Agency? (Pheh.) I want Opportunity.

I just read a couple of posts that set me spiraling onto a course entirely not my intended conversation of the day… and they’re all about agency/authority at our gaming tables.

If you have the time (and inclination) you can check out Who Really Has the Power? and Listen Up, Game Masters — IT’S NOT ABOUT YOU! to get a tour of what thoughts inspired this post.

Agency. I see it talked about so much lately in gaming terms. I see the arguments about who holds the power, narrative control, and all that stuff (used in this case as a technical term) and it makes me crazy.

Seriously. Crazy. (so much so that there is a rant at the end of this post… but I put it at the bottom so you can skip it if you don’t want to read the rant part.)


On a more productive note, I’d like to discuss a slightly different take on the agency issue. I call it Opportunity.

When I sit down at a gaming table, whether as a player or GM, I want the opportunity to do awesome things. For me personally (my play preferences) that equates to being heroic, save-the-world types of stories, a dash of soap opera dramatics, and lots of relationships between PCs, between PCs and NPCs, etc. That may not be your thing, that’s just what does it for me. And I want to be given opportunities to experience those things.

I really don’t care if a GM sets up a plot and ambushes my character with it as long as I get to still have opportunities to enact my own character on the game. I mean, stuff happens all the time in my life when I have to do something I don’t want to. I do it but I’ll always do my best to make the best decisions I can while doing it.

Example: My GM in a Star Wars game had the local Imperial Security rep plant some contraband on our ship and then arrest us for smuggling… then offer us a little “mission” in exchange for rotting in an Imperial prison. If we had not accepted the job, game is likely over (cause we ain’t ready to take on dat Empire). Is that railroading? Some would say yes — for me it was an opportunity. My character — a gambler/con artist type — decided that he was now personally invested in destroying this dude. This guy busted us on bogus charges and ruined our lives? Now the party has an enemy. We hate this guy. We want to ruin this guy. And as the mission unfolded, the GM showed us hints that maybe not all was on the up and up with this mission, that we might have a way to get that guy like he got us. For me it was a priority. Yeah, some of my “agency” got taken away — but so what — it just opened up a new set of opportunities.

Then there’s the topic of narrative control… You know, in some games I need the permission of the rules to use my imagination… it’s billed as a feature of those systems (not a bug)… WHAT!?!? That’s exactly my amount of outrage about that. Okay, maybe not outrage but certainly surprise. I thought that, you know, inventing details and adding layers was just part of the process on both sides of the screen. Maybe I was just lucky and my first couple of DM’s were amazing (they were) and gave me a sense of how broad and wonderful the RPG experience could be. I’ve never stayed in a game for long where I couldn’t improvise details on the fly and my GM (or players) weren’t right there with me.

Narrative Control is just seizing opportunity. That NPC you just met, the throwaway bum on the street… if one of my players gives him a few coins and asks him where he’s from — I’ll make something up! If one of my players gives him a few coins and tells me, “hey, I’ve seen this guy around these streets for years — he probably knows all kinds of secrets in this city” then we’ve just taken it to the next level and I’m ready. Let’s run with that!

And that’s what it’s all about for me. I could write a book about how important opportunity is (as opposed to agency) but this is too long already. So I’ll quit here… and you can just take off now, while life is good or you can proceed to the rant, below… it’s your choice.

Rant Starts Here
Are we all so bad at this roleplaying thing that we can’t even sit down and play a game together without whining about who’s in charge? Does that sound harsh? Because it seems like a lot of these arguments ultimately don’t start or stop with anything except… “My DM is mean” or “My players suck.” And the answer to that is to either get a new group or, maybe, just maybe — talk to your FRIENDS and solve the problem like grown-up types.

You know, I’ve had the uncomfortable conversation where I kicked players out of games because the rest of the group didn’t want them there anymore… and I was asked to take that responsibility because (guess what?) I was the GM. How is that fair? Right, because I’m responsible for the group’s fun. And I take that seriously. If a player is not having a good time at my table I would much rather they simply come to me and talk about it rather than just complain or quit. Seriously, tell me why you are not having fun and we can fix it… go on the internet and whine about me being a bad DM and it never gets fixed (and then I wonder why you keep coming back if I find out about it)… please note – this hasn’t actually happened to me – it just illustrates the point.

Seriously, 90% of “what’s wrong at my table” posts and questions of so-called agency come down to being a poor communicator. And if your answer to that statement is “no, my players/GM are just unreasonable” then you are in the other 10% which is that you are likely dealing with a toxic group, you should end it and move on… but you can still only know this if you try to communicate the issues first!

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17 responses

  1. Well said. I concur 100%
    Opportunity >> Agency in every match-up.

  2. Perhaps all the focus on Agency and control is more fallout from the social devastation of political correctness and self-entitlement…

    In a broad sense, it seems that many people are too afraid to upset anyone, have little to no practice being straight with each other, and expect to be given special consideration.

    “The rules will save us!”

    Huh. Really…

    Good post!

  3. True, and in the example you gave, you could still have opted for the prison term. Then the GM would be in the position to have to explain what happened while you served your term (probably nothing good as their hours of prep time for the cool mission would have been wasted and that never amounts to a fun night). Also role-playing prison term could get a bit boring, and very limited in Opportunity!
    That bit about permission to use imagination also treads over to player knowledge vs character knowledge.
    An interesting post, thanks for sharing.

    1. As to the player knowledge vs character knowledge thing…

      Most of the time, my policy is somewhat along these lines… Players can make up any details they want at any time BUT I, as GM, do retain the final right to politely veto something that is made up if it is out of the spirit of the rest of what we are doing.

      It does take trust to allow this, but letting players have the lead without having to “ask permission” (of the GM or the rules) means that anything they want to do isn’t mechanical, it’s organic to the play experience. The group still puts its trust in the GM enough though to be the clearinghouse for ideas that may exceed or thwart expectation.

  4. I don’t know…the prison itself could have led to a chance for adventure. A bit of prison life adventuring followed by a daring escape or rescue by rebels looking speing a compatriot.

  5. @ Kevin — and I just thought that was the missing piece from a lot of the Agency conversation…

    @Runeslinger – well, we all know how much I think the rules will save us… 🙂

    @Victor and Black Campbell — you are absolutely right. We could have opted for prison, and that could have been a great adventure, and could have been a legit direction to take the game… The GM intended for us to have a run-in with the Rebel Alliance during our mission that would offer us the choice to join up with the Rebels. That could easily have been shifted to the prison planet (and we still wouldn’t have had to join the RA if we didn’t want to.)

  6. I like your take on opportuny as compared to railroading. Of course this works best when the GM is in tune to the types of opportunities the players want. A railroad going where you want is a vacation. A railroad going somehwere else is a prison. As for the rant, true a lot of this is bad communication. But a lot of roleplayers aren’t good communicators. And a lot of roleplayers haven’t experimented with different games and don’t know about other ways of playing. An article like the above can help people think about what they what they want and open up the communication.

  7. I am not sure if I see a great dichotomy between agency and opportunity as they are being used for gaming. In both cases, the players want to know that their characters can take meaningful action that is under the player’s direction.

    But I most certainly agree that communication is key in having a successful group. Though conflicts and missteps seem unavoidable, they usually can be resolved if everyone is sensible.

    1. The difference, as I’m expressing it, (that is, for me) is that Agency is a concept about being in charge and you can be offended when it is taken away from you… (if you feel like it).

      Opportunity is about making the most out of the situation no matter who has the “authority” at any given time.

      There is overlap, but really, in both cases it still comes down to trust. I mean, I don’t mind if my GM takes away a little of my supposed agency as long as I am still presented with exciting opportunities. Further, I want action and consequence in games to flow naturally one to (and from) the other. If I push my PCs in a direction, they still have opportunities to make meaningful choices, even though I may have impinged a little on player agency due to consequence.

      That’s all it means to me.

  8. @PP
    I do appreciate the positive spin you put on my post… I do enjoy exposing people to new games and trying them myself. That really is one of my greatest joys in the hobby.

    You are right. Many gamers are not great communicators — but I strive to make sure that players in my games know that the door is always open.

    Thanks.

  9. Late to the party (it has been a hell of a week, but on Monday I start a new job) – for me, the question is “How much of this is our game that we are playing, and how much of the game is me playing your story?”

    The former is what I mean by me saying I want more “player agency” – I want players who have more of a lead in directing the story and not just reacting to the story, and I want a system that rewards it; because yes, anyone can do it, but behavioral economics has demonstrated that people tend to do what they are rewarded for doing.

    I sit at the table with (hopefully) 4 to 6 other brilliant, interesting, people, and I want them rewarded for thinking about the game and generating good, interesting plots to cause conflict for their characters.

    Hopefully I’m making sense and somewhat on point.

  10. Well… welcome to the party! And congrats on the new job.

    I would respectfully submit that for me — part of the problem is the view that there is a dynamic between “your game” and “my game.” I don’t know if that makes sense… I’m trying to say — just like the advice that sometimes you have to sit back and let another player have the spotlight — so too with the story control. No, that still doesn’t say what I mean. I mean, it should be a partnership. Don’t ask yourself, “am I just playing through your story?” Play and react in character, do what makes sense and commit to being involved.

    Also, without diving into a conversation about motivation but… there’s been some pushback in the theory against extrinsic motivation (that is, rewards). But ultimately, the game is my reward. I don’t need a “plot point” or “bonus xp” for playing in the game. I just love the act of the game.

    I have a theory — and I know many disagree — that we’ve trained our players to expect extrinsic rewards during game that are primarily metagame rewards that (again, for me) actually interfere with the play experience.

    Thanks for jumping in.

  11. I totally agree with you. And if I could fine 4 variants of “you” to game with, system would probably matter less – assuming we could all find something we agreed on. But a group of great gamers will make just about any system sing.

    A lot of this stems from my experiences in the workplace (or at least this is where most people come into contact with this) where the processes aren’t in place for the best employees. If you had a company of “best employees” you wouldn’t need any sort of process beyond the bare minimum to provide some guidance and direction, and the awesomeness would take care of its own.

    However, not everyone can be great. Not everyone can be “best” and for the people who aren’t that self-starting, for the people who aren’t instinctually inclined that way OR trained well that way.

    Because people do have bad training and scars from previous games. I’m always remember playing Exalted and having a new person joining my game and I gave them a fair bit of background of allies, mentors, and contacts (all things the group was lacking AND fitting with her character) to help her have some spotlight time that wouldn’t be overshadowed by the current players – and she was more or less amazed that I *wasn’t* inclined to take those resources away in an instant, that I wasn’t going to kill/steal/etc them away to uselessness.

    It is the same sort of mentality that causes players to create wandering solitary orphans with no ties to community or place, because they’ve been taught to have ties to something is to have a weak point for the GM to exploit.

    So I want a system that gives the players “cookies” however overly sweet they are for writing those hooks and vulnerabilities in, I want a system that rewards players for not doing the most optimal action. I full agree that it would be wonderful if all of us were intrinsically motivated to do it; however, as I’ve learned in many a management class, not everyone is motivated by same things, and far more people are motivated by some form of cookie – it may just be praise, it may be some sort of token/reward, but positive beneficial stimuli is very effective at obtaining desired behaviors.

  12. Well… we can agree to disagree…

    I have seen considerable argument and evidence pointing toward the failure of “rewards” at properly encouraging long-term good behavior. But as I said, this is hardly the place for a discussion that off-topic and deep.

    I understand that there are bad GMs. “Fixing” players that were abused by these bad GMs is a point of great joy for a good GM. And I don’t want a table of 4 of “me.” That would make me nuts. I’ve played my most successful games with players who ranged from very introverted to very (very) extroverted. The trick is to make all of them feel welcome in whatever role they set for themselves in the party and the game.

    It also seems to me to be a false dichotomy that asks a player to take a “less than optimal action.” Players should always be trying to do the best they can. I mean, do you go to work and try to “take less than optimal actions?”

    You can choose to not min-max or be a selfish power gamer but that’s a different problem (in my opinion) from what is at stake here.

    But as I say, I’m okay with disagreeing.

  13. There is no “your game” and there is no “my game” hence neither is there a dynamic between the two. There is only “our game” and it cannot struggle against itself for the spotlight.

    That’s what I want.

  14. Thank you Kevin. You said what I was trying to say — just much more succinctly and directly.

  15. […] The Rhetorical Gamer muses (and rants) about agency, narrative control, and the opportunity to do awesome things in Agency? (Pheh.) I Want Opportunity. […]

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