Player Agency is a concept I mention frequently, but not one I’ve ever defined for myself. Other bloggers have defined it so well that it feels arrogant of me to even try. Courtney of Hack & Slash (with whom I share many readers) is responsible a definitive work on the subject. Taken together, his writings on player agency could fill a thick chapter in a textbook for game design. Add to that all of the other game designers who have written on the subject, and putting my own thoughts to digital paper begins to seem redundant.
But lets be redundant. Perhaps it’s a waste of text; but at least the exercise will help me organize my own thoughts. If I’m lucky, two or three other people might even benefit from it!
In discussions of ethics there is a term: moral agency. The term is useful in distinguishing between those who are capable of guilt and those who are not. When an alligator kills a person they’ve really done nothing wrong, but when a person kills a person they’ve committed one of the most heinous acts imaginable. What’s the difference? Murderers have moral agency, alligators do not. A moral agent is one who is able to make meaningful decisions about their actions, with regards to right and wrong.
I bring this up because moral agency is easy for us to understand. Even if a person doesn’t grasp the nuanced “philosopheese” definition of moral agency, they still understand in their gut what it means. And starting from that gut-understanding of moral agency, we can begin to understand the more abstract concept of player agency. Moral agency is to ethics, as player agency is to tabletop RPGs. Which leads us to the following definition:
A player with agency is one who is able to make meaningful decisions about their actions, with regards to the game world.
In practice, this means more than letting the player control the actions of their character. That’s so obvious as to be trivial, and not worth my time nor anyone else’s to discuss. I’m certain there are terrible GMs out there who will casually exert direct control over their player’s characters; but such absolute disregard for the spirit of the game isn’t a problem I’m interested in addressing.
The far more subtle, and far more relevant issue of player agency is that the choices the players make must be meaningful. If the players are exploring a dungeon and reach a “T” intersection, they’ve been presented with a choice of turning left, or turning right. What they experience beyond this intersection must differ based on their choice if agency is to be maintained. There should be a room which is on the right, and a room which is on the left, and those rooms must be the same before the players make their choice, as they are after the players make their choice.
A few ways agency might be subverted in this situation:
- Rather than preparing “right” and “left” rooms, the GM has prepared “first” and “second” rooms. Whichever way the players turn, they will enter the “first” room first, and will only be able to visit the “second” room once they’ve already seen the “first” one.
- The GM wishes for the players to face as certain encounter here. And while it was originally placed in the room on the right, the GM will secretly move it to the room on the left for the sake of maintaining the ‘flow’ they wish to impose on the game.
- An out-of-place door which cannot be opened, unlocked, bashed down, or damaged at all blocks the players from entering the room the GM wishes for them to visit second. It remains impassable until the players visit the room the GM wanted them to enter in the first place.
These are just a few simple options. I’m sure you can think of more. The above scenario is a textbook example of agency robbing behavior. It is constructed so that the loss of agency is obvious. Unfortunately, not all scenarios where the GM is in a position to steal agency from their players are so clear cut. In fact most are quite subtle.
Consider traps, for example. I recently designed a magical trap which I thought was magnificently clever. So clever, in fact, that I included a cryptic hint about how to overcome it early in the adventure. When my players reached it, however, they stumbled through a loophole I had not considered. They bypassed the trap entirely, without ever engaging with the clever mechanisms I had been so proud of.
It would have been a simple matter to force them to engage with my trap. All I would need to say is something like “Your hammer bounces off the glass without leaving a scratch. Some sorcery has made it stronger than steel!” And in fact, that did occur to me, but I held my tongue. The players had outsmarted me. Forcing them to witness the cleverness of my trap would not be better than the sense of accomplishment they would feel from subverting it entirely.
If retroactive changes are made to the game world in order to invalidate the player’s choices, the players have no agency.
And it’s not as though I can’t use the trap again some day. I doubt I’ll even alter the flaw my players found. I doubt other groups would think of the same plan, but if they did, it would be equally impressive.
Having followed Courtney’s writings on player agency for a long while now, I’ve become familiar with a common response to discussions on the subject. I believe I may have even offered it myself at some time in the past, but have since come to view it as incorrect. Rather than wait for it to be brought up in comments, I’d like to address it here in the post.
“My players don’t know what’s written on my notes, so they won’t know when I change something.”
The common response to this is “You may think they won’t notice, but they will.” And there is some truth to that answer. Players are not stupid. When the ogre is taking a sound beating, then suddenly roars and starts hitting the PCs with twice his previous strength, nobody is fooled. Everybody at the table knows that the GM was frustrated that their monster was dying too quickly, and decided to give the creature a last second boost to their stats.
But I think that response is a little simplistic as well. The truth is, the GM probably can fool their players if they’re quick on their feet and have a good poker face. But just because the players don’t realize they’re being fooled, doesn’t mean the game isn’t being harmed. When every encounter is just the right amount of difficult, when the players can never subvert the mad wizard’s puzzles, when the villain manages to escape at the end of every single encounter…the game becomes stale.
Part of the excitement of tabletop games is the chaos and the unlimited possibilities. When I’m playing a video game, I’ve been given a very limited set of ways to interact with my environment. My solution to every problem must stem from those limited abilities I’ve been given. In a tabletop RPG, I can attempt to solve problems in any way I choose! Perhaps I’m too low level to fight the troll king toe-to-toe, but if I can drop a boulder on his head, why shouldn’t I be able to kill him?
In the era of video games, player agency is what makes tabletop games worth playing.