On A List of Ways You're Ruining Your Game
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.