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

FrogReaver

Adventurer
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?
I tend to operate on the philosophy of: Assume all my experiences are 100% true and universal. Then I quickly accept and adapt to new information that shows otherwise. So far I've seen nothing to counter his statement...
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
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.
Yes, this is the "Coke" (before there was a need to use the term Classic) version.

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
And this was the "New Coke" version, although the "Classic" version who was always angling for a beneficial interpretation never truly went away. However, I do think that the New Coke version could be very disruptive insofar as they insist on RAW when the DM has made a reasonable ruling in the interest of keeping the game going forward.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
I think there is an issue with conflating the impulse "I like playing in games with clear and consistent rules I can depend on" with the behavior "disrupting a game that favors rulings". That player should find a group that fits his preferences better if he does not want to play in the type of game he is playing in. The impulse isn't like wrong. It's the issue of stepping over the social contract that is a problem.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
I think there is an issue with conflating the impulse "I like playing in games with clear and consistent rules I can depend on" with the behavior "disrupting a game that favors rulings". That player should find a group that fits his preferences better if he does not want to play in the type of game he is playing in. The impulse isn't like wrong. It's the issue of stepping over the social contract that is a problem.
That's true but RL complicates things, as it always does, and doesn't make for a clear and dispassionate decision about what one wants from a game an easy thing. Until fairly recently often the group you had was it, so you had to invest in it more and may well have put up with things you might not want to have any game at all.

People's behavior can shift, for instance. Someone with a lot of RL stress in other areas might have it it start leaking into the game. I've seen it more than once and I'm honest with myself enough to know that there have been times it's been me whose fuze was short. Unfortunately, some people aren't particularly aware of their own reactions. Group dynamics and logistics can hit, too. At least when it comes to groups that meet in real life rather than online, they aren't just people who play RPGs together but may have other things happening outside the game. Two players might be old friends and one covers for the other's bad behavior due to the length of that prior relationship. Obviously, this may well happen when a couple is playing together. You can have the person who's hosting starting to feel pressed by it or, vice versa, some kind of entitlement.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
That's true but RL complicates things, as it always does, and doesn't make for a clear and dispassionate decision about what one wants from a game an easy thing. Until fairly recently often the group you had was it, so you had to invest in it more and may well have put up with things you might not want to have any game at all.

People's behavior can shift, for instance. Someone with a lot of RL stress in other areas might have it it start leaking into the game. I've seen it more than once and I'm honest with myself enough to know that there have been times it's been me whose fuze was short. Unfortunately, some people aren't particularly aware of their own reactions. Group dynamics and logistics can hit, too. At least when it comes to groups that meet in real life rather than online, they aren't just people who play RPGs together but may have other things happening outside the game. Two players might be old friends and one covers for the other's bad behavior due to the length of that prior relationship. Obviously, this may well happen when a couple is playing together. You can have the person who's hosting starting to feel pressed by it or, vice versa, some kind of entitlement.
All of this is true. Real life socialization is like hard and stuff.

The larger point remains though. We should not vilify people who happen to have desires outside of the mainstream. Condemn their antisocial behavior where it happens sure, but that behavior comes out of very real frustrations. They want to be playing in a different sort of game than they are playing, but for some reason go about addressing that in the wrong way. Instead we should work on ways to communicate those desires and channel them into positive directions or help them find a place where those desires are not unwelcome.
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
The larger point remains though. We should not vilify people who happen to have desires outside of the mainstream. Condemn their antisocial behavior where it happens sure, but that behavior comes out of very real frustrations. They want to be playing in a different sort of game than they are playing, but for some reason go about addressing that in the wrong way.
It may, but it may be griefer type behavior as well, where a person gets their jollies from being disruptive.

I guess one could say bullying and the like comes from a very real frustration but this can extend all the way up to personality or character issues but IMO that's a set of psychological problems that's well beyond what should be expected of an RPG group. I've played with some folks who are "high conflict persons" or have other personality issues beyond the scope of mundane human crankiness. One I can think of quite likely has a full-on personality disorder and another has what a clinical psychologist would describe as "features". (I hasten to add that while I am not a clinician, I do know a bit about clinical psychology nonetheless.) There's really no winning with them as any reasons you provide will ultimately get twisted into whatever pretzel reality suits their condition.


Instead we should work on ways to communicate those desires and channel them into positive directions or help them find a place where those desires are not unwelcome.
Well true, but I've met people who just can't seem to do it. When it comes to adults I generally think it's on them to responsibly manage their behavior. I endeavor to treat adults as adults and expect the same in return.
 

Campbell

Relaxed Intensity
@Jay Verkuilen

I definitely agree that the onus is on each of us to behave responsibly. Anyone insisting that an entire group of people should change and do things their way right now is unworthy of respect. It is the antisocial behavior that is the issue.

I guess what I am trying to say and not succeeding at very well is that there are group of desires that are outside the mainstream culture of play that seem to be denigrated because of antisocial behaviors when the same sort of insistence in different context from say a player who just wanted to get on with the story in a game where there is no predefined story and would not take no for an answer would be just as worthy of condemnation. The same is true of a player who insists on a quick ruling in a game where the group cares enough about the rules to usually the spend the time to get it right. Likewise a player who complains about their character being defined by dice in a game where we play to find out what happens and are expected to hold on loosely to how we see our characters.

Does that make any sense?
 

aramis erak

Explorer
What is your favorite game, if I may ask?
I don't have a singular favorite. Some of the ones I want to run soonish are...
Mouse Guard,, Arrowflight (1E), Marvel Heroic RP, Sentinel Comics, Pugmire, Alien, Tunnels and Trolls.

Ones I've run recently and players want repeat on:
L5R 5, Pendragon, My Little Pony, The One Ring,

Ones I want to try for short (4-6 session) mini-campaigns include: Forbidden Realms, Mutant Year Zero, Pugmire*,

My favorite Traveller is MegaTraeller (the shattered sunburst is colored a faction a color)... that comes as closest to my favorite game as any, but I don't have players willing to invest the learning curve to make it fun for me.



* uses a stripped down D&D 5E engine
 

Jay Verkuilen

Dogsbody Waghalter
@Jay Verkuilen

I definitely agree that the onus is on each of us to behave responsibly. Anyone insisting that an entire group of people should change and do things their way right now is unworthy of respect. It is the antisocial behavior that is the issue.
I'm not sure I'd say "unworthy of respect" but they are certainly expecting too much. I endeavor to treat everyone with respect as much as possible, especially when I disagree with them, although that obviously gets very hard.

I guess what I am trying to say and not succeeding at very well is that there are group of desires that are outside the mainstream culture of play <...> Does that make any sense?
Yeah to me that sounds like more of a playstyle or culture difference. A player wanting much more narrative game from hex/dungeon crawling grognards or vice versa wants the latter but is in a narrative heavy game is likely in the wrong game. However, in most cases the group needs to balanced the desires of the members. Of course, some problematic players are ones who get what they want and keep pushing for more.
 

dragoner

Dying in Chargen
I don't have a singular favorite. Some of the ones I want to run soonish are...
Mouse Guard,, Arrowflight (1E), Marvel Heroic RP, Sentinel Comics, Pugmire, Alien, Tunnels and Trolls.

Ones I've run recently and players want repeat on:
L5R 5, Pendragon, My Little Pony, The One Ring,

Ones I want to try for short (4-6 session) mini-campaigns include: Forbidden Realms, Mutant Year Zero, Pugmire*,

My favorite Traveller is MegaTraeller (the shattered sunburst is colored a faction a color)... that comes as closest to my favorite game as any, but I don't have players willing to invest the learning curve to make it fun for me.



* uses a stripped down D&D 5E engine
I use classic traveller because the starter is free, and it has a good online character generator; it is also the most rules light for me to hack, house ruling a 3D real star atlas, fusion rockets, and no easy anti-grav. I could hack cepheus engine, but by that time, it would be like making a completely new game, and I might as well do that if I were going to do it. Both versions have issues.

Lately I have played or ran Mythras, M-Space, Paranoia, and Call of Cthulhu; I am often on the look out for new games, I have been looking at both the new Expanse and Aliens games.

Mtant Year Zero I have heard good things about.
 

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