On the Corpse of the Quantum Ogre

I'm a Quantum Ogre
In the two years since I've written the Quantum Ogre articles, I've gotten a lot of response, most of it positive. This is a coda to the series, addressing many of these comments. As discussed here, last week, the responses are not disconnected statements, but cohesive responses.

What is a Quantum Ogre?

It is a situation in which the Dungeon Master removes agency* from the players because of his desire for an outcome.

WOAH! Did our eyes glaze over? What that means is that the player tries to do a thing (cast a spell, use a skill, attack a creature, make a choice) and the Dungeon Master does something actively to neutralize that thing!

"Oh, there's an anti-magic field here!" or "Nope, your skill fails." or "You miss." or maybe he adjust the hit points of a creature so that it doesn't die yet, or suddenly decides his big bad evil guy is wearing a ring of free action.

Does this mean you can't have anti-magic fields or opponents that wear rings of free action? Of course not. It's only agency denying if you do those things to stop the players from ruining your encounter.

Of course the secret is, they can't ruin the encounter, because in a game free of quantum ogres, the outcome is never pre-decided, so can never be ruined.

I read your article and don't understand how this doesn't ruin the game! If you tell your players what's in every cave and what they are going to get for every reward how is their any sense of freedom or mystery? Don't they have the freedom to not get that information?

The Quantum Ogre series isn't advice on how to Dungeon Master.

It is a list of tools to solve specific problems that traditionally are areas where agency can be impacted.

So when you look at the advice for "What's in it for me?" It specifically address the part of the game where the player has to make a choice about what they are going to do in the game that night.

You know, the situation where they want to know what's in it for them!

The advice isn't "Tell them the specific consequences of any action they might take in the game ever the whole entire time." The advice is, "When the game starts, and the players are trying to decide what activity they are going to engage in for the evening, they should have a good idea about how to get access to the activity they want to do." That means, if they want to do some talking in character and political maneuvering, you should tell them that going into the crypt isn't going to cause that to happen, that instead, they should visit the haunted forest where the fay ball is happening this evening.

Each of the original pieces of advice are not pieces of general advice. They are all designed to solve specific problems.

Yes but. . . is designed to assist with communication errors between players and the Dungeon Master. They can't know what's in your head, so this tool is used when actions are taken to keep everyone on the same page.

Remember. . . is designed to avoid real world frustration. You are sitting in a room with real people who are friends. It is not your job to make those people jump through hoops. Player skill is about making informed choices, not recalling something they may not have even noted in the first place. What this tool does is skip past the bewilderment of a player to quickly get back to the interesting parts of the game.

No, but. . . is designed to address the problem of the player not understanding the world to the degree that the Dungeon Master was. If you've ever wondered why a player just doesn't do this simple solution to the problem, it's because they aren't aware of it! This allows players to do things in the game that let them accomplish your goals. The fact that doing this makes your job easier is just a side benefit.

Trick/Trap Agency is designed to avoid the gotcha. It doesn't mean you have to dumb anything down - the Green Devil Face has plenty of agency. There's a poem. No one is forced into it. The general idea is that the players must make the choice to engage with the trap and there must be some way for them to become aware of it.

Yes is designed to make the game fun for the players! Who likes to be shut down? It's also a subtle admonition to avoid the word no when running a game. If the answer isn't Yes, but . . . or No, but . . ., why not yes?

Isn't a Random table essentially a Quantum Ogre? How can you have the players run into a village with a festival? Is it fair to do so? Can the Dungeon Master ever decide anything?


Of course you can decide things. Of course you can just invent things you think would be cool during play.

The Quantum Ogre isn't about putting an ogre in the woods. It's about invalidating the players decisions. Any time you are deciding something or making a choice that does that, you are at risk of invalidating agency.

But what about a random encounter table with only one entry? What about these random situations that I've concocted? Aren't there lots of places where player choices are invalidated, like death? Where is the line where agency is impacted?

Dungeon Mastering is hard.

It's a chaotic, magical, talent that is easy to learn, but maybe only really old dudes with wizard eyebrows master. I like to call when I make mistakes "fucking up". I make mistakes to this day when I run games.

The fact is, is that this isn't about absolutes. It is about knowledge the participants possess, expectations, and intent of the Dungeon Master.

Many of the examples I've been given, can't even be addressed in terms of agency, because they depend on context. I ran a pathfinder game and told the players, there would be 'decision points' during cutscenes and that the game was about the tactical environment. Their choices would affect the forthcoming battle and at certain points they would have options about which map they were going to take on next. Even though the adventure was linear, they were able to act with agency. There were no quantum ogres or railroading because the agency they expected to have at the start of the game was never infringed.

What if they wanted to something else? They didn't. That's a railroad! No agency was actively removed during play - it was traded by choice for a more complex planned battle!

It is a question of intent and degrees, dependent on context. Isn't a dungeon a railroad because it has walls and the players can't visit any room at the start? Isn't a town filled with Quantum Ogres because guards will attack the players if they steal? What about people who might be bothered by a hypothetical situation?

Dungeon Mastering is hard son.

Are you running games? Do your players feel empowered?

Are their misunderstandings about game expectations? That happens. Are those misunderstandings deliberate efforts on your part to force an outcome? That's called lying.

Are the players able to acquire information about the world? Is that information meaningful?

The Quantum Ogre isn't a thought experiment. It is an example of certain type of gaming problem, with a list of concrete solutions designed to resolve those problems and make role playing more fun for both the players.

*Player Agency (n.): “the feeling of empowerment that comes from being able to take actions in the [virtual] world whose effects relate to the player’s intention” -Mateas, 2001

Edit: The date was changed for appropriate display by tag. The original publication date was 7/15/13


  1. I have been blessed with good GMs for a long time, but every once and a while (mostly in one-off games) I run into a quantum ogre.
    They are SO easy for players to spot, and make the GM look like a buffoon.
    Thanks -C, and please keep helping the worlds we all love and enjoy become richer and more fulfilling places to play.

  2. "There were no quantum ogres or railroading because the agency they expected to have at the start of the game was never infringed."

    This is a brilliant line. Every campaign idea has some limits built in. That's why everybody should talk at the beginning. For example if the GM says, "I want to run a game about a war between two empires." It implies many things about what's going to happen. It provides a lot of roles for the players to take, but not infinite. But by talking about it the players can agree that they want to play this kind of game. They buy into it. If the players don't want to play this kind of game, then they can talk about it. Perhaps they take a different angle or somebody proposes another game.

    1. It's a real key point, and infinitely expandable. All games have rules - even calvinball or dragon poker. There has to be some rule - and if you arbitrarily or subjectively call some rules or systems 'railroading' and not others, then the word is meaningless.

  3. OK, I swore to myself that I wouldn't do this again. I'm going to give this one more shot, because I like what you are trying to do, but you're driving me crazy with this thing because your fundamental example - your flagship example - it's a bad example that doesn't illustrate the actual problem.

    1) I agree that when a DM forces an outcome, that removes agency from the players and generally makes for a less-fun game.

    2) An encounter is NOT an outcome. Running into the ogre is not the outcome. Plopping a pre-set encounter down where the players happen to encounter is is just DMing.

    3) If the Ogre ALWAYS ambushes the PC's regardless of precautions or skills or any other factors, that IS removing agency - you are forcing an outcome. If the Ogre ALWAYS captures the PC's and sells them into slavery because you really want to run Scourge of the Slavelords - well, that is only forcing an outcome if you didn't talk it over with the players and get them onboard with being captured so you can run Scourge of the Slavelords.

    Otherwise, I agree with what you say. If you give your players opportunities to learn about the game world, play fair and present opportunities instead of outcomes, you will have a better game for it.

    But man, everytime I see the term Quantum Ogre, all I can think of is the Alannis Morissette song about ironic things that basically doesn't have any irony in it - except for the fact that it's a song about irony with non-ironic examples of irony...

    1. First, thanks Jeremy Murphy. I appreciate the time you took to write this response.

      Second, I agree with all of your points. You bring up an excellent area for clarification.

      An encounter is not an outcome. 100% agreement. The point of the example is that the Dungeon Master actively prevents the players from avoiding the encounter. They can scout, scry, gather information, etc. They are actively shut down at every turn, because the Dungeon Master has decided that the first grove must be empty, the second must have the ogre and the third must have the maguffin.

      I attempt to explicitly say this above without referring to the example. I say "It is a situation in which the Dungeon Master removes agency from the players because of his desire for an outcome."

      Many of the 'arguments' and 'misconceptions' about the issue begin from false premise. E.g. "Assume the players make no attempt to gather information, and then. . ."

      Well, we are not assuming that - we are talking about a specific thing (removal of agency) and specific concrete tools to address specific instances of the removal of agency.

      It has been nearly 2 years since I've written about this, and I wrote this final coda simply to address many of the misconceptions, officially for archival purposes on the blog.

      All of the text was there - excepting the explicit statement that the advice given in the last article (On Resurrecting the Quantum Ogre and Having Him Over for Tea) was not general advice, but a tool for solving specific problems - which seemed to be 90% of the comments I got regarding the original article.

      Thanks again.

    2. Ah yes, so the quantum wave doesn't collapse when the players run into the encounter (naughty) but when they first have a chance to be aware of it and make a decision (nide).

  4. I was just reading your articles about traps and a thought occurred to me. Imagine a place where some creatures have a preferred trap they set up to guard their treasure. The details vary but the traps are basically the same. I can think of ways to foreshadow the traps but if they are all foreshadowed it makes the makers of these traps seem clumsy. So some of them might be very well concealed and maintained.

    This means I want the big foreshadow to be for the first one of these the players encounter, after which they will have an idea of what to look for when the encounter other ones. Its a quantum foreshadowing.

    As the foreshadowing enhances player agency and doesn't prohibit or negate their choices then I figure this is perfectly fine.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...