|You know, the tough questions!|
A Working Definition of Player Agency
Before we can go any further, let's outline a working definition of what player agency actually is. For my purposes, player agency is the player's final say over the actions their character takes in a situation when there is no mechanical compulsion forcing them to act differently. Not the results of those actions, mind you, but simply what is being attempted.
Put another way, if you want to punch that guard, you are more than welcome to try. There is no guarantee you'll succeed, and it might be a really stupid idea, but if you want to make the attempt then that is your decision.
For example, let's take a look at Brian. Brian's decided to put together a half-orc barbarian named Krakkar. When the party walks into the local tavern after their adventure, if the DM says to Brian, "Krakkar orders a strong, stout beer, and begins to tell the tale of your adventure," then Brian is well within his rights as a player to hold up a finger for a point of order, and tell the DM, "Krakk would order wine for himself, and for anyone else in the party who wants a round. He'll answer questions if they're asked, but he's not talkative, and has no interest in boasting. He doesn't need to tell everyone about his deeds, because he's already done them, and that's enough for him."
|A proper reward after a long day hunting bandits.|
In this example, the DM attempted to give narration to a player's character, but the narration in question was out-of-character for the PC, and usurped Brian's role as the player. It's a minor thing, unimportant in the long run, but a clear-cut example of a situation where the DM took away player agency by telling the player what their PC does, instead of asking the player which actions their character would take in this situation.
Mechanical Compulsion, and Losing Control
Player agency is pretty ironclad most of the time. Any action you want to attempt, whether it's tracking down a piece of lost history in a library, or charging into a dragon's cave, is within your right to try. Even if the action is stupid, or has little to no chance of success, you are free to do it, or not do it as you desire.
Sometimes, though, the rules state you must take certain actions. Whether you like it, or not.
|What did you say your Will save was? Oh... that's not good...|
As a for-instance, suppose Brian's barbarian fails a Will save against the spell Cause Fear when he's level 2. Failure means the character is frightened, and must flee from the source of that fear. Even if Krakkar is a hard-nosed, never-say-die kind of fighter who would rather die than run from a fight, the mechanical effect of the spell supersedes that personality trait.
We see this all the time when it comes to magic. You're forced to become friendly, you're forced to flee, or you're forced to follow the instructions of the caster. A few bad saves can, and do, make it possible for someone else to dictate a player character's actions. However, if you agree to play the game with those spells active, then you have agreed that there are ways you can be compulsed to act. Just as you have also agreed that there are ways to avoid those effects, and counter them using class abilities, spells, and in some cases just simple ear plugs.
Some More Things That Aren't Attacks on Agency
My definition of player agency is pretty simple; you have control over the things your character says, attempts, etc. unless a mechanical compulsion makes you do otherwise. However, there are some folks out there who believe that any time a DM tells a player no, that is somehow an attack on their agency. So let me be extra clear, here. If a DM disallows certain races in their game, or bans certain classes, or says no to a character concept, that isn't them taking away player agency. Especially if those things are made clear before a player agrees to join a game, and was informed of those restrictions in advance.
Put another way, if your DM says only good alignments, base races, and base classes, and you show up with a chaotic evil dhampir ninja, that is you refusing to play by the rules as they were set up, not your DM taking away your freedom.
|Seriously, Typhus sounds like a ball, but he's going to get wrecked by his party-mates.|
Other things that are not taking away player agency include telling you that the items you want to buy are not available in the local area (particularly if they're powerful magic items), making it clear that there are no other ways into the enemy's impregnable fortress except for the one secret entrance you managed to uncover, killing NPCs you care about, and even killing a player character.
Those things might be frustrating, they might be done for the wrong reasons, or they might even be done as a result of bad rules calls. But they have nothing to do with your agency as a player.
Cooperation, And Asking Rather Than Telling, Solves Problems
The easiest way to solve questions of maintaining player agency (and of running better games in general) is learning how to ask, instead of tell. For example, if you're the DM, present the facts of the scene as they unfold. The party enters the Duke's audience chamber, and the steward asks them to kindly state their business to the lord. Instead of telling the players whose PC steps forward, or what they say, end the narration and ask, "all right, what do you do?"
Essentially, recognize that the game is a tennis match. You serve the narration ball back to the players, the players declare their actions, and if necessary dice are rolled to determine outcomes. Then the ball goes back to the DM, who swats it back over, etc., etc.
And if you're a player, ask the DM if the course of action you want to take is possible, or if the things you want to add onto your sheet are possible. As a for-instance, don't tell the DM you're buying 10 alchemist fire flasks at the rural county store. Ask the DM if that many are available. Or, better yet, roleplay with the shop keep to find out if there are that many, if you can negotiate the price down, or where you could get a line on that sort of item if it isn't available here. Instead of assuming you have access to any and all materials in the game, ask the DM what restrictions there are before you start building your character. And if there is a restriction you don't like, ask why it's there, and if there's any way you could get a waiver, or have an exception made.
Lastly, remember this. We are here to come together to play a cooperative game. If there are problems at the table, talk them out, and work on them. And if you aren't enjoying a game, there is nothing that says you have to keep playing. Or running, if you feel that your DMing style just isn't going to provide the game your players are looking for.
That's all for this week's Moon Pope Monday post. It's technically Wednesday, but I got my wires crossed and accidentally did my posts out of order. But if you want to see more gaming material from yours truly, then check out my Gamers archive. It's growing a little every month. To stay on top of all my recent releases, follow me on Facebook, Tumblr, and Twitter, and if you want to support Improved Initiative, head to The Literary Mercenary's Patreon page. All I ask is $1 a month, which goes a lot further than you would think.