Sunday, October 23, 2011

On Player Agency, and GM Guidance

In an effort to educate myself further on the variety and subtlety of the role playing hobbyscape, I've spent the last few weeks trolling for good blogs. Many of the ones I've gravitated towards affiliate themselves with the OSR sub genre of role playing. To sum OSR up in a single sentence, it's essentially a group of people who think RPGs reached their zenith with older games like first edition Dungeons and Dragons, or Hackmaster. And while I doubt you'll hear me espousing a return to treating elves and dwarfs as classes rather than races, I firmly believe that history is an excellent teacher, regardless of the subject.

One issue discussed frequently is the conflict between what is called Player Agency (D&D's version of ethical agency, for my fellow philosophy majors) and what I'll call GM Guidance. This issue is particularly well illustrated by a post over at Hack & Slash. Stated simply, a player has agency when he or she is able to control their own in-game destiny. Any circumventions of a player's choice, or arbitrary restriction placed on the choices available, reduces player agency.

The general consensus I've observed among the OSR community is that modern games fail at creating sufficient player agency. At best, this failure is the result of a failure to communicate the importance of player agency to gamers. At worst, it is argued, modern games actively discourage or prevent an acceptable degree of player agency. The examples given in the post linked above deal primarily with how fourth edition D&D discourages player agency. Any game, though, can suppress player agency if the GM fails to recognize how important it is to preserve.

On this matter, the OSR community has a point. Any game master of quality will warn new GMs of the temptations and dangers of railroading. And I've often told new players that the most remarkable thing about this hobby is that you can do anything with it. That freedom, that player agency is what makes these types of games so worth playing. To harm that freedom by telling a player who just wants to hunt for treasure "No, the king wants you to go on a diplomatic mission!" is bad game mastering.

Where I start to disagree with the OSR community is when they espouse unrestricted player agency. The idea that the GM should place no limits whatsoever on player freedom. It seems that many view the role of the GM to be one of world total world creation. NPCs may plead the players for help at a village to the north, and a sage may hint at a long forgotten dungeon to the east, but if the players want to go South West the GM damned well better be able to keep up. As fun as that sounds, I cannot accept it as the 'correct' way to play.

The work which goes into simply running a pre-written adventure for your players warrants some guidance from the GM. At a minimum, published adventures are thirty or forty pages long. That's an evening's worth of reading, plus any additional time the GM would need to create reference sheets, handouts, maps, or to integrate the module's locations into the campaign world. And as much time as that would take, it is easily the least work-intensive method to prepare a game. Designing a high quality adventure from scratch requires creativity, and hours of preparation detailing locations, challenges, and so forth.

I always hesitate to use my own experiences as an example in an argument, because that's simply anecdotal. However, in the years I've engaged in this hobby, both as a player and as a GM, I've never felt as though fun was lost due to the guidance of a game master. As a player, I make sure the GM knows what my player wants. If I want treasure, I'll try to find a treasure map, or even just tell the GM that I'd like to go looking for some treasure. As a GM, I ask my players after each game what they liked, what they didn't like, and if there's anything they want to do moving forward. Much to my delight, they're often too busy talking about how awesome it was when they ran away from the tribe of goblins to pay much mind to my probing.

That's what's really important: engaging your players. It doesn't matter if you nudge them along a vaguely linear progression, or simply drop them in a sandbox. So long as your players are engaged and having fun, you're doing it right. There is no excuse for half-assing your plot hooks and expecting your players to fall in line. Nor is there an excuse for dropping your players into a finely crafted campaign world and being frustrated when they want someone to give them some direction.

I don't want anybody to think I dislike sandbox style role playing, however. I actually prepared a campaign world for one once, several years back, which I was going to play with members of my World of Warcraft guild. That game fell apart, but the more I learn from the OSR community, the more I want to give it another try with the tools and knowledge I've gained in the years since that first attempt. Both styles of play are an excellent way to spend time with friends, or to make new friends.

Above all, Game Masters should remember: players will always defy your expectations. It's their job to break your game, and if you don't know how to handle it, you're doing it wrong.


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