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The Horror! of Player Agency

Gamebooks provide a branching-path framework for a single player to determine their fate, with more advanced gamebooks using dice to resolve conflicts. But what happens when the choices you make in a game are determining not just what but how the adventure takes place?

nightmarestore.jpg

The Visible Guardrails of Gamebooks
Gamebooks have been around for quite some time, with Flying Buffalo laying claim to having invented one of the first--not surprisingly, as a solo adventure for Tunnels & Trolls. As a single-player experience, these types of gamebooks provide a limited form of agency, allowing the player some freedom of choice while at the same time creating a unique experience each time that choice diverges.

The replayability of gamebooks depends on the number of branching paths, which provide different outcomes with each choice. Combat with dice adds another variable; a player may be able to defeat a monster on one play through but not on another due to the randomness of dice rolls.

All this is transparent to the player; the reader can see what pages to flip to and after the first play-through, knows the outcome of those decisions. In fantasy gamebooks, this mimics dungeon exploration in Dungeons & Dragons, where a dungeon tends to be static to the extent the players map it out, but is largely unknown until it is explored. Sandbox campaigns don't fill out the dungeon (or other terrain) until the game takes place, which means the game master doesn't necessarily know what's coming next either.

Similarly, a gamebook provides invisible guardrails--but the guardrails are still there, visible to anyone who flips ahead to the book or reads choices out of order. Depending on your perspective, this can make a gamebook exciting or rote. And some of that experience is likely shaped by the genre.

Horror vs. Fantasy
Heroic fantasy games as established by D&D tend to be about power. Chainmail had "hero" and "superhero" as titles for adventurers, titles which carried over to the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons fighter class. This escalation of power through levels and advancement can clash with gamebook play, which limits player agency to a few choices.

Conversely, horror games are about taking that power away. Call of Cthulhu's infamous sanity mechanic ensures that even if characters acquire more firepower, they will eventually succumb, which in turn reinforces the horror aspect.

Horror gamebooks fill an interesting niche, turning the limited player agency into a storytelling advantage: the player's choices are limited because they are struggling to not succumb to some horrible event. For an example of how this plays out, the "Plot-Your-Own-Horror-Story", Nightmare Store, provides a classic example.

Nightmare Store
I came across Nightmare Store as a kid in school and was shocked by how frightening the book could be. The protagonist falls asleep in a mall and wakes up at night, locked in, as everything in the mall comes to life and attempts to take yours. Nightmare Store isn't about surviving so much as experiencing the horror; obvious attempts to escape can end in death, attacking monsters head on can mean surviving a little longer. What's unique about this series is that, as Demian's Gamebook Web Page explains, "quite a few choices determine not what the reader's character does, but rather what will happen next; for example, rather than asking whether or not to open a door, a choice may ask what will be behind it!"

Nightmare Store gives the player the opportunity not just to play along, hoping their choices allow the protagonist to escape; it lets the player determine their fate, becoming their own game master. This is a significant divergence from a "gain power" sort of play. Instead, the player is asked to join in on the horror by crafting their own scary story. It's not for everybody.

Why This Isn't for Everybody
Player agency is a tricky thing, determined as much by actual agency as the player's knowledge and awareness of their agency. It pivots on a player seeing dice rolls and game masters fudging rolls (or not), in the spirit of telling a good story.

There's a fine line between asking someone how they feel and telling them, or letting players determine their reaction vs. railroading them. If this effort is too overt, players get annoyed. It's the same reaction we have to headlines like "This buffalo just wanted to buy a pair of shoes. What happened next will blow your mind" -- the headline is providing an intentional inconsistency (which is psychologically distressing) and then telling us how to feel about it.

How this series of gamebooks work is an insight to differing styles of play. When players are interested in winning, it's easy to invest in striving for the best outcome (surviving, in the case of a horror gamebook). When players are more interested in telling an interesting horror story, player choice becomes much less important. As Guillermo explains in his review of another gamebook in the series, Craven House Horrors:

This unusual form of gameplay has elicited complaints, but I think it works very well, since the way the book is set up, it seems as if the author is engaging with the player in dialogue and responding to his thoughts (the responses having often-unexpected consequences). This creates a psychological bond between the reader and the story that also serves to create a feeling of helplessness, which is quite appropriate for a horror book.

This lack of player choice, and my ability to only influence the narrative but not the outcome, is likely why I found this gamebook so frightening as a kid. Take a look and see for yourself.
 
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Michael Tresca

Michael Tresca

Schmoe

Adventurer
Really interesting! I don't know if I have the players for a horror game, but the book sounds cool. I really like the observation that heroic gaming is about gaining power, and horror gaming is about losing it. Well said, and I think it's quite accurate. As your options slowly dwindle, the panic begins to set in.

Thanks for this article.
 

TheSword

Legend
Supporter
In my experience the conflict can be handled by ensuring power comes at a cost.

I’m not a fan of some sanity mechanics because they often result in a loss agency. However not all madness needs to result in such a loss. D&D flaws are a good example of how this can work.

I’ve pondered long about Bloodborne elements in TTRPGs elsewhere. They handle forbidden knowledge with an increasing Insight score that reveals hidden secrets in the game.

Some of these secrets are pretty horrific though and make the game harder. Knowledge = Power and Power comes at a cost.

  • At a certain point insight means previously inanimate objects talk to players.
  • Higher Insight grants some monsters spell like abilities, you realize they have that power and they can touch you with it.
  • You realize there are previously imperceptible giant Amygdala all around the game world waiting. Some of them will interact invisibly with you but at higher knowledge levels you know what they are.
  • Ghostly monsters will spawn at various locations.
 
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imagineGod

Adventurer
I never liked horror because it allows for nasty repercussions by DM against PCs that make games un-fun, not just hit point loss, but not wanting to play the game again.
 

mykediemart

Explorer
I never liked horror because it allows for nasty repercussions by DM against PCs that make games un-fun, not just hit point loss, but not wanting to play the game again.
I hear ya. I came to kill monsters.
I was pitched playing Call of Cthulhu, as in the end you go crazy and die. um pass.
It takes everyone buying in to the horror for it to work.
 

twofalls

Explorer
If you are there to kill monsters, not only is it your obligation to communicate that to the DM, but also the DM's job to know his players and present games that maximize everyone's enjoyment. Like in any cooperative event, the ideal outcome isn't always achievable (everyone has maximum enjoyment), and so each player must compromise to gain the best possible outcome (everyone has some fun). I've never run a horror game, mostly because I have no experience with it and don't personally enjoy the genre, however the idea of learning how to create suspense is one that should interest storytellers of all stripes. Typically I do this by inviting player attachment and then creating scenarios that threaten those attachments.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
There are two different themes here that interact in interesting ways. The first is "what sort of game do you want to play?" and the other is "do you want players to define the world". The traditional D&D-inspired game is "kill monsters / GM-only design" and it's a ton of fun and probably still the default -- so much so that many GM's will not even state those criteria in their pitches. A horror game changes the first assumption from "kill monsters" to "survive against the dark" or "role-play a descent into madness" or something like that. For games like Call of Cthulhu, they change the first theme, but keep the GM-owned world.

Many systems modify the latter assumption a bit -- for example, 13th Age encourages a fair amount of player world design, while keeping the basic "kill monsters" theme. But in the fantasy world, there is a strong bias to the GM owning the whole world, so other approaches are a bit of an outlier.

Nightmare Store seems like a "horror / shared world-building" game. It's interesting because a lot of horror is about restricting (not taking away) agency -- the fun is choosing from a limited set of options. So when you add the ability for players to modify the world, it needs players who don't want just to "win" the scenario -- they will find a gun store or a medical station behind every door they are asked to open. Instead it requires players who enjoy putting their characters into dangerous situations, not just by reacting to the GM's attacks, but by generating attacks on themselves.

This isn't for everyone, but if you can find a group that runs with it, it's a blast. I've been lucky with my home group, but have also had good luck at conventions, getting players who happily make their lives complicated, endangered and fun!
 

the_redbeard

Explorer
Looks like I should have refreshed the page. I posted to make a point similar to Graham's.

Quoting from above
"What's unique about this series is that, as Demian's Gamebook Web Page explains, "quite a few choices determine not what the reader's character does, but rather what will happen next; for example, rather than asking whether or not to open a door, a choice may ask what will be behind it!"

Nightmare Store gives the player the opportunity not just to play along, hoping their choices allow the protagonist to escape; it lets the player determine their fate, becoming their own game master. "

I think there is a difference between players having narrative power and agency.

Narrative power is choosing features of the setting, as in the example above. Agency is freedom within the setting.
 

talien

Community Supporter
I think there is a difference between players having narrative power and agency. Narrative power is choosing features of the setting, as in the example above. Agency is freedom within the setting.

I think that's a fair distinction. I define agency as the perception that the player has control over their actions, with narrative power being one means (but not the only means) of making the player feel they have agency by changing the story.

What gets interesting is when narrative power is presented in a format where it's different ways to harm your character. If you don't buy into the premise of telling a horror story about your PC (because you want them to live and get more powerful), narrative choices like "which limb do you cut off, your arm or your leg?" are dead ends and probably enraging. That's an instance of narrative power TAKING away player agency.

If narrative power provides opportunity with less obvious negative consequences (e.g., "you come to a path, do you go left or right?") that feels like more player agency. It could be that the left path is certain doom, but until that result is revealed, the player at least made that choice.
 


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