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Talar
2014-08-14, 09:17 PM
Hello Playground, so I've seen this term thrown around a lot. One I am not a hundred percent sure as to its meaning and what it entails. I was hoping the playground could help cure my ignorance, on this subject.

Secondly I was wondering how does a DM infringe on player agency? Obviously to discuss how a DM infringes player agency and what can lead to such an occurrence we need to agree on a definition of player agency. Hopefully this discussion can help me and other DM's avoid hurting the fun of the game for the players and themselves.

jaydubs
2014-08-14, 10:05 PM
Player agency is the ability of players to make choices for their characters, and for those choices to have a meaningful impact on the game.

Player agency is infringed upon when those choices are taken away, or when those choices are prevented from meaningfully influencing events in the game universe.

Someone will probably come up with something better, but that feels pretty good for a minute of contemplation.

Slipperychicken
2014-08-14, 10:12 PM
I feel my agency is reduced when I believe I am not allowed to make in-game choices, or that the DM deliberately nullifies their impact.


Some examples of agency-reducing actions:

When the DM declares my PCs actions for me ("You go down and shout obscenities at the guard before rushing off to the dungeon without preparing").
When the DM declares (or worse, decides without telling the players) there is only one highly unintuitive way to solve a problem, and allows no other method to work (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/MoonLogicPuzzle) (real life example: "The intended way to beat this encounter was to run past the ooze, pick a book off the shelf, and throw it into the ooze so it detects itself as an intruider and self-destructs. Duh!").
When my PC is frequently subject to mind-control, magical or otherwise. For this purpose, I consider the GM saying things like "Your PC does this because he loves Professor Mary Sue and would never question her" to be mind-control.
When the GM uses overpowered NPCs to coerce PCs into performing desired actions.
When the GM declares that actions he doesn't approve of automatically fail, or outright says "you can't do that" without a decent explanation.
If my PC makes a choice between multiple options and it turns out both ways would have triggered the same events.
If my PC succeeds appropriate lore checks to learn crucial information, but the GM withholds it regardless of the check's success or failure.


It is also important to remember that, in some cases, curtailing a player's agency can be acceptable. For an extreme example, if a player wishes to play as a disturbingly-evil 11 year old futanari demon avatar of rape and murder in a game about lighthearted heroic adventure, it can be acceptable to tell the player this concept is inappropriate and you will not permit it as-is. Similarly, if superhero PCs decide to burn the skin off of orphans 'for the lulz', or wish to pick the wallets from the bodies of dead civilians, it can be appropriate to say something like "that is disturbing, I'm not GMing for that". For more general ones, a GM may find it useful to proactively ban PvP (including violence, theft, PCs working against each others' goals, and other forms of griefing or trolling behavior directed at other PCs), or to limit PCs motivations and personalities (i.e. "no evil PCs allowed", "your PCs must be at least as heroic as Han Solo").

Ideally, it is best to clearly and adequately communicate your ideas about the game's tone and direction prior to the game's start, and try to minimize the extent to which you invalidate player choices in-game. Excessively curtailing your players' agency can quickly lead to resentment and a breakdown of trust, which can in turn prove fatal to a gaming group.

Dimers
2014-08-14, 10:43 PM
Very low player agency operates like the players reading from a script the GM gave them. They don't get to make real choices.

There are two related terms to consider here -- player agency and narrative agency. (They really ought to be called character and narrative agency, but we work with what we've got.)

The former means that the player gets to make decisions for her own character. If your player is struck by unholy fear in the presence of a monster, the typical level of player agency in a D&D game would allow a saving throw and let the character choose how to react within the bounds of what the fear-inducing trait allows. Very low player agency would have the DM declare that the character is automatically afraid and must run away rather than choosing a fear response. Very high player agency would have the DM ask the player, "How would your character react to a horridly fearful monster?" and let the player choose what mechanical effects the fear has, if any.

Narrative agency is the degree to which players can decide things about the story or gameworld other than their own character. Low or no narrative agency is the default for D&D -- the DM determines everything with which the PCs can interact during play, and often restricts their decisions about what exists in his the gameworld during character creation. (If a player says "I'll be a dragon" and the DM responds "There aren't any dragons in this world", that's one example of low narrative agency.) A game with very high narrative agency means that if players want an event to happen or a thing to exist, it does, and the DM is simply a person in charge of adjudicating rules. Medium narrative agency would be if the DM has a plot and some hidden knowledge but players can also invent stuff on-the-fly as long as it doesn't contradict the DM's restrictions.

An "agent" is that which causes, more or less. A real estate agent causes housing changes, an author's agent causes books to be published and the author to be paid, a chemical agent makes something chemical happen, a spy or G-man is called an agent because they cause things to happen for a government. "Agency" is being an agent, being a cause-r. (An "agenda" is a list of things you'd like to cause.)

So player agency is how much stuff you can cause as a player. What I'm calling character agency is how much you can drive your own character, and narrative agency is how much you can drive a story, a narrative.

Manasam
2014-08-14, 10:46 PM
For an example of agency done well, I will refer to with some confidence my current GM. He has emphasized to is that he wants to run a game where our choices do matter.

I (as somewhat of an in-joke), as the party face, say I do not quite trust a certain member of the party to a city official. That party member is not able to sway the king to grant us extra recompense. The stealthier party members do some well-placed reconissance, and a greater threat is snuffed out early. It makes both the successes, and the failures, feel earned and right.

At the same time though, it can be... Fortunate if the DM does not give creedence to a certain player's request of [[his] real-life girlfriend's changeling character should totally shapeshift into a "trap" dragonborn.]

Steward
2014-08-14, 11:20 PM
]When the DM declares my PCs actions for me ("You go down and shout obscenities at the guard before rushing off to the dungeon without preparing").



The former means that the player gets to make decisions for her own character. If your player is struck by unholy fear in the presence of a monster, the typical level of player agency in a D&D game would allow a saving throw and let the character choose how to react within the bounds of what the fear-inducing trait allows. Very low player agency would have the DM declare that the character is automatically afraid and must run away rather than choosing a fear response. Very high player agency would have the DM ask the player, "How would your character react to a horridly fearful monster?" and let the player choose what mechanical effects the fear has, if any.


These are pretty good descriptions and insights. I personally find the "player agency" part more annoying than the "narrative agency" part. A skilled storyteller DM can probably keep you from realizing that your actions don't affect the story much, but whenever the DM just takes over your character and has them do something stupid for no reason (or, worse, specifically to annoy you, as the player) then it's just irritating. That doesn't mean that DMs should railroad though -- it's just that taking over characters by force is easier to detect.

Thrudd
2014-08-15, 05:00 AM
The definition of "player agency" given by jaydubs above pretty much covers it.
How a DM could infringe on it are varied, some good examples already given. Since you used the term 'DM', I am guessing we're talking about D&D. In D&D all of the player's agency comes from their ability to interact with the game world through their character, the game gives them no direct narrative control. So how the DM designs their game world and conceives the campaign will have a big impact on how much agency players have.

A common way player agency is infringed upon is when the DM decides to tell a specific story regardless of what the players decide to do, aka "railroading".
A game with minimal player agency might go like this: You plan out each scene, like it is a movie or a video game, the players fight the things you plan for them to fight, talk to the people you want them to talk to, and then the next thing happens according to your script. Nothing they do will change what comes next, you might not even let them die if they lose a fight, so your story can keep going. Some people think that this is OK, as long as the DM is able to fool the players into believing their choices actually made a difference in the story, however the fact remains that they had very little or no agency throughout.

I disagree with the idea that a character being affected by a spell, like "fear", according to the rules of the game, is removing player agency. If the spell says that failing your saving throw means you run away at full speed for X number of rounds, that is what happens. That is the "game" part of the role playing game. Repeated use and abuse of spells which control or change the behavior of the characters can be a problem, but used sparingly and appropriately I don't think they are an issue.

The players should be able to make decisions about where their characters go, what they do, and how they do it within the rules of the game, and those decisions should determine the fate of their characters and have impact on the game world. The characters must obey the rules of the game world. A character can't fly just because the player says so, or ignore taking damage, or succeed at anything they want without rolling. That is not taking away player agency in the context of a D&D game.

Red Fel
2014-08-15, 08:49 AM
I think everyone in this thread has already covered it. It basically covers two areas.

First, the ability to choose for your character. If you take an action, and the GM says "Your character wouldn't do that," or "You can't do that," (for reasons other than mechanical ones) you have lost agency. For example, telling the Paladin that he wouldn't attack the Orc without talking to it is reducing player agency, as is telling the Hacker that for whatever reason he just can't hack this particular system (without allowing for any kind of dice roll or discussion, just a flat "No"). When you are no longer the primary decision-maker in your actions, you have lost agency.

A key distinction here is mentioned by Thrudd - sometimes, mechanics allow for a character to lose control. Rage, mind control, hypnosis, or a private agreement between player and GM. Those things generally do not reduce player agency, or at least not as substantially. Player agency is reduced when the player has no opportunity to dispute or challenge the loss of control. For example, when the GM informs a character, "Suddenly, you feel darkness seize your mind, and you attack Bob." No save, just crazy. That reduces agency.

Second, the ability for your choices to be meaningful. If you take an action, and the GM allows it, but it winds up accomplishing nothing, you have lost agency. For example, if you decide to be clever while fighting an armored opponent and perform a called shot, and the GM allows the roll, allows it to hit, and then informs you that the attack nonetheless fails as the enemy regenerates, your agency has been reduced. (Unless in fact this enemy has a mechanical damage reduction or regeneration. Basically, is you're dealing with "plot armor," you've lost agency.) Or if you don't want to travel to Town X, so you wander in the opposite direction, get lost in the woods, and stumble out to find yourself... in Town X. Or, you wander off and reach Town Y, which happens to be a carbon-copy of Town X, right down to the NPC you were supposed to meet in Town Y. When your actions are rendered completely impotent, you have lost agency.

Mind you, this is a trickier one, because it's more subjective. If the players have no way of knowing that the plot is in Town X, and the GM moves it into Town Y because they went there instead, there's less of a feeling of a loss of agency. It's only when the players actually know that their actions are rendered meaningless that they feel the loss of agency. That said, voiding players' decisions like that - whether known or in secret - may be seen with disfavor.

Note also that the loss of agency can run in the players' favor. The GM can decide that he doesn't want the PCs to die. So enemies hit softer, traps are non-lethal, encounters are below their recommended challenge. A player is hit point-black with a critical with a vorpal weapon. "Suddenly," the GM announces, "the weapon shatters, as a voice from above intones, 'Now is not your time!'" This can often be just as frustrating as other forms of reducing player agency, because it renders the PCs' actions meaningless. If they have perfect plot armor, why bother leveling? Why not just go to the BBEG's lair and fall on him until he breaks?

nedz
2014-08-15, 09:45 AM
Mind you, this is a trickier one, because it's more subjective. If the players have no way of knowing that the plot is in Town X, and the GM moves it into Town Y because they went there instead, there's less of a feeling of a loss of agency. It's only when the players actually know that their actions are rendered meaningless that they feel the loss of agency. That said, voiding players' decisions like that - whether known or in secret - may be seen with disfavor.


I've seen this, and similar things, done it's normally obvious. Usually it's part of a pattern of behaviour from a DM. It also makes chase scenes pointless, and thus lack suspense you will catch up with the villain if the plot calls for it, and not otherwise so why get excited.

Dimers
2014-08-15, 10:21 AM
I disagree with the idea that a character being affected by a spell, like "fear", according to the rules of the game, is removing player agency. If the spell says that failing your saving throw means you run away at full speed for X number of rounds, that is what happens. That is the "game" part of the role playing game.

What I was trying to say is that a game system with the greatest possible player agency would have mechanics that let the player decide how their character would react to a fearful thing. Playing D&D by its rules is not "removing" player agency, except by comparison with completely different systems. Systems which may or may not exist, by the way -- most of my RPG knowledge is in D&D, Shadowrun, WoD and GURPS, none of which have a degree of player agency that extreme.

I simply wanted to show the spectrum of possible player agency, from none (reading a script) to complete (deciding everything related to the character). I'm not saying medium player agency is a bad thing, and in fact, I generally find extremes to be inferior to moderation.

Talar
2014-08-15, 10:25 AM
Thank you for the replies, and curing my ignorance. So one DM I play with is guilty of a lot of the no-nos you guys listed. (that game has been very frustrating, but lets not dwell on it) With a different group I am running a mind flayer of thoon game, so I've made knowledge check DC's rather high so as to keep some mystery as to what they are facing (I do give them some info, but it is usually incomplete. Also they rolled really well and made a good logical argument so I let them rescue a partially burned out book detailing some things about Thoon) I've also reacted to some of their choices, and give more information then I planned if they ask good questions/are smart. In this regard so far I feel like based on your definitions I am doing rather well in keeping their player agency high.

My worry comes in that they are facing mind flayers....mind control is sorta part of their schtick. Not to mention the party are one bad decision/a bad roll or two from death due to brain eating. This seems like dangerous ground in terms of player agency. Next session is tomorrow, they are only 5th level currently, and they are going to head into the city where the rest of the campaign is probably going to happen. So I am afraid of them stumbling into an area where they'll just die because of getting way over their heads. That is unlikely because I have the flayer lair pretty well hidden/not in obvious location. Also I'm banking on them not being totally stupid.

I started this thread to help me as DM learn what possible pitfalls to avoid and help me grow as a DM.

Dimers
2014-08-15, 10:55 AM
My worry comes in that they are facing mind flayers....mind control is sorta part of their schtick. Not to mention the party are one bad decision/a bad roll or two from death due to brain eating.

It's cool. Going by what the dice say is Standard Operating Procedure for D&D levels of player agency. If you didn't have a discussion about it before the game started, that's the baseline they expect.

ElenionAncalima
2014-08-15, 12:38 PM
Pretty much echoing what has already been said...but the way I see it, tabletop gaming is collaborative story telling. When one or more players is being denied their right to collaborate, player agency has been lost.

Obviously players don't have total free reign. They are limited by the rules of the game, their build and reality in general. If they get knocked unconcious, they can't walk over and punch the boss. If they are a player without any means of flying they can't declare that their character levitates to the roof. In this grouping, I would include things like domination and fear. If they have been dominated, its not unreasonable for a DM to say they can't act in certain ways.

Of course a DM has to be careful with mind control. There are certainly red flags that player agency is being impacted:
-Denying players a save.
-Repeatedly using mind control to advance the plot.
-Using it to control a player's actions for an extended amount of gaming time (without allowing them input).
-Using it to take away abilities from an alignment restricted class.

However, it doesn't sound as if you are trying to abuse mind control...you are just using it naturally as an in game challenge. If I had to make a suggestion, try giving controlled players loose commands then let them roleplay the rest. It will be more fun for them if they are told they must kill person X, but are allowed to figure it out, than if you just play their character for the remainder of the affliction. Although, just a warning, this only works if the players in question aren't heavy metagamers.

There is one final thing to keep an eye out for regarding player agency. It is less common, but sometimes a player can take away another player's agency. Keep a monitor on the players that like to describe how other characters react to them or like to declare that the entire group is doing things. Sometimes this can be harmless, but it is alway good to make sure other players aren't irritated by this behavior.

Amphetryon
2014-08-15, 12:52 PM
If they are a player without any means of flying they can't declare that their character levitates to the roof. In this grouping, I would include things like domination and fear. If they have been dominated, its not unreasonable for a DM to say they can't act in certain ways.Some on these forums, and elsewhere, have argued that having enemies that fly versus a party (member) without means of flight is essentially removing player agency.

In other words, to a certain extent, "player agency" is a moving target that's defined by your group.

ElenionAncalima
2014-08-15, 01:07 PM
In other words, to a certain extent, "player agency" is a moving target that's defined by your group.

That is absolutely true. However, it also goes broader than player agency and pretty much applies to everything at the table. One of the best skills a DM can have is the ability to read responses and communicate with their players.

However, the most any of us can do is explain our personal thresholds for player agency and give advice based that. If the OP's players are the type to cry "loss of agency" because their PC failed a save and got stunned for one round, a lot of advice we give won't be too helpful.

Talar
2014-08-16, 12:22 AM
I view the job of DM'ing as ensuring the fun of the everyone at the table, so I try to be more leery of everything. My players I don't think are familiar with the term 'player agency', but know the concept I am sure. So I do not see them crying foul unless if I go off the deep end somehow. Thank you guys for the responses.

kyoryu
2014-08-16, 01:50 AM
From wikipedia ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Agency_(philosophy) ):


Human agency is the capacity for human beings to make choices.

There ya have it. Do the players have the opportunity to make meaningful choices?

It gets abused a lot (the flying creatures against non-flying PCs isn't really removal of agency, it's neutralizing someone's toys, not the same thing). The biggest offenders are long-term mind control, railroading, and especially illusionism.

jaydubs
2014-08-16, 02:16 AM
Sending a challenge that a specific party member can't handle well is perfectly reasonable (it's going to occasionally happen unless the characters have very similar capabilities).

Repeatedly sending challenges that no one in the party can handle may not be removing player agency, but it's probably not going to be any fun for the players. You probably still have options like "run away" and "find an NPC who can deal with it," so there are still meaningful choices.

Sending in a challenge that the party can neither handle nor escape from, however, is a removal of player agency, since it prevents player choices from creating different outcomes. The most common of these are the much hated auto-captures. But it can also happen by accident, or when some DMs think it's a good idea to kill a character for dramatic effect.

kyoryu
2014-08-16, 01:59 PM
Sending in a challenge that the party can neither handle nor escape from, however, is a removal of player agency, since it prevents player choices from creating different outcomes. The most common of these are the much hated auto-captures. But it can also happen by accident, or when some DMs think it's a good idea to kill a character for dramatic effect.

Bolded for emphasis.

Many of the things that are slapped with "you're breaking my agency!" *can* be used as tools of removing agency, but they're not inherently so.

Curbstomp
2014-08-18, 02:35 AM
Talar-

You might want to generate a (planned) random encounter to get your PC's to level 6. In D&D 3.5 that can mean a lot in terms of party strength versus level 5. Things like second attack for the full BAB characters, third level spells even for spontaneous casters, a feat for every 0 LA character, and possible 1st level in a variety of prestige classes. If you want to tie the encounter to your plot it shouldn't be too hard. One example might be a mind-controlled band of ogres or ettins sent after the PC's specifically if the Mindflayers are aware of them as a threat.

Regardless, I hope that your players have as much fun as I did playing in that plotline. I've been a player in three Thoon Mindflayer games and a DM for over one thousand sessions of D&D 3.5 and the best solution to the Thoon plotline we ever used was opening a permanent gate from our Nine Hells to the Thoon Material Plane. Then we hunted down the Mindflayers who were in our Material Plane. That was at epic level though ;)

-Curb