I’ve been thinking a lot about the discussions I’ve had with others about diceless play and the value of randomizing factors in role playing games. One concept that came up more than once was that a game without a randomizing element can remove a sense of agency from the players. This seemed counterintuitive to me – my agency has always been improved by removing the dice/cards from the equation. But I’ve thought about it more and pursued it in conversation more; and I think I understand a little where this issue comes from.
It starts with trust. In games, I think we, as players, like to have choices in play – and especially, we like those choices to be meaningful. Now, what exactly makes a choice meaningful is probably subjective. For some folks meaningful choices start long before you reach the table and center around character building. For others, the stats on the paper are just an annoying vehicle that you need to interact with the vast realm of fantasy you want to inhabit with you character. This is just one sample of the possible layers of view that include meaningful choices, but you get the idea.
Ultimately, this issue of trust is a thorny one. The ability to make meaningful choices is important and if we feel that our choices are going to be entirely in the hands of a capricious GM, who has sole power to decide the outcome of our actions in lieu of dice rolling, then I can understand feeling a lack of agency in that situation. To my mind, this problem exists in every single role playing game no matter the rule set. Some rules do go out of their way to minimize the role of the GM, and I find these are some of my least favorite games, as a player or a GM – but even in these systems the power of the GM can be abused… it just takes more creativity on the part of the “asshole GM.” And as staunchly as I defend the GM, their role, and their craft in this hobby – I freely admit that through error, inability, or intent there are plenty of bad GMs out in gaming-land.
Before I explain my own experiences with “bad GM” I want to consider something. The dice or mechanics that exist to shield player agency from GM whims are only an illusion. Think of it this way, if you are in a group where you are worried that a GM will favor one character over another but you can roll dice so you feel a little better about it… what’s to say that behind the screen the GM isn’t handing out +2 bonuses to one character and not another (probably with perfectly inane justifications if called out on it). If you’re worried that you are in a group where the GM is just going to arrange events so that no matter what your PC does you’ll only fail or succeed in ways that make the GMs “superplot!” go forward? Well, that’s going to happen anyway because even if you are rolling dice a bad GM will simply keep arranging events such that your actions – whether success or failure – will simply serve whatever plan is in motion “behind the screen.”
My point – if you don’t trust your GM (or your other players for that matter) – don’t play with them. It doesn’t matter what system you are playing. It can be old schools “rulings not rules,” new school “shared narrative control,” or any point on the continuum between those points – a capricious, untrustworthy GM can ruin the experience.
But that shouldn’t (to my mind) mean that you abandon games with a GM role, or pretend that mechanics will shelter you from a bad GM – it means that you need to play with people who have similar expectations about the shared experience of the game and that you don’t waste your valuable gaming time on a game that doesn’t include trust.
I once joined a game with someone I knew from school. He was a great guy, smart, cool, fun to talk to, very knowledgeable about many, many subjects… but he’s not a GM I’m comfortable playing with. He made characters roll for EVERYTHING and he dictated every aspect of the game from “what your character found acceptable to do in some situations” to “whether or not you could find a pebble in a dungeon.” It was a frustrating situation to say the least. Knowing that I was “allowed” to roll dice in that game didn’t make me feel any better – because I knew that whether I succeeded or failed on any given roll I was completely at the mercy of the GM’s decision-making, which was in turn informed primarily by that GM’s own vision of what was going on in the story/adventure. I left that game after only a few sessions because I had no feeling of agency there either.
Now don’t get me wrong – I’m a diceless evangelist, it’s true, but I don’t think it’s the “one true way” or anything. I realize that everything I’ve just said can be discussed and countered and re-interpreted in relation to diceless play as fully as it can to diced. But that was my point really – that the guarantors of agency in our mechanical systems are illusions. The best instrument of agency in a gaming group is trust and without that trust none of the decisions we make are particularly meaningful.
Just to postscript a little: This post didn’t actually go according to plan – I had actually wanted to write about intentionality vs. capriciousness in decision-making and how magic systems in some games reflect agency in special ways… so, that will be tomorrow’s post. For now, enjoy and thanks for reading.