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.
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!