characters - often through authorship of them by the players​
*Facilitation of that authorship through group creation of setting and/or situation such that character goals are given meaning and context by player choice, not secret GM backstory​

I do not see any problematic "conflation".

If the situation is created solely by the GM - which is to say, if @chaochou's final dot point is not exemplified in play - then when a player declares an action they don't know what is really at stake in its resolution. Because that will flow from the GM's decision-making alone ("secret GM backstory"). Which means that the relationship between (i) the player's decision as to what their PC tries to achieve, by performing this action, and (ii) what happens next, is not under the player's control. It is being decided entirely by the GM. Hence low player agency.
Why should stakes be set at the level of an action declaration? The game is in stringing together a series of actions that will produce the outcome you want, and the whole creative expression of play, the thing I'm calling "ludic agency" comes in having different possible sets to pick from. Any game that can be resolved in one action is necessarily going to be very low-agency, unless you're playing on a repeat loop and moving the actual goal to something else. Rock-Paper-Scissors is an almost no agency game (you can make a choice, but the choice is meaningless) but it has the potential if iterated between two players repeatedly to be slightly higher agency as you start getting into patterns, strategies or at least yomi.
Conversely, the way a scenario "yields to" player authorship, in a RPG of the sort chaochou has in mind, is because the players are able to declare actions for their PCs that, if successful, result in the fiction changing in ways that give affect to the players' visions and aspirations for their PCs in the situation. The RPGs he has in mind are exemplified by Apocalypse World and Burning Wheel. And the way these RPGs secure that connection between declared action and result if the action is successful is by giving the players input - whether direct or indirect - into setting and/or situation.
This is the precise differentiation I'm talking about. Ludic agency is your ability to affect success/failure by adopting different strategies. In order for it to exist more than one strategy must potentially yield success (the situation should be a board state, not a puzzle), and strategies must be able to be evaluated; some must be more likely to succeed (or to produce different, more desirable board states for future strategies to be tried) than others.

You're describing narrative agency here, in that the player has control over narrative outcome in some circumstances. Some narrative agency is intrinsic to TTRPGs in that players can generally set their own victory conditions, a thing that is rarely true in other forms of gaming outside of maybe some simulation focused wargames or open-world immersive sim video games. You're arguing for greater narrative agency, that players should be able to set victory conditions (and seemingly important to your position, influence the nature of failure states as well) inside a wider field of outcomes and more often. I'm saying that is not the same thing as ludic agency, and indeed, can be harmful to ludic agency as it grows by shrinking the possible space for gameplay. A state where all strategies are equally (or roughly equally) viable has just as little ludic agency as a state where one or none are.

1) A player’s facility with “playing the fiction to array the imagined space such that it more likely leads to a new desired state” is a component of play that can’t be decoupled from narrative trajectory.

2) The ability of a player to marshal character build + action resolution dynamics can’t be decoupled from narrative trajectory.

3) Depending upon game engine, the ability of a player to pursue xp triggers and reward cycles will both directly affect narrative trajectory (in the moment of their pursuit) and indirectly because of how advancement will affect (2) above.
I don't necessarily know we're in disagreement here, though I am somewhat unclear on what "narrative trajectory" means here. Given a board state and a goal, trying to best achieve that goal (and given the nature of TTRPGs, possible other, assumed subsequent goals) is the play loop, certainly.
It seems to me that TTRPG that isn’t Pawn Stance dungeon crawling or railroad APs (where narrative trajectory is irrelevant or the control of which has been settled before play), narrative trajectory cannot be decoupled from the above.
I don't think I have sufficient understanding of your point to dispute this. I think what you're calling narrative trajectory is the same thing I'm discussing when players go about declaring goals? I agree that assessment is necessary for gameplay: you need a metric to be able to produce a strategy, outside of pure exploration play, which I think is a pretty unstable state that generally devolves into more conventional play quickly. That is, using a mechanic for its own sake without pursuing a goal, which tends to quickly become adding a requirement to use that mechanic to some other goal.
EDIT - Quick addendum. Texas Hold ‘Em (poker) has a huge dimension of skill that isn’t related to risk assessment or odds of any particular array of hole cards + face cards leading to “the nuts” (best possible hand). That skill is related directly to my (1) above. Players “tell a story (in order to leverage it)” with all of (a) their betting patterns, (b) the historical hands they’ll play and when they situationally will play what hands, (c) their willingness to, and capabilities in, misrepresenting their hands (which is directly related to self-assessing (a) and (b) and leveraging that information). “Generating a fiction (a metanarrative about the player’s boldness, “straight-play,” and tendencies that play will reveal and other skilled players will attempt to leverage) and playing that fiction” of (a), (b), and (c) above is a massive portion of skillful execution in poker.
You're describing a few different things here, none of which I would consider narrative. Adding a meta-game (a tournament) to a game changes the results necessarily. Strategies have to span multiple, repeated plays, which moves the game away from optimization to game theory. To be completely honest with you, I find poker deeply frustrating for the same reason I find fighting games frustrating: the proposed level of mechanical skill necessary to play the "actual game" is huge, and the activity isn't particularly interesting without being played at that level. That, and I think most gambling games rely on emotional valence of loss/risk tied to money to portray themselves as more interesting than they are. That's a pretty divisive issue in gaming in general though; Shut Up & Sit Down in a recent podcast mentioned struggling with coverage of mahjong, precisely because any stance on gambling would alienate about half their audience.

My tastes aside though, assuming players have the appropriate ability to calculate odds and the relatively value of their board position compared to the field of possible board positions, what you're talking about is fundamentally adopting the correct meta-game strategy or, assuming that problem is knowable and solved, yomi. I don't think it's necessary to yield a narrative component to either of those: when faced with yomi, you're trying to find the quickest way to break it into a state that does yield to conventional strategy for as long as possible, or if you can't find a break that way, to continue it as long as possible until such a break can be achieved.
 
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IHere is a Burning Wheel actual play report:
So nice to have a report to use....

So, sure this is a "Burning Wheel" example. So the GM agreed to the game rules, maybe even "loves" the game. BUT to go beyond JUST this one game:

Your example is Specifically: You want a game where you are both player and GM..but you want another GM there to do your bidding. Your character just moves about the game world...and you say "wow, sure would great if reality was altered and X happened". And your worker GM just says "yes" to whatever you say.

Yes...I'm sure you will say the game rules of the "circle" or whatever are made that way. But I'm making a point here beyond a single games rules. Because, after all, your not saying "Players have Agency in this One Specific Game using this One Specific games rules" your saying "All players must have agency all the time in all games". Right?

So even in D&D 5E, that does NOT have the "circle alter reality" rules, you would still say a player should have agency....right? Your not talking about a player having to "roll for agency", right? They just auto have it and can alter game reality.

I'm not really sure why you list the game having "mysteries". I guess you'd have a bunch of game rules to say why you can't just solve each mystery? Like can't you just say "I think the portal goes to a land of endless healing" then roll a circle check. and the GM will just go "yes, player it does go to a land of endless healing".

In my game a player could never just "wish" for a freindly character to float down a river or pass by them on a road.
 


pemerton

Legend
Your example is Specifically: You want a game where you are both player and GM..but you want another GM there to do your bidding.
I don't know what you're talking about. Burning Wheel has clearly stated principles for the GM, and for the player(s). I was following the latter set of principles. The GM was following the former.

Your character just moves about the game world...and you say "wow, sure would great if reality was altered and X happened". And your worker GM just says "yes" to whatever you say.

Yes...I'm sure you will say the game rules of the "circle" or whatever are made that way. But I'm making a point here beyond a single games rules.
I declared an action - I (as Thurgon) am looking out for Friedrich poling his raft down the river, or am looking out for a member of my family. That action was resolved, as the rules indicate, via a Circles check. I've deliberately built a character with relative strong Circles (affiliations with my knightly order, with my family, and with the nobility; and a reputation as last knight of the Iron Tower) and so I'm rolling a fairly healthy dice pool. And the action declarations aren't particular outrageous - we're at the bank of the river where Friedrich poles his raft, and we're entering the territory of Auxol where Thurgon's family lives. So as the play report set out, the obstacles are relatively low. Hence my checks succeed.

To me, your complaint seems analogous to complaining about a D&D player with a reasonably good attack bonus talking about how they rolled to hit and succeeded having an "alter reality" power to oblige the GM to narrate dead goblins.

I don't know what other point you think you are making "beyond a single game's rules".

Because, after all, your not saying "Players have Agency in this One Specific Game using this One Specific games rules" your saying "All players must have agency all the time in all games". Right?
No, I've not said that at all. To repost:

The advice has not been change system. It's been make clear to the players what choices they need to make to ensure the railroad doesn't derail.

With a secondary line of, if you want to play a high-player-agency game based around a struggle among the PCs over good vs evil, PF2 is not the best system for that.
And in elaboration of the first bit of advice, about how to run a railroad:
my repeated advice has been - make it clearer to the players what action declarations they should be making.

Secondarily, one could add think about decisions you as GM can make about the backstory, during the course of play, so as to get things back onto the rails.
But if someone wants to play a game with high player agency, rather than a railroad, then Burning Wheel is an obvious choice of system.

So even in D&D 5E, that does NOT have the "circle alter reality" rules, you would still say a player should have agency....right? Your not talking about a player having to "roll for agency", right? They just auto have it and can alter game reality.
I have no real idea what you're talking about. When I GMed a 4e D&D game for 7 or 8 years, we used the rules of the game as set out in its rulebooks, and when it came to adjudicating skill challenges I also took advice from the resolution frameworks they are obviously inspired by - scene resolution in Maelstrom Storytelling, extended conflict resolution in HeroWars/Quest, and intent-and-task resolution in Burning Wheel.

Skill challenges are a dice-based resolution framework, just like Circles (and just about everything else) in Burning Wheel.

In my game a player could never just "wish" for a freindly character to float down a river or pass by them on a road.
I'm sure that's true, but you've always made it very clear that you prefer to run railroads to high player agency games.

I'm not really sure why you list the game having "mysteries".
Because upthread @TheSword posited that a high player agency RPG can't have mysteries. I posted a counter-example.

"I think the portal goes to a land of endless healing" then roll a circle check. and the GM will just go "yes, player it does go to a land of endless healing".
I tend to regard it as a sign of low player agency RPGing that the highest stakes thing the participants can think of is death and healing.
 

Why should stakes be set at the level of an action declaration? The game is in stringing together a series of actions that will produce the outcome you want, and the whole creative expression of play, the thing I'm calling "ludic agency" comes in having different possible sets to pick from. Any game that can be resolved in one action is necessarily going to be very low-agency, unless you're playing on a repeat loop and moving the actual goal to something else. Rock-Paper-Scissors is an almost no agency game (you can make a choice, but the choice is meaningless) but it has the potential if iterated between two players repeatedly to be slightly higher agency as you start getting into patterns, strategies or at least yomi.
But in common forms of play, such as D&D 5e, the GM has complete and utter say as to what sort of set of successes (or failures) must be strung together in order to achieve something. So again there is a lack of player agency! See, for example, many of my discussions of 4e Skill Challenge mechanics, which put a structure around this sort of formulation and thus move things in the direction of a state such as you are trying to describe. Simple chains of GM selected task outcomes will never achieve that. (I mean, we can argue about ways the GM in a 4e game can still put their thumb on the scale, but at least there's a MODEL for how it is supposed to be, particularly if you use the most updated SC rules).

Likewise in a game like Dungeon World the nexus of accomplishment of goal/injection of additional complication is COLLAPSED down onto each check, so if the GM follows the principles of the game properly, then the player can gauge the degree of agency they have because the stakes are, in a game sense at least, pretty well-understood.
 

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