On A List of Ways You're Ruining Your Game

Otherwise known as why a Fourth Edition Game Can't Be Good.

Today we're going to talk about agency, and why it's more difficult to get that from a modern game.

How do more modern versions rob players of agency? Let's talk a bit about what agency is, and what issues remove it from our games.

The term "Player Agency" comes from the study of interactive activities (Drama, Games, etc.) and specifically relates to feelings of empowerment that the participants have when their actions have effects that relate to their intention. One of the virtues of Agency in role playing games is the fact that it often (but not always) refers to "Unrestricted Self-Agency" because the interpreter of the players agency is a human being. Unrestricted Self-Agency referring to a limitless freedom to act. The two main factors in agency are freedom to make choices, and the results of choices being meaningful.

Freedom of Choice through Game Design and Mechanics

Encounter design In a recent Hackmaster game, a trio of 1st level characters managed (barely) to take down a frost giant. In my second example, during a recent run of Keep on the Borderlands, our party of first level players took out the ogre with no casualties.

To provide freedom of choice, it is important that players be able to deal with encounters of all different types. This is important, because it makes the choice of whether to engage in the encounter meaningful. It is possible for a low level party to beat drastically more powerful opponents, though unlikely.

Vast hit point inflation, the sea shift after the Roper Encounter fiasco in the Sunless Citadel leading to the thought that parties should only have 'level appropriate' encounters, and the general tendency to make damage scale by level, as well as the enormous focus on tactical combat all remove agency, because it isn't about where the players want to go, it's where the appropriate encounters are that dictate where they can go.

Is it possible for a party of 3 first level characters in 4e (or 3e?) to beat a frost giant? Is it possible for a party of 4 first level characters in 4e to win against an ogre and half a dozen goblins? The point is in those systems, the encounters are designed to be appropriate, causing serious problems for characters if they attempt to tackle a more powerful monster.

Other issues of game design that limit agency:

Wealth by level Having a guide for approximate wealth is fine, but when you tell the players - no, you can't do that because it will give you more money/treasure/magic then you are arbitrarily "supposed" to have. This limits agency in the worst way.

Having an artifact or a gold mine or a priceless diamond at first level should be a gateway to adventure. The benifits of having that money (wands, a nice sword/armor, a keep) should both be necessary to deal with the situation, as well as provide further impitus for adventure themselves. Being out of range on these things shouldn't break the game. To be clear, I am not talking about a game where rewards are constantly out of porportion to the risk - that also removes player agency because it makes the choices the player is making mean less.

Scaling past the human norm Continuing to gain hit points and infinitely ascending armor class are some examples of what put 'high level' encounters out of reach of lower level players.

Disassociated Mechanics My favorite example of this is from the Paladin I ran in a 4e game for six months. He had a lazer bomb. It was a beam of radiant energy that shot out at a target and when striking the target, exploded and damaged all the targets around it. Cool.

Then I wanted to use this power on a door. "You can't" "Why?" "Because the door isn't an enemy in combat, and the power only works in combat." "How's that" ". . ."

It's not an example of a thing that actually exists - it's an abstract rule for an abstract game. Some abstraction is necessary, but to literally have an action to take that's just arbitrary move in a game (such as a chess move, like a knight) damages Unrestricted Self-Agency because the capabilities of my character aren't really the things I can do - they are just moves I can make in a (very specific, very rigid, very rules-heavy) game. There are several other examples here at the Alexandrian about the issues with disassociated mechanics.

Beware addressing these with the Rule 0 fallacy. Just because you can fix a rule, doesn't mean it isn't broken

Freedom of Choice Through Sandboxing

I'm going to defer to wiser men then me, and start this off with Raggi's quote.

"My adventures and campaigns will have no pre-set endings. Characters are not required to act as I wish them to act during the course of the game. It is natural player behavior to trash scenarios and take the game to places unforeseen."

This idea of agency and freedom began to decay as early as second edition. This issue of the DM deciding the outcome of an event by definition destroys player agency. I've discussed these before, but I'm going to cover them again, because I've often received questions about their meaning.

Fudging Dice: When the GM or Player ignores the result of the roll, and declares that the dice say something else. This destroys agency because at this point, the player can no longer determine whether the results of his choices are due to the previously stipulated rules of the game or the momentary whim of another person. In the players mind this makes the choice meaningless, because they know that the consequence for the choice will be removed.

A common counter to this is the person who says "I'm only fudging to make the game better!", better in this case being defined as "fitting your per-conception of the outcome". My response is, how does removing the player's feeling of satisfaction from the meaningfulness of their choices improve the game?

How to use this as a DM? Don't fudge dice.

Palette Shifting: This is a specific technique where the GM invalidates the player choice by having the result be the same, no matter what choice the player makes. E.g. There are bandits in the west, so the players head east to avoid the bandits and end up getting attacked by 'goblins' who have the same stats as the bandits, with the same motivations.

It's clear that the reason this removes agency is that it negates the choice. The reason it's a big issue is that the  player went the other direction was because they wanted to do something different.

This is effectively the same thing as a magician's switch. Which is simply a choice that isn't - no matter what choice is made, the choice is an illusion, because it becomes the excuse for whatever happens. There is a lever and a trap. If you pull the lever, the trap is armed. If you don't then the lever would have disarmed the trap.

How to use this as a DM? Make the world consistent - a place that moves and changes independent of player action.

Railroading The word for when you've decided what's going to happen next, and the players are going to go there regardless of their wishes. Don't feel that this word is too specific either, if you give them a map to play around in, and they go off the map - if they hit an invisible wall, then you're railroading. This is when you dictate player actions either by literally taking control of the character ("You get too close to the hole in the wall and fall in") or by making them play mind reading games until they stumble upon the right answer.

I think this is a pretty through introduction to agency - anyone think of anything I'm forgetting? Tomorrow we're going to look at how the DM can provide agency in play.


  1. There is also the player agency of choosing to go where the DM hasn't fully prepared yet, then getting upset that things seem "thrown together".

  2. So far, so good; I didn't need more convincing why 4E isn't right for us (we tried it ourselves for a while) but it's good seeing folks come to the same conclusions for similar reasons - though at the time I wasn't up on the RPG theory lingo. Looking forward to part 2.

  3. @Paul, That is some shenanigans right there. The key is to make it never seem like it is thrown together. I think I'm finally in practice enough to do it.

  4. @beedo, The 4th edition slam is purely for the pageviews, though their reliance on 'combat is the answer' and the DM deciding when they 'should' level up, treasure wishlists etc. sure is annoying to me. It's not just 4e though, as you know. There's a lot of that in all modern gaming.

  5. or to condense ... free will is the free will to do boring things and self-destructive things.

  6. Thanks for the post, it was an enjoyable read. I've GM'd enough to make do with unexpected choices by players and while I hope and prepare for the final encounter of an adventure, sometimes it ends otherwise and I accept that their creativity took it somewhere else. When I fudge I tend to fudge the severity of the results if the players is not flat out killed. Most of my dice rolls are in the open and the players live with the results.

  7. @Roger, as long as they are having fun and feeling empowered, eh?

  8. I'm not an expert on 4E's ruleset, but, in the case of disproportionately high challenge monster vs. low level PCs, isn't that supposed to be handled "narratively" through the skill challenge system rather than the basic combat system? So the players decide on a strategy on how they intend to beat the challenge, the GM assigns Difficulty Levels, and, with goal, context, and consequences clarified, the group rolls dice. That seems to preserve player agency fairly well, imo.

  9. @LJR, I've never run 4e, so if this is the case, I agree, it does in fact do so. Then I guess my question becomes why, since we already have a subsystem for resolving conflict, do we need a second subsystem for resolving conflict?

    It's the same artifact in pathfinder, by the way. Any game where power inflation removes things from the human norm causes this problem.

  10. @-C, I think the reason why 4E has two systems for resolving conflict is because one is for a blow-by-blow level of detail and the other is abstracted. In general, 4E combat will use the detailed subsystem, but, when the specified band of challenge rating is transgressed, this subsystem breaks down, as you indicate. This is a common problem with 3.x style games. But 4E attempts to fix the problem with an abstract generalized challenge subsystem, which can theoretically handle anything from doing an exorcism to climbing a glacier to winning a pie eating competition.

  11. I guess my feeling is that, since this problem, isn't a problem throughout the whole of old school games (B/X, BCEMI, AD&D) it's not a problem I have, since they are what I play.

    I should point out that when I played 4e for six months or so a few years ago, there were serious issues with the skill challenges. It's my understanding these were corrected at some point in time. So good for them.

    I still think creating a secondary subsystem to do what another system does as a fix for where that system breaks down is a poor solution - especially since that breakdown was introduced ~2004.

  12. This is also the explanation for why government is ruining our society.

    Yes, it is.

  13. I know that blogs are meant to be opinion based, but the way you go about presenting your obviously entirely opinion crafted arguments as fact (or god forbid, research) makes me sick. As someone who is studied in rhetoric and composition I can spot through the way you present basically particles of truth with a heap of skewed interpretation and opinions and attempt to rip things apart based on your screwed up views on said topic.

    You are nostalgic, and hell I hate 4th edition as well but the way you go about this article and every other article you seem to write seems to just slam new gamers in favor for the "good old days". You are a gamer conservative, the Bill O' Riley of gaming.

    I am picking through your posts, looking for links and hoping to be inspired to conjure ideas for a system I'm trying to create, but the more I read the more childish articles I seem to find.

    1. You make several unsubstantiated accusations and provide no single instance or example of any of your claims.

      You do this while engaging in several logical fallacies, including Ad Hominems, ("Childish"), Appeal to accomplishment ("Someone who is studied in rhetoric") without any proof of said accomplishment I might add, and appeal to emotion ("makes me sick".)

      Chiefly and most importantly, you make claims and provide zero evidence to back them up. In a very literal sense, you have posted an entirely opinion-crafted argument as fact.

      If, Anonymous reader, you wish to present a single point -- any point -- supporting a single one of your claims, I would be pleased to address it, so that we can address your difficulties in comprehending my argumentation.

      As it is, reading through blogs ("I am picking through your posts") with large readerships and then anonymously posting fact-free derogatory screeds about how you are dissatisfied with the large body of free labor you have been provided with speaks to your character through no effort of my own.

    2. As an aside, when you accuse someone of being childish and then you fail at basic sentence composition and grammar, it substantially weakens your argumentation.

      I hope the following is of assistance.

      "I can spot through the way you present basically particles of truth "

      What are basically particles? I believe you mean, "I can basically spot through the way you present particles of truth." Furthermore, when you use the word basically, it implies that you actually can't spot particles of truth, but that you do something similar.

      You are missing punctuation on "You are nostalgic, and hell I hate. . .". Hell is an interjection, which in most cases is set off with a comma. Sometimes a set of parenthetical dashes is used.

      Also, I do not 'seem' to write articles. I actually write them. They are written, it is not an illusion.

      Your last sentence is a run-on sentence.

      Your difficulty with written composition is nothing to be ashamed of. It may, in fact, provide evidence of reasons why argumentation you don't comprehend might make you sick.

      If you have any actual factual points to make, I would be glad to address them.

  14. Can I ask why this blog post is subtitled "Why a 4th edition game can't be good?"
    I really don't see the connection.
    Let's see your points:

    Encounter design: Partly DM choice, but supported by mechanics.
    In any game I run, if the players know that there is a giant in the hills, they can choose to go fight it. It will likely cream them, and they should know that. Characters should not be able to fight any and all things in this world or any other.
    3rd ed had plenty of monsters that were impossible to beat by a standard party of much lower level. The way they could beat them would be with preparation and guile. This has not disappeared in 4th ed, but the tools may have. If they want to bribe their way through the mountains, hire a local militia to deal with the giant, poison his food, anything other than engage with an experienced and powerful fighter that can crush them underfoot, they are likely to have a good chance.
    Maybe it is how you run it, but there's nothing that says 4th ed can't deal with these situations (and I have done so).

    Wealth by level: Partly DM choice, but supported by mechanics. Again, nothing stopping you from handing out a big load of gold at the beginning and seeing how the players cope with the thieves that want to take it from them, actually finding stuff worth buying with it, and not getting fleeced by the merchants who might take advantage of someone trying to buy their first magical weapon with a barrel full of money and so on and so forth.
    This is all possible, but not something I'd recommend starting out. So there's a guide for what is normal.

    Scaling past the human norm: Does this really warrant a response when we're talking about a game with magic? The whole idea of the game is to be beyond the human norm.
    Specifically the continually increasing hit points and AC? Well it has always been fairly transparent to me that HP and AC are less physical armour and cups of blood spilt, and more ability to avoid hits, how good your fighting style is, etc.
    This is also explicit in the rules.
    In that case, I am fairly okay with the idea that someone who continues fighting and developing their technique/someone who can continually improve on their spell-casting to protect themselves will be represented in-game as having higher AC and more HP.

    Disassociated mechanics: I will freely admit that I'm not quite sure that I have the full grasp of this, but it seems to be that this is talking about doing things for a purely mechanical reason, and not for a roleplaying reason, and the issues with that.
    In your example (the laser firing paladin), I am not sure whether your issue is that there is insufficient reason as to why it didn't work, or because you weren't allowed to use the power outside of combat.
    If it was the former, then the issue is in the flavour text and how the world works. Seeing as how 4th ed up and tells you to rewrite the flavour text if you don't like it, that should be less of an issue with the game.
    If I had made the decision you couldn't pew-pew the door, I would have replied with something along the lines of "Well your paladin abilities are all associated with the concept of life, spirits, souls and so on, and have much less to do with inanimate objects. Because you don't destroy equipment when you kill monsters, it follows that it can't destroy the door."
    If the issue is that you are clearly able to do these things in combat, and yet not at other times, then that is simply due to the DM. The rules state that you can use a power whenever you are able to take the action required. (Simply, you can't do things when you are tied up, knocked out, or it would take too much time).

    Your final section on sandboxing are also clearly all about DM style and nothing to do with the game.

    1. (Same poster)

      I agree with the points you are making about the ways that these things can ruin your game (although for some of the points I would argue that the problem is they are not explained), but I don't feel that they are dependent on playing one version of one game. Nor do I feel they are actually much to do with the game than they are to do with the people that run and participate in the game.

    2. Just to be clear, the rules indicate that the way to play is to have x encounters of y difficulty with z wealth by level per level. The modules that are released for the game contain ways to insure that this occurs, explicitly saying "You cannot run a sandbox game, because the players must fight things at their level". This is not only explicit in the material, but implicit in the math.

      These are the rules, by saying "Ah, but I can ignore the rules!" doesn't remove the issues with the rules.

      As to your point about disassociated mechanics, you are absolutely right. You will have to house-rule every single power in the book the minute the players attempt to use them in associated ways. If you can't see how this rapidly becomes an unmanageable problem, then 4e is the game for you.

    3. First: I have looked at a few more blog posts than I had when writing the above, including more things about disassociated mechanics etc. and I think the way you play is interesting and fun, and not quite how I like to run things.
      I'd probably enjoy being a player in your game, but it's not how I really like to play. I'm sure I could run a game you'd enjoy to a certain extent, but it wouldn't be how you like to play.
      And I'm pretty okay with that. But could you at least say in future that 4th edition is no good for how you play, not that it is no good.

      Okay, so the encounters thing does also call for fights against monsters slightly lower than the player's level, and slightly above. This combined with the lists at the back of the three monster manuals that show monsters sorted by level means that it isn't that hard to run a sandbox game, in my experience. (Maybe I'm just weird in how I play).

      (Silly aside, ignoring the rules is a rule in itself...)

      As I say above, maybe it's because I play in a different way, but the associated use of powers in 4th ed doesn't scare me at all, in fact I'd welcome it.
      I'd have a preliminary chat with the players before they started the game about how their powers work on a general level, and then I'd feel very happy with making swift decisions about how they can be used in a specific situation.
      So, yes, 4th edition is the game for me, and I'll use that to play while you use previous editions to play.


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