Sunday, January 10, 2021

Bounded Player Agency

Today I am going to talk about a type of metagame mechanic I see all over the TTRPG sphere that I want to love and my players universally hate. Ones that let them change the game world without their characters acting upon it. 

Why I will Never Play FATE Again

In spite of averaging twenty hours per week of D&D since the late 80s, I've lived in blissful ignorance of the major discourse around TTRPGs until the last few years. Aside from participating in the Official Dungeons & Dragons forum back in the mid-noughties, I was absolutely happy not to think too deeply about the hobby. I missed the discourse as the OSR and Storygame movements emerged. I didn't really notice the boom the OGL created aside from the surge in 3rd party modules out there and the falderal over The Book of Erotic Fantasy.

One thing I did, however, was grab TTRPGs as they drifted across my attention and read them. Once in awhile I would try to Persuade my regular Dungeons & Dragons group to try something new, which they usually stubbornly refused to do. And when they did, it was an uphill battle against players bound and determined not to have a good time. 

When my oldest son was born, I had a sudden and drastic reduction in free time, and so rather than playing, I spent a lot of time reading RPGs. And from there I finally started to take an interest in the theory of the games. Especially as I tried to interpret a strange trend in game design of offloading DM Fiat to players... And the puzzling  phenomenon of my players HATING it.

My first time running into this idea was when I tried FATE Core.

Fudge dice, and my dice tray, 
bag, and beaded box.

If you are not familiar with FATE in its various incarnations, it is a game that in many ways is considered the paragon of the Storygame model of Table Top Games. In FATE outcomes are determined by generating a number between - 2 and +8 to measure degrees of success. Characters with skills or special abilities appropriate to the check get up to +4. Characters use four fudge dice to generate a random factor of +/-4. On top of this the game tracks a number of conditions going on that might affect the situation. 

Characters may spend some of their fast-circulating Fate Points to take advantage of an advantageous situation to add +2.

If there are disadvantageous conditions  that might foul up a task, or any player can Compel a PC during a roll. If the player of the Compelled PC accepts the Compel they instantly fail the roll in question, but gets an additional Fate Point. 

Fate Points can also be used by the players to cause an existing Condition to create a -2 penalty on a GM"s roll.

Here's an example from my one time GMing FATE Core:

The PCs, a pirate crew, are facing off with a rival crew in a hideout. One of the players shoots an oil lamp and starts a fire. This creates a pair of conditions:
  • The Room is in Fire
  • The Room is getting smoky, 
When the bad guys start pulling out pistols to return fire, a player spends a Fate Point and says "I think that because "The Room is getting smoky" the pirates should have a hard aiming, whatwith the smoke in their eyes." So now the Pirates have a -2.

Later, one of my players is trying to return fire, and is not doing so well. She says "Seeing as how "The Room is on Fire" I think these guys are back-lit which should make my shot a little easier," and pays a Fate Point to get a +2 to attack.

(FATE Core is best played with a whiteboard on hand.) 

But the real doozy of a mechanic is that players can spend Fate Points to change the narrative by adjusting one fact. So, when the players come across a locked chest later on, a player spent a Fate Point, and was able to say "I was expecting this, and brought a set of lockpicks hidden in my hair."

The picks were not on his character sheet, but that didn't matter. Fate points let players take control and make minor re-writes of the game narrative.

There are similar systems in a lot of games I have read. The Cypher System in particular is very sophisticated in this way: When the GM wants to make a sudden change to the narrative (bridges collapsing, random, encounters, a tool breaking, etc.) he declares a "GM Intrusion." Players are allowed to spend XP to nix the proposed intrusion, at which point the GM either has to narrate how the PCs manage to quickly evade the consequences, or entirely ret-con it so that he never narrated the event in the first place. If players allow the Intrusion, the GM rewards XP to the player most affected, and one other PC of the first one's choice.

Players in The Cypher System may also spend points spontaneously to make up some back-story and give their character a new, previously un-revealed skill, Need a member of the party to know Thieves' Cant and underworld etiquette? Spend 3XP and declare that your character once had a drug problem, and did some work for the Thieves' Guild to pay for a fix a few years back, and still knows how to get along with them.

The Black Hack is an example of an OSR game that does this using Luck Points. Players are permitted to spend their limited Luck Points to change one fact about the game world to their advantage.

The most extreme version of this I have encountered is in the "GMless" game Cosmic Patrol, where players spend points to take over the role of the Narrator temporarily. I would have to do a very lengthy review to explain how that one operates, however.

Now, to me, this seemed like a brilliant idea (at first). It let my players do some of the dirty-work for me. And it lets them front-load cool minor details into the game rather than make me come up with everything on the fly. And it lets me ease players into the idea of stepping more and more into the GM role, and letting me have more chances to be a player as well as a GM. Wins all around!

But here's the trick: My players didn't like the ability to just re-write the game. In fact, they found the whole format of my experimental FATE Core introductory adventure made them uncomfortable and frustrating. So much so that one player told me he had learned his limit of systems and didn't care to learn any more, so not to invite him to further experiments... although he would be happy to keep playing Dungeons & Dragons or World of Darkness with me...

Naturally, I had to dig a lot deeper to figure out why it bothered them.

The Immersion Problem

In the end, my most insightful player told me she "didn't like being reminded [she] was playing a game." and that the Fate Point system was "too much like superpowers" for her taste. Even after I stopped playing with most of that group, I ran into a lot of resistance with other players.

I did get a chance to play in a game of FATE Core a couple of years later, and got a great sense of ehar she meant. Every time I used the Fate Point mechanics to penalize the zombies trying to eat my brains, I found myself thinking more like a GM than like a player. I was considering how to re-write the scenes, what the situation was in the arc of the adventure, and what the themes of the game and scene were.

When I was doing that I was no longer thinking in character, I wasn't considering what he could do in the world to ensure he and his family could survive the zombie apocalypse, I was thinking about what I could do to the world to ensure his survival.  And that came with a shift in thought patterns. Instead of "okay, the train car is surrounded, how do I get out?" I started to ask "how does he get out?"

I was no longer immersed in the character.

Differing Game Experience Goals

Cover to Cosmic Patrol
©2011 Catalyst Game Labs
It helps to remember that traditional role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons, PARANOIA, or Shadowrun have a different goal than story games like FATE Core, Fiasco, or Cosmic Patrol.  There is a strong divide in the experience that they want to provide to their players. The shift in the way I thought was part of the goal of FATE Core's game design.

A traditional TTRPGs evolved from wargames like Braunstein and Stratego, which were meant to be high-resolution simulations of warfare and the events surrounding it.  But, while wargames focus on simulation TTRPGs became interested allowing players to become immersed in a virtual reality through the perspective of a single character, using Narrative as a medium.

As immersion is the goal, player-character Agency becomes a critical issue. The more the rules can offer the player-character to explore and act on the game world the better immersed the player can become.

The Old-School Renaissance is, in effect a product of a debate over whether immersion is better served by giving the narrator more freedom to adjudicate the outcomes of Player-Character actions., or whether expansive, high--resolution (usually dice-driven) game rules serve that purpose more effectively.

Storygames are a 21st century phenomenon that derives from TTRPGs, but are separate from them in the same way TTRPGs are separate from wargames. And likewise are separated by a goal. To a TTRPG, narrative is a medium for delivering the virtual reality. It is not a game interested in telling a story; Stories are a post-facto product of a game well-played. Storygames see this as missed potential, and set out to create a satisfying and collaborative story using the game as a guideline to make sure the collaborators are on the same page.

Tools like Fate Points in FATE Core or XP as it is used in Cypher System are tools to determine who and when narrative control shifts hands during the art of collaboratively writing a story. Immersion is immaterial to the goal of the game.

The Importance of Bounded Player Agency to Traditional TTRPGs

Both players of traditional TTRPGs and Storygames both value Player Agency for very different reasons. For players of TTRPG, s immersion in the Virtual World can only happen when their characters can freely act and explore in the world. A GM that pushes players to do what he or she wants and allows them only to do or see what the GM wants kills the sense of immersion: they aren't in a Virtal World they are listening to a novel being narrated at them.

For Storygame players, Player Agency is important because they are a partner in telling a collaborative story. If a GM doesn't share narrative control, they are breaking the covenant between the Players and the GM to create a story that will satisfy all players will enjoy and would have agreed to.

The key difference here is that in the Storygame that Agency extends to the Narrative itself. The content of the world and the fate of the characters are up for grabs. The agency of the players is unbounded, save in what the rules allow to ensure fairness and division of labor in the creation of the story. 

But because the TTRPG Player's goal is to inhabit a character to experience a virtual world, they need that world to be external to them. Something to explore, act upon, and react to. That immersion is lost if the PCs Agency is stretched too far. For a TTRPG to consistently offer that VR experience, Player Agency must be bounded to what their character can do within the game world. 

In other words: any change the player makes to the game world must be affected through the in-game actions of the character. Tools that let a player change things around their character without the character acting destroy the integrity of the experience.

What This Means for my Games

Ultimately, I am a role-player and a psychonaut: I want to visit other worlds when I play, see new things, and experience strange Horrors. I want to laugh at my own mortality from the safety of my office chair.  And that means I want immersion, not a game of story raft. And my players do, too. They find strongly immersion - breaking mechanics disrupt their experience.

This Storygames are not for me or my usual gaming group... Even if I understand the appeal. And this means that if I am to design a good RPG myself one of these days to be wary of that particular sort of mechanic.

I would consider this to be a great rubric when shopping for games or mechanics: "Do my players want Immersion, or do they want Storycraft, and use it as a guideline for picking the engine of your game. 


  1. I had the same problems when I played in a Mouseguard game. The mechanics are so anti-immersive that I hated it.

    1. I can see the appeal of the Storygame structure if you look at it for what it is. It's like a lot of the games we used to play when doing improv in drama classes. Or like a game of "And then..." or "Telephone."

      But you have to be expecting that when you sit down at the table.

      If you are instead expecting to experience deep immersion like a well-played game of D&D, where your character is elated and afraid etc., because the chance of death is high, you are going to be disappointed.

      Like biting into a chocolate chip cookie to find that it is actually raisin oatmeal.

      I can understand why we need those separate labels. Or to see both as TTRPGs, which is fair, but reclaim terms like "Adventure Game" so people know what they are getting because of what's on the box.

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  2. I agree very much with this view. One of my main personal dislikes with so called "story games," They claim to produce satisfying narratives but rarely ever do. Someone always introduces some element into a scene that is discordant. If the mechanism allows it then there is nothing anyone else can do to change it. I end up spending the rest of the session feeling aggravated by the discordant element. It is like a film that had too much influence from the executives. Its narrative by committee and that is rarely good.

    1. "A Quiet Year" takes this and runs with it in a weird, passive-aggressive way. If a player introduces an element that you don't like, you play a discord token. You can ten remove that token by doing something selfish, or if you think that people have understood and moved the Narrative back to something that you agree with.

      Part of the point of that one is to minimize metagame conversation, and emphasize the idea of "Quiet".

      But it really means nothing in the end. All you have done is signaled your displeasure with no actual consequences.

      Honestly, storygames are just something I can't afford to buy because no one wants to try them in my circle, and I get their point; it is immersion-killing. I would love to play one through to completion to see how it goes for myself.

      Playing with cranky Grognards made it hard to get a picture of how they turn out with enthusiastic players.

      I watched a few sessions of people playing Dungeon World with Adam Koebel GMing. I couldn't draw conclusions.

      Although your description does sound like a very probable outcome to me.

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    3. Is Dungeon World really an example of what you're describing though? I don't read it as having mechanics that allow the players to make changes to the world that does not come from their character?

      (Apologies for all the deleted comments, made some mistakes.)

    4. Dungeon World front-loads its player fiat. The process of character generation helps redefine the races, classes, and their role in the game. As does the model of GMing it recommends.

      Also, players are offered choices between outcomes constantly. If you have a limited success on a bow attack, for example, the GM will say: "you choose, do you want to waste a lot of arrows, or wind up teetering at the edge of that ledge."

      Likewise the Devil's Choice mechanic encourages the GM to provide the player with a choice like "you can choose to miss this shot, or you can choose to hit, but also hurt this NPC," then put the ball in the Player's court.

      Have a look at this play example:

    5. This is true and I see your point.

      I guess I occupy some sort of middle ground here. I have very similar negative experiences like the ones you describe with systems like FATE that allows for immediate narrative rewrites of the world, but at the same time I have very positive experiences with Dungeon World especially. I suspect that unlike you, my players (and myself when I play) interpret the Devil's Choice and similar mechanics as something that actually DOES comes from the character. We tend to read those mechanics as shorthand for what might be a whole bunch of different tactical choices in a more simulationist system.

      I have noticed though that some players really enjoy making the choice and then borrowing narrative control from me to describe what happens in the fiction, while other players enjoy making the choice as a tactical decision and then have me describe what happens in the fiction based on their choice. Which I think illustrates the point you're making.

      (I'm a 39 year old Swede and was introduced to RPGs through a swedish fantasy BRP clone in the 90s, then CoC. Dungeon World ended up being my system of choice since both me and my players feel it is the most effective system for our preferred playstyle. We do an AP podcast so there is a constant need to keep things moving. That said, we don't really use the entire system, mainly the resolution mechanics.)

  3. I used to live in Western MA. About 40 minutes from my house lived Vincent Baker, Epi Ravachol, Emily Care Boss and others from that circle of storygame people. They ran regular afternoon play test events at a coffee house and a one day convention. People would drive hours from Boston and New York to attend these events.

    I tried to like these games. I wanted to like these games. I didn't get what they were trying to do at first and it took me a bit to comprehend the point of them but eventually, I managed, I think. At least some of the attendees at these events seemed to enjoy the games but it never felt like other conventions I've been too where there was uproarious laughter, everyone at a table going "Oh Shit!" The intensity just wasn't there. I certainly never felt it. I figure if I played the game with the person who spent all the time designing, testing, rewriting and so on that I would eventually find out what the fuss was about. It just left me flat. It felt more like the exercises I did in creative writing class than a game. I know there are people that like them. I am not one of those people.

    The other thing I don't like about many of them is one of the major problems I have with all the WotC editions of D&D. The player's main interface with the game world is the mechanisms of the game not the setting and characters in the game world. Instead of saying, "I ask the guy if his mother is home." There's a "raise" a "move" a "push" or whatever the mechanism is.

    1. I sometimes wonder about developers in general and whether they don't get so wrapped up in the minutae of design that they fail to as "is this fun?"

      The last game I reviewed, Overlight, is far closer to a traditional TTRPG than most of the mid-level press releases as of late. In fact it is wonderfully loosey-goosey in many places...

      But I watched a YouTube of the game's primary developer running it, and nearly canceled my order. He was so lifeless, unfun, and lawyerly it was not possible to enjoy it as a player or a viewer.

      Overlight was not the problem, the guy running it, though...

      But with storygames I keep hearing that the experience is much the same at any table.

    2. The basic premise that these games operate under is flawed. It is assumed that a group of people playing "the game" can create a good narrative. It takes a long time and lot of effort to be a good storyteller. Years of study and effort. Most people wouldn't know how to create a good narrative if Robert McKee smacked them in the head. How then do the designers of these games expect to create a "satisfying" narrative, improvising at the table with the structure of a game as the tool? If it was that easy, every screen writer in Hollywood would be playing Burning Wheel and writing screenplays from the results of the game. And yet that doesn't happen.

  4. Nice Blog Post.

    It's interesting to me to see how everything following the 1st wave of RPGs introduces mechanization to resolve and balance play within rules.

    Much of what you describe from both kinds of games happens in OD&D or T&T. Yet it all happens within the verbal narrative in earlier style play. Your examples of the place is on fire, it's smoky. Those kinds of things are negotiated in game in a low rules system like OD&D and T&T.

    So the player breaks a lamp and the bad guys try to attack. A player can simply say: won't the smoke affect their aiming ability. Another can say, well they look backlit and I should be able to see them more clearly.

    The DM might say: oh good points and play proceeds. The DM secretly applies a +2 to all die rolls.

    The Referee is always operating within the realm of: the player's comment seems legit, or not legit.

    The introduction of undisclosed elements like thieves tools in my hair, to my way of thinking, breaks the rules of the reality. I would never play this. It reminds me of woody woodpecker cartoons where things magically appear to save the day.

    But, a player saying: I am a dwarf, thus I should know about gems and be able to tell what kind it is. This is within the range of 'seems legit' play and there is not need to write down this ability as the player is playing their character and will continue to do so.

    I don't think the story telling kind games are a new thing, I think they are merely more of the desire to over-rule every behavior within a game thus turning RPG a kind of winnable game based on the numbers much like playing a hand of cards.

    RPGs rely on Fog of War.

    The core element to Fog of War is not knowing. With the negotiated outcomes I described the DM simply says: Ok, roll a die and tell me what you got. The player does not get to do a mathematical application of bonus values and stays in the dark on the actual mechanics being used by the DM.

    Just my feeling on this, I could also be completely wrong - Griff

  5. I enjoyed the post. The contrast you describe makes sense.

  6. This is a good post, and something I've had difficulty with communicating before.

    I find that a lot of people who prefer story-games have difficulty understanding the other school of thought. So they'll look at a game designed to facilitate the other style and say "why does it have all these mechanics which are narratively uninteresting?"

    This is particularly common with mechanics like tracking resources, where the story-gamer will say "well, 'you run out of arrows' should be a consequence the GM applies at a narratively appropriate moment"; or with tracking initiative and rounds, where the story-gamer would prefer something freeform, so that the combat can be full of characters doing exciting combo moves.

    I've previously tried to explain the difference as "I don't want to think about the story, I want to think about the character", and just got a confused "what do you mean? those are the same thing" in response.