On the Importance of Agency

Discussion is by its nature, cyclical.

Everyone is familiar with the fact that the ancient romans were complaining about their disrespectful children and the sad state that the world has fallen into. People do that to this day.

I think we are doing fine, how about you?

The downside is that things once proven have to be proven and discovered again by a new generation. Examples of what we have to relearn are: if you give up privacy for security you end up with neither. Or restricting speech to curtail 'offense' makes us all slaves of our neighbor.

But this is an role playing game blog, so it is that time when things like Quantum Ogres and Fudging again crawl out of the woodwork.

Simply, these are about invalidating choices of players.

The explanations of why these things are bad have been examined and discussed to death. I am explicitly not interested in rehashing the basic principles. A search for player agency or reading the articles above will tell you what you want to know and answer any question you might have.

Each and every person who fudges, denies agency, or uses an Ogre that is Quantum and still feels childishly compelled to dig into their position says the same things.

But I had a good reason!

"It was a new player that died, and they would have quit playing!"(1)
"It would have 'been a better game' if the encounter goes the way I want it."(2)
"The encounter was unbalanced I was just fixing it!"(3)
"I can get away with it without them ever finding out!"(4)

Why is it so important that you use agency in your games? Why aren't any of these reasons good enough?

Because in your daily life, your choices are by and large meaningless. You have little control over events and make few decisions that affect any long lasting change. You spend your life making meaningless choices and latching onto them in a desperate bid for meaning. What sports team am I a fan of? Do I like apple or android? That's why agency is so important.

What requires for something to exist in a quantitative and real sense is that it be observed. Role playing games are the few hours a week when decisions we make matter. As a DM, you should not stand in the way of that.

Why is there such resistance to providing agency? Because in order to give the players the ability to affect the consequences of their choice, you also have to give them the ability to reap the consequences of their choices.

Consequences that are not always positive.

And most people don't have the wherewithal to do so, to the detriment of their friends.  See, if you think by preventing a bad thing from happening to the player, preventing them from making a mistake, preventing them from missing treasure, or preventing them from dying will make sure they have a good time -- what you're really doing is making sure they know that their choices don't matter.

And if their choices don't matter, why bother gaming -- then it's just like the rest of modern existence, a tedious slog of meaningless choice after meaningless choice.

(1) Then man up, stop the game and explain to the new player that you made a mistake in forcing whatever situation killed them. Don't set the expectation that their actions don't have consequences.
(2) For who? How is robbing the players of free will improving your game? Your "better" encounter is boring as shit to people playing a game. Who wants to wait for someone else to decide when something happens with no control over the situation. Now the reverse of the situation when things go their way drastically, that's something they will talk about for years.
(3) Perhaps the problem here is the players aren't smart enough to avoid the encounter. If you've decided that they have to fight it, we're back to the original problem.
(4) How long can you keep your unspoken assumption that your players are aquamaroons before they catch on and quit your game? Or do you act or play poker for a living?


  1. heh, I've come to appreciate the lack of control. I like being surprised at how things turn out... even when I prepare the content.

    Actually, especially when I prepare the content. Much as when I find that someone takes a tool I created and use it in a way I never even imagined. Looking at what someone abuses my creation and thinking "it can do that?" is immensely cool.

  2. Agency is important to me, but it doesn't trump everything. I'm a big boy. If some of my choices don't matter, I can deal with it. For example, in one game, we had a negotiation with a king and his court. Unbeknownst to us, the king was being manipulated by a very subtle magic. Nothing we did would have changed his mind. This was frustrating, but it led us to investigate more and eventually figure out about the mind control. We had a great time.

    Agency is still important. I want to know that most of my choices make a difference. I'm just not as fanatic as you are. I trust my GM's to use their powers to make a fun game for me and the others. When I GM, I try to use these powers to make the game more fun for the group. This works largely because we know each other and know what type of game we want to play.

  3. "in one game, we had a negotiation with a king and his court. Unbeknownst to us, the king was being manipulated by a very subtle magic. Nothing we did would have changed his mind. This was frustrating, but it led us to investigate more and eventually figure out about the mind control. We had a great time."

    That's the DM making sure you have agency - allowing you to try things he 'knows' won't work.

  4. I've fudged die rolls and switched up encounters more than once. Often it's an issue of pacing. My players are making choices I need to adjust to, and it takes me a little extra time to get my footing. So, I tweak. In general, I believe my players trust my judgement. Many of them have gamed with me for years ...

  5. To this day, I had never heard of the quantum ogre, so thanks for that. After reading the linked articles, I think a lot of the poor decisions I've made were as a new GM, or inexperienced player. Moving on from stuff like that as you mature as a gamer seems second nature to me, and I still see people new to the hobby doing the same things. It makes me wonder if stuff like this can be taught, or if it has to be learnt?

  6. There are some confusing definitons here which I believe is why people are talking past each other.

    Agency:- The ability to act and affect something.

    To simluate agency, a DM need only allow actions to have consequences. He needn't communicate up front about those consequences to the player for there to be agency. He can do this, but this is about how much assistance the DM wishes to give the players in the decision making process, which will indeed help beginner players. Communicating choices will also help overcome the paradox of choice that some players may fall victim to. But it is in no way linked to actual agency itself. It's akin to a multiple choice question; you can ask a question and get an answer without supplying information about possible answers and still allow players to be free willed agents in a world where their actions matter.

  7. I disagree on one point; I don't regard the situation as "decisions in real life are usually meaningless, so games should have meaningful choices". Rather I prefer to present it as "hey, we stood up and did something that *mattered* in that game; maybe we can do something that matters in the real world too!".

    It's not escapism to me: it's practice! :-D


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