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Players choose what their PCs do . . .

The function of players in RPGing is often described as deciding what their PCs do. But this can be quite ambiguous.

A classic article on the analysis of actions (Donald Davidson, "Actions, Reasons, and Causes" (1963)) gives the following example:

I flip the switch, turn on the light, and illuminate the room. Unbeknownst to me I also alert a prowler to the fact that I am home. Here I need not have done four things, but only one, of which four descriptions have been given.​

In RPGing, I think it's a big deal who gets to decide what descriptions of the PCs' actions are true, and how.

For instance, suppose that my ability to decide what descriptions are true of my PC's actions is confined to very "thin" descriptions focused on the character's bodily movements, like I attack the orc with my sword or I wink at the maiden. Playing that game will produce a very different experience from one in which I can decide that the following description is true of my PC's actions: I kill the orc with my sword or I soften the heart of the maiden with a wink.

The same point can be made in relation to success on checks: if succeeding at a check makes a description such as I find what I was looking for in the safe true, that game will produce a different experience from one in which it makes true only a description such as I open the safe, with the description of my action in terms of I find X in the safe remaining something for someone else - eg the GM - to decide.

This example shows how it is possible (i) for it to be true that the players choose what their PCs do - under a certain, fairly thin or confined sort of description - and (ii) for there to be fudge-free checks and yet (iii) for it also to be the case that the GM decides everything significant that happens - ie it is the GM who gets to establish the richer, wider, consequence-laden descriptions of what the PCs do.

I think that a failure to recognise this point makes a lot of discussions of railroading, "player agency" less productive or insightful than they might be.

What do others think about who does, or should, get to establish the truth of descriptions of PC actions, and how?
 

Ovinomancer

Explorer
That it's a according to preference.

Firstly, I agree with the way you've presented this -- so no issues at all with how you've explained the difference in approach. That said, the choice is really a matter of preference. There's two different kinds of games going on here, with different play goals, and that means that it's the play goals that are making the choice, not the actual mechanic. So, in that sense, I think your question is a bit misformed -- it's aimed at the wrong thing. It should be aimed at what are you accomplishing with your choice -- what play does it enable -- rather than asking about the mechanic used. Mechanics are just tools, after all.

I stand a foot in both. I enjoy the play of 5e, which is very GM determines heavy, but moderate a good bit towards letting players have more control over outcomes, especially in cases where build choices have been made to enable such. Very lenient on 'saying yes', and very attentive to the goal of an action, not just the approach (thin declaration, if you will). I dislike gotchas. However, in 5e, it's the job of the GM to narrate outcomes, so I do, even if I keep a weather eye out on making sure I don't invalidate player intentions (too often). On the other hand, I also like Blades in the Dark, which is very much player narrated outcomes on success of the mechanics. As a GM, I prefer the low-prep, heavy in-session work of the latter a bit more. My players prefer the former more. We compromise by playing mostly 5e with the larger group and Blades with a subset. I get my itches scratched, and so do my players.

As for why my players seem to prefer a thinner declaration? A few reasons. One, they trust me to not be unnecessarily mean (but definitely necessarily mean) and like the scramble to react to situations. They like the tactical game a good bit (most also have or still do wargame), and that's full of thin declarations (the mechanics provide outcomes, not players or GMs). I think they also like the discovery of a story rather than the creation of one? That's not very clear, so let me try to clarify. They seem to like the idea that they're affecting a larger plot they didn't have input into prior to play. This is very much a feel thing, but they seem to like foiling whatever thing the GM (often me) came up with. That there was a story without them that they then changed. And part of getting this feeling, I suppose, is to make the right thin declarations to get the GM to narrate that success. There's an element of puzzle solving there. This sounds bad, so remember this isn't a hard, "this is the reason" thing, but rather a tendency in a group that also, largely, enjoys playing the other way. But, I think it's the tendency that keeps 5e at the top spot of the play roster.

Hmm. I think I have rambled enough, for now.
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
For instance, suppose that my ability to decide what descriptions are true of my PC's actions is confined to very "thin" descriptions focused on the character's bodily movements, like I attack the orc with my sword or I wink at the maiden. Playing that game will produce a very different experience from one in which I can decide that the following description is true of my PC's actions: I kill the orc with my sword or I soften the heart of the maiden with a wink.

The same point can be made in relation to success on checks: if succeeding at a check makes a description such as I find what I was looking for in the safe true, that game will produce a different experience from one in which it makes true only a description such as I open the safe, with the description of my action in terms of I find X in the safe remaining something for someone else - eg the GM - to decide.
Maybe try viewing this through a different lens or two?

1) Player control is based on difficulty. Clutching a sword is easy. Swinging a sword (at least the first few times) is easy. Attacking an orc is more difficult. Killing said orc is (probably) far more difficult. Player agency ends where difficulty begins.

2) Does the game require the players to act -through- their characters? As in, you can do whatever you want, as long as it's something you could do as your character. The GM doesn't often have this limitation. Does the GM want to place a volcano in the middle of town? Done. No character needed.

Food for thought.
 
Player control is based on difficulty. Clutching a sword is easy. Swinging a sword (at least the first few times) is easy. Attacking an orc is more difficult. Killing said orc is (probably) far more difficult. Player agency ends where difficulty begins.
I don't quite get this.

The player decides I wink at the maiden. Who gets to decide whether it's also true that I soften the heart of the maiden with a wink? They're too different descriptions of the one action, so framing things in terms of difficulty doesn't seem to help.
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
For the example of the safe, what if you’re not already looking for something specific in it? What if it’s more a case of “ooo a safe! Let’s see what’s inside.”
 

DMMike

Game Masticator
The player decides I wink at the maiden. Who gets to decide whether it's also true that I soften the heart of the maiden with a wink? They're too different descriptions of the one action, so framing things in terms of difficulty doesn't seem to help.
It might not. It's just one way to look at things. But for the exercise, it's pretty easy to wink. Softening hearts sounds a bit more difficult. Especially when your name is, say, Quasimodo.

Also, some analysis of the problem might be in order, because I don't see Soften Heart and Wink as the same action. If a player told me "I wink," I'd say "great." If a player said "I soften the maiden's heart," I'd say "so how do you do that?"
 

Ovinomancer

Explorer
It might not. It's just one way to look at things. But for the exercise, it's pretty easy to wink. Softening hearts sounds a bit more difficult. Especially when your name is, say, Quasimodo.

Also, some analysis of the problem might be in order, because I don't see Soften Heart and Wink as the same action. If a player told me "I wink," I'd say "great." If a player said "I soften the maiden's heart," I'd say "so how do you do that?"
Sounds like you have half of it down pat. Now, you need to work on grasping how the player determines the outcome of the wink rather than the GM.
 

Ovinomancer

Explorer
The function of players in RPGing is often described as deciding what their PCs do. But this can be quite ambiguous.

A classic article on the analysis of actions (Donald Davidson, "Actions, Reasons, and Causes" (1963)) gives the following example:

I flip the switch, turn on the light, and illuminate the room. Unbeknownst to me I also alert a prowler to the fact that I am home. Here I need not have done four things, but only one, of which four descriptions have been given.​

In RPGing, I think it's a big deal who gets to decide what descriptions of the PCs' actions are true, and how.

For instance, suppose that my ability to decide what descriptions are true of my PC's actions is confined to very "thin" descriptions focused on the character's bodily movements, like I attack the orc with my sword or I wink at the maiden. Playing that game will produce a very different experience from one in which I can decide that the following description is true of my PC's actions: I kill the orc with my sword or I soften the heart of the maiden with a wink.

The same point can be made in relation to success on checks: if succeeding at a check makes a description such as I find what I was looking for in the safe true, that game will produce a different experience from one in which it makes true only a description such as I open the safe, with the description of my action in terms of I find X in the safe remaining something for someone else - eg the GM - to decide.

This example shows how it is possible (i) for it to be true that the players choose what their PCs do - under a certain, fairly thin or confined sort of description - and (ii) for there to be fudge-free checks and yet (iii) for it also to be the case that the GM decides everything significant that happens - ie it is the GM who gets to establish the richer, wider, consequence-laden descriptions of what the PCs do.

I think that a failure to recognise this point makes a lot of discussions of railroading, "player agency" less productive or insightful than they might be.

What do others think about who does, or should, get to establish the truth of descriptions of PC actions, and how?
You know, thinking on this a bit more, I'm not sure where the resolution mechanic comes in. Are you talking about the outcome on a successful resolution? I'd guess you are, but it's best to be clear. Note that I'd lump, "saying yes" under successful resolution.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
What do others think about who does, or should, get to establish the truth of descriptions of PC actions, and how?
Who does, or should, get to establish the truth of descriptions of PC actions... depends on what game you are playing.

It isn't as if we all like the same foods, music, or books. So, we should not expect everyone to like the same games. We should instead, expect a varied collection of games, with different ways of doing things.
 

Maxperson

Orcus on an on Day
I don't quite get this.

The player decides I wink at the maiden. Who gets to decide whether it's also true that I soften the heart of the maiden with a wink? They're too different descriptions of the one action, so framing things in terms of difficulty doesn't seem to help.
Only one of those is a description of an action. The second is a description of both an action and the result of that action. The action is a wink, the result is the softening of the heart.
 

Ovinomancer

Explorer
Only one of those is a description of an action. The second is a description of both an action and the result of that action. The action is a wink, the result is the softening of the heart.
Yes, and the topic is about who gets to choose the outcome -- the GM or the player.
 

Ovinomancer

Explorer
Who does, or should, get to establish the truth of descriptions of PC actions... depends on what game you are playing.

It isn't as if we all like the same foods, music, or books. So, we should not expect everyone to like the same games. We should instead, expect a varied collection of games, with different ways of doing things.
Yes? How does this advance a discussion about the differences in play who chooses makes?

A good example of a game that can go either way, look to 4e, which has a split personality depending on which method of outcome resolution you choose. So, no, it's not always about the game you've chosen -- there are opportunities in a number of games to let choice of outcome drift. I let this drift in my 5e games, where I, as GM, try to let the players choose outcomes more often than not.
 

Fenris-77

Explorer
If we're talking 5e the declaration matters. Winking at the maiden is an action, but it isn't tagged with a desired result. Does it result in a die roll to determine effect? Who knows. The second example, in 5e, would be a declaration of intent and a roll at DM mandated DC would determine the truth of the statement. Does the wink soften her heart? Let's see... Now, in other game the player often has a lot more agency when it comes to the result. Different systems are designed to handle authorship of result differently, and I think a lot of systems fall somewhere in between the two extremes in the example.

I guess what I'm getting at is that intent and declaration matter a lot when it comes to result, and in systems like 5e, that's where player agency lies. In the wink example the player is deciding what a successful outcome will be, but that's not quite the same as deciding that the outcome is successful.
 

Maxperson

Orcus on an on Day
Yes, and the topic is about who gets to choose the outcome -- the GM or the player.
It doesn't really matter. Pick the game you like and be done with it. There's no right or wrong here, unless you're trying to say your way is the best.
 

Elfcrusher

Explorer
Yes, and the topic is about who gets to choose the outcome -- the GM or the player.


Except the OP is trying to make it sound like the distinction between the wink and the softening is blurrier than it is.

I mean, it’s still useful and interesting to talk about who gets to resolve the action, and the division line moves depending on the game.

But it’s a more straightforward question than the OP seems to be suggesting.
 
For the example of the safe, what if you’re not already looking for something specific in it? What if it’s more a case of “ooo a safe! Let’s see what’s inside.”
That seems to be the player-side equivalent of the GM asking "OK, so what are you hoping to find?"

An RPG needs some way to establish these descriptions of PC actions. Different ways make different sorts of action declarations permissible or impermissible, or affect the resolution of them. Maybe in this particular system there's a random safe contents table that someone is expected to roll on, if no one wants to put a richer description of the action on the table.
 
they seem to like foiling whatever thing the GM (often me) came up with. That there was a story without them that they then changed. And part of getting this feeling, I suppose, is to make the right thin declarations to get the GM to narrate that success. There's an element of puzzle solving there. This sounds bad
I don't think it sounds bad! Not quite my cup of tea, but that's a different less interesting matter.

A little while ago now I started a thread which tooks as its premise that there is a key puzzle-solving/learning-what-the-GM-is-thinking aspect in the sort of approach to fiction-creation you are (if I've understood you) describing here. I think this sort of play, which seems very prevalent, is under-analysed.

They like the tactical game a good bit (most also have or still do wargame), and that's full of thin declarations (the mechanics provide outcomes, not players or GMs).
I think another avenue of exploration is around what sorts of descriptions are up for grabs when checks are made - who gets to decide what they are, and how do we choose between them? Many traditional combat systems offer fairly precise and sometimes fairly rigid answers to these questions, which I think may be what you're getting at here.

in 5e, it's the job of the GM to narrate outcomes, so I do, even if I keep a weather eye out on making sure I don't invalidate player intentions (too often).
I think the issue of "invalidation", or as I sometimes put it in the affirmative honouring player successes in checks is a very interesting phenomenon. In my experience in quite few systems it is this principle which helps establish wider/richer descriptions, extrapolating from players' thinner descriptions plus (sometimes quite amorphous) hopes/expectations.

When that principle isn't applied (and I think there are some well-established approaches to some systems - at least D&D and CoC that I'm familiar with - where it often isn't applied) then players can't establish much beyond those thin descriptions.

When that principle is applied I think it's interesting to consider how we should think about who is driving the wider descriptions - eg even if the GM is doing it in a formal sense where are they getting their material from, what constraints do they apply to themselves, etc.

EDIT to add a reply to this:
You know, thinking on this a bit more, I'm not sure where the resolution mechanic comes in. Are you talking about the outcome on a successful resolution? I'd guess you are, but it's best to be clear. Note that I'd lump, "saying yes" under successful resolution.
I was leaving it open, though in the second of the middle paras (the safe example) I was imagining that we are using a check to establish the success of an action.

For instance, here is one way to set up a resolution system: player posits a description; GM counter-posits a description; a check is made; on a success player's posit is true in the fiction, on a fail the GM's is. (I'm taking it for granted that posited descriptions are genre and context appropriate; if that's up for grabs at the table then it will need to be sorted out before resolution can proceed.)

Burning Wheel played canonically works like this. Much of AD&D, played canonically, differs from this (some combat-ish elements might be partial exceptions if looked at in the right way).

So I think the relationship between resolution and establishing true descriptions of PC actions can be quite variable across actual and conceivable systems. And there are other things besides resolution that this is true of: eg what is the relationship between stuff the GM writes down in advance of play and establishing true descriptions of PC actions. In Cortex+ Heroic, not a lot; in classic AD&D, the relationship can be very tight (again with some combat-ish elements perhaps being exceptions); in PbtA the relationship is different again; etc.
 
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aramis erak

Explorer
The premise statement is a longstanding falsehood, all too often unchallenged.

Players decide what their character attempts, not what they do.

GM's decide what the PC's do, based upon the stated attempt, the rules, and their common sense, and sometimes, their story sense.

Players may or may not be deciding how their PC's feel; many systems allow forced emotional states, which only works when players agree to those stakes, but can be fun for some.
 
Only one of those is a description of an action. The second is a description of both an action and the result of that action. The action is a wink, the result is the softening of the heart.
Well, this goes back to the quote from Donald Davidson in the OP:

A classic article on the analysis of actions (Donald Davidson, "Actions, Reasons, and Causes" (1963)) gives the following example:

I flip the switch, turn on the light, and illuminate the room. Unbeknownst to me I also alert a prowler to the fact that I am home. Here I need not have done four things, but only one, of which four descriptions have been given.​

If the PC winks at the maiden and softens her heart the PC hasn't done two things (wink, and as a separate thing soften her heart) - that way lies madness because it will quickly lead to near-endless multiplication of the number of events that have occurred (eg you'll have each movement of an eyelash through each point of space as a separate and distinct thing that the PC did).

There is one action but it falls under more than one description. In the context of playing a RPG, which involves generating shared agreement on the descriptions that are true in the fiction, I think the question of who gets to establish which descriptions is quite interesting. And I think that saying the player gets to decide what the PC does isn't a useful way of answering the question.

Except the OP is trying to make it sound like the distinction between the wink and the softening is blurrier than it is.

<snip>

But it’s a more straightforward question than the OP seems to be suggesting.
The OP makes a straightforward but perhaps not simple point: when the PC winks at the maiden and softens her heart, the PC has performed one action (that falls under more than one description), not two. Separating it into action and result already assumes a regimentation that is not straightforward either in theory or in practice - eg is the player allowed to describe I tighten my hand about the pommel of my sheathed sword and move it in a sword-drawing motion or is the player allowed to describe I draw my sword. Those are two different descriptions of what, typically, will be the one action. You can frame the first as the action and the second as the result if you like, but I think there is a lot of RPG play which won't conform to that way of parsing the example.

Likewise for I use my larynx, mouth, breath etc as I would to loudly speak the words "Help me" and I call out to my companions, "Help me". Etc.

It seems to me that in different systems, and perhaps on different occasions within a system, it may become important to know who has authority to establish which descriptions as true in the fiction, and how they can do this. Saying the player gets to describe what the PC does and/or the GM gets to decide the result won't help. Whereas characterising it as establishing the truth of a description in the shared fiction gets the subject-matter of the discussion right.

it's pretty easy to wink. Softening hearts sounds a bit more difficult. Especially when your name is, say, Quasimodo.

Also, some analysis of the problem might be in order, because I don't see Soften Heart and Wink as the same action. If a player told me "I wink," I'd say "great." If a player said "I soften the maiden's heart," I'd say "so how do you do that?"
And what if a player says "I wink at the maiden to soften her heart"?

I'll have another go:

Suppose the player says I wink at the maiden to soften her heart.

And the GM replies OK, that's a Difficulty 4 Presence check. You can add your Glamourie to your pool if you have it. (I'm using Prince Valiant as the system here - it's pretty simple.)

And the player replies Right, well I've got 3 Presence and 2 Glamourie so that's 5 coins in my pool - then tosses the coins, and they come down in a 3/2 split, so FAILURE - ie short of 4 successes.

Now, what is true in the fiction? From the failure, we know it's not true that the PC winked at the maiden and softened her heart. Is it true that the PC winked at the maiden? Who gets to decide that, and according to what principles? Is it true that the PC winked? Who gets to decide that, and according to what principles?

The Prince Valiant rulebook doesn't actually come out and answer these questions - it was written in the late 80s and RPG designers hadn't got as good as contemporary ones about addressing these important issues of play - but it does contain some hints.

I don't think you can answer by saying the player decides what the PC does - because if this was true, then the player could decide that the PC softens the maiden's heart with a wink. Yet we know that has been taken off the table in virtue of the failed check result.
 
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Wightbred

Explorer
In RPGing, I think it's a big deal who gets to decide what descriptions of the PCs' actions are true, and how.
I totally agree. The Czege Principle ("When one person is the author of both the character's adversity and its resolution, play isn't fun.") means that the authoring of scene framing, adversity, action and result need to be shared around to keep the game fun.

A GM could set the scene - but not always. There are games like Hillfolk where anyone can set a scene, and games like Wrath and Glory and D&D 5e where spending points can add things to scenes.

A GM could choose the adversity - but not always. There are games where other players can add adversity to rolls such as Danger Patrol.

A non-GM player could choose the action a character makes - but not always. There are situations in D&D where a DM might say ‘your character can’t do that because they are charmed’.

A GM could choose the result - but not always. There are games where you roll to see who narrates the outcome, like John Wick’s Blood and Honor, where a player can win and choose to narrate their character failing.

in addition, any GM might rule that winking to impress someone is irrelevant and so allow it, or is important and require a resolution irrespective of the rules of the game. This is down to factors like the preference of the table, how late in the night it is, etc.

Since playing PbtA and Blades games I have become enamoured with the way these games cleverly move authorship around, and we have ported this concept successfully into the way we play more ‘commercial’ games. I recommend Vincent Baker’s Anyway blog as a great place to read interesting ideas on games as conversations and authorship - although my simple summary is not doing it justice.

We are living in a golden age of RPGs, where there are options to support many styles of play. Have fun with yours!
 
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