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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?

maze-1804499_960_720.jpg

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

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Yes, and of course game companies do need things to sell.
Good adventures seem to sell, that's usually what one sees people asking for.

Too many rules? The rules lawyers and power gamers have a field day and everyone else just gets bored.
The bolded part can't be stressed enough, bad GM'ing can be fixed, but the rules lawyering drove a lot of people away from D&D at least in that time period.

Many of those modules really aren't that good.
Yeah, eventually we moved on to stuff like the Thieves' World box or MERP, sandboxes incidentally.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Good adventures seem to sell, that's usually what one sees people asking for.
True, though they're not really big sellers the way that I think companies wanted splatbooks to be since nearly everybody might buy a splatbook but only folks who GM tend to buy adventures.


The bolded part can't be stressed enough, bad GM'ing can be fixed, but the rules lawyering drove a lot of people away from D&D at least in that time period.
I certainly agree about the downsides of rules lawyering but in many ways, the rules specificity was an attempt at trying to fix a lot of the bad DMing and deal with areas that had been pervasive issues. Overall the designers wanted to unify and smooth out the experience. Certainly I think this was a big motive for both 3.X and 4E. I know some folks who really loved 4E because of how much it took quite a lot of decision making out of the DM's hands. Of course, this was precisely why I didn't like DMing 4E, but there are folks here who will very much defend that aspect of 4E. All that said, I definitely found players who'd been not at all rules-lawyery became much more so in 4E. Other people had this experience in 3E, but for me it was 4E where that happened.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
the simplest case to exemplify: Mazes. <snip>
Those are some very good examples. Also, if the puzzle is written in a somewhat abstract way that involves rolling skill checks. I've used puzzles that involved checks and player deduction. For example I recently did a puzzle lock that had the Towers of Hanoi but allowed the PCs to interact with the lock using various skill checks to get hints. Yeah, skill challenges weren't very well implemented in 4E but the basic idea was a good one.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
The range of meaningful actions must be reduced to a level where the GM can handle it; the ability of players to affect the story to a range of meaningful outcomes also is reduced, but the value of that is, in fact more playability, in that the GM has less to think of and has scaffolding upon which to hang, the actions of the players and judge their impact.
Yeah, you need to have enough things to do so it feels like there are tangible and important actions to take that aren't just repetitive, but not so many that the game bogs down in meaningless character sheet searching, which is one of the banes of higher level play.

If Player A has total agency, no one else has any. If all players have equal agency, none have total agency. While I hesitate to describe group total agency as a zero-sum-game situation, in many ways it is.

If A isn't allowed to make meaningful changes to B, then A's agency is limited. If A is required to use mechanics to affect meaningful changes to B, that's still restricting A's agency... but it does so in a manner that makes it potentially more practical.
Oh I agree, effective PC agency really is kind of a constant sum game. This gets to issues of game balance, since a character whose contributions per round are minimal or unimportant isn't going to be fun to play for most people. It impacts adventure design, too. It's one reason why I tend to think that characters should be at least able to contribute to some degree in any aspect of the game and am wary of one-trick ponies.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
True, though they're not really big sellers the way that I think companies wanted splatbooks to be since nearly everybody might buy a splatbook but only folks who GM tend to buy adventures.
Splatbooks are good if they are adding usable material; though I'd say there are two types of people that buy RPG books: GM's and collectors, the collectors will buy everything. GM's are a different animal in that in selling them books, they are trying to get them to run the game (I know my group is "run what you brung" because the players rarely buy the books, as GM I often will buy two of the core rules), while simultaneously create new GM's. I see alot of core rules released without any adventures, and while other companies seem to sell the same adventure over and over.

It all circles around to whatever it is, it has to be good.


I certainly agree about the downsides of rules lawyering but in many ways, the rules specificity was an attempt at trying to fix a lot of the bad DMing and deal with areas that had been pervasive issues. Overall the designers wanted to unify and smooth out the experience. Certainly I think this was a big motive for both 3.X and 4E.
I saw it really begin with 2e, and that probably had a big effect on 3&4 being the way they were. Rules lawyering goes beyond just comprehensive sets of rules, it delves into some players trying to ad hoc re-write the rules at the table, because "that is not the way it works" such as they read some book on medieval swords. Large sets of rules I think also act as barrier against new GM's, because it represents a fair amount of study for rules mastery.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Splatbooks are good if they are adding usable material; <...> It all circles around to whatever it is, it has to be good.
Unfortunately what "good" means is often hard to know and can run the risk of becoming a tautology.


GM's are a different animal in that in selling them books, they are trying to get them to run the game (I know my group is "run what you brung" because the players rarely buy the books, as GM I often will buy two of the core rules),
Certainly, but I think game companies are always trying to crack the much larger base of players to get them to buy books, which is one reason for splatbooks. While White Wolf was most famous for them, arguably TSR invented them with the Complete * Handbook series.


I see alot of core rules released without any adventures, and while other companies seem to sell the same adventure over and over.
Indeed this is common. I suspect a lot of games are actually essentially coffee table books for gamers.


I saw it really begin with 2e, and that probably had a big effect on 3&4 being the way they were.
Rules lawyering goes way back and each edition was in many ways a reaction to the previous ones. This isn't nuts, mind you, and there are many reasons to do a new edition. However, it's always tricky when a new edition comes out, much like an artistic change for a band.


Rules lawyering goes beyond just comprehensive sets of rules, it delves into some players trying to ad hoc re-write the rules at the table, because "that is not the way it works" such as they read some book on medieval swords.
That's certainly true but it's not the kind of RAW-type rules lawyering that seemed to replace the "let's make a deal" variety that used to be present.


Large sets of rules I think also act as barrier against new GM's, because it represents a fair amount of study for rules mastery.
So do small sets of rules which require lots of ad hoc rulings.
 

jasper

Rotten DM
I don't care how big your sandbox is, sooner or later you are going discover the cat turd. What the OP forgets is some time player agency branches onto a dead limb and the players are actively sitting on the limb while sawing it off the tree.
 
One thing that's missing in the discussion is player agency, as the OP defines it, can be had through character development. Learning to wield a sword, learning new spells, learning skills, etc. are all player agency according to the definition. The character learning these things is impacting the game through their character development choices.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Unfortunately what "good" means is often hard to know and can run the risk of becoming a tautology.
It bears repeating; better people than I have set forth rules for good literature, my perspective is the cow's: "I know what I like". Though the good does usually stand the test of time, and in literature, I do the same for RPG's, looking to authors I like. Literature is different from RPG's, I know, and I think the hobbyist aspect keeps criticism tame versus literature in general.


Indeed this is common. I suspect a lot of games are actually essentially coffee table books for gamers.
Pretty much, wandering the vendors floor at GenCon, there are glorious, beautiful game books that I have never heard of, and then never hear of again.


So do small sets of rules which require lots of ad hoc rulings.
From my POV, I find a 150 page book less intimidating than a 300 page book; ad hoc rulings depend on other factors, if the core rules aren't so good, even 600 pages can wind up being house ruled to death to be playable. I prefer a good concise set of core rules, in order to know them, and be able to quickly explain them to the players. There is also a benefit there of using an already known set of rules, and building a setting on top of that, less effort involved bringing it to the table.
 

S'mon

Legend
I don't care how big your sandbox is, sooner or later you are going discover the cat turd. What the OP forgets is some time player agency branches onto a dead limb and the players are actively sitting on the limb while sawing it off the tree.
Well that sounds like fun. Seeing what PCs do when the cat turd hits the litterbox can be very enjoyable...
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Well that sounds like fun. Seeing what PCs do when the cat turd hits the litterbox can be very enjoyable...
When we were kids, we would flick it away with a stick, all but that one kid, who used to throw dog poop, then he got ringworm, that showed him.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I don't care how big your sandbox is, sooner or later you are going discover the cat turd. What the OP forgets is some time player agency branches onto a dead limb and the players are actively sitting on the limb while sawing it off the tree.
I come at it from the perspective that no one is bigger than the group including the GM. I cannot meaningfully know what is best outcome in any given situation for anyone else unless I ask them. If things are spreading out in different directions due to differences in player priorities I feel the best way to handle it through conversation instead of pushing my desires on the group.
 

Malrex

Explorer
For some players more choices that "left or right down the hallway" is about as much as they can/want to handle. Three or four plot hooks is too much for them. I've seen choice cycling, where they start looking at option A, then B, then C, then back to A. This can happen for a variety of reasons, not wanting to be the guy/gal who makes the choice and offends the other players being one, but there are others. For a group like this, choices need to be pretty clear and laid out, for instance, A -> B or C (choose which order to do) -> D.

I've come to make use of this kind of structure in adventure designs a lot. I'll start in one area, say A, with the eventual goal to get to a particular other area, say G, but give a choice among different paths. It's kind of a "subway map" style dungeon.

A: Starting point
B: Plant monsters in a chasm
C: Ghouls
D: Troll
E: Phase spiders
F: Attack by soldiers of their main adversaries
G: Goal

Valid paths:

A -> C -> F -> G
A -> D -> F -> G
A -> B -> E -> G

etc.

I just chart these out on a piece of paper and budget XP accordingly so they're suitably beat up by the time they get to G, though it depends on the choices they made. This allows for player agency, but still gives me the DM enough structure to be well-prepared. I think it also helps to let exploration- or skill-oriented characters really benefit the group by letting the PCs make good choices or even bypass some of the encounters. Too often in a very narratively structured game they don't really get a chance to be useful.

Of course, the same kind of structure can be used for adventure design. Yeah, the total hex crawl or else grognard will hate this as still not providing enough player agency, but at some point I just stop listening to them.
Bolded #1: I've experienced that with newer players in a sandbox setting. I am totally assuming here, which can lead one to trouble, but I think I could see that with 5e players as the adventures seem to follow more of a storyline? So having too many options might give them pause for the best course to do the story? I don't play 5e so I don't know (and not bashing it). I personally never had a problem with having too many choices, but got lost when I was not in a sandbox, but a desert--where we could do whatever, but had zero hooks.

But I'll argue, that a prepared GM, armed with numerous choices--can actually help..the GM. I always had trouble running city adventures...but I found being prepared for numerous 'situations' and hooks for a party DID overwhelm them--and that's exactly what I wanted to do. The overwhelming feeling actually created the 'walls' I was looking for (like in a dungeon) because instead of feeling overwhelmed, the players decided to stop chasing distractions and focus on one path--which then made it easier for me to run. Now I really enjoy running super busy city adventures (City of Vermilion) that has a timeline, a main storyline that the players can be involved in or not, and a bunch (15-20) of situations/hooks/rumors. Whatever the characters decide to do IS the main adventure because the main goal is to have fun. And if they don't get involved in the main storyline--it still gets played out in the background for good or ill and up to the GM.

Bolded #2: I'm not here to argue with anyone. Different methods work for different GM's and their different groups and its all good because this hobby rocks! Maybe I'm a grognard or whatever. I think your method makes sense and is a good tool. However, if it was me, (and I can't draw it easily enough), I would take your example and put 'A' and 'G' on either side of a box or a pentagon...where 'A' would have connecting arrows to 2-3 letters and 2-3 letters would have arrows connecting to "G". But inside the pentagon, all the letters would be connected to each other.

My question is if you already prepped for A-G, why wouldn't you just give the option for the players to go through all the stuff you prepped for? The answer might be easy and lost to me due to my ignorance with 5e as players may have to be be beat up or prepared appropriately for G? I honestly don't know but genuinely curious.
 

Lanefan

Victoria Rules
However, if it was me, (and I can't draw it easily enough), I would take your example and put 'A' and 'G' on either side of a box or a pentagon...where 'A' would have connecting arrows to 2-3 letters and 2-3 letters would have arrows connecting to "G". But inside the pentagon, all the letters would be connected to each other.

My question is if you already prepped for A-G, why wouldn't you just give the option for the players to go through all the stuff you prepped for? The answer might be easy and lost to me due to my ignorance with 5e as players may have to be be beat up or prepared appropriately for G? I honestly don't know but genuinely curious.
There's nothing ever stopping them from going through everything, if they feel (as characters) that they have adequate time and resources. What is to be avoided, however, is the sense that they have to go through all of A-F in sequence before they can get to G...and far too many published modules these days (and some from the past too!) follow just that template: A leads only to B, B leads only to C, C leads only to D, and so on.

In other words, ideally if they find a way to get to G straight from A and somehow avoid all the rest, more power to 'em! And if they then decide to go back and cover off B-F just for kicks, that's great too.

You also hit another topic: just because a DM has prepped something does not mean the players are obligated to play through it. Fine - you've prepped A through G; but don't be upset if the players only hit B, D and G before leaving the adventure forever. :)
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Not every player will be a good fit for every game. If a player is reluctant to make in game decisions I will try to work with them to feel empowered to make those hard choices. If they want I will also work with them in the other players to reflect this in the fiction. They could play the bodyguard to one of the other Player Characters for instance.

If they really do not want to make any decisions or be led through a narrative my games are generally not going to be a good fit because I have no interest in deciding what should happen ahead of time. I also do not shy away from consequences and will not engage in spotlight balancing of the sort where we guarantee certain outcomes. It just is not fun for me if I know how things will turn out.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Bolded #1: I've experienced that with newer players in a sandbox setting. I am totally assuming here, which can lead one to trouble, but I think I could see that with 5e players as the adventures seem to follow more of a storyline? So having too many options might give them pause for the best course to do the story? I don't play 5e so I don't know (and not bashing it). I personally never had a problem with having too many choices, but got lost when I was not in a sandbox, but a desert--where we could do whatever, but had zero hooks.
I agree with the desert but even so, there are players or groups---even ones who've played for many years---who just don't do sandbox well, for instance falling into choice paralysis.

Now I really enjoy running super busy city adventures (City of Vermilion) that has a timeline, a main storyline that the players can be involved in or not, and a bunch (15-20) of situations/hooks/rumors. Whatever the characters decide to do IS the main adventure because the main goal is to have fun. And if they don't get involved in the main storyline--it still gets played out in the background for good or ill and up to the GM.
I agree with you---I like that approach and have used it myself.


Bolded #2: I'm not here to argue with anyone. Different methods work for different GM's and their different groups and its all good because this hobby rocks! Maybe I'm a grognard or whatever. I think your method makes sense and is a good tool. However, if it was me, (and I can't draw it easily enough), I would take your example and put 'A' and 'G' on either side of a box or a pentagon...where 'A' would have connecting arrows to 2-3 letters and 2-3 letters would have arrows connecting to "G". But inside the pentagon, all the letters would be connected to each other.
I couldn't draw it easily in ASCII either, so I didn't show the connections the way I wanted to but I would definitely have some cross-bridging paths. However, I don't want to connect everything to everything quite explicitly. Think of Ye Olde Dugeonne map but instead of showing rooms explicitly it's done abstractly. Not all rooms are connected to the others in a dungeon, so I wouldn't want to connect everything in this "subway map" dungeon either.

I'm giving them a set of possible choices to avoid them cycling or trying to be total completionists, which I know that players can sometimes fall into (but see below).

My question is if you already prepped for A-G, why wouldn't you just give the option for the players to go through all the stuff you prepped for? The answer might be easy and lost to me due to my ignorance with 5e as players may have to be be beat up or prepared appropriately for G? I honestly don't know but genuinely curious.
That example was set up with the notion that there was a reason for getting from point A to G, the goal with a minimum of steps. For example, let's say that's where all the treasure is or where the PCs' enemy is known to be and the PCs are trying to deal with some kind of situation. The reason I wanted them beat up enough was because I didn't want them hitting the Goal fresh---let's say it's the boss monster of the dungeon, or something like that.

I do often put some kind of time pressure on the PCs so they can't just pull the Five Minute Work Day of nova-ing on one encounter, resting, etc., which is very un-dramatic and really benefits some character classes over others disproportionately. However, if the point of the area was simply exploration then I might change that and instead make use of random encounters or some other rationale that mitigates the Five Minute Work Day.

This kind of mapping can also be used to map out social encounters (something first pioneered by White Wolf way back in Vampire: the Masquerade) or even set up different adventures in a narrative sequence that allows a lot of choice. I've come to use it heavily all over. It gives a small enough set of manageable options that I can assess reasonably as DM and seems to help the players avoid choice paralysis.

The grognard I'm referring to is the kind of person who thinks that nothing but hex/dungeon crawl is "real gaming". There are a few around here, but such discussions are fundamentally unproductive, so for my own sanity I just block.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
There's nothing ever stopping them from going through everything, if they feel (as characters) that they have adequate time and resources. What is to be avoided, however, is the sense that they have to go through all of A-F in sequence before they can get to G...and far too many published modules these days (and some from the past too!) follow just that template: A leads only to B, B leads only to C, C leads only to D, and so on.

In other words, ideally if they find a way to get to G straight from A and somehow avoid all the rest, more power to 'em! And if they then decide to go back and cover off B-F just for kicks, that's great too.
What I'm trying to do is represent a few possible paths with interesting choices. If the players decide to complicate things, I can roll with it too, but there are often consequences for that.

You also hit another topic: just because a DM has prepped something does not mean the players are obligated to play through it. Fine - you've prepped A through G; but don't be upset if the players only hit B, D and G before leaving the adventure forever. :)
Right, in fact the whole point of my "subway map" dungeon is focused on that very premise. I'm not necessarily trying to dictate how each of those encounters is handled and am very much assuming they won't go through all of them.

This is really helpful to bring back things like exploration or research, too, because the PCs might well do a really good job of exploring and find one of the good paths that avoids a lot of the encounters. Or they see one of the paths has spiders and because they've invested in anti-poison abilities, they choose that route rather than the one with the troll. All too often exploration abilities are not very useful. Certainly in a very linear adventure they're only marginally useful but if the PCs can choose a path through the adventure, they're a lot more worthwhile.
 

Malrex

Explorer
You also hit another topic: just because a DM has prepped something does not mean the players are obligated to play through it. Fine - you've prepped A through G; but don't be upset if the players only hit B, D and G before leaving the adventure forever. :)
Absolutely agree! You can always try to stick B, D, and G in some other dungeon/adventure in the future...or not.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Absolutely agree! You can always try to stick B, D, and G in some other dungeon/adventure in the future...or not.
100%. I don't feel like there's some giant loss to me if I prep some things the PCs don't encounter. I usually just work out the rough XP math (using Kobold Fight Club) and make a basic room or terrain. If the room is interesting I'll keep it and use it later. If it's just a room... eh, whatever.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
Generally when I run a game that I do preparation for like Moldvay B/X or Apocalypse World I expect prepared material to go unseen. I do not see it as a waste because the point of prep is to provide players with an environment in which to make meaningful choices that impact the game state. It is not to show off my prep. The prep serves play. Not the other way around.
 

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