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Agency, specifically player agency, is a term that frequently comes up as a reason for why a particular rule or GM decision is better than another. How is agency defined in this context and why is it important?

(Related: What is railroading and is it a bad thing?)

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  • \$\begingroup\$ "what is it good for?" Have you ever played Candyland? \$\endgroup\$ – Shufflepants Jan 8 '18 at 18:31
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What is Agency?

I personally define agency by three criteria:

  1. The player has control over their own character's decisions.
  2. Those decisions have consequences within the game world.
  3. The player has enough information to anticipate what those consequences might be before making them.

What does that mean?

To elaborate on those conditions, I'll give examples of ways that agency can be violated.

  • A group of goblins surrenders to the PCs. Alice decides that her character, Johanna, would rather just kill all the goblins and says that she starts executing them. Devin (the DM) decides that Johanna wouldn't do that and forbids the action. In this scenario, agency condition 1 is violated because Alice is no longer in control of her characters actions.
  • Devin has planned for the PCs to be ambushed by bandits on their way out of town - and he foreshadows the ambush by having the PCs overhear in the bar that a merchant got attacked by bandits on the road they're about to travel on. The PCs look at the map, and choose to take a longer route to avoid the bandits. Devin decides to spring the bandit ambush on them anyway - Devin moves the bandit lair on the campaign map so that they will still encounter it. Here, agency condition 2 is violated because the PCs decision to avoid the bandits was made meaningless.
  • The party is making a plan to infiltrate a dungeon. Devin decides that the evil wizard who rules the dungeon is Scrying them and therefore knows their plan. Unless the players have reason to expect that they might be Scried, this is an agency condition 3 violation.
  • The party encounters a troll, which keeps regenerating on them. Carl remembers that trolls are weak to fire or acid, and so he has his character, Percy, attempt to torch one of them after it goes down. Devin says that Percy wouldn't know trolls were weak to fire and so forbids the action. Agency condition 1 is violated.
  • Same as above, but Carl convinces Devin that that's railroading. Devin still thinks it's unfair for a player to use that knowledge, so he changes the trolls into homebrew "trulls" which are like trolls, but their regeneration is countered by lightning instead of fire or acid. Agency condition 3 is violated, because the players have no reason to expect that lightning would behave any differently than other damage types.

And what is it good for?

Imagine if any one of those examples above led directly to a player death - or worse, a TPK. Any of these situations could be a group-killer:

  • The GM forbids the player from killing the surrendered goblins - then has one of the surrendered goblins stab them in the night.
  • The GM ignores the players' decision to avoid the bandits - then the bandits kill someone during the surprise round.
  • The players go forward with their plan that assumes they will have the element of surprise. They get ambushed and die.
  • The GM forbids the player from using fire to kill a troll, which allows the troll to mop up the party with impunity.
  • The GM replaces the trolls with trulls that aren't weak to fire, and then the trulls make mush of the party before the players figure out the switcheroo.

A defeat in which the players had no agency is arbitrary will always feel arbitrary - the players will feel as if the GM cheated them. A defeat that follows from Agency is one that the players can feel responsible for - because they knew the risk (condition 3) and did it anyway (condition 2) by their own free will (condition 1).

Is more Agency always better?

Probably not, but it depends on the group. I maintain that an undesired outcome (especially a character death) will never feel satisfying unless the player had sufficient agency to prevent it. Outside of that bubble, however, there a numerous other good things that it might be worth it to give up some agency for.

As a comment KRyan pointed out, running a game with absolute 100% agency would mean that the GM is never allowed to ever surprise the players - and many players want to be surprised sometimes. Additionally, agency might be worth suspending to prevent disruptive or egregious metagaming, or to make an overly-gregarious player to share the spotlight.

Can I run a game without agency?

Not completely - that would be silly. If you wanted to completely squash agency, you'd have to dictate to players what they do on their turns for them in combat. However, there's an entire school of play (called Participationism) where the DM basically controls the party outside of combat and dungeon exploration.

If you go down the road of playing a low-agency game, you should first make sure that your players are on-board with it and won't be trying to make decisions for their characters outside of the rails. Second, you make sure that you clearly define where the border is between your dictatorship and their agency, and make sure that you respect the line. Lastly, make sure that either any defeat they incur is a result of their agency, or you have their absolute trust that if you lead them into a defeat/setback, they will believe you that the game will be better off for it.

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    \$\begingroup\$ Good examples of fun games with low agency: most story-driven RPG video-games. (DMs using them as inspiration are probably the exact ones that run into the low agency problem.) \$\endgroup\$ – Erik Nov 20 '15 at 9:24
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    \$\begingroup\$ I don't agree that the Scrying example denies agency. It could be slightly tweaked, however: "Unless ̶t̶h̶e̶ ̶p̶l̶a̶y̶e̶r̶s̶ ̶h̶a̶v̶e̶ ̶r̶e̶a̶s̶o̶n̶ ̶t̶o̶ ̶e̶x̶p̶e̶c̶t s̲o̲m̲e̲_̲m̲e̲a̲n̲s̲_̲e̲x̲i̲s̲t̲s̲_̲f̲o̲r̲_̲t̲h̲e̲_̲p̲l̲a̲y̲e̲r̲s̲_̲t̲o̲_̲l̲e̲a̲r̲n̲ that they might be Scried, this is an agency condition 3 violation." It's the difference between "the players don't know" and "the players can't know". \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Jun 16 '16 at 21:05
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    \$\begingroup\$ @DanHenderson Merely having the capability of detecting isn't enough on its own, and the absence of that capability isn't a dealbreaker. The Evil Wizard can't scry every traveler, and unless EvilWiz has some reason to suspect the party, it makes no sense to focus on them. Thus "Unless the players have reason to expect that they might be Scried." and "Unless the EvilWiz has some reason to Scry the players" likely have the same in-world answer, even if the players have no way to verify that they are actually being scried. But arbitrarily scrying those travellers makes no in-world sense. \$\endgroup\$ – Jamin Grey Jul 11 '16 at 2:35
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    \$\begingroup\$ @JaminGrey My main point is simply that the players lacking information doesn't deny agency, unless the DM unilaterally prevents the party's deliberate efforts to obtain that information. If they take no steps that could realistically lead to gaining that knowledge, the DM needn't go out of the way to provide it; player agency has been exercised in that the players did not choose any of the various actions that would have led to obtaining the additional information. \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Jul 11 '16 at 4:37
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    \$\begingroup\$ New proposed wording: "Unless the evil wizard already has a reason to Scry on the party before they come up with this plan, this is an agency condition 3 violation." \$\endgroup\$ – Dan Henderson Jul 13 '16 at 22:38
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Definition

Agency is a term that predates RPG's. From a dictionary definition, in its less often used sense than the meaning of "an organization" (like a detective agency) agency is

  1. the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power : operation

From a game design perspective, Player Agency is the player’s ability to impact the story through the game design or gameplay1.

Another way to put that from Joey Gibson and GamaSutra:

Well, player agency describes the ability of a player to interact meaningfully with game world. More than simple action/feedback interactivity, agency refers to knowing actions taken by the player that result in significant changes within the world.

Utility

From a players perspective in an RPG, agency is the degree to which the character's actions, based on the player's decisions and the game's mechanics, influence the game's progress. While the GM is the engine behind the game world, player choices and decisions shape the game world into something new.

From a DM's perspective in an RPG, agency is similar to a player's perspective, but seen through a different lens. It is how much or how little decision making and story progress is in the DM's hands balanced against how much or how little decision making and story progress is in the players' hands. This is a feature of the cooperative nature of TTRPG's, in that players and GM's are in this together to have fun, and are not playing against each other.

An old DM of mine used to put it this way:

I don't need to mess with my players, all I have to do is give them enough rope and they'll either hang themselves or make a hammock with it, depending on their decisions and ideas.

Quantity and Quality

How much player agency is the right amount? That's a matter of opinion and taste.

It depends on both the group and the game. Some player groups like a story driven game with a beginning and an end, which is a way that a lot of DnD modules are written. However, once that story arc comes to an end, what next? Depending on the level of agency the players like, this can significantly increase the workload on the DM.

Other groups prefer something like an improvised sandbox, where the unknowns in the game world are as obscure to the DM as to the players. This calls on a GM to be better at impromptu decisions and rulings, or a game design that won't progress the story unless the characters take actions. (Fate is but one example). The game can go in a lot of unexpected directions this way, which for some groups is immense fun.

Obstacles to Player Agency

The most common obstacle to player agency is railroading, where the GM constrains or limits player decisions affecting the story and the game -- beyond a narrow band -- in pursuit of a predetermined story objective. Some game sessions may call for some railroading, but if the entire game is a series railroad trips the players do not get to exercise their decision making and thus lose agency.

What is agency good for?

Part of the fun of an RPG as players is in the choices we make, and in the decisions we make. Part of the fun for a GM is in how the players suprise him with decisions and choices.

That last point needs to be reinforced for some GMs: boosting player agency has the capacity to increase your fun as a GM immeasurably.


1 This is as true for computer games as for RPG's, but this discussion is confined to RPGs.

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When the people playing an RPG feel like their choices can/do have meaningful impact on the game, we say they have agency. If we'll succeed no matter what bad choices I make, or if we'll fail no matter what good choices I make, I have no agency.

Without agency in a game, players become pawns used to tell someone else's story, and many people find it frustrating to be objectified this way. Avoiding that frustration is why such importance is placed on player agency. 1 Agency in a narrative indicates who the story is really about (this is why the quality of a villain often makes or breaks a novel or film, when the villain's choices drive the plot because the heroes are just reacting to her), so it's important to be conscious of where the agency lies in our games. Agency is at the root of "say yes or roll the dice" for this reason.

Agency is a massively complex concept with tendrils into all corners of society. For our narrow purposes, let's start by saying that agency in a game takes on several different scopes: "player" agency2 can be seen as the all-encompassing umbrella category; character agency, plot agency, world agency, and personal agency, are some of the forms or channels which player agency can take. Another way to understand these scopes is through stances: character agency maps roughly to the Actor ("What would my character do?") and Author ("What would be good story for my character to do?") stances, while player agency can also encompass the Director (What's going on in the world and what's it like?") stance. I'll be referencing this later on.

Many explanations of agency conflate player agency with character agency, which is understandable because in many RPGS player agency is most visible through control of a single character in the game (especially in more "traditional" or D&D-like games): players make choices through a character, and those choices have meaningful effects on the game, but the player rarely gets to make game-influencing choices external to their character. (Except through social means unrelated to the game's structure, like convincing the GM to allow a borderline option, expressing a desire for a certain kind of story, or helping to choose which system to play.)

This "traditional" play style assumes that each player has one character and the Venn diagram of player agency and character agency precisely overlaps. Agency, in this style, is focused on the choices I make in building my character (feats, weapons, spells, etc) and the choices I make through my character (who and when to attack or trust, which door to open, what clues to follow, etc) in Actor and Author stances during gameplay. Players rarely, if ever, have access to the Director stance in this play style--that stance is reserved for the GM, who has however much agency she cares to wield in whatever stance or form she cares to wield it.

The "traditional" style (equating player agency with the agency of a simple character) is, however, only applicable to a certain segment of RPGs. Many RPGs enable player agency in a variety of other ways.

  • In Pilgrims of the Flying Temple, I give other players control of my character whenever he's about to get in trouble: in those moments I've lost character agency while others have gained it. (Interestingly, the mechanics preserve some amount of Actor stance for me in this situation, while giving Author and Director stance to the others.)
  • In Fate, players can use skills or game currency to define setting details external to their character: player agency reaches wider than character agency. (Director stance.)
  • In A Penny For My Thoughts, the player whose turn it is retains Director stance, but two other players in Author stance present character choices for that player to choose from, largely through Actor stance: one character's agency is shared amongst three players during every key decision.
  • In Lovecraftesque, a single character is passed around the group: during each scene a different player has character agency (Author/Actor stance) while the remaining players share agency over the rest of the scene (Director stance).
  • In the Dresden Files, players collaborate to design the setting, its primary NPCs, and the main themes of the plot, before they make player characters at all: player agency creates the world and kicks off the story before character agency is even possible. (Director stance, no Author or Actor need apply.)
  • Games that are Powered by the Apocalypse limit the GM's agency by linking it to the agency of other players: Often a GM's Director-stance move ("A thing happens in the world!") is triggered by a player's character agency, but it might even be triggered by a player at the table looking to the GM to see what happens next.

Agency does not imply informed choice. But it often should! Truly, player agency simply means our choices matter--not that we're empowered to make good choices based on useful information. Paranoia is a good example of an RPG which leverages blind agency for enjoyment. Often, however, blind choice can be just as frustrating as no choice, and avoiding frustration in our leisure time IS a major goal behind understanding player agency. This is why most games assume some level of informed context is provided to us, and why many answers on this site invoke player agency to protest players being kept ignorant.3


1 I once played in a group where the GM used our characters to tell his stories: if we tried to do something that'd derail his story, it failed just because. We won when it was time to win, and lost when it was time to lose. Everyone at the table was okay with it, because his stories were awesome and we knew this would happen going in. By choosing to be part of his group, we'd used our player agency to knowingly sacrifice our character agency in order to experience his stories.

2 Here I'm using "player" for its jargon definition of "RPG participant who is not the GM." It's clunky, as you'll see when we get into non-traditional games where the Director stance isn't reserved for a single individual or GM agency is more limited than in traditional play styles, so you'll see me stumble over terminology later on. (This use of "player" also kinda implies the GM isn't playing the game too, which is sad. I don't have a better word, but if you know one, please tell me about it!)

3 A related and controversial subject is when informed player agency modifies the effects of an uninformed character's agency. This is a subset of actions is often called "metagaming," specifically using "out of character" knowledge to influence "in character" action. It's beyond the scope of this answer and only tangentially relevant to this question, but comes up in this context often enough to merit mentioning. Please refer to the stances for further insight; it can usually be understood as a conflict between players' preferences for Author or Actor stances.

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