Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 11, 2014
Player agency, death, and battlemaps

One of the more important concepts in how to run a tabletop roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons is player agency: The concept that the players should feel that their destiny is in their hands, that they have choices, and that the outcome depends on their choices. Some people believe that to mean that you can't prepare adventures and only ever should run completely improvised sandbox games, but that is not true. I would even say that to make meaningful choices there have to be a number of certainties in the game world, and NPCs with their own agency working against the players. But in this post I would rather talk about two details of running a D&D game, and how they relate to player agency.

The first thing is character death. If you play a MMORPG, you usually have a way of determining how difficult a combat will be before you start it, some indication of the level of the monster or whether it is an especially difficult boss mob. Dungeons & Dragons doesn't have anything like that, except in the form of player experience: With time you get a general idea how strong certain common monsters are. But ultimately how hard any combat is lies in the hands of the Dungeon Master. There is no such thing as built-in balance in the system. If a DM *wants* to kill the characters of his players, that would be extremely easy, he just has to bring some monsters the players don't know and which are impossible to beat, and then create a situation where they can't flee.

The ideal combat is one where the players have agency because the fight is balanced in a way that if they play well, they succeed, and if they play badly, bad things will happen to them. But as things rarely are predictable in a game of D&D, one has to take into account the inherent randomness of dice rolls. Which is different in the different editions of D&D: Randomness is more likely to kill you in a system with low health pools and high damage, like the new 5th edition. Now some people suggest removing that problem by the DM fudging dice. But in a discussion of player agency it should be rather obvious that the DM fudging dice to achieve a desired outcome is just the opposite of player agency.

One way around that problem is one that is common to both 4th and 5th edition: Character death with a strong safety net. The rules for character health and dying are set up in a way that it is likely enough to reach 0 health and fall unconscious, but from there to "your character is irretrievably death and you need to reroll" there is a very long way. There are several rounds of death saving throws with opportunities for the other players in the group to save you. And, already present in previous editions, there is the possibility to raise the death. It is this safety net system that resulted in there having been only 2 character deaths in 3 years of my campaign. The advantage of the system is that you get all the drama of clear and present danger in combat, without losing the player agency of death being a consequence of player choices.

The other important point in having player agency in your game is whether you run combat as a theater of the mind style or with figurines on a battlemap. Many DMs prefer the theater of the mind style because it demands a lot less preparation and gives them a great deal of control. But if you look at this control under the aspect of player agency, you realize that the control the DM has is because the players have less agency in a theater of the mind than on a battlemap. Communication between DM and players is always imperfect, theater of the mind never creates the exact same image of a situation in the mind of the DM and in the mind of each player. Thus every action of the player is subject to a veto of the DM, the "Mother may I?" style of play. On a battlemap not only has everybody got the same information, it is also undisputed whether a monster is in the range of your attack, or which characters and monsters are going to be affected by an area effect spell.

That brings me to one important aspect: The DM is a player too. It is only logical that he wants "player agency" too. And there are ways to run a good campaign in which both the DM and the players have sufficient agency to make the game fun for everybody. But there are situations where the DM agency is directly opposed to the player agency. And I believe that in those situations it is best if the DM lets go, and transfers a maximum of agency to his players. Which for me includes using battlemaps, not fudging dice, and going for combat encounters where the actions of the players determine the outcome.

I wouldn't say that theatre of the mind is a loss of agency only for the players, as all the imaginary distances also apple to them. It is more likely that discussions happen as there are most times no fixed distances, but agency is the same.

Actually both sides give up agency by replacing imagination with fixed rules.
... If you are using grids
Actually both sides give up agency by replacing imagination with fixed rules.

But that is very asymmetrical: If nobody knows exactly what the distance between a character and a monster is, it will be the DM who gets to make that decision. On the battlemap the distance is clear, and usually clearly determined by the movement decisions of the player.
There is a middle ground between pure theatre of the mind and a grid, though. We used to sketch a rough map of the area if questions of positioning got complicated.

A battle map, IMO, reduces player agency because it creates a very strong sense that violence is the only solution. In my experience, players are much more likely to use diplomacy, stealth, or clever tricks when there's no battle grid.
...but why would you bring out the grid unless somebody has decided violence is the solution? I've run D&D games where entire sessions have been without combat, even if we run 4e with grids and maps galore.

Of course, some of my players aren't as thrilled by that. They like combat.
I agree with Ulrik. There are two approaches that work well here: Not bringing out the battlemap before somebody starts the violence, and bringing out a battlemap for situations in which violence isn't really a feasible option. For example in my last session I had a battlemap for the tavern in which much of the adventure played, but there was not a single fight there.
I think the matter of a battlemat presupposing combat is a fiction born out of style warring. My group has been using a grid since about 1981. First it was simply a piece of graph paper with the dungeon map drawn on it, and letters and numbers penciled on for characters and monsters. As soon as wet erase battlemats became available we bought one, and began using that with miniatures. For 33 years when my group (and the membership has fluctuated and changed over that time) enters a room and sees the enemy arrayed against them, the first thing they try to do is parlay, not draw weapons, unless some other previously role-played situation mandates that this encounter be a fight.
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