Tobold's Blog
Thursday, August 31, 2017
Player agency

I labeled this post Dungeons & Dragons, but actually the issue of player agency is as true for computer games as it is for pen & paper role-playing games. Every game in which a player controls a character and a DM or a computer controls the world around that character has the same problem: How do we make the player believe that he is playing the hero who is driving the story forward, while the world around him reacts to his actions? How do we prevent the player from thinking that the game is scripted, on rails, and that it is the DM or computer who acts by throwing obstacles in the way of the character, and the character who is limited to reacting to those events?

The problem is most often presented as a difference between a linear story game and a sandbox game. However that is a false dichotomy. There are a lot of sandbox games in which player choice is an illusion, or where the player has the choice between irrelevant options like where to go, while the actually relevant events are scripted. On the other side a game that tells a story can actually have branches in the story and provide quite a lot of meaningful choices and decisions.

I recently had a problem with lack of player agency in a D&D game in which I am a player. The adventure is a WotC published one, Out of the Abyss. And because sandbox gaming is so popular, many of the WotC published adventures are presented in sandbox format. You have chapters after chapters describing locations and NPCs, but there is no written storyline. The idea is for the DM and the players to create the story together, but it is clear how that is somewhat illusory: One way or another the players end up going through the various locations presented. From one group to another the details and order of the encounters might change, but at the end of the day different groups playing through the same sandbox adventure will have similar experiences. In this particular case the DM didn't have a lot of time to prepare, and thus ended up trying to present the encounters on the fly as we played. And somewhere in the process the story got lost, and we were just stumbling through the Underdark, getting hit by one unpleasant encounter after the other, while not knowing what actually our goal was or how to achieve it. So we really were in the situation of the world acting upon us, and us simply reacting. And with things not always going well, and the DM being fond of a gruesome narrative style of dark fantasy, at the end I felt more like a victim than like a hero.

Now the challenge for me is to run the D&D campaigns in which I am the DM in a way that this doesn't happen. I do want the players to be the agents of the story, it should be them who drive the story forward and make the choices. However although both campaigns are presented as sandboxes, a lot of events that will happen are rather predictable. There are a lot of dungeons with rooms that contain monsters which aren't likely to be open to negotiation. Open door, kill monster, loot treasure is the most likely sequence of events. It is hard to imagine Dungeons & Dragons without the dungeons that make up half of the name, but dungeons by their very nature aren't all that much "sandbox". They might not be linear, but the walls generally limit where adventurers can go. So dungeons are easily perceived as being "on rails".

On the positive side players tend to enjoy a good dungeon romp more than they enjoy being in the middle of a sandbox without a goal. Too much guidance by a DM can be a problem, but not enough guidance can be a far more serious problem. Even in an old school hex crawl it is better if the players know towards what destination they are heading, and why.


I don't think too much guidance is a problem, really. The players know what they sign up for: role playing adventurerers going into adventures, especially in a table top (and non-LARP) gaming group. Complaining about it would be going into a movie theater and complaining that the story is pre-set and with "only one possible ending". Sandbox gaming is really possible in MMOs, because there are multiple groups of people with clashing (or mutual) goals, and the content is the interaction, rather than the freeform play. Leaving players free to do whatever they want is dangerous because even within the group people will want different things

The key is to allow players to build their characters in ways they want, ouside of those set adventures. I.e. let the wizard start a magic school, let the thief join a guild on the side, that kind of stuff. Allow them to pursue those "side activities" and you can even use them as hooks to chain adventures together, creating a memorable campaign.
I think the "problem" is inherent in published adventures. Perhaps your expectations were a bit off about how much player agency you could expect to have running through a finite book. If someone really wants a full sandbox adventure, they should seek a DM who is willing to create everything on the fly. Or they should take up cooking as a hobby instead because of the nearly endless ingredients, equipment, and ways to mix things up. Have "on rails" whiners always existed in D&D or is this a more recent phenomenon?
Must be recent. In 4th edition the published adventures still had a more or less linear story, with a few exceptions. In 5th edition WotC is trying far too hard to make their adventures sandbox.
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