A Sense of Agency

 Posted by on June 10, 2011  Filed as: Better Gameplay?  Add comments
Jun 102011

Do you want to know what one of the key differences is between a bad campaign and a good one? It’s not a particularly well-kept secret, mind you. In fact, there are dozens of gaming blogs that will tell you about it in a dozen of different ways. In technical terms though, the difference between a good campaign and a bad one, is that in a good campaign the players will feel that they have a sense of agency. This ‘sense of agency’ makes the players feel more important, and allows them to have fun. So, just what is it? Well, I’m glad you asked.

What is Agency?

A person’s sense of agency is essentially how much control they feel they have over their lives. Do you feel that you are able to decide your own path in life? Or do you feel that you aren’t allowed to decide anything, or that nothing you do actually matters? In a lot of ways, growing up and assuming responsibility is the act of taking more and more agency on oneself, and several studies have shown that students with a greater sense of agency in high school make the transition to college a lot better than those who don’t. Not surprising, when you consider the fact that those without a sense of agency aren’t used to the level of freedom that colleges give to their students.

How is that Important in my Game?

So, how is that important in your game? Well, think about it for a second. If your players feel like they have agency in your game, then that means that they feel that their decisions matter. It means that the story is as much theirs as it is yours. They can do things, they can change things, and their fate is ultimately in their hands.

This is the core principle behind most GMing advice for interacting with players. Make them matter, make their decisions matter, and let them do things. Say “Yes” when a character asks if they can do something and run with it. Say “yes, but”, “Yes, if”, “yes, when”, but say “yes!” Or, in other words, “Don’t say no, assign a difficulty.” If your players don’t feel like they matter in the game, then they’re probably not going to stick around. If they don’t stick around, then you don’t have a game, now do you?

But…my plot!

What about your plot? Yes, I get it, you probably worked really hard on it. However, if you didn’t work in ways for your players to toy with it, then you probably should have written a novel; not a campaign for an RPG. A story where the characters can’t change anything, and have to follow a prescribed path is not a game, it is a sequence of cut scenes and battles.

If you want your players to go left at the next junction, then give them a reason to. However, if they choose to go straight, then let them. Run with it, assign consequences, but let them be the master of their own domain. Give them that sense of agency, and show that you will react accordingly to their actions. You’ll be surprised how quickly they start to gel with it, especially once they realize that their decisions hold weight and can shape the game around them.

What Kind of Game Are You Running?

This is the big question to ask yourself with your campaign. Are you trying to tell a story, or are you running a game? Neither is a wrong answer. I’ve run a lot of RPGs that were telling a story.  The trick is to tell the players ahead of time so they know what they’re getting into, and then still working to preserve their sense of agency. Still, if you want to tell a plot, then you need to tell your players. You want them going in knowing what is trying to be accomplished.  How else can they help you out with it?

If, on the other hand, you are just running a big campaign for the adventures your players are making, then a lot of your work is already done for you. After all, the game is focused on those adventurers, where they go, and what they do. Give them that sense of agency and let them weave their own legends. If you’re running a story, you need to work it a bit more, but you can still do it.

But They Keep Burning The Bar Down!

If all your players do with their agency is to sit around town, or destroy public property, then you have two choices. One, point it out to them, and if you’re not having fun, call the game. Find out why they are doing that, and if that is what they really want to do. Who knows, you may be able to find a way to make it more fun. The other way, is to run with it. Make things happen in the bar, have people come to them for help, engage them individually, or have the guard come to arrest the arsonists. A big part about giving a sense of agency, is letting the consequences of actions hit the person. The good ones, and the bad ones.

So, try to have fun with it. Let them have fun with it. And for the gods’ sake, lay off on the reigns a bit. You’ll thank me for it later.

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Anthony Laffan

Anthony got pulled inside the interwebs in 1998 with, of all things, a first person shooter called Starsiege Tribes. Since then, he trolled around the net claiming to be Delirium incarnate until a wicked fairy bashed him across the back of the head and showed him the wonders of game design and sociology. Now, despite the pleas for mercy from those nearest him, he continues to try to apply both (game design and sociology) to the world and games around him in the vain hopes of understanding something. Do not confront this man, he is very likely dangerous and will talk your ear off at the slightest hint of interest in anything he likes. Profile Page / Article Portfolio

  4 Responses to “A Sense of Agency”

  1. Absolutely right on the money. I think one of the crucial things a Gm needs to consider is how to signal the players that they do have agency, show them that they have a definite effect on the world and plot. If the GM simply goes “OK, they did that, so the bad guys have to react behind the scenes in this way…” that’s halfway there- the players have agency, but may not be aware of it.

  2. Great post. Echoing edige23, I’d agree about showing players the effects of their choices (not necessarily immediately.) And, of course, giving them choices to begin with. Start with something so simple it might come from a choose-your-own-adventure book: Door on the right, or door on the left? What do the players consider when making this choice? That’s where the game begins!

    Break down the door on the right! The effect is that the player is attacked by the slavering beast beyond.
    Listen at the door on the right. The effect is that the player hears the slavering beast beyond.
    Break down the door on the left! The effect is that the player triggers a gas trap in the room on the right (and can hear the distant hissing). The unrevealed effect is that the slavering beast is rendered unconscious.
    Listen at the door on the left. Hear the faint ticking of the gas-generating mechanism in the room beyond.

  3. Glad you both like it. Properly conveying Agency is one of the harder things to do in a game at times, especially as events (the PCs may have even set them in motion) begin to run rampant and take on an energy of their own. Still, in any story, when the main characters don’t have agency, something is wrong.

  4. Excellent GM advice distillation. I recently had a player sum up most of my games as “You think of a problem, drop it in front of us and then watch and see what we do”. He meant that in a good way. Obviously there’s more to GMing than that but I felt quite happy with that description because they know it’s up to them to find a solution and make it happen.

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