Thoughts on player agency

I often end up in discussions about roleplaying games with friends who share the interest, and recently a topic that’s come up multiple times is this:

How much should the Game Master allow the players to affect the story’s outcome?

Now, the short answer to this is obviously ‘it depends’, but that doesn’t make for a good blog post. So instead, I will explore in some detail my thoughts on how I, as a GM, approach writing depending on what kind of game I am running. I will here make the same separation as the upcoming Alien: The RPG by Free League, and I will praise it for its decisions any time I talk or write about this. In Alien, gameplay is strictly split up into two categories: Cinematic Play and Campaign Play.

  • Cinematic Play involves playing a published, or at least pre-written, scenario. It is separated into Acts, has pre-written characters with their own agendas specific to the scenario, and is generally meant to be played until it’s done and not continued past that point.
  • Campaign Play instead allows the players to create their own characters, give them flair and backstory and rapport, and then explore the universe of Alien as the GM gives them new challenges based on their choices.

Both of these forms of play should be familiar to seasoned roleplayers, but it is the strict distinction in Alien: The RPG that makes it interesting. In Alien, premade cinematic scenarios will (so far as I can understand) always involve pre-made characters, while campaign play should always (again, to my understanding) demand of the GM to write and adapt. Alien even goes so far as to make the rules different for cinematic and campaign play. This makes me really excited, because it is almost exactly how I like to think about writing for other games, specifically Kult: Divinity Lost. Let us cover some terminology to make sure we are on the same page.

  • Scenario play, in Alien referred to as Cinematic, involves the Game Master writing or purchasing a full scenario. It should detail the beginning, middle and end of a story that the players will experience. The Game Master may introduce additional plot points or change some details, but in the end the players will have to finish the scenario as written to have a satisfying conclusion.
  • Campaign play, which is what Kult: Divinity Lost and PbtA games are primarily focused on, involves the Game Master writing a story continously, developing it over time as the players experience it. They may have an end goal in mind, but there will likely be unknowns in the middle of the story, and player choices may require introducing new plot points.
  • Player agency is the term I use to describe the idea that ‘player actions matter’. If player actions do not matter, the story is a complete railway akin to the GM telling their friends a story, and the ‘players’ (if they could even be called that) have no agency. In a game where the GM lets players take any action they like and allows it to have an impact on the world and story, the players have high agency. Note that GM-less/GM-full games need not apply. That’s a separate discussion.

We can see that player agency is a big factor in roleplaying. Scenario play makes no promise of extensive player agency, as the story should be experienced as written. This is not to say that the players will have nothing to do – they must still interact with the setting and each other, decisions may have to be made and side plots could develop over time. However, their destination is set in ink and unless the GM wants to abandon the structure of scenario play, they will need to get there. This is starkly contrasted to campaign play, where the Game Master must always be receptive to players’ decisions and write accordingly. The goal is to allow the players exploration of a setting on their terms, pointing the way and stating their preferences so that the GM can give them what they want.

There are many ways to provide players with agency, and not all of them are suited for scenario play or campaign play, respectively. I think communicating with your players about what level of agency they have is important to do before playing a game. If you are about to play La Cena, a quick scenario set exclusively at a family dinner, you may clarify to the players that they shouldn’t have their character spend the night at a hotel, nor should they actively attempt to sabotage the dinner. If your long campaign is themed around intrigue and political posturing in 15th century Florence, the players should keep their interests focused on the city and its surroundings, rather than seeking to travel the world. Still, the responsibility does not fall solely on the players. The GM must be aware of what they’re presenting and how they’re doing it, and always be ready to come up with or have prepared a response to the players’ actions. That is our job, after all. I would like to touch on a few ways in which I view player agency, in order to better discuss what I think is suited for what kind of play.

  1. Action agency. The player’s choices have an effect on the actions their character is taking. This is probably the most basic form of player agency. You get to decide what your character does. This is a nearly universal feature of roleplaying games, but I think it is important to note its existence regardless. A GM may still say “you can’t do that” or say “you take a step forward”, thus removing action agency from the player in some small way. In games like Kult: Divinity Lost, action agency may be lost entirely for some time as characters fall under the influence of beings more powerful than themselves.
  2. Spatial agency. The player’s choices have an effect on where their character is. This is different from action agency, in that a character’s physical position can have a direct impact on what they have access to in terms of NPCs, items, plot events, etc. In very open games like Forbidden Lands, players have very high spatial agency and are allowed to go and explore the whole world at any time. In more limited settings, such as Avery Alder’s Ribbon Drive, players might move around a little bit, but the story centers around their road trip and as such they shouldn’t expect to go very far away from their car.
  3. Social agency. The player’s choices have an effect on the relationships of other entities in the game. If your GM allows you to cause two NPCs to hate each other, or to ignore the quest giver to instead go work for the villain, you have social agency. It is worth differentiating from action agency, which is only concerned with the player character’s actions. Players with social agency are allowed to change the course of actions for NPCs, which can be very impactful. This type of agency is especially emphasized in games like Monsterhearts, where the ever-changing relationships between players and NPCs is the core enjoyment of the game.
  4. Plot agency. The player’s choices have an effect on the story told and perhaps even its ending. While this is what many roleplaying games are sold as promoting, this is the most difficult form of player agency to write for. Allowing the players control of the plot with their actions, not only affecting how the story is told but what it is even about, requires the GM to not write in advance. Instead, they must live in the moment and allow the story to be decided on by the players. This can be very challenging.

Using these different ways of examining player agency, we can identify what kind of preparations we have to make in order to make the game flow smoothly for our players. It also allows us to better shape scenes and scenarios in effective ways by restricting or emphasizing different kinds of agency. To go back to La Cena, the bulk of the scenario takes place inside the Cruz household. As such, there’s no need to prepare information for what the neighbors are doing or what’s happening in another part of Miami. Instead, we can prepare conversation starters, spiteful acts from scorned family members, and NPC responses to a wide variety of player created events. More generally we could look at situations such as failed Keep it Together rolls, where the GM might simply tell the player that their character is running away from the situation. They are robbed of agency in the situation, but it emphasizes some aspect of the story (such as unimaginable terror). Having a firm understanding of what we want to allow the players lets us both write for it, and lets us play with expectations.

So with this in mind, let us rephrase this post’s opening query.
Question: What kind of player agency is best?

The answer is still ‘it depends’! This is entirely up to each Game Master, because the stories we tell and how we tell them is a matter of personal taste. So below, I’d like to discuss how I personally like to think about scenarios and campaigns, respectively.

Scenarios

When I think about scenarios, I am only concerned with self-contained stories which have a beginning, some number of twists and turns, and one or several end points.  An example would be And The Rockets Red Glare, which I recently played. The story takes place inside Trump Tower, has a clear structure of three days where things happen, and there is a definite ending to the story on election night. The characters will be there to take part of the story, playing the parts they have been given, and once the story is complete, we stop playing. The characters have experienced something horrible as per Kult standards, they’ve made up their minds on how they feel about that, and they’ve hopefully acted on some of their thoughts and beliefs with varying degrees of success. That’s a memorable experience, and it is the kind of scenarios I like to think about.

For this reason, I tend to favor scenario stories with a very limited scope. The scenario should be more concerned with presenting the best possible story than presenting the players with freedom. I am in favor of limiting all forms of agency a player has so that the story is guaranteed to be intact. The players have strict work days to adhere to in And The Rockets Red Glare. The GM has a list of scenes, and the story is presented in such a way that it is reasonable to jump from scene to scene and tell the players they have to be there. You can’t say no to doing your job in these situations. That is not to say that the players would not have any agency – certain NPCs can certainly be affected by their actions, they may be allowed some freedom of movement, and there are several ways to shape the end of the story. Giving the players wiggle room can produce great side plots, if you are prepared to maintain them alongside the actual scenario. The story does still need to be told though, and if that requires telling the players that they’re not allowed to leave Trump Tower, then I am okay with that.

The same applies to character creation for me. This is perhaps a secret, mysterious form of player agency, “Conception agency”, if you will. Because a scenario already has a story to tell, it must be played by characters which are inclined to interact with, or are intrinsically tied to, that story. In And The Rockets Red Glare, you are all interns working for the Trump campaign. You are playing a character who made that decision, and the sort of person who does that would be inclined to interact with the story presented by the scenario. I am a big fan of pre-generated characters, as is Alien: The RPG (which as I mentioned requires pre-gens for scenario play), but guided character creation can also be a good option here. There are ten character options for And The Rockets Red Glare, but they are very brief. The players are encouraged to expand on their characterization, and also get to decide what their attributes are. This gives the players the maximum amount of freedom that can be provided while still offering the best possible story.

This may seem like railroading to some… and maybe! It’s a fuzzy term. I would respond to that both by questioning whether railroading is evil, and by pointing out that character interactions between players can be a great source of entertainment when roleplaying. If you have four well crafted characters and lock them in a room together, they don’t have much spatial agency but could still spend hours interacting and forming opinions of one another. This still applies even in a somewhat less agency-constricted scenario. You will hopefully see some of this when the session recaps for And The Rockets Red Glare are posted: while the story proceeded as per the text, the players provided me with ample opportunities to build new scenes and even a small side plot. It is possible to offer player-constructed sideplots and dramatic scenes even in very railroaded scenarios.

Campaigns

To me, a campaign is an open-ended and player driven roleplaying experience which goes on for many sessions. The word can mean many other things, but that is the viewpoint which I have taken in this post. Jessy’s Story is crafted in this fashion. The point to a campaign is to have characters with goals, and allow the characters to act towards those goals. While there likely is an underlying story even from the start, the campaign should be allowed to drastically change in tone and content based on player action. Plot agency is everything. We do not aim to tell the best story, but instead aim to allow the player the best portrayal and exploration of their character. When I write campaigns, I aim to build from what the character does or wants to do, which is in the hands of the player.

Player agency during campaigns may fluctuate a lot, because as plot lines are introduced and resolved the characters are put in situations which may more closely resemble self-contained scenario structures. The difference is that while in a scenario structure you know in advance what the agency limitations are or should be, when this occurs in a campaign it is due to player action. When Jessy was placed in a situation of being unsure on how to get home in session two, her decision to go to a hotel was what put her in a precarious and more constricted situation. Her relationship with Artyom, and Tan, and every other character is a direct consequence of her own actions. Jessy is not being guided – she points the way, and I pave it. The players make decisions based on the situation in the fiction, and the Game Master responds accordingly by adjusting the control they have of the story.

This approach to campaign play is why I am not interested in running The Black Madonna or Taroticum. Well-written campaigns, no doubt, but the approach does not work for me. For campaigns, I can not write ahead too much. Certainly it’s good to have a good grasp of the “Truth” of a story, but the players’ actions need to dictate where the story goes and how it ends. I can not go into details yet as to what has changed in the background of Jessy’s Story as it develops through the sessions, but consider player choices such as Jessy becoming ‘Obsessed’ with Artyom upon seeing him, rather than ‘Scared’ or any other option. Without such a decision, her storyline would have proceeded in a much different direction. What is so thrilling about campaigns is that as you play them, you begin to recognize decision points like this. You know where the narrative took a turn because of the players’ actions. They craft their characters to tell the story they want to tell, and the GM acts as a medium for it to be told in whatever direction it needs to go. Of course, GMing also involves surprising the players even within their own narrative, but that could be an article on its own.

To summarize: For scenarios, I put the focus on providing the most complete story, while in campaigns I shift the focus to emphasize the impact of player actions. When I am writing, I try to take these things into account. It’s important because the better I understand what my players want to or will do, the easier of a time I’ll have when running the game. I try to be open about what’s okay and what’s not, plan thoroughly for bits I’m certain will be relevant and have a basic understanding in my head of the rest so that the inevitable improvisation is satisfactory. In scenario play, I try to make room for player choice in ways that do not harm the story, and in campaigns I let the choices have a major impact on the story told by never writing too much ahead.

These are my thoughts. It may be a tad rambly, but I hope I got across how I approach GMing. Was this interesting to you? Was it helpful? How do you view player agency? Leave comments, hit me up on Discord if you can find me, ping me on Facebook! I’m curious about this stuff.

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