On the Most Important Thing in a Good Campaign

Why do modern role playing games all lack or restrict player agency, relying on character skill and complex rules?

Agency is Key.

There is an excellent post over at The Nine and Thirty Kingdoms on player agency, called "Where and How to Search" that discusses many of the same issues with player agency that the Thursday Trick series attempts to address.

Agency is Old School play.

When we talk about player skill, when we talk about sandbox design, when we talk about rotating DM's, and all the rest - what we are all describing is Player Agency.

If there is any question to what Player Agency, it simply means that the players can make choices, and the choices they make matter - All The Time. This covers a lot of ground, but a short list includes not fudging dice, not pallet switching when the party goes "off track" (as if that's a thing), and their being an objective reality they interact with, instead of one that changes from moment to moment on the whims of a single person.

My series focuses mostly on the specific skills the DM needs to allow agency in certain traps without automatically giving anything away.  Talysmin wrote his article in reference to an article by Mike Mearls regarding player versus character skill (and although I respect Mearls as a person, his polls are the most unscientific loaded statistically irrelevant pieces of crap in the universe.)

The Point is, Talysmin talks about why the old style fell out of fashion.

It's because people are dicks.

And instead of, you know, being like "Hey, don't be such a dick" people thought the solution was to make more and more rules, until one day, no one could ever be a dick again!

As the trip-chain fighter, or pun-pun how that worked out for them.

More rules just mean that the jerks who were being dicks, use the rules to be dicks. They take agency not only away from the player (because the player's skills are unimportant, just his characters) but the DM, who is being 'unfair' if he doesn't allow the broken things in the rules to stand.

So what he says is helpful - it's general advice for how to handle agency, without being a dick. Relying on player skill is explicitly not forcing the players how to read your mind, or screwing them over because they forget to ask one specific thing.

It's presenting an outline of the situation in broad strokes, and letting them engage in your world, not just the numbers on their character sheet.

What advice do I have (outside of specific traps) for increasing player agency in a game? Follow or google reader my site and tune in after the holliday weekend for a bunch of examples.


  1. Hey man,

    As a huge proponent of diceless gaming, I completely agree with you -- and I've written about this quite a bit myself -- but I think I've come at it a little differently.

    I agree that player choices should matter, but "pallet switching" is not always a bad thing if it makes the whole game experience better.

    Not fudging die rolls is another -- I'm still a proponent of the GM being allowed to "shift" things a little bit to help improve the overall experience.

    And things like the "pun pun" and the "chain tripper" and stuff, I don't think those are a player skill vs. character skill issue -- the character optimization problem I feel is a separate issue altogether.

    For me, I see games like the FATE system and a lot of Indie gaming that attempts to limit/remove the role of the GM as being the outcome of bad player agency issues.

    Games that attempt to protect the player from the big, bad GM. The problem with that is, if the GM is a dick, he (or she) is always going to be a dick. And your game system isn't going to stop that -- anymore than the vaunted game balance of 4E stopped the Char Op board from it's depredations. (don't get me wrong, I don't hate 4E, just not fond of Char Op and its outcomes).

    The "Don't be a Dick" rule is pretty much the only way to protect player agency. And the only way to make that rule work is to not play in games where the GM is a power-tripping jackhole. And the way to ensure that you have games where that doesn't happen? Be a GM yourself.

    I appreciate the attempts you make with the trick and trap posts and I think you're on to something -- really. I (also) don't think taking useful tools out of the GM toolbox is the best way to save player agency. Encouraging players to realize that they can be more active, should be more active, and showing them the benefits of doing so (in game) is at the heart of saving player agency.

  2. Good observation. I've learned this the hard way myself, making more and more rules for my game, and also for running a shared world with over fifty game masters (no, not on computer).

    And more rules were not the answer. As you say the new rules took away the power of the good players and GM's and handed it to the dicks. Or semi-dicks. Because surely they found every exploit.

    Now, I decided to settle for a more meta- approach. I want a certain kind of game - and the rules are back to a sort of... constitution. Perhaps with a few amendments. Not an entire book of law.

  3. Be a dick.

    There are times when it is appropriate. I mean c'mon, I take my wallet with me to work every day and there are still days that I forget it (probably because I was preoccupied thinking about gaming). The GM has an entire world to try and remember, and the players have (usually) one person and if they don't state that they pick up their weapon (which is not routine if you don't drop it every fight), now you're a dick. I think if the DM recalls that you dropped it, and you didn't state picking it up, you should roll with it, or else you're countering a dick by being a dick.

  4. Quite a divergent group of comments.

    @Rhetorical Gamer

    In what case would removing the ability of the players to make choices that matter by pallet switching improve the game.

    How does someone cheating or changing the roll on the dice "improve" the experience - or asked a different way, How does the player knowing that dice rolls only count based on the whims of another person improve their experience of gaming?

    The rules were invented to keep people from being jerks about things - I bring up chain fighter and pun pun only to point out that the supposition that you can 'rule away' people being terrible is foolish, because then they will just use the rules to do so.

  5. @japp

    50! I'm curious how that was handled. I'm trying something similar with 4. It seems almost impossible

    What is this, I don't even?

  6. @-C: Handling that many GMs and about four times as many players wasn't all that easy. We had a loose style of play, which helped, but we also ran one single shared world, with a shared history. But somehow we managed for many years. We were using sheets to report what each GM played, having a semi-regular Gazetteer with updates of what everyone had done, and a database where xp and character levels were kept.

    And eventually we thought we needed even more controls. Like giving new (or notoriously dickheaded) GMs less room to maneuver and less room to affect world history.
    That's where things went awry.

    I think I'll do a few posts about what we did and how - and what did and did not work. If you're interested :-)


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