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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?

“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

Lewis Pulsipher

Dragon, White Dwarf, Fiend Folio

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
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.

The sandbox style is indeed held up as the holy grail by a certain type of grognard, but for many groups I'm not sure it is.

I've run a much more sandbox-y game and played in several. I like it a lot but it really needs to be run by a DM and players for whom it is a good match. One of my favorite kinds of game is the relatively small group of players with an ensemble cast of PCs and henchfolk, which I think is actually very consistent with the way the Lake Geneva crowd actually ran. In a game like this there isn't necessarily a ton of level advancement and characters are often picked to suit the part of the sandbox that's being explored. This doesn't work too well for folks who want a zero-to-hero with one PC experience, though.

All that aside, I've played or run for groups where the players just seem to flail around without some clear external pull provided by the DM. This doesn't make these groups bad, but they clearly need a lot more structuring.

Likewise, there are DMs who don't do sandboxes well. I have played with two who are good in many ways but just can't or won't do a sandbox game. One is capable of writing a really excellent narrative and comes up with some very cool stories and concepts, but it's been a real stretch for him to allow more player agency, though he's definitely gotten better over time. Another one is capable of running a pretty good game when he's got a solid script which he often adapts quite a bit, but isn't so great at coming up with his own stuff. Even when he's running a game that's been written by someone else, if it's too sandboxed, he doesn't seem to be able to pull the players along. He shines much brighter running a more narratively structured game.

What I often find problematic is that there seems to be some kind of total divide between sandbox and narrative railroad when, in fact, there's a lot of room between the two. It's one of the reasons I think games like Knights of the Old Republic were so well done. They combined an overall narrative structure but allow the player a lot of leeway in the mid-game to choose the pathway through it by giving the player the choice of four different planets to explore. There were some interactions between the different planets, too, and often reasons to return to ones you'd left. This same structure appeared in a lot of subsequent CPRGs, for good reason. Of course the hardcore "sanbox rulez!" folks don't like this but IMO it combines the best of both worlds and is very much how I tend to approach games now, although, again, it depends on the group of players.
 
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S'mon

Legend
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"

I have never heard of a puzzle with multiple solutions. Do you have an example? All I can think of is a Gordian Knot puzzle with an intended solution that allows for out of context unintended solutions.

Personally I really hate puzzles in my RPGs, especially when the GM disallows unintended solutions like smashing the door to escape the trap room.
 

S'mon

Legend
The sandbox style is indeed held up as the holy grail by a certain type of grognard, but for many groups I'm not sure it is.

Yes - I like sandboxing and with proactive players it's great, but I have also seen players respond with blank stares to "So what do you want to do?" - some players want and need a clear path in front of them, while others love bouncing around instigating new stuff. The latter can be disruptive in a more linear campaign.

IME the best approach tends to be something like Skyrim with clear paths within an open world. I'm running a bunch of great Rich Baker modules & settings and seeing the different approaches along the closed-open scale that all work well:

Red Hand of Doom is a structured narrative that gives a lot of choice.
Princes of the Apocalypse is a good example of paths to follow within an open world.
Primeval Thule is an entire open campaign setting with sandbox plot-nuggets everywhere you look.

A hardcore sandboxer won't like Red Hand of Doom, and a rail-follower won't like Primeval Thule, but these are all good approaches IMO.
 

dragoner

KosmicRPG.com
What I often find problematic is that there seems to be some kind of total divide between sandbox and narrative railroad when, in fact, there's a lot of room between the two.

I think there is too, I look at it as more of a number line, and it moves on the line. Games start out open, and then the players decide to follow a course of action, essentially they have signed on to railroading themselves. Sandboxes also take a decent amount of work for the setting to have depth, which works against new GM's.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I think there is too, I look at it as more of a number line, and it moves on the line. Games start out open, and then the players decide to follow a course of action, essentially they have signed on to railroading themselves. Sandboxes also take a decent amount of work for the setting to have depth, which works against new GM's.

Sandboxing certainly requires quite a bit of the DM and players both. If they don't have it---be it lack of experience, inclination, or time---it's not a good match for that particular group.

IMO a lot of the bad rep of railroading comes from the propensity to think that there "needs" to be a levels 1-20 overarching campaign. I don't think that's really true. I wasn't back in Ye Olde Dayes, where there were often series of modules but they lasted for a level range, say 1-5 or 6-10 with the assumption that the campaign would move elsewhere when this was done. You got some nice narrative structure but didn't feel the burden of trying to keep things interesting for more than about three levels.
 

dragoner

KosmicRPG.com
IMO a lot of the bad rep of railroading comes from the propensity to think that there "needs" to be a levels 1-20 overarching campaign. I don't think that's really true. I wasn't back in Ye Olde Dayes, where there were often series of modules but they lasted for a level range, say 1-5 or 6-10 with the assumption that the campaign would move elsewhere when this was done. You got some nice narrative structure but didn't feel the burden of trying to keep things interesting for more than about three levels.

I remember those old modules, some of the best times were playing GDQ, I was 13 and the DM was 17, I used to think him so cool and mature, but now ... we were just kids. lol It was pretty sandboxy, had to be, the old modules were so thin, and there was an arc, by Queen of Demonweb Pits, we were stupid powerful. My Character was killed by a Succubus and Vampire, just a Human Paladin, then I started another, a Drow Assassin; there was a lot of hilarity in that game too. The DM depended on the random tables, and we wandered around killing stuff, like an Illithid outpost, (Mindflayers) it was all so new and weird. Most of the other modules we played singly until enough of our own lore had been built, that we just did whatever, usually rolling up new characters, AD&D had a sweet spot, from about Level 3-9.

I think one thing that newer modules did, was that in seeing some linear path was good, decided that more would be better. Except in that the more of material, it sort of locked the players in to doing it the one way. I feel expectations were about the same, though AD&D had some silly long combats, we had a tendency to streamline the rules. In time, both rules sets and adventures had morphed into the thick high crunch tomes that are probably what got the bad reputation. Then again there is no real accounting for plainly bad material, even then bad material in the hands of a good GM could be fun. That really seems to be the crux in my mind, the being a good GM part, it is where the game resolves.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
There's a severe category error in this thread. There are more ways to play than hex crawls and railroads. The idea that one needs to railroads in order to have a game that is compelling on a narrative level is misguided. One simple way is to require players play characters with hopes, dreams, and goals and then present honest defined antagonism and playing to find out what happens.
 

Lylandra

Adventurer
I have never heard of a puzzle with multiple solutions. Do you have an example? All I can think of is a Gordian Knot puzzle with an intended solution that allows for out of context unintended solutions.

Personally I really hate puzzles in my RPGs, especially when the GM disallows unintended solutions like smashing the door to escape the trap room.

Trust me, there are puzzles that have more than one solution. But they tend to be more complex. One of the best ones that comes to my mind is the "rainbow room challenge" from the Zeitgeist adventure path where you'd have combat in a color puzzle room and a plethora of choices. Oh and it comes with a "hardmode" variant.

But if you got a GM whose only use of puzzles is to maybe combine Sudoku and riddles... well, you're screwed. And yes, I really dislike the "but it isn't intended to work that way" sentence. Ugh.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
I remember those old modules, some of the best times were playing GDQ, I was 13 and the DM was 17, I used to think him so cool and mature, but now ... we were just kids.

For a while there WotC marketing hype was hardcore about creating that "shared experience" and whatnot. It was kind of sad in a lot of ways---trying to catch lightning in a bottle again, I guess, or the numerous attempts at "remaking" Woodstock.

lol It was pretty sandboxy, had to be, the old modules were so thin,

You could run them as narrative plot if the DM wanted to put that kind of structure in. In many respects, the modules were assembled with a vague assumption you'd be doing that, but you're 100% right they didn't put in a lot of RP weight. That was the job of the DM.

AD&D had a sweet spot, from about Level 3-9.

IMO that's not really changed a ton, though maybe it's broadened out a bit. The sweet spot of D&D is, in my view, somewhere between about 4th (strong enough to take it, but still with a lot of room to grow) and 13th or so levels (really starting to get insanely potent).

I think one thing that newer modules did, was that in seeing some linear path was good, decided that more would be better. Except in that the more of material, it sort of locked the players in to doing it the one way.

Exactly.

In time, both rules sets and adventures had morphed into the thick high crunch tomes that are probably what got the bad reputation. Then again there is no real accounting for plainly bad material,

Sure, a lot of that is not hard to understand either. Many of the rules that got added were simply put in place to make things more fair, clearer, give players more opportunities, and so on. They weren't done with bad motives in mind, but things got out of hand. 4E was unquestionably the biggest push in this direction and, for some players and DMs, it was great. They loved having it all laid out in front of them and how solidly balanced the system was. (I didn't---I found 4E fun to play in some respects, though still mostly in the "sweet spot", but really disliked DMing it.)

even then bad material in the hands of a good GM could be fun. That really seems to be the crux in my mind, the being a good GM part, it is where the game resolves.

Unquestionably, but game designers can't write games under the assumption that you first need to find a kicking DM.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Grand Master of Artificial Flowers
Yes - I like sandboxing and with proactive players it's great, but I have also seen players respond with blank stares to "So what do you want to do?" - some players want and need a clear path in front of them, while others love bouncing around instigating new stuff. The latter can be disruptive in a more linear campaign.

This is a very important point. A group that has some plot followers and some sandboxers is going to have a recipe for discontent as the poor DM tries to keep both happy.

IME the best approach tends to be something like Skyrim with clear paths within an open world.

That's pretty sandboxy!
 

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