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

S'mon

Legend
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.
I definitely find great value in unused material. Not just that it gives players choices; it also informs future games and goes a long way to making the world feel real to me, which then feeds through to the players.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
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.
Quality and commercial success are not tightly bound to each other.

Brand loyalty and "audience inertia" are huge factors in games that have limited comparison in literature...

Then again, a lot of people think Shakespeare's plays high art, when his contemporaries decried him as being base and written for amusing the masses. Essentially, Shakespeare was more comparable to the Cohen Brothers or JJ Abrams than to Spike Lee, George Lucas, or Steven Spielberg. And yet, who do we know now? Shakespeare's contemporaries are mostly unknown to the common English speaker.
 

Umbran

Mod Squad
Staff member
Then again, a lot of people think Shakespeare's plays high art, when his contemporaries decried him as being base and written for amusing the masses. Essentially, Shakespeare was more comparable to the Cohen Brothers or JJ Abrams than to Spike Lee, George Lucas, or Steven Spielberg.
Because... Lucas and Spielberg are somehow strangers to making things that are amusing to the masses? Makers of some of the largest, most popular franchises ever, aren't amusing the masses? Star Wars. Indiana Jones, 1941, Jurassic Park, Ready Player One. These, clearly, are all highbrow, with little mass appeal....

Wait, what?

And... the fact the his contemporaries say a thing against his work, doesn't make that thing true. Contemporaries can say a lot of untrue crud - tearing down others to make yourself look good is as old as humanity, after all.
 
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dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Quality and commercial success are not tightly bound to each other.
All other things being equal, good is better than bad.

Brand loyalty and "audience inertia" are huge factors in games that have limited comparison in literature...
Someone should have told me that before I read that last Dune book.

Then again, a lot of people think Shakespeare's plays high art, when his contemporaries decried him as being base and written for amusing the masses. Essentially, Shakespeare was more comparable to the Cohen Brothers or JJ Abrams than to Spike Lee, George Lucas, or Steven Spielberg. And yet, who do we know now? Shakespeare's contemporaries are mostly unknown to the common English speaker.
Good 'ol Shakey. There is a good book on the reason why hollywood is the way it is called: "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls" Easy Riders, Raging Bulls - Wikipedia Funny that Coppola is more successful for his winery than movies, even though one hears that a movie like Apocalypse Now could never be made again, and simultaneously, Bourdain went to Vietnam, and found that they there were pointing to it as the relevant historical document. Such is the world of art.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
Quality and commercial success are not tightly bound to each other.

Brand loyalty and "audience inertia" are huge factors in games that have limited comparison in literature...
That is so, so true. It's particularly so with something that requires group buy in, like gaming. A lot of pop culture is like that too, insofar as it get reinforced by collective conversation. Look how fast Game of Thrones has disappeared now that there are no new episodes. But gaming is very much driven by what you can get a group together for and, for many people, that's D&D, which has often been the only game in town.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
What is your favorite game, if I may ask?
Unquestionably the game I've played/run the most over the years is D&D and my favorite version of it is my house-ruled-to-my-taste 2E. I'm still running a campaign that I started in 1999, albeit with some substantial periods of hiatus. However, I have definitely enjoyed other games quite a bit over the years, most notably some of White Wolf's games (World of Darkness, especially Mage: the Ascension; Adventure!/Aberrant/Trinity, Exalted) and, more recently, the Modiphius 2D20 games (Star Trek Adventures, Conan, John Carter). At one point I ran a lot of Warhammer FRP (first edition, with some house rules) and Fading Suns.
 
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dragoner

Dying in Chargen
Unquestionably the game I've played/run the most over the years is D&D and my favorite version of it is my house-ruled-to-my-taste 2E. I'm still running a campaign that I started in 1999, albeit with some substantial periods of hiatus. However, I have definitely enjoyed other games quite a bit over the years, most notably some of White Wolf's games (World of Darkness, especially Mage: the Ascension; Adventure!/Aberrant/Trinity, Exalted) and, more recently, the Modiphius 2D20 games (Star Trek Adventures, Conan, John Carter). At one point I ran a lot of Warhammer FRP (first edition, with some house rules) and Fading Suns.
Add Traveller and some flavor of BRP like Call of Cthulhu, and that is similar to my experience. D&D is big because they have their 4P's* in a row, that is to be expected from a larger firm. I have played it, I think it is of decent quality, I am surprised that other companies haven't followed their business plan. Some, like what were big (according to Morrus' charts) 15 years ago, put out a mediocre set of rules, don't have the 4P's going, and sit back and complain "piracy" is at fault for their not doing well.

*The four Ps are: product, price, place and promotion.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
@dragoner - Hey, I said "limited" not "no" ... I got off the Dune bus at Paul of Dune...

As for the 4P's - nicely stated... but there are also the 3 C's...
Complexity, Continuity and Consistency.

D&D has increasing complexity for the players. I hate high-level D&D 3.x and 5e because the complexity gets too high... Pathfinder starts higher, and climbs at the same rate as D&D...
this makes D&D a good starter game.

Continuity - D&D adventures have been able to be easily ported to new editions because of continuity of concepts and continuity of critters...
Not unlike how TNE, while a different game system from CT or MT, can readily use CT or MT materials - even the critters can be ported by looking at the entry from CT or MT generation then finding the comparable stats on the TNE ones.

Consistency: while D&D has very few absolutely stellar things, it also has very few that suck. Most of the official adventures are good; comparatively, better than the rules. and they are consistent with the settings, as well.

There's also the other consistency - that of internal mechanics. This is where 3.X, 4.X and 5E D&D have it all over prior editions. 1 mechanic, rather than 3, for resolving actions. (AD&D: thief/ranger skills are D%, Saves and attacks are roll high d20 vs table, proficiencies d20 under stat+modifier; AD&D 2 Psionics adds HIgher but under.)

So why D&D isn't a great game as game engine, it's a great ecosystem for a new player or GM.

And then, there's the one thing that makes D&D (and PF, and T&T) especially suitable for novice or harried GM's - the Dungeon. It's a great way to limit low-to-mid level parties to a predictable but branching script. Its not hard to draw a dungeon and stock it.

I'll note that 5E is my favorite D&D; 4E could have been - but not as D&D. The big issue was the complexity of the powers-blocks. The rest of it was just fine.

The combination of all those elements really makes D&D good enough for most, even where not preferable for a large subset.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
The combination of all those elements really makes D&D good enough for most, even where not preferable for a large subset.
I think D&D and Pathfinder are great games, I am happy for those that love them. If I have ever said anything that seems derogatory towards them, it is most likely my poor grip on English, and Slavic bluntness; not any intent to insult. I do agree that the dungeon is a great way to set up a game for beginners.

The 3C's are interesting concept, how would you place Zweihander in there? I see it at Barnes & Noble here, and I here it is at Target as well. I sort of clued in that the designer was a marketing professional, as my ex-wife is one.

Complexity is a thing, I used to love it, such as going from Gamma World 1e to Aftermath (my God, it's full of crunch!), not so much anymore. I think if I were to design a game, it would be like the AK 47: crude, yet durable, and using mechanics that are proven to function.
 

aramis erak

Explorer
I think D&D and Pathfinder are great games, I am happy for those that love them. If I have ever said anything that seems derogatory towards them[...]
Not that I can recall... it's just your posts often inspire mine.

I do disdain D&D and Pathfinder as being sub par in many areas...
but many kids games are likewise subpar, but thus more suited to kids and to casual play by adults.

Kids of Catan comes to mind... simple, elegant

The 3C's are interesting concept, how would you place Zweihander in there? I see it at Barnes & Noble here, and I here it is at Target as well. I sort of clued in that the designer was a marketing professional, as my ex-wife is one.
Zweihänder is an interesting beast. I'll preface my comments by noting that I don't know who bought me my PDF, it may have been a comp by the author, I just do not know. Further, I've not run it, but have read it.

That said...
The tone is closer to WFRP 1E, the rules closer to 2E, but with some additional elements from elsewhere.
Likewise, WFRP 4E is a hybrid of 1E and 2E, but is, in tone and presentation closer to 2E, while mechanically, equidistant from all three - WFRP1, WFRP2, and Zweihänder.

Continuity - it has some with WFRP - it's a retroclone of 2E for a 1E feel, done during WFRP 3. It's as close as is practical without getting sued.
The people I know who have played it feel it's very much WFRP without the Warhammer World itself. Especially the 1E fans whom I trust.
My read of it says the same.

Consistency - external - the core mechanics are familiar to players of WFRP 1, 2 or 4. The setting tropes are the same as WFRP.

Consistency - internal - unified mechanic, more tightly than WFRP 1, on par with WFRP 2.

Complexity - and also continuity - the game is complexity-wise right on par with WFRP 2.

So, it's complex enough ... but not overly complex...

It is to WFRP much as Pathfinder is to D&D 3.x...

If you like WFRP 2E mechanics, you're likely to find it very similar. If you don't... avoid it.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
If you like WFRP 2E mechanics, you're likely to find it very similar. If you don't... avoid it.
Thanks, that is an interesting assessment. The author gave me a complimentary copy of the rules, it did seem a WFRP heartbreaker, a little more complex than what I'm into now days, but solid. I played in a campaign briefly with WFRP 1e a long time ago, as I had a friend who loved the minis rules, and we played that quite a bit.
 
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.
I am always very interested in this approach, and even more inquisitive about how far the approach is taken. So if you have a vampire overseeing a land, do you not have the lair designed and set up ahead of time? If they are always making the choices, without nudging from a GM, do you just outline.

For example, the players enter a large city. Is there a story arc in place, or are there general descriptions, such as a poor inn has a thieves' guild, so if they go there they may get caught up in something nefarious? But if they go to this dockside inn they may overhear the tale of a drowned sailor coming back to the docks at night? Or if they go to this wealthy inn they overhear political scheming and attempted coup? I am genuinely curious, and thanks for sharing.
 

Malrex

Explorer
I am always very interested in this approach, and even more inquisitive about how far the approach is taken. So if you have a vampire overseeing a land, do you not have the lair designed and set up ahead of time? If they are always making the choices, without nudging from a GM, do you just outline.

For example, the players enter a large city. Is there a story arc in place, or are there general descriptions, such as a poor inn has a thieves' guild, so if they go there they may get caught up in something nefarious? But if they go to this dockside inn they may overhear the tale of a drowned sailor coming back to the docks at night? Or if they go to this wealthy inn they overhear political scheming and attempted coup? I am genuinely curious, and thanks for sharing.
At least for me...Short answer...YES!

Shameless plug--this is what I did for my City of Vermilion adventure (kickstarter is live right now). For Vermilion, I have a story arc in place--but this is where the importance of the timeline takes place. Things will happen with the story in the background and the characters can be involved in it or not--it doesn't matter to me, because whatever intrigues the players the most IS the main adventure. Then I have what I call Situations--these are rough outlines or beefed up rumors that can lead to areas that I have prepared (like a Thieves Guild hideout, a creepy mansion, or the jail), then I have rumors...which can lead to those Situations or to dead-ends. So my Situations are sorta like your ideas with the drowned sailor and thieves guild examples.

The party gets to decide what they want to do...and the timetable will enact activities that may change the environment that the characters will have to adapt too. For example, with my timetable, the city goes on lockdown as an important person was kidnapped and guards search the city...so when my players got done exploring a creepy mansion, suddenly the streets were in chaos with street fighting, and guards pushing through doors. This may change what they had planned to do next, but also provides another opportunity to get involved with the main story if they want.

That's all prepared stuff though. If you aren't prepared, I may have some rough ideas/outlines that I'm able to throw out some adventure hooks and be able to run a session for...the story may start writing itself as the players feed of what you tell them, and you in turn feed off what they are doing. When I know what the party wants to do, then I can prepare for the next session based on their choices.

For your vampire lord example--yes, I would have a rough lair penciled out and the vampire statted up. But I wouldn't flesh the whole thing out until I knew that's where the party was headed....because I might have to focus on a cave instead that grabbed their interest. Hopefully this rambling makes sense.
 
Your rambling makes perfect sense. Thanks for the answers. The timeline is a neat idea. Is it always connected to the primary story arc? Also, are your situations also connected to the primary story arc or are they similar to side quests? If so, have you ever had a time when the party had too many side quests, which leads to meandering and no story at all?

Thanks again.
 

Malrex

Explorer
Your rambling makes perfect sense. Thanks for the answers. The timeline is a neat idea. Is it always connected to the primary story arc? Also, are your situations also connected to the primary story arc or are they similar to side quests? If so, have you ever had a time when the party had too many side quests, which leads to meandering and no story at all?

Thanks again.
The timeline doesn't necessarily need to be connected to just the primary story arc. It can be connected to when a certain Situation/Side Quest might happen or be available, etc.
Some Situations are tied to the story arc, while others are just side quests...but some of the side quests may effect how other factions view the characters...which could escalate back to being related to the main story arc....haha.

That was my plan with Vermilion--or just city adventures in general. City adventures can be scary to run...so many NPC's to roleplay, so much going on, characters splitting up...etc. There are no walls like in a dungeon that limits the choices. So my strategy, which works for me, is to overwhelm the players with choices/side quests/situations...my players got overwhelmed and decided on one Situation and focused on it. In essence, they created their own walls in a city environment because they ignored all the distractions and made my job much easier. Will it lead to "no story"? In my opinion--no. The players don't know what story they are supposed to follow...their main objective is to have fun and their quests IS their story.
 

Ovinomancer

No flips for you!
I am always very interested in this approach, and even more inquisitive about how far the approach is taken. So if you have a vampire overseeing a land, do you not have the lair designed and set up ahead of time? If they are always making the choices, without nudging from a GM, do you just outline.

For example, the players enter a large city. Is there a story arc in place, or are there general descriptions, such as a poor inn has a thieves' guild, so if they go there they may get caught up in something nefarious? But if they go to this dockside inn they may overhear the tale of a drowned sailor coming back to the docks at night? Or if they go to this wealthy inn they overhear political scheming and attempted coup? I am genuinely curious, and thanks for sharing.
For me, the answers are mostly no. When you play to find out, conflict is driven by the players. As such, and framing involving the city will be used to place something that characters care about in conflict on accordance with the current state of the fiction. To do this, I'm only going to establish some broad, genre-level details about this city. It's crowded, or dirty, or segregated, etc. And, I'll pick these as needed to support where the fiction and conflict currently are. The primary point of play is that something the character(s) value is at stake and the city provides the fictional backdrop to the framing of the conflict. You can't prep a story because then your prep is driving play rather than the character's conflicts.

A big part of making this work is getting player input into the world creation. If a player tells me about this city, then it's already hooked, and we can use that as part of the shared fiction to drive conflict.

Now, I do not play D&D like this, because that system doesn't have effective mechanics to enable such play*. You have to kludge about. When I play D&D, I have to do a bit more traditional prep, but my experience means I'm more comfortable with a mich looser prep and more "run with it" play. So more "vague outline" and "interesting hook" rather than adventure prep.

*primarily the combat engine, which requires balamcing that is hard to do on the fly, and stat blocks. Other games generalize much more and are much easier to create on the fly. PbtA games are great for this.
 

pemerton

Legend
I am always very interested in this approach, and even more inquisitive about how far the approach is taken. So if you have a vampire overseeing a land, do you not have the lair designed and set up ahead of time? If they are always making the choices, without nudging from a GM, do you just outline.

For example, the players enter a large city. Is there a story arc in place, or are there general descriptions, such as a poor inn has a thieves' guild, so if they go there they may get caught up in something nefarious? But if they go to this dockside inn they may overhear the tale of a drowned sailor coming back to the docks at night? Or if they go to this wealthy inn they overhear political scheming and attempted coup? I am genuinely curious, and thanks for sharing.
Speaking for myself, the answer generally is "no". It's quite a while since I started a fantasy campaign in a city, but when I did I established relevant story elements - a pedlar selling possibly magical bric-a-brac, a magician's tower, etc - in response to evinced player concerns/goals for their PCs, plus the fallout of action resolution.

And now I've remembered another example - our 4e Dark Sun game. That game has a city map (Tyr). I gave the players a brief outline of the context (a recent revolution overthrowing a tyrant sorcerer-king) and then asked them to decide "kickers" for their PCs - ie an in media res starting situation. One of them chose, for his gladiator PC, a starting situation of the crowd roaring at the announcement of the death of the tyrant, and so that established the timeline in relation to the revolution (ie at the very moment); and other players' kickers for their PCs interweaving with this through a combination of GM framing and action resolution were the drivers of play.
 
All of those answers are great. Thanks for the input. From what I'm reading, you follow character arcs much more closely than story arcs. And I understand, they can be one-in-the-same. But they are different in how they pull characters in a given direction.

@Malrex - the timeline idea, which I've used before is very intriguing. I remember (it was a while ago and I might not have been good enough to do it) it not working out so well. The players had too much to do, and these incidences kept popping up that made them feel they weren't doing enough. Could be my fault, the timeline's fault, or maybe it just didn't work for that group. But, I think it's an idea worth trying. Thanks for the inspiration.
@Ovinomancer - Just curious. You write: "The primary point of play is that something the characters value is at stake..." I don't want to assume, but do you have them write that in their character's backstory? If so, do you build your quests around that. For example, character values their place in the guild, now the guild leader is about to be usurped, an action that would drive them out of the guild. Therefore, they need to try and stop the process. I'm guessing I am wrong, because to me that would be the same as using a guided story. Guess I am confused. Sorry. Would you mind explaining it using an example. Thank you.
@pemerton - Ah... Tyr. What an awesome map! Like the idea of kickers. Those are nice. Played in a campaign (short lived, 3 months) that started that way. Very fun. But, they weren't really used much after. Did you use your characters' kickers as refrains in a story or to establish character traits and timelines? (btw, Darksun = thumbs up!)
Thanks again for all the information everyone. I do appreciate it, and genuinely like learning about different styles of DM'ing. So all the feedback is great. Thanks again.
 
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.
I suppose there's different sorts of rules lawyers, too. I became very aware of the concept in the TSR era, with AD&D. There were plenty of rules, they were plenty vague, contradictory, and hard to parse, so you could always make an argument that the DM should interpret them in your favor.
As rules got more clearly-presented, and less arbitrary, even if not exactly fair or balanced, the lawyer analogy maybe became a bit of an exaggeration. Sticking to the RAW with a build clearly to your advantage wasn't rules-lawyering in as impassioned and skillful a sense as making your case for a favorable interpretation had been.
Also not in as disruptive a sense. Unless you count the disruption inherent in wildly OP characters. ;P
 

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