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