Sunday, September 18, 2011

Player Agency

You're going to get a lot of reading material in this post, so brace yourself.

I've already documented my exploration of the Old School Renaissance, and added to that description as necessary.

So, over the course of the last week, noisms has been talking about player agency and freedom as exemplified by the problem of the Quantum Ogre; that is, you have an ogre encounter planned, and you're going to give it to the PCs no matter what happens.

Monsters and Manuals has the initial post over here, as well as a second post here.  He also recommends that you read this, this, this, this, and this rebuttal to understand the argument.

Go ahead and read all those.  I'll wait.

Done?  Okay.

As previously noted, I am a firm product of the post-Hickman revolution era, and approach game design as constructing a plot (the Old School Renaissance typically has some level of plot, but tends to rely more on emergent storytelling).  However, I also attempt to dissuade railroading in my plots by making a detailed setting; basically, I marry the two trends by placing a plot in a sandbox, and if the players do something unexpected or decide my plot sucks, they can go do whatever they want.  My "plot" is frequently not so much a flowchart as a gunshot going off: now what are you going to do?  I find this act/react structure works really well because material is generated through player choice, and once the rhythm is down, new sessions are easy to run.

(Note that I've trended away from my middle extreme in some instances: Crux of Eternity and any mission-style plots are typically more linear, though I always leave the option of doing some research and striking out on your own.  On the other hand, my Sabbat games gave the PCs the objective of taking back New York and basically left them to their own devices in the hopes that they would achieve that goal.)

I mention all this with the knowledge that some groups will just play differently; some might like to explore a more-or-less predetermined plot, like an interactive novel or a video game, while others are going to want to actually explore a whole world.  And, as is typical, there's a middle path: some people feel overwhelmed by the burden of choice, and would rather have the possibility of a linear plot in an enormous world, so that they can do what they like when they feel more comfortable with the world (or maybe it's just nice to know that the sandbox is out there, so they at least have that notion of choice, even if they never take it).

More to the point, I've GMed more than I've played, but having played in several different games, I've seen several different styles.  Among my friends, the plot-in-a-sandbox seems the most typical: here's a plot, but if you go "off the rails," nobody cares.  The possibility of choice means that these games are still fun and uncertain, because the future is still in doubt.

To my knowledge, I have only played in one "railroaded" game.  There was a fairly intricate plot, but I'm not certain how much choice was involved.  Character death was...possible?  Maybe?  The threat of it got pretty empty after a while.

Was it fun?  Sure.  But, it might have been more fun if the outcome were more in doubt.

In general, it's a lesson I try to keep in mind.  Again, I think the bonus of the plot is that a character can always fall back on the plot if he or she doesn't have any ideas; the sandbox is there once you feel a bit more comfortable about things.

Also, I might recommend this post, on the subject of player ingenuity.  In general, if a player has a good idea, I'm inclined to roll with it.  If that kills the big villain of the piece, so be it.

The consequences of an action can always make an interesting game session.

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