Is "GM Agency" A Thing?

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Thomas Shey

Legend
Very good idea. Yes, it seems like the modern game design movement is to aggressively reduce the scope of GM agency.

Of course this phasing only follows if you didn't think the degree of older design gave more agency than was needed. As I noted, I don't think the GM has to have all the control over mechanics to have plenty of agency.
 

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PencilBoy99

Explorer
I don't know about that, but I will say that the main reason I've ditched 5e and gone all-in on Shadowdark is for the OSR approach to GM agency.
I meant more outside of the games that are mostly traditional. Most things on itch.io., blades in the dark, pbta, etc.

I think the challenge for me in those sorts of games is they add restrictions on me but don't help me do the new thing the restriction has imposed.

For example, the new Cypher setting Mangus archives requires that players define the scope of the adventure. Then the GM is stuck with coming up with an awesome adventure based on those constraints. My (and many average GM's) issue is not coming up with ideas, but ideas that I am able to turn into a useful thing at the table.

Most PbTA / Forged games raw limit the prep a GM can do (sometimes because the adventure is decided upon by the players). At best you can do a very thin front or something. now that these games have imposed the constraint, the tools they give you consist of vaguely defined moves that for many, non amazing GMs, constrain you without actually helping you figure out what to do.

The typical answer to this on forums is "get better" or "just ask the players (what should happen." If the answer is the latter, why do I (the GM) even need to be there.
 

Reynard

Legend
Of course this phasing only follows if you didn't think the degree of older design gave more agency than was needed. As I noted, I don't think the GM has to have all the control over mechanics to have plenty of agency.
I'm curious what you mean by "all the control over mechanics." Do you mean fudging die results? Setting DCs? Calling for skill checks?
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
Of course this phasing only follows if you didn't think the degree of older design gave more agency than was needed. As I noted, I don't think the GM has to have all the control over mechanics to have plenty of agency.
I certainly don't think that the GM has too much agency (or control) in traditional games.
 

Micah Sweet

Level Up & OSR Enthusiast
I meant more outside of the games that are mostly traditional. Most things on itch.io., blades in the dark, pbta, etc.

I think the challenge for me in those sorts of games is they add restrictions on me but don't help me do the new thing the restriction has imposed.

For example, the new Cypher setting Mangus archives requires that players define the scope of the adventure. Then the GM is stuck with coming up with an awesome adventure based on those constraints. My (and many average GM's) issue is not coming up with ideas, but ideas that I am able to turn into a useful thing at the table.

Most PbTA / Forged games raw limit the prep a GM can do (sometimes because the adventure is decided upon by the players). At best you can do a very thin front or something. now that these games have imposed the constraint, the tools they give you consist of vaguely defined moves that for many, non amazing GMs, constrain you without actually helping you figure out what to do.

The typical answer to this on forums is "get better" or "just ask the players (what should happen." If the answer is the latter, why do I (the GM) even need to be there.
A question I will continue to ask. At this point I think I understand how these games work, but I don't think I'll ever understand the appeal of them.
 

Reynard

Legend
I meant more outside of the games that are mostly traditional. Most things on itch.io., blades in the dark, pbta, etc.

I think the challenge for me in those sorts of games is they add restrictions on me but don't help me do the new thing the restriction has imposed.

For example, the new Cypher setting Mangus archives requires that players define the scope of the adventure. Then the GM is stuck with coming up with an awesome adventure based on those constraints. My (and many average GM's) issue is not coming up with ideas, but ideas that I am able to turn into a useful thing at the table.

Most PbTA / Forged games raw limit the prep a GM can do (sometimes because the adventure is decided upon by the players). At best you can do a very thin front or something. now that these games have imposed the constraint, the tools they give you consist of vaguely defined moves that for many, non amazing GMs, constrain you without actually helping you figure out what to do.

The typical answer to this on forums is "get better" or "just ask the players (what should happen." If the answer is the latter, why do I (the GM) even need to be there.
The idea for most PbtA and FitD games is that while adventures are certainly player driven -- as all good adventures should be, regardless of whether a game is "new" or "traditional" -- the GM is still responsible for presenting the situations and adjudicating the results of die rolls. GM Moves aren't restrictions so much as categories of things you are already doing. Because the core die mechanics are not binary, and the rule is that all die results, including failures, should move the game forward, "GM agency" in these games is just as high as in traditional RPGs, if not higher because the rules require more adjudication in some cases.

Actual Story Games (as opposed to RPGs) are different. They explicitly share narrative authority so yes, if those games have GMs (and many don't) "GM Agency" is certainly curtailed.

There can be something of a fuzzy line between story-now games and Story Games proper, but I don't think Apocalypse World or Blades in the Dark are actually Story Games and I don't think they intend to be.

As an anecdote: i bounced off Scum and Villainy the first time I ran it because I thought it was more of a Story Game than it was and sort of leaned into the "writer's room" approach. I did not like that and it felt less like playing an RPOG and more like cooperatively writing a story. I tried it again though and de-emphasized that aspect and ran it like a GM, and it was a much better experience.
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I'm curious what you mean by "all the control over mechanics." Do you mean fudging die results? Setting DCs? Calling for skill checks?

Mostly the first two. Deciding when to bother with checks at all is a necessary evil with diced resolution because its too easy for it to produce degenerate results in pretty much any system ever if you require it for absolutely everything.

But more than anything else, I was actually addressing that penumbra of things sometimes lumped under the term "rule zero". There's no reason that sort of thing needs to be done commonly, nor be entirely a one-man thing to decide on at all. In a properly designed game the former should not be the case, and if its not common, there's no reason it can't be decided to the degree its needed by consensus.

Edit: And to make it abundantly clear, I think you could move all mechanical decisions in most games to consensus and the GM would still have plenty of agency; he's controlling the vast majority of setting constraints, NPC decisions and more, and that's more than any player in most games ever gets to do. I don't find being constrained to actually work within the mechanics provided is a meaningful impairment of agency (or to the degree it is, it applies to everyone).
 

Thomas Shey

Legend
I certainly don't think that the GM has too much agency (or control) in traditional games.

I am in no way surprised, but I also don't think it should be taken as a given that the degree he has is necessary or desirable. The fact other people feel otherwise is just as is.
 

PencilBoy99

Explorer
Edit: And to make it abundantly clear, I think you could move all mechanical decisions in most games to consensus and the GM would still have plenty of agency; he's controlling the vast majority of setting constraints, NPC decisions and more, and that's more than any player in most games ever gets to do. I don't find being constrained to actually work within the mechanics provided is a meaningful impairment of agency (or to the degree it is, it applies to everyone).
I don't think so, because the incentive structure is completely different. At the moment of decision, player's are invested in their characters and probably a bit immersed even if modern gaming theory says otherwise. Unless you have some countervailing pressure (e.g., some kind of reward point for failing, a stable of equally effective characters), a player's motivation is to be as successful as possible, whereas as a GM I'm thinking about how things will work in the long term.
 

Reynard

Legend
Mostly the first two. Deciding when to bother with checks at all is a necessary evil with diced resolution because its too easy for it to produce degenerate results in pretty much any system ever if you require it for absolutely everything.

But more than anything else, I was actually addressing that penumbra of things sometimes lumped under the term "rule zero". There's no reason that sort of thing needs to be done commonly, nor be entirely a one-man thing to decide on at all. In a properly designed game the former should not be the case, and if its not common, there's no reason it can't be decided to the degree its needed by consensus.

Edit: And to make it abundantly clear, I think you could move all mechanical decisions in most games to consensus and the GM would still have plenty of agency; he's controlling the vast majority of setting constraints, NPC decisions and more, and that's more than any player in most games ever gets to do. I don't find being constrained to actually work within the mechanics provided is a meaningful impairment of agency (or to the degree it is, it applies to everyone).
The less you expect the GM to make rulings, the more robust your ruleset needs to be. That doesn't necessarily mean "complicated" ("all actions have a 50% chance of success; flip a coin" is robust and simple) but it probably will.

As to "rule zero" coming down to consensus, I think in practice that is pretty much how it works in most groups. I know when I am playing a game with my long term group, corner cases are usually discussed at least briefly before we decide what to do about it. I will say that isn't the case if I am running a convention game, and I don't think it would work in that situation.

I think it is important to remember that "Rulings not rules" isn't there to empower the GM, it is there to facilitate play. If the GM can make a call, we don’t need to bring play to.a screeching halt to look up an obscure rule or Sage Advice or something. We can just keep playing.

Finally, in my experience most players don't want the GM's responsibilities. If they did, the would be GMing. I think many players would balk at being given responsibilities above and beyond running their PC. Half of them can't be bothered to do that with full attention.
 

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