On Slaying the Quantum Ogre

All this rhodmontade over agency has a purpose!

Let's learn how to slay the Quantum Ogre.

How do we give players agency - how do we let their choices have the effects that relate to the intents of that choice? The primary rule is 'don't be a dick'. Which is easy to say, but what are our guidelines in play?

Items in bold are given specific examples in a future post!


This is the key to player agency, since it informs their choice. Without information, they cannot make a choice with intent. This is important in many ways, in many situations. You must study this.

Some examples
  • When dropping hints, drop them three times.
  • When the players are discussing things, and they have misunderstood something or your intent, correct them.
  • When the players tell you what they are doing, also ask them what they want (why they are doing it) and make sure that their choice matches their goal. Pacing is difficult enough to maintain - if the players want to find treasure, let them know before they search an abandoned building for six hours of game time that there's not much treasure there. Tell them where to go to get treasure. (Yes, but. . .)
  • Let them know the stakes. Tell them if the NPC's are telling the truth or lying to them or not!* (What's in it for me. . .)
  • If you told them, and 30 seconds have passed, you may tell them again. (Remember. . . )
  • If the players ask a question, try to answer what they want to know. (No, but. . .)
  • When dealing with authentic hidden information (how a trick or trap works), give them some sign of all irrevocable effects (Trick/Trap agency)
  • Don't give the players blind choices. Always give some sort of information with the choice. A choice with no information to distinguish between the options isn't any sort of choice at all.
* Lots of confusion over this. This level of explicitness applies to letting them know the stakes - what does each option we may engage in tonight involve? What activities as people will these options allow us to engage in? When your friends are making that decision, you should not allow them to end up doing something for six hours they do not want to do, because of authentic uncertainty in the game world.
    This is a sword to player agency, since it empowers their choice. Without freedom, they are unable to make a choice with effects relating to their intent. This is critical since without choice, there is no game. (i.e. games are collections of interesting choices).
    • The outcome of a situation can never be predetermined - you cannot decide ahead of time how the choice a player makes will play out, otherwise the player has no input and is therefore not engaged.
    • Allow things to happen that have no bearing on the players or their interests. If everything in the world revolves around the players, how can they be free? More to the point, how can they ever see the effects (or lack thereof) without a living breathing world?
    • You cannot dictate the actions of the player characters! Their control over their PC's is sacrosanct territory, with only rare exceptions (magical control etc.)
    • The freedom to ignore your plot hooks adventure thread / situation is critical. Next time you play, look around you - those are actual human beings, not fleshy shells destined to act out what happens next in your fantasy. If they enter your rioting city, and decide to leave, let them get the hell out of there if they wish. . . just remember to let them experience the consequences of their agency.
    • The invisible wall is anathema. Say Yes. . . or Say Yes, But. . . If you tell the players they can do anything and then continue to tell them no and no and no, well, they can't really do anything, can they?[1]
    • This is ironic, but in order to encourage freedom, you have to limit options. You have to say, here are five tasks, so they can make a meaningful choice between the five - or reject them and forge their own. If you were to tell them "do anything you want" the excessive freedom limits their agency by making their choices meaningless.
    Tomorrow we're going to talk about myths and misinterpretations of player agency, along with examples of the options above.

    [1] I blame America and its obsession with freedom on this dishonesty. The fact is, you can't do anything you want, and not only is it so important for us to believe we can that we constantly tell ourselves and our children that, but it causes massive social dysfunction (a lack of concern about behavior on community) and personal distress when faced with this reality.

    Edit: The publication date was changed for appropriate tag display. The original publication date was 9/12/11


    1. Consider two systems.

      One gives a lot of rules agency (your character has anywhere from three to six optional powers, a wealth of combat choices and maneuvers) but little game agency (the gameplay puts you up against a staged series of carefully balanced encounters.)

      The other gives little rules agency (in combat, you are limited to "hit it with your best weapon" or "cast this prememorized spell") but lots of game agency to seek out combat, avoid it, or face alternate challenges.

      Are both these aspects needed for a sense of agency? I think the OSR will give more weight to #2, but a lot of systems also feel the need to cater to #1, and I'm not sure how much rules agency adds after a certain point.

    2. @Roger

      I write an OSR blog, so what I'm interested in is role playing, but I do a lot of tabletop also.

      Agency in a game remains regardless of the game. The first is like any good board game or tactical strategy game. You have agency within it - you make choices and those choices allow you to play a certain game.

      I wouldn't call it role-playing, but some people couch it as such.

    3. @Roger the GS: That's the difference between a game with a lot of Tactical focus and one with a lot of Strategic focus.

      @-C: I think they can both be role-playing games, but they're not the same _kind_ of roleplaying game.

    4. @Stuart:

      To the extent I'm taking a role in chess as a commander of an army. ;-p

    5. In Chess you control all the "characters" sort of like you do when you play Warhammer 40K. If you played 40K with each player controlling one model and being out of the game if that model was killed? That's pretty close to how OD&D got started.

      Now, that's not really much like what I'm doing when I run most of my RPG games... but I really get the feeling there's *a lot* of different ideas about how to run RPGs. :)

    6. @Stuart

      Right: It's a spectrum. I cover that little note tomorrow. But I'm writing for a certain style and certain audience.

      I do know there's a *lot* of games out there where the only agency is on the square grid, and even more being that can't handle doing *anything* that isn't proscribed in the module/adventure path.

    7. The biggest problem with tactical RPGs that remove the strategic choices and only give players "agency on the square grid" is if the outcome of the fight isn't in question. If through carefully balanced game rules and encounter design, and perhaps a little behind the scenes dice fudging, there's no doubt the players will beat the encounter...

      it seems totally pointless.

      At least with Chess or Warhammer 40K there's the possibility of right and wrong choices leading to success or failure.

    8. The freedom to ignore your plot hooks is critical.

      Beware of PLOT! PLOT is a four-letter word! Think "situation" instead.

      Do not be thinking, "This adventure is about..."

      Instead, be thinking, "This is what's going on when the PCs arrive..."

      NPCs can (and probably should) have plots brewing and bubbling, but you should not decide how the PCs interact with those plots. They should be allowed to aid, hinder, or even ignore as they choose (though all three choices should result in consequences they notice, and might not be able to avoid).

      PCs should be encouraged to develop plots of their own, too.

      But the GM should avoid having plots of their own like the plague.

    9. Stuart: If through carefully balanced game rules and encounter design, and perhaps a little behind the scenes dice fudging, there's no doubt the players will beat the encounter...

      it seems totally pointless.

      If I absolutely, positively must succeed in a task or combat or similar test for whatever reason, don't waste my time or invite disaster by making me roll dice.

      If failure means everything comes to a screeching halt, the train jumps off the track, and it's game-over for the night, then there's absolutely no reason to allow failure to happen.

      Dice are for when you want some randomness in your game; you want, as the GM, to be surprised as much as the players, and things need a bit of shaking up. If randomness is bad (for the game as a whole; it's nearly always bad from the point-of-view of the PCs) in this particular moment, then don't touch those dice!

    10. @trollsmyth

      Right. Mea culpa. Adventure thread works best. not plot. Editing now.

    11. I disagree with Trollsmyth: Sometimes a disaster sets the stage for future excitement. While nobody wants an adventure to crash utterly because of some unfortunate rolls, these disasters prove the "training wheels are off". As an example, I played in a game recently where the party suffered a near TPK due to unfortunate rolls. My young daughter had never suffered a character death and was quite upset, but in the aftermath, the party took the game much more seriously ("We're back, and this time it's personal!"). Knowing that you can fail and that failure has consequences invests every decision with tension.

    12. I really don't think I can agree with this article, basically what you are asking to DM to be do is pour ALL there time into creating a multifaceted fantasy world where anything thing can happen at ANY given time. Now you may say that's what D&D is about but be honest. How many hours do you put into making a single game session? How many sessions will you have with your players? D&D is supposed to be fun for every one, and a lot of these *fake choice* tricks are there to help cut down on the work load of the DM. Unless the players are going to actively help the DM write down or create these scenarios there is to much work for a single person to do on a consistent biases, and if the players DID decide to write out their scenarios with the DM then all your really doing is writing out a play for the DM and players to perform. Unless you as DM find it fun to spend all your free time working on writing out encounters, nooks and crannies of this fantasy world this would be an insane amount of tedious work that provides no pleasure for the DM and then defeats the purpose of this game being fun for every one.

      1. I run my games like this. I provide agency and all the things I talk about in the article above with real options.

        It generally takes me about 4 hours of prep before a campaign starts. Then I can prep for approximately 1 hour for every 4-5 hours of play. I usually spend six hours at the start of the month to fulfill my gaming obligations for the month.

        It did used to take longer, until I created all these wonderful tools you see on this blog. This along with other tools (many of which I point out) allow me to generate large amounts of meaningful interesting content in an efficient manner, instead of making excuses for how difficult it is to do a task correctly.

    13. @Jason - it sounds like you could use some practice ad-libbing, or perhaps you think that the DM *has* to plan everything out in advance, have every possible map drawn up, and a contingency plan for every player choice?

      Part of the reason there are SO MANY resources out there for DMs (encounter tables, random dungeon generators, etc), is that no one CAN plan everything out. Heck, most of us would LOVE personal secretary/developers to handle the load that we'd LIKE to take on (some of us DO find most of the preparation work "fun" - perhaps it's partially the anticipation of how much our players will enjoy our creations).

      We can all IMPROVE our campaigns by giving players as much agency *as they need* to feel that their choices matter, and they aren't just flipping to different pages in the Choose-Your-Own-Adventure book that the DM wrote up.

      I will agree with you, however, that some D&D groups fully buy into the idea that there's only one adventure path available, and that's the kind of game being run, and they are all okay with that. I play in one of those campaigns, and we all know that deviating from what the DM has available basically means no adventure (or at least, not one that we'd want to have, because it would be created by a severely-annoyed DM).

      What the OP is getting at here, however, is that D&D is a rich enough "game platform" that it allows DMs to offer players a great richness of play, but to truly offer that, player agency as a concept becomes extremely important, and this article addresses how to go about implementing it. But yes, it takes a lot more work... :-)

      1. PS - I probably put about 4 hours into each gaming session. I run a once-a-week campaign, about 3-4 hours per session.


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