Archive for August, 2014

Game Master Musings: Player Agency

Posted in Game Mastering, Roleplaying Games, RPG with tags , , , on August 6, 2014 by Chall

A friend of mine quit a RPG group she’d been playing with for years. Her reason?

“One night I forgot my character sheet. They told me it was fine, we’d muddle through. By the end of the night, I realised it made absolutely no difference if I brought the sheet or not. So I left.”

For the past few months, she watched everyone else roleplay. She tried to contribute but was either beaten in initiative  or drowned out by the other players.  Hanging with friends is fine but sitting at a game and not being able to take part, is like sitting at a feast and not being allowed to eat; Aggravating, frustrating, and not something you want to do on a weekly basis.

What she didn’t have player agency. Player agency is the ability to affect your game. This can be done through roleplay, enacting cunning plans, slaying monsters, creating humorous/memorable moments at the table, and so forth. If a player finds herself regaling her old RPG stories then she had agency. If she feels the game would continue unchanged without her, she lacks agency.

This post covers ways players can lose agency and how to prevent such loss.

So without further adieu:

Table Drown Out

I love boisterous players, they drive the game and stage stunning scenes. However, they can also drive less boisterous players from your table.

Some players may be shy, new to the game, or so polite they kindly wait their turn. If you’re not careful said turn may never come. Boisterous players can snag every bit of agency from the quiet ones: At the end of every scene, they’ll immediately pull you into what they’re doing next. If another party member offers a plan they’ll shoot it down for their own. If you run a scene for someone else, they’ll jump right in and steal it.

What’s tricky is boisterous players aren’t aware they’re robbing agency, they’re having a great time and assume so is everyone else. Trickier still, you might not even notice; Quiet players are quiet and as such easily drowned out by the noisy ones.

Granted some quiet players may be fine with just hanging at the table. The danger is assuming all quiet players are like this. In my experience, most are not. They really want to play and find being drowned out aggravating. These players are the types who will leave your game for ‘real life reasons’, which is true because any outside interest has become more rewarding than game.

A further thing to note, boisterous and quite are relative terms. A boisterous player may become quite if introduced to a new game or new group of players, a quiet one might become boisterous if given the chance to shine.

How To Deal With It

Open communication is a good route. Suggest the quiet player talk to the boisterous ones about the issue or ask, in your capacity as GM, if he would mind you speaking on his behalf. Be careful with this option, though, you don’t want to go behind anyone’s back and cause hurt feelings, the goal is to help the quiet player become more comfortable not draw in conflict or ostracise anyone.

As for other techniques:

Keep a mental note of how much time you allot to the group and each player. If someone’s missing out then cut them in. Ask the player what he’d like to do. If he can’t think of anything throw something at him; an NPC needs his character’s unique skills, he falls across a piece of valuable information, draw in something from his character’s background and so on. . .

Just be thoughtful of what you throw at a quiet player. Make it light and fun, suited to his taste. For God’s sake do NOT throw something horrifying at him unless you know he and the group are okay with such things.  We’re GMs not dread bodhisattvas who enlighten through shock and terror.

Don't be like this arse.

Don’t be like this arse.

Finally, some players are absolutely fine having very little screen time. Respect this, and allow them to remain in the background. They key point is, always give them the option to be involved.

Min-Maxing

Min-maxing is not a GM only problem. If your game revolves around mechanics and certain players have broken said mechanics, then not only are you frustrated, but so are the players who haven’t done this. They get to sit and watch other people be awesome while sitting on the sidelines. They lack agency.

How To Handle This

If you’re okay with min-maxing: Give players of lagging characters advice on how to optimise. This way, you’ll be able to up the challenge of the whole group without having to make specialised challenges for two groups that are on completely different cales.

If you’re not: Let your players know before character creation that you won’t stand for these shenanigans. Be involved in character creation and nip any problems in the bud. Be involved with character advancement.  Feel free to be as meta as you want about this; ‘Yes the rules don’t specifically say you can’t make a character who can lift the Moon, but I’m asking you not to.’ Just be prepared to offer alternatives, minmaxers are players too.

 

The Solo Adventurer

Some players don’t like working with others. Every chance they get they’ll go off on their own happy fun me time. They are the thieves who wish to sneak through the entire dungeon (as opposed to just down the hall), they are the matrix cowboys who explore virtual worlds for hours on end, they are the Wolverine who’ll do the job himself bub. While they strike off everyone else at the table… waits, maybe they order takeout or something, regardless they lose agency.

How To Deal With This

A few ways actually:

  • Talk to the solo player and gently point out that you’d like to focus on everyone, not just him.
  • Solo adventures aren’t bad in of themselves, just try to keep them concise and offer all the players opportunities to take part in them.
  • Throughout character creation and the game work with the players to forge bonds between their characters. Many solo players will bring others into their plots if there’s an in game reason to do so.

Rules Confusion

It’s very easy for any player, especially new ones, to be confused with the rules.  This confusion can lead to indecisiveness and inaction. The player doesn’t know if the action she’s taking is smart so doesn’t do anything.  Worse yet, the player does something and the GM slaps her with a mechanics gotchya, stung she decides to play more cautiously aka: not at all.  Lack of agency all around.

How To Deal With This

During character creation explain the basics to everyone so they know what they’re getting into. This will ensure better characters and prep the players for the actual game.

Don’t engage in gotchya moments.  If a new player’s character is about to suffer an attack of opportunity, warn her. If her character’s first fireball will incinerate the party, warn her. If all she’s played is D&D and in your GURPS game her character is about to charge into 4 guys with prepped crossbows, warn her. In short: don’t be an arse to players new to the system. Your laughter will lead to an empty table.

It's not a good thing when Naga's shrill laugh echoes your own.

It’s not a good thing when Naga’s shrill laugh echoes your own.

 

Secondly, as a GM, take the brunt of the crunch. Know your system so well you can recite its grapple rules in your sleep. I ran a successful GURPS game for years with my players only needing to worry about whether their rolls were under their target; I shouldered the damage multipliers, spell costs, and reactions for them; just call me Saint Chris.

Railroading

This one’s on us GMs, if you design/run a game in a linear fashion, where characters have no choice but to follow a specific path no matter what, then all players lose some agency. This is especially a problem with some older adventure modules where generic characters, with no relation to anything in the plot, are the rule. Playing these can feel like being trapped in a computer RPG, you’re forced along the quest path and the results of your actions will always be the same, no matter what.

How To Deal With This

First get player buy in. Let them know the gist of what you’re running and that you can’t do it if they don’t play along. However, even with this buy in, you’re not done.

Know the adventure like the back of your hand. If the PCs go off the rails adjust dynamically. They chose another route to the abandoned keep? Random monster time. They spotted and killed the enemy spy right away? He doesn’t report in, so the main antagonists react accordingly. The characters decide to work for the antagonists? Roll with it, let them stomp  whomever they were supposed to protect.

Finally, roleplay your NPCs. If the PCs did something amazing the NPCs should comment on it. If the NPC was betrayed then she should be gunning for revenge. If the PCs saved the village they should get a free night or two at the inn. Portraying your NPCs as three-dimensional characters will make even a tightly railroaded adventure seem like a living world.

GM NPCs

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: The game should be about the Player Characters. It’s all well and good to work on behest of a king, save a space princess (I wouldn’t though, it’s been done) and protect a village. That’s all fine because the PCs get to call all the shots and do all the things needed to resolve the main problem. However, having a GM ubermench call the shots, and do all the things will end up with your players planning a movie night for next game, and you getting back to your novel.

How To Deal With This

Don’t do it, no matter how much you want to. Yes, we all run games we’d love to play in and it’s likely your players will want to play in it too, but they do not want to watch your personal tale of glory. This is why, during character creation, make sure both your players and yourself like the PCs; they should be characters you want to write stories about, plotting adventures with them in mind should be a pleasure.

No, don’t  make a character to save the PCs butts “just in case”, that’s being patronising, it’s annoying.

If you absolutely must have specific characters as an active part of the game make them pregens.

In conclusion

I hope these tips help. If you find even one bit of this advice useful then I’ve done my job.

Thank you for reading.

 

 

 

 

 

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