Friday, January 19, 2018

An example of player agency vs. DM narrative

Recently, Sean and I were talking about the difficulty of starting new campaigns, in light of his session #1 kicking off in a little over a week. Do you begin with a mundane assignment for the PCs? A plot-driven story arc that forces the party down a specific path to "introduce" them to the setting? How much narration is OK? How much predestination should be tolerated?

I've self-debated these many times, and learned from past experience on several occasions. We discussed a hook where the PCs begin the campaign as captives in an arbitrary dungeon cell, without their equipment. Is this a reasonable thing to do to a party?

My answer is that most scenarios, including this one, are fine to incorporate into your game, if executed properly. Specifically, the DM should ensure that the party retains a meaningful degree of control over the session's outcome. The PCs should be participants and protagonists, not audience and onlookers to the DM's prologue. To elaborate, I described two ways that a DM might have the PCs-as-prisoners scenario play out.

In the first variation, the PCs awaken in a cell, clothed but lacking any weapons, armor, spellbooks, or equipment. They pass a day in confinement, devoid of opportunities to escape, but learning (from guards, other prisoners, etc.) of their surroundings, why they were captured, perhaps the identity of the mastermind who rules the dungeon: critical information that can be used later in the campaign. Shortly thereafter, a band of rescuers breaks into the cells, leads the PCs to their plundered wares, and shows them the way out. The party battles off a guard or two, but the instruction and heavy lifting are provided by the rescuers.

For the second variation, the PCs awaken in the same situation as the first. Early on, however, they're presented with a potential means of escape: a key slipped to them by a thief in an adjacent cell. The players deliberate on how to proceed; the more time that passes in the cell, the more information they garner from their surrounds. The session revolves around the party crafting and executing an escape plan, recovering their equipment, and making it out alive.

In variation #1, the DM likely ends up doing most of the talking throughout the session - mainly, telling the players what happens as the PCs tag along for the ride. In the second variation, however, the players control the pace, for their planning requires questioning the DM about the subtle details of the cell area, mannerisms of the guards, and demeanor of the other captives. They might spend time (even days) learning about the daily routines within the prison, when mealtimes and watch rotations occur, to figure out the optimal circumstances for breaking free. Do they try to get anyone else out with them? What about the thief who gave them the key?

At the end of variation #1, the players have bore witness to a grand escape, and feel relieved; at the end of variation #2, the players have orchestrated the escape itself, and feel accomplished.

In both variations, the DM starts with the same hook and progresses the campaign from the same point A to point B, but the player experience between the two varies greatly. As a player, I'd find myself disengaged at being an object of the DM's narrative in variation #1, whereas variation #2 would give me a sense of purpose from the beginning (despite the initial forced capture) and a substantial measure of fulfillment (not to mention camaraderie with the other players) upon executing a successful breakout. Variation #1 would leave me doubting whether I'd want to play in the DM's game again; variation #2 would leave me itching to find out what evil plans the party might foil next.

It all boils down to player agency, and enabling the players in your campaign to actually be players in your campaign, as opposed to merely observers. This is largely the stigma behind "railroading" in RPGs: it's not the presence of plot lines or story arcs that causes issues for most players, but the feeling that they, the players, were only invited to the table to consume the DM's narrative.

At the end of the day, AD&D characters are created to play the part of heroes. Let them.


  1. Starting a new campaign is hard for anyone. On one hand, you want to be fresh--no caravan guards, no "you meet in a tavern", no prison cell with no equipment, no town getting overrun by goblins and you have to band together. On the other hand, these types of beginnings are good because they're predictable, they're comfortable, and they help ease a new group into the unique aspects of a new campaign.

    Matt's observations about player agency are, I think, spot on. Giving players options (or in some cases, the illusion of options) to get them from point A to point B without feeling herded isn't easy, though. Modules are traditionally bad at it, though I will say that modern module design has made great improvements. The balance, however, of agency vs. railroading to keep a game moving while remaining interesting and keeping players involved is something a DM has to discover for him or herself, and will vary based on the composition and experience of the players.

    Great topic for discussion!