Worlds of Design: The Tyranny and Freedom of Player Agency

“Player agency” refers to the player being allowed by the game to do things in the game that have real consequences to the long-term course, and especially the result, not just for succeeding or failing. Some campaigns offer a lot, some only a little. Are players just following the script or do they have the opportunity to make decisions that cause their long-term results to be significantly different from another player’s?

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Picture courtesy of Pixabay.

I play games to specifically be an agent in the universe that does effect things. I watch netflix or read books to be an observer. I have to be in control of something.” Kaze Kai

The subject of player agency is a controversial topic in game design. We have “rules emergent” games which are “open” versus “progressive” games which are “closed”; or “sandbox” which is open versus “linear” which is closed. The first of each pair can also lead to strong player agency, the second almost never does. I'll add a third one: games, which are open, versus puzzles, which are closed, because in a pure puzzle you must follow the solution devised by the designer.

Player agency is important because many long-time gamers want control, want agency, yet many game and adventure makers want control themselves, and take it away from players. It’s the difference between, say, Candyland or Snakes & Ladders(no agency), and games like Diplomacy and Carcassonne. For adults, Tic-Tac-Toe has no practical player agency, as it is a puzzle that is always a draw when well-played.

When a GM runs a particular adventure for several groups, do the results tend to be the same for each group (beyond whether they succeed or fail), or do the results tend to be “all over the map”? If the former, it leans toward being a linear adventure, while if the latter, it’s more “sandbox.”

Books can help us understand this. Most novels have no “reader agency”; the reader is “just along for the ride." Films offer no viewer agency. On the other hand, “Fighting Fantasy” and similar “you are there and you make the choices” books, where you choose what to do next from among about three possible actions, gives the reader-player agency over the short term. (Dark Mirror’s Bandersnatch is a more recent example.) Though in the end, if the player succeeds, there may be only one kind of success. Video games usually let players influence the small-scale/short term stuff a little, but not the large scale.

In between broad player agency and no player agency can be found games with false impressions of player agency, which you can recreate in an RPG adventure just as well as in a standalone game. The Walking Dead video game was often praised for the choices the player had to make, but in the end it all comes out the same way no matter what the player does (see this reference for a diagram of all the choices). Mass Effect is another game highly touted for player choices that ended up in the same place despite their decisions.

Full player agency creates story branches that don’t come back to the same place; the player’s choices just continues to branch. The reason this is rare in video games is because more choices and branches means more development, which costs money. In tabletop RPGs, a good GM can provide whatever branching is needed, on the fly if necessary.

The one place where player agency is seldom in question is in competitive tabletop games, especially wargames. Even there, many of the old SPI games more or less forced players to follow history. And many Eurostyle “games” are more puzzles than games, hence players must follow one of several solutions (“paths to victory”).

Why would a designer not provide Agency? I don’t understand it emotionally myself, but I can understand it intellectually. Some game designers are frustrated storytellers (or puzzle-makers) who have chosen not to use traditional forms such as novels, film, plays, oral storytelling. They want to provide “experiences." But in order to do so in a medium not as suited for it, they must introduce limitations on players in order to retain control of the narrative.

Only games (as opposed to novels or films) offer the choice of agency or not. There’s nothing wrong with a “lack of agency”, if that’s what players expect – as in a typical film or novel. I am not saying it’s wrong, just that most highly experienced game players don’t like lack of player agency.

I recommend you ask yourself a general question: “am I imposing my ideas and notions on the game, or allowing the players to use theirs?” Part of that answer is relevant to player agency. What you want the answer to be is up to you.

This article was contributed by Lewis Pulsipher (lewpuls) as part of EN World's Columnist (ENWC) program. Lew was Contributing Editor to Dragon, White Dwarf, and Space Gamer magazines and contributed monsters to TSR's original Fiend Folio, including the Elemental Princes of Evil, denzelian, and poltergeist. You can follow Lew on his web site and his Udemy course landing page. If you enjoy the daily news and articles from EN World, please consider contributing to our Patreon!
 
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Lewis Pulsipher

Comments

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
IMO one reason a lot of adventures are written the way they are is because they're "GM proofing" the story to a certain degree. There's an expectation of a dramatic story and often a "zero to hero" narrative but many GMs aren't up to providing that. So adventure writers try to provide that.

As to player expectations and agency or how player driven a campaign is, a lot depends on, well, the players. I've run for folks who I can drop various hints to and they riff on them. I just react to them, even while having some bigger picture going on. Other players require much more "push" and, thus, structure and less agency. They may get it in the small (such as in a good CPRG, where there are often lots of meaningful choices) but not in the large.
 

Saelorn

Adventurer
One thing that this article doesn't touch on is how the concept of player agency may differ from character agency.

In a traditional RPG, the agency of the player is limited to what their character can do. Whether or not something changes within the narrative, later on, depends solely on what that character is capable of doing within the game world. Can you stop the orc army from taking over the elven stronghold? That depends on how good your character is at fighting, how good your character is at negotiating, and your approach. If you succeed, then certain NPCs will be alive where they otherwise would have died, and you generally have a different state of affairs. That's real character agency within the world.

Some newer games, which could also be classified as RPGs if you're being generous, introduce an additional concept of extra-character player agency - the ability for a player to influence the outcome, beyond what their character is capable of affecting within the world. If an army of orcs is heading toward the elven stronghold, a player might be able to spend some meta-game resource in order to ensure favorable weather, or to conveniently find some secret orders left behind by an orc spy. The player has some amount of agency over what happens, even if their character isn't directly involved.

To answer a question posed in the article, this is a type of a player agency that many designers (and players) will not want to include in their games, because the context of an RPG is that you're making decisions through the lens of the character. We don't play these games to see what happens, or even to influence those events, but rather to experience the world through the limited scope of a single person living in that world. Giving agency to the player, outside of that scope, would ruin the experience.
 

hawkeyefan

Explorer
I think the game in question tends to have a huge impact on this, as well. Campaigns are referenced in the article in the sense that "some campaigns offer a lot, some only a little" and while this is true, it seems to be a matter of preference, mostly. This GM allows this much in his campaign, that GM allows less in hers. There can be a range in any given system.

But what about the impact that the rules system has? Some systems promote more agency than others do, I think.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
Mr. Pulsifer completely ignores the principle reason games restrict agency... playability.

The wider the field of choices, the harder to make those choices it becomes for the players. The rule system itself is a constraint on both player and GM agency... and it works because it reduces near-infinite choices to a manageable few.
 

pemerton

Legend
In the context of RPGing, a significant obstacle to player agency in many game designs is the lack of a method for imposing finality of resolution. This means that someone - traditionally the GM - is always free to introduce new content that undoes whatever outcome the players were going for via their action declarations for their PCs.

Obviously there are many RPGs that have solved this problem either in general or at least for the particular sorts of themes/tropes they are interested in. But a lot of those games seem to be not very popular on these boards.
 

Lwaxy

Cute but dangerous
Either you have a premade adventure which absolutely needs to add some limitations or you sandbox. In the first case, agency will be limited. Itis just like that. Otherwise none of those adventures would be playable as written and maybe not at all.

My players move off the rails all the time, and it's complicated to keep the story together at times, so I understand every GM who wants to stick closer to the path.
 

lewpuls

Explorer
This is a misunderstanding of agency:

"The wider the field of choices, the harder to make those choices it becomes for the players. The rule system itself is a constraint on both player and GM agency... and it works because it reduces near-infinite choices to a manageable few."

Agency isn't about number of choices, it's about the ability of players to influence and change the outcome. That can be achieved without offering players myriad choices. But the choices must be important (in so many games, they're not, they're choices for the sake of choice).
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
I am not saying it’s wrong, just that most highly experienced game players don’t like lack of player agency.
Cite, please!

I mean, really, dude. Making assertions about player preferences based on... what, exactly? Your personal understanding? As if that's reliable?

Did you figure, "Well, everyone just knows this is true?" Or that you are an authority? Or do you feel the audience's critical reading skills are so weak that we'd just swallow it without thinking about how you know this to be true?
 

Blue

Orcus on a bad hair day
Player agency can happen at a lot of different levels. There are mixes of agency and railroading at different scales that are worth examining. Let me give two contrasting examples.

Example 1:
Players have a wide variety of plots and hooks in front of them, and pick what they want to do. But if they, for instance, pick the optional raid on the red dragon's lair it will pretty much ultimately lead to an encounter with the dragon. Sandbox world, railroad adventure.

Example 2:
The players are beseecheed by local authority figures to help deal with a rampaging dragon when they return from an adventure. No other plots or hooks are given. But the characters have plenty of ways to try to deal with it - arming NPCs, ambushing it when it hunts from one of the several seperated herds / flocks, go after it in it's lair while it's sleeping, hunt up a local hag who could use divinations to figure out where to intercept it soonest. The ways to solve the adventure are wide open, but dealing with the dragon is railroaded.

(Note these aren't exclusive, just examples of mixes.)

An case like the first can bring even a module into a sandbox world, where following the meaningful player choices leads to a few sessions that are rather linear. The other is the opposite, with campaign arcs set by the DM but lots of immediate-feedback agency on how to accomplish the tasks.

Personally, my campaign arcs twist all over the place based on what the players do - nothing I have planned is true until it hits the table, and players make a huge impact on it, and by campoaign end it resembles nothing I thought of before the start. But even there, there's some railroading. When the want to pursue a specific grand ritual and there's only two locations to get one epic component, they can pick which one they want to infiltrate but the fact that they are going to go after one or the other sooner or later is not really in question.
 

Arnwolf666

Adventurer
Cite, please!

I mean, really, dude. Making assertions about player preferences based on... what, exactly? Your personal understanding? As if that's reliable?

Did you figure, "Well, everyone just knows this is true?" Or that you are an authority? Or do you feel the audience's critical reading skills are so weak that we'd just swallow it without thinking about how you know this to be true?
Well since this is not an academic journal I would guess it is from his experience. If you have some sources to cite than cite them. It’s not like anyone can collect reliable data on this topic.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
It’s not like anyone can collect reliable data on this topic.
Exactly. So, if we can't collect reliable data, should we speak as if we do have that data, and assert as if they were known facts? Or, should we be clear and honest, and say somethig like, "I suspect that..." so that we can clearly see the difference between things that are known, and things that are not?
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
Player agency can happen at a lot of different levels. There are mixes of agency and railroading at different scales that are worth examining. Let me give two contrasting examples.

Example 1:
Players have a wide variety of plots and hooks in front of them, and pick what they want to do. But if they, for instance, pick the optional raid on the red dragon's lair it will pretty much ultimately lead to an encounter with the dragon. Sandbox world, railroad adventure.
Sandbox world, yes. Railroad adventure? Only maybe, and even then it's self-inflicted by the players via their own choice. Never mind that if they do choose the red dragon raid you-as-DM still have no way of knowing how it'll turn out; as while it's most likely they'll end up fighting and probably killing the dragon they could also TPK against it, or sneak around it and just steal some loot, or become allies with it, or.....

It only becomes a railroad if you-as-DM have already decided how it'll turn out (e.g. they fight and kill it) and won't allow any other option (e.g. they reach an alliance with the dragon).

Example 2:
The players are beseecheed by local authority figures to help deal with a rampaging dragon when they return from an adventure. No other plots or hooks are given. But the characters have plenty of ways to try to deal with it - arming NPCs, ambushing it when it hunts from one of the several seperated herds / flocks, go after it in it's lair while it's sleeping, hunt up a local hag who could use divinations to figure out where to intercept it soonest. The ways to solve the adventure are wide open, but dealing with the dragon is railroaded.
No railroad here at all provided the players-as-PCs have the option of declining to help out and telling the local authorities to deal with their own problems.

And if the players have established a pattern where these particular PCs are noble heroes who would never think of declining to help out, then in effect the players have railroaded themselves into doing this mission.
 

GrahamWills

Adventurer
Another in a long line of threads where we will get bogged down in semantics. No-one can agree on what railroading, sandbox games, player agency or the like really mean, but everyone knows what they like and what works:

Players get to make choices that affect the world, while collaborating with the GM to build a story, occasionally by generating it and occasionally by fleshing out the GM's story.

Paragraphs like the following are phenomenally unhelpful:

We have “rules emergent” games which are “open” versus “progressive” games which are “closed”; or “sandbox” which is open versus “linear” which is closed. The first of each pair can also lead to strong player agency, the second almost never does. I'll add a third one: games, which are open, versus puzzles, which are closed, because in a pure puzzle you must follow the solution devised by the designer

Seven different terms defined that no-one agrees over (Do "progressive" games have Elizabeth Warren as their President?) and a statement that is therefore meaningless. As a capstone, A re-definition of the word "puzzle" to be "puzzle that has only one solution" to make the point a tautology -- "puzzles that only have one solution are closed because in a puzzle that has only one solution you must follow the solution devised by the designer"

This is a plea to stop using jargon and start trying to make sense. If your argument can't be stated in plain english, it's not helpful just to add jargon and then start arguing over the meaning of jargon.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Player agency is good, they should be able to make meaningful choices; nevertheless, much of this boils down to being a good GM, something that no number of rules can fix if it goes wrong. I have seen it a lot, GM runs a railroad that becomes uninteresting, and the game falls apart. Sometimes even blaming the general game community, such as "this is why we can't have nice things."
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Mr. Pulsifer completely ignores the principle reason games restrict agency... playability.

The wider the field of choices, the harder to make those choices it becomes for the players. The rule system itself is a constraint on both player and GM agency... and it works because it reduces near-infinite choices to a manageable few.
Agreed, and to add to that, what "a manageable few" means will differ. To me there's a range of sweet spots between "essentially no choices, or at least no interesting ones" and "so many choices I can't keep them all straight." This is going to be quite group-dependent as well and also depends enormously on the players as well. Gotta know your table.

A group with a relatively new DM and many new players probably should not try to run a really heavily sandbox campaign and high level characters with all the trimmings. It's just going to be too complicated. Stick to lower levels with fewer choices and expand out over time. By contrast, a very experienced group who's not unhappy trying various things out can usually manage more unstructured choices, but even then it depends a lot on the players and, even more so, on the DM's available prep time and ability to improvise. Principles of video game design can really help keep even a fairly narrative story type campaign feeling open: Give a set of meaningful branches. Even two or three different possible pathways that test the characters in different ways helps a lot. (It wouldn't seem to keep @lewpuls happy, but many folks are pleased by it.)

Some players may not care for character types that involve a lot of choices. Some people I play with are cognitively capable of playing a character like a monk, paladin, or sorcerer, but they don't enjoy characters with those kinds of choices in the game. In general I encourage them to play characters with fewer choice points and less resource management. In one case, two of us were helping design a fighter PC for one of these players. Arguably, the Battlemaster fighter with Lucky was more potent but I pushed for Champion with Mobile, because that player doesn't like resource management. Might he do somewhat more damage as a Battlemaster with Lucky? Sure. But the player gets to make choices he enjoys: Deciding who to attack, where to go, etc., without having to make ones he doesn't.

The Fighter is a very good example of one where there are more or less complicated builds that are still effective. I do wish WotC had made more or less complicated builds possible for more classes.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Player agency is good, they should be able to make meaningful choices; nevertheless, much of this boils down to being a good GM, something that no number of rules can fix if it goes wrong.
That's true, but many designers write adventures with an eye towards "DM proofing" the story, which often leads right toward the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
That's true, but many designers write adventures with an eye towards "DM proofing" the story, which often leads right toward the Chattanooga Choo Choo.
Yes, and in the hands of a not good GM it becomes a perfect storm of mediocrity. Sometimes I see designers complain about various reasons a game or adventure aren't selling, mostly I think it is a lack of marketing; sometimes I'll hear them blame piracy, which I think is spurious. Then there is the simplest reason that maybe it isn't that good. Back to GMing, it takes a good while to learn how to GM, and playing is virtually a prerequisite. I have been GMing for 35+ years and I still am learning.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Yes, and in the hands of a not good GM it becomes a perfect storm of mediocrity. Sometimes I see designers complain about various reasons a game or adventure aren't selling, mostly I think it is a lack of marketing; sometimes I'll hear them blame piracy, which I think is spurious. Then there is the simplest reason that maybe it isn't that good. Back to GMing, it takes a good while to learn how to GM, and playing is virtually a prerequisite. I have been GMing for 35+ years and I still am learning.
Absolutely. I've been GMing for a long time too and I totally agree that I've never felt I've stopped learning. It's not easy to learn how to do, although there are a whole lot of resources now that can really help, such as a number of really good YouTube channels. I don't know that playing is a prerequisite, though. I ended up DMing before I ever got to play. However, it certainly would make things easier to be able to learn the ropes from someone else.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Absolutely. I've been GMing for a long time too and I totally agree that I've never felt I've stopped learning. It's not easy to learn how to do, although there are a whole lot of resources now that can really help, such as a number of really good YouTube channels. I don't know that playing is a prerequisite, though. I ended up DMing before I ever got to play. However, it certainly would make things easier to be able to learn the ropes from someone else.
As a player one also learns directly what they do or do not like of what the GM is doing. Granted there is never going to be a perfect way for everyone. I mean the sand box style is often held up as the holy grail, and some players love it, totally taking control of the narrative, and I find that is cool, less work for me, then I can sit back and be the neutral adjudicator of the universe. Some players just want to set the world on fire, they don't care where or how. That working with the two directions between action and narrative play, sometimes takes real effort.
 

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