2012-10-12 Agency


Remember the old posts about player agency and the “quantum ogre” back in 2011? Today I was reminded of a different issue regarding agency.

Philip Watson mentioned on Google+ that he moved from AD&D 1st ed to Pathfinder with his group. The DM basically continues GMing like he did before, making up rulings rather than looking stuff up, but now some of the players are questioning this and even arguing with him, especially those who know the rules of Pathfinder better.

Here’s what I said: I left D&D 3.5 and Pathfinder because of the rule discussions. I think the reason these rules afford (encourage, invite) arguing about the rules – and I think it’s perfectly rational, which is why I decided to change the rules instead of trying to convince my players – is best summarized by Courtney Campbell in an old blog post called On Skills in Games.

By giving me agency (making choices matter) for those choices made while building my character, I am having my agency removed during play.

Courtney was using this passage in a slightly different context, but I still find it apt: players made important choices during character generation where as the GM is making rulings at the table, possibly negating the choices they made (”How can I fail to convince the guard having rolled a 15 and having a Diplomacy of +17?”) – and now the only recourse they have during play in order to make those choices they made matter is to argue their point using the rules. That’s why players might feel cheated if a game master ignores the choices they made.

As I said, what I took away personally is that I needed to change the rules such that not many choices are made during character creation and thus agency returns to the moment at the table where play happens.

(As an aside, back in 2010 I was playing a paladin on level 12 with Charisma 19, Diplomacy 32 und Sense Motive 24 and felt unhappy about the GM making too many rulings instead of sticking to the rules. I reacted just the same without really understand why I felt so unhappy.)



When I DM’ed a 2e game in university (back in the late ’90’s - uhg), one of the characters had the ability to speak with plants. My knee-jerk reaction as the DM was “what the fuck would plants have to say”, so the first few times he used the power, I basically gave him no use.

Then, one of my players (who was also a DM in our group, but for non-D&D games) pulled me aside and said - “He was really excited when he got that power, and just because you don’t like it, doesn’t mean it should be useless”. That comment really changed my DMing style. To the point that now I tend to give characters the benefit of the doubt on their skills and powers.

Some DM’s don’t agree with this, but from my perspective, you should reward characters for decisions made in character design. If somebody has dumped everything into Diplomacy, then they should be a god in scenarios relating to diplomacy.

wickedmurph 2012-10-12 17:19 UTC

Well said Murph. And yes, following this will soemtimes make things harder on the GM. Suck it up.

As for the hypothesis that you can either have player agency during creation or during play, I call that a poor excuse. Giving the GM more power does not magically produce player agency. GM agency can be used to increase or drastically decrease the player’s agency.

Let’s take your example about trying to convince the guard. Why did it fail? With some GM’s it could be that having the guard get cooperative at that moment wouldn’t be convenient to the plot. In this case, GM agency directly negates player agency, both at character creation and at the table. The GM who prefers rules will be enabling the player’s choices, both at character creation and in his choice to use diplomacy on this particular guard instead of cold-cocking him.

Note that this doesn’t prove that strict rules interpretation favors player agency either. We can come up with lots of scenarios that show the opposite. I don’t think the two are related at all. Player agency happens when the GM lets it happen. I’ve seen it in rules-heavy games and rules-light games.

– Philo Pharynx 2012-10-12 18:04 UTC

I agree: strict rules interpretation is independent of player agency.

I find the dichotomy “player agency during creation or during play” to be an exageration. I’ll try to reformulate: I think we reduce our agency later in the game if we make a lot of decisions during character creation or while levelling up. If a character is a good diplomat and a bad mountaineer, then no matter what you say or do later in the game, the character will be a good diplomat and a bad mountaineer. It doesn’t matter that the DM can take our agency away at any time. That can always happen. As a player, we are reducing our freedom to choose now by making choices earlier in the game. I think that to regain control over our character’s destiny, we could make a list options such as the following:

  1. roleplay and hope for a minor circumstance bonus (”no, no, no,” I cry and wipe a tear from my eye, “you don’t understand how much I love her!”)
  2. try a different approach using a different skill set, thus changing the situation (we’ll intimidate him instead of sweet talking him)
  3. argue about the situation and hope for a different interpretation of the situation (where is everybody standing)
  4. argue about the rules and hope for a circumstance bonus (if the dungeon walls are roughly hewn, climbing should be easier)
  5. argue about the rules and hope to introduce or invalidate a rule, thus changing the situation (it can’t take a five foot step in difficult terrain)

In a game with less front-loading of skills and feats and more emphasis on player skill, I expect more of the following:

  1. roleplay and hope to convince the DM (”no, no, no,” I cry and wipe a tear from my eye, “you don’t understand how much I love her!”)
  2. try a different approach using a different skill set, thus changing the situation (we’ll intimidate him instead of sweet talking him)
  3. argue about the situation and hope for a different interpretation of the situation (where is everybody standing)

It’s not perfect, but I prefer the second set over the first set of options.

AlexSchroeder 2012-10-12 20:54 UTC

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