Dealing with agency and retcon (in semi sandbox)

Sorry about the delay, I've been traveling.

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.

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.


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.

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.

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.
As @Manbearcat states, I don't think you can separate things in TTRPG (there may be a few degenerate cases) into 'game' vs 'narrative', except in pure classic DC play, and even there there tend to be episodes of ambiguity where its not clear which is which (IE when PCs are interacting with each other, or attempting to RP a parley with a monster or something, or even edge case adjudication of things like evasion).

In any RPG where narrative is truly important at all it will mix with more traditional game state considerations, like resources and tactical positioning, or any of the situations I mentioned above, plus other similar ones. In fact trad play evolved from classic play precisely as the clearly defined game state and play environment broke down into a more nuanced set of mixed game/narrative situations such that you can no longer say what is game state and what is related to story or plot anymore. In early trad play this often manifested as players picking goals for their characters which aligned with game-mechanical considerations (IE picking a favored enemy which was likely to maximize the beneficial use of that mechanism, or to focus on any situation that might bring undead into play as an opponent when the party is well-supplied with clerics and paladins). Over time more games, and now to a degree even D&D, have graduated to where literal narrative player goals can translate directly into strategies, such as character build, etc. These kinds of things expect at least some degree of agency to say 'yeah we can pick a path that leads to undead' or whatever. You can definitely call this 'ludic', but it is ALSO narrative! I can decide for purely aesthetic reasons, based on my conception of what should constitute the trajectory of play, that I want to take on undead, or that my character is divided in mind about the integrity of his patron, etc. These things can then be given shape within the mechanics of the game, in at least some systems. The two can inform each other. These types of games demand a lack of adherence to GM provided narrative, it just won't really work. This is the difference between narrativist/SN play and trad (even fairly sophisticated trad) play.
 

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Pedantic

Legend
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).
SCs have almost no ludic agency, and I know you've read my arguments to that effect before. The optimization case as a player is trivial: argue for your highest value skill, or if your DM is transparent about the E/M/H DCs, do some math and conclude that it's still probably best to argue for your highest value skill. SCs begin by removing an entire dimension of agency from players, when they ask the DM to set what % of success any given check will provide, regardless of what actual action was taken.

We can have the sim argument yet again if you like, but from a gameplay perspective the best possible case is a set of actions that produce objective outcomes, thus that players might choose between multiple action chains of various lengths and risks, perhaps with a side of resource management, to achieve their goals. Moving from a situation, as you said where the "GM has complete and utter say as to what sort of set of successes[...]must be strung together" to a situation where the GM has merely decided the number but not description of those successes is not a meaningful increase in player agency.

Iterated dice rolling is at best, a pretty bad game and most often not a game at all.
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.
Ludic agency has nothing to do with "the stakes" of an action, and everything to do with player expression in picking a strategy. At best, stakes, as you're using the term, allow for the player to engage in risk assessment, which is only interesting if they can formulate a reasonable estimate of future risks between them and victory. Once again, it is this conflation of ludic and narrative agency I'm objecting to. Collapsing the game down, thus that players can rapidly suggest their proposed victory/failure conditions necessarily undercuts the available gameplay space.
 

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?
There are many possible types of RPG play, nobody is insisting that anyone must play any certain way, or that any given system must cater to, for example, my tastes. Maybe I will tend not to play/run games that don't conform to my tastes, but I think that's pretty typical...
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.
Agency doesn't necessarily mean "can alter game reality" in a direct way. For example most PbtA games don't give players direct explicit control of any of the fiction, yet they feature profoundly greater player agency over the fiction than is normally assumed to be the case in D&D.
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".
Not necessarily, no. There's such a thing as what is genre appropriate and 'follows from the fiction'. There's thus a 'logic' attached to stories which requires that players cannot simply attain their ultimate desires in a single leap. Also, remember, in most of these games there are either resource costs, or sliding scales of stakes. Imagine you are able to 'open a portal' and are empowered to describe its destination without any restriction, what happens (in say a PbtA) if you roll a 5? Guess how terrible the consequences are going to be! As great as the rewards potentially are, the consequences (IE what is at stake) will be equally tremendous! So you are going to go ahead and open a portal that lets Yog Sothoth into the world? Sure, go ahead! If those are the types of bets you are going to make every session, you will lead a short life and have a horrible fate! lol.
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.
 

Pedantic

Legend
As @Manbearcat states, I don't think you can separate things in TTRPG (there may be a few degenerate cases) into 'game' vs 'narrative', except in pure classic DC play, and even there there tend to be episodes of ambiguity where its not clear which is which (IE when PCs are interacting with each other, or attempting to RP a parley with a monster or something, or even edge case adjudication of things like evasion).
It is frustrating to see the case I'm suggesting relegated to dungeoncrawling presumptively. I'll concede the difficulty of designing an adequate social interaction system that generally serves the goals of play better than "just make it up as you go" but I don't think the field has established it as an intractable problem yet. Outside of that perennially difficult problem, there's nothing that requires characters enter holes in the ground to retrieve treasure to establish a TTRPG that has a strong gameplay component. That's just the historical case that came first.
In any RPG where narrative is truly important at all it will mix with more traditional game state considerations, like resources and tactical positioning, or any of the situations I mentioned above, plus other similar ones. In fact trad play evolved from classic play precisely as the clearly defined game state and play environment broke down into a more nuanced set of mixed game/narrative situations such that you can no longer say what is game state and what is related to story or plot anymore.
This is entirely your division, not mine. I don't particularly care about the lines you seem to be trying to draw here. It's all boards with available moves all the way down, some of those games don't feature particularly engaging decisions.
In early trad play this often manifested as players picking goals for their characters which aligned with game-mechanical considerations (IE picking a favored enemy which was likely to maximize the beneficial use of that mechanism, or to focus on any situation that might bring undead into play as an opponent when the party is well-supplied with clerics and paladins). Over time more games, and now to a degree even D&D, have graduated to where literal narrative player goals can translate directly into strategies, such as character build, etc. These kinds of things expect at least some degree of agency to say 'yeah we can pick a path that leads to undead' or whatever. You can definitely call this 'ludic', but it is ALSO narrative! I can decide for purely aesthetic reasons, based on my conception of what should constitute the trajectory of play, that I want to take on undead, or that my character is divided in mind about the integrity of his patron, etc. These things can then be given shape within the mechanics of the game, in at least some systems. The two can inform each other. These types of games demand a lack of adherence to GM provided narrative, it just won't really work. This is the difference between narrativist/SN play and trad (even fairly sophisticated trad) play.
Again, I don't see a conflict at all here with my point. You're describing narrative agency, a thing I said earlier was intrinsic to TTRPGs, precisely because they allow players to set their own victory conditions. I frankly agree that it is a compelling an interesting part of the medium, but it is not the same thing as ludic agency, and designs and decisions that maximize for narrative agency can and often do erode ludic agency. I'm quite specifically saying that conflating the two does not provide a complete picture of player agency.
 

SCs have almost no ludic agency, and I know you've read my arguments to that effect before. The optimization case as a player is trivial: argue for your highest value skill, or if your DM is transparent about the E/M/H DCs, do some math and conclude that it's still probably best to argue for your highest value skill. SCs begin by removing an entire dimension of agency from players, when they ask the DM to set what % of success any given check will provide, regardless of what actual action was taken.

We can have the sim argument yet again if you like, but from a gameplay perspective the best possible case is a set of actions that produce objective outcomes, thus that players might choose between multiple action chains of various lengths and risks, perhaps with a side of resource management, to achieve their goals. Moving from a situation, as you said where the "GM has complete and utter say as to what sort of set of successes[...]must be strung together" to a situation where the GM has merely decided the number but not description of those successes is not a meaningful increase in player agency.

Iterated dice rolling is at best, a pretty bad game and most often not a game at all.

Ludic agency has nothing to do with "the stakes" of an action, and everything to do with player expression in picking a strategy. At best, stakes, as you're using the term, allow for the player to engage in risk assessment, which is only interesting if they can formulate a reasonable estimate of future risks between them and victory. Once again, it is this conflation of ludic and narrative agency I'm objecting to. Collapsing the game down, thus that players can rapidly suggest their proposed victory/failure conditions necessarily undercuts the available gameplay space.
As we have discovered before, there seems no bridging the gap here. Your depiction of 4e SC for instance seems far too simplistic and unlike anything I've encountered in (at least decent quality) play.

For example: Why wouldn't there be agency in a situation where I might choose between a forceful (lets say Intimidation) move in order to advance my cause vs a negotiated (lets say Diplomacy) move instead? These might lead to very different narrative outcomes, even assuming equal resource expenditure and probability of success (and with 4e neither of those is likely to be the case). Which of these courses of action will produce a new intermediate situation which is most amenable to my employment of further advantageous (IE higher probability, lower cost, lesser stakes) moves? I want to navigate the landscape of possible sets of options in the most optimum way, and THIS IS THE ESSENCE OF ALL STRATEGY!!!! 4e SC is a pure game-theoretically solid framework! All you have to do is realize that narrative, that is intermediate fictional position from which the next move is made, both depends heavily on what move I choose now, and what the current fictional position is. Yes, things like resource tallies and whatnot, which you might call pure game state, probably also factor in, as I've stated, but you CANNOT DIVORCE THEM from fictional position! If you CAN, then you are not playing a TTRPG. I am probably not revealing any secret when I say that some of us have really wondered why you play RPGs at all, given your stated preferences! (and I'm not saying any of this with critical intent, we all find the clarity with which you express your preferences refreshing).

And as to your final point, yes, the player must be able to formulate an estimate of what the risks are. So they must have a clear idea of what values they place on the narrative outcomes in question. This is why narrativist games are favored by some of us, because the game centers on narrative elements which the player has expressed value statements about, or at least where the question has been tabled. Can Takeo discover the fate of Shimayama (his home)? What exactly price will he pay for that knowledge? Play to find out! When faced with "you can betray your crew mate to discover an important part of what you want" that's real game play there! I mean, it will require a few other elements too, but BitD (in this case) is well-designed to provide for those requirements. In a game sense it is quite solid! Much more so IMHO than, say, 5e D&D.
 

It is frustrating to see the case I'm suggesting relegated to dungeoncrawling presumptively. I'll concede the difficulty of designing an adequate social interaction system that generally serves the goals of play better than "just make it up as you go" but I don't think the field has established it as an intractable problem yet. Outside of that perennially difficult problem, there's nothing that requires characters enter holes in the ground to retrieve treasure to establish a TTRPG that has a strong gameplay component. That's just the historical case that came first.
I agree, again, see the 4e SC system! Do I try to Intimidate them? Maybe that will get me one step closer to my goal, but the next steps may be more difficult than, say, Diplomacy! OTOH maybe I'm a lot better at Intimidate. Granted this may not rise to the level of a Chess game, but it is generally not degenerate either. It certainly isn't measurably less skilled play than combat.
This is entirely your division, not mine. I don't particularly care about the lines you seem to be trying to draw here. It's all boards with available moves all the way down, some of those games don't feature particularly engaging decisions.

Again, I don't see a conflict at all here with my point. You're describing narrative agency, a thing I said earlier was intrinsic to TTRPGs, precisely because they allow players to set their own victory conditions. I frankly agree that it is a compelling an interesting part of the medium, but it is not the same thing as ludic agency, and designs and decisions that maximize for narrative agency can and often do erode ludic agency. I'm quite specifically saying that conflating the two does not provide a complete picture of player agency.
Well, it may be that some games don't manage to make mechanical decision-making mesh well with in-game narrative choices, though IMHO the better modern RPGs are doing exactly that, and often pretty well. BitD, AW, DW, Torchbearer2, these are all pretty solid games which demand some pretty solid player skill to navigate (DW maybe puts more on the GM here than the others).
 

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".
I'm trying to talk about all RPGs, not just one.

So, ok, The Burning Wheel game has lots of Player Agency rules. Ok, we don't need to mention that again.

Now when people talk about all other RPGs, and even more so D&D, a great many people will insist that the game must have: Player Agency. So to be clear it is said "the D&D game must or should have player agency". Player Agency for all RPGs, not just ones with it written into it's rules.

You can say lots of good sounding things....but they are hard to translate into what to really do during game play. Like "make things clear to the players" sounds great, but what does that mean for game play? It seems like the the GM has to do lots of extra work so they players will be "agents". So, an example will be asked for....

But your example is a hard crunchy rule example for One Game. Ok, great for that game. How about all the others?

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.
Yea, I don't really get the game play idea where a player can just say "I win, game over". I just don't see the appeal in your examples of saying "Oh my best pal NPC Bob walks over and gives my character a million gold coins".

Because upthread @TheSword posited that a high player agency RPG can't have mysteries. I posted a counter-example.
Oh, well, then I would agree. When the Player can just Alter Reality, there can be no mysteries.
 

Yea, I don't really get the game play idea where a player can just say "I win, game over". I just don't see the appeal in your examples of saying "Oh my best pal NPC Bob walks over and gives my character a million gold coins".


Oh, well, then I would agree. When the Player can just Alter Reality, there can be no mysteries.
How many times will you need to be told that's not how those games work before you will believe that's not how those games work? They're not my own most-preferred games but I've enjoyed some play in the style and your persistent misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the games and the playstyle borders on calumny.
 

pemerton

Legend
But your example is a hard crunchy rule example for One Game. Ok, great for that game. How about all the others?
You'd need to ask the people who design them, and play them.

I know from experience that it's possible to play AD&D in a way that is higher player agency that what is described in the OP of this thread, basically by using an approach to action declaration and to scene-framing that is similar to Burning Wheel's. The framework is a bit rickety, and so these days I wouldn't bother trying given that games with non-rickety frameworks have been published, but it can be done.

I would have thought that 5e D&D might be played in a similar sort of fashion, but I've never tried.

Yea, I don't really get the game play idea where a player can just say "I win, game over". I just don't see the appeal in your examples of saying "Oh my best pal NPC Bob walks over and gives my character a million gold coins".
That wasn't a feature of my examples.
 

CreamCloud0

One day, I hope to actually play DnD.
Again, I don't see a conflict at all here with my point. You're describing narrative agency, a thing I said earlier was intrinsic to TTRPGs, precisely because they allow players to set their own victory conditions. I frankly agree that it is a compelling an interesting part of the medium, but it is not the same thing as ludic agency, and designs and decisions that maximize for narrative agency can and often do erode ludic agency. I'm quite specifically saying that conflating the two does not provide a complete picture of player agency.
would you say that an accurrate summary of the conflict between narrative and ludic agency is that in your ability to control and declare the stakes of a situation going directly to the resolution of that you've bypassed any situation where you had control of your character to weigh their options, the risks and benefits and make a choice between them?
 

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