Player Agency can feel like the issue everyone talks about and yet nobody acknowledges.

Player agency is the ability of the players to make meaningful choices that affect the gameplay and the narrative of a roleplaying game. That is simple to state but most beginning GMs fail their players and themselves in this regard. In my first games and so have new GMs I have played with. Nobody chooses to restrict their players. Everyone believes they focus the gameplay upon characters run by players free to do whatever they want.

If we all grant our players full agency, why does the internet community spend so much time and space discussing it. Railroads vs sandboxes, scenarios vs plots, game vs story … the amount of content on this simple concept is huge. But we all believe we’re doing it right. We can all say why a railroad is a bad way to GM. Clearly, some of us are wrong in how we see ourselves.

It’s worth taking a moment to define sandboxes and railroads before we park those terms. A sandbox is a game with very high amounts of player agency. A literal sandbox provides no assumed way for a child to play. Some kids will just dig a hole, others will build castles or hide their toys or pour sand back and forth. It doesn’t have a specific purpose and each child will invent their own game imaginatively. In RPG terms, sandbox denotes the same lack of assumed purpose; all options are valid to explore. A railroad refers to being on a train as opposed to driving a car. You might get to the same place and can look at the view as you go but have no choice about when or where to stop let alone whether you take one route or the other. These terms have a lot to answer for and it is wholly wrong to think of RPG games are being either one or the other. There are many shades of grey. But enough digression.

 

So what IS the issue?

 

The explosion in the popularity of roleplaying games makes it obvious that a lot of new people are playing. In the bygone days we learnt to GM from others in our gaming groups, from a friend’s older sibling or someone else that we knew. We learnt from example and we could talk about the issues we encountered with that trusted person. Perhaps our mentor saw us run games or played in them and could nudge us and give us pointers. The internet age has opened up a huge knowledge base but we have no relationship with the commenters on social media sites. We can ask for advice but maybe what we think of as the problem isn’t the root cause.

 

When a new GM posts onto reddit, facebook or elsewhere asking for advice with an issue I often think their problem is a lack of agency being given to the players.

Perhaps the players are not engaging with the adventure as the GM would like. Maybe the players are fighting against the game, doing wacky and disruptive things. It could be that the group seem distracted or aloof and don’t seem motivated to solve the problems posed by the adventure scenario. It could be that the players have descended into being ‘murder-hobos’ and only engage with combat scenes, try to solve every problem with violence. ‘Huh,’ thinks the new GM, ‘what’s up with my players? How do I encourage them to play better?’

 

That’s understandable isn’t it? It’s more palatable to think of the problem being vested in someone else than it is to take a hard look at yourself and the adventure you have put long hours of work into crafting and ask ‘what could I do better’. After all, the GM has poured effort and passion into creating a game experience for their group to enjoy and love. How can they be the issue after they did so much work, all whilst truly caring about this game and their players’ experiences?

 

The answer is difficult to swallow. It might not be them, it’s possibly you. You need to give them more agency. D&D might as well be called Decisions & Dice. That’s the basic interfaces of how a player engages with the game world; they make a decision and often that means they have to roll a dice. The decision is empowering and the random dice roll is exciting. If they succeed the roll they achieve their intended outcome. If the dice fall poorly the GM imposes a consequence of their own choosing. Or maybe the decision didn’t need a dice roll, like if the players decided to talk to the Thieves’ Guild instead of asking the Temple Guard for help. This too can require the GM to impose a consequence as the players shape the direction of the adventure, game and emerging story.

 

Whether dice were rolled or not, if the consequence is fair and basically predictable, the player is likely to feel validated in their decision or choice of action. However, it is easy for a GM to inadvertently undermine the player’s intentions. The GM honoured the decision and allowed them to do what they chose but if the consequence of taking that option is unpredictable to the players they can easily feel that the game state is out of their control. Instead of focusing upon the game as described by their GM the players now begin to feel that there’s little point in making careful, deliberate decisions and that they may as well ‘fuck around and find out’ as the best way to advance the game. They start to look for their enjoyment in areas around the edges of the main motivation supposedly driving their characters forwards as this is more within their control.

 

Anyone who hangs around on GM discussion forums will see this regularly. Someone posts a few paragraphs explaining what is happening in the adventure and then details how the players have responded. The players are either impassive and distant, distracted by other things and conversations or they pointlessly escalate situations and seek to create conflict where none exists. Often, from the brief description of the adventure situation and the players; the solution lies in granting the players more control to shape the game and narrative. It can be a very simple fix and it doesn’t need to mean an overhaul of the adventure or prep work. Usually, at a base level, the problem lies in not how the GM is writing or preparing for the adventure but in their execution at the table.

Player Agency can feel like the issue everyone talks about and yet nobody acknowledges.

Player agency is the ability of the players to make meaningful choices that affect the gameplay and the narrative of a roleplaying game. That is simple to state but most beginning GMs fail their players and themselves in this regard. In my first games and so have new GMs I have played with. Nobody chooses to restrict their players. Everyone believes they focus the gameplay upon characters run by players free to do whatever they want.

If we all grant our players full agency, why does the internet community spend so much time and space discussing it. Railroads vs sandboxes, scenarios vs plots, game vs story … the amount of content on this simple concept is huge. But we all believe we’re doing it right. We can all say why a railroad is a bad way to GM. Clearly, some of us are wrong in how we see ourselves.

It’s worth taking a moment to define sandboxes and railroads before we park those terms. A sandbox is a game with very high amounts of player agency. A literal sandbox provides no assumed way for a child to play. Some kids will just dig a hole, others will build castles or hide their toys or pour sand back and forth. It doesn’t have a specific purpose and each child will invent their own game imaginatively. In RPG terms, sandbox denotes the same lack of assumed purpose; all options are valid to explore. A railroad refers to being on a train as opposed to driving a car. You might get to the same place and can look at the view as you go but have no choice about when or where to stop let alone whether you take one route or the other. These terms have a lot to answer for and it is wholly wrong to think of RPG games are being either one or the other. There are many shades of grey. But enough digression.

 

So what IS the issue?

 

The explosion in the popularity of roleplaying games makes it obvious that a lot of new people are playing. In the bygone days we learnt to GM from others in our gaming groups, from a friend’s older sibling or someone else that we knew. We learnt from example and we could talk about the issues we encountered with that trusted person. Perhaps our mentor saw us run games or played in them and could nudge us and give us pointers. The internet age has opened up a huge knowledge base but we have no relationship with the commenters on social media sites. We can ask for advice but maybe what we think of as the problem isn’t the root cause.

 

When a new GM posts onto reddit, facebook or elsewhere asking for advice with an issue I often think their problem is a lack of agency being given to the players.

Perhaps the players are not engaging with the adventure as the GM would like. Maybe the players are fighting against the game, doing wacky and disruptive things. It could be that the group seem distracted or aloof and don’t seem motivated to solve the problems posed by the adventure scenario. It could be that the players have descended into being ‘murder-hobos’ and only engage with combat scenes, try to solve every problem with violence. ‘Huh,’ thinks the new GM, ‘what’s up with my players? How do I encourage them to play better?’

 

That’s understandable isn’t it? It’s more palatable to think of the problem being vested in someone else than it is to take a hard look at yourself and the adventure you have put long hours of work into crafting and ask ‘what could I do better’. After all, the GM has poured effort and passion into creating a game experience for their group to enjoy and love. How can they be the issue after they did so much work, all whilst truly caring about this game and their players’ experiences?

 

The answer is difficult to swallow. It might not be them, it’s possibly you. You need to give them more agency. D&D might as well be called Decisions & Dice. That’s the basic interfaces of how a player engages with the game world; they make a decision and often that means they have to roll a dice. The decision is empowering and the random dice roll is exciting. If they succeed the roll they achieve their intended outcome. If the dice fall poorly the GM imposes a consequence of their own choosing. Or maybe the decision didn’t need a dice roll, like if the players decided to talk to the Thieves’ Guild instead of asking the Temple Guard for help. This too can require the GM to impose a consequence as the players shape the direction of the adventure, game and emerging story.

 

Whether dice were rolled or not, if the consequence is fair and basically predictable, the player is likely to feel validated in their decision or choice of action. However, it is easy for a GM to inadvertently undermine the player’s intentions. The GM honoured the decision and allowed them to do what they chose but if the consequence of taking that option is unpredictable to the players they can easily feel that the game state is out of their control. Instead of focusing upon the game as described by their GM the players now begin to feel that there’s little point in making careful, deliberate decisions and that they may as well ‘fuck around and find out’ as the best way to advance the game. They start to look for their enjoyment in areas around the edges of the main motivation supposedly driving their characters forwards as this is more within their control.

 

Anyone who hangs around on GM discussion forums will see this regularly. Someone posts a few paragraphs explaining what is happening in the adventure and then details how the players have responded. The players are either impassive and distant, distracted by other things and conversations or they pointlessly escalate situations and seek to create conflict where none exists. Often, from the brief description of the adventure situation and the players; the solution lies in granting the players more control to shape the game and narrative. It can be a very simple fix and it doesn’t need to mean an overhaul of the adventure or prep work. Usually, at a base level, the problem lies in not how the GM is writing or preparing for the adventure but in their execution at the table.