Sketches and Agency
Posted by docryder
So, I said I was going to take a break from the StarSea.
Yeah, that lasted about 10 minutes. My mind drifted into imaging things, like how a dwarf should look, or a troll, and I set about sketching those ideas. Didn’t get much done, but I did start rattling things around in my head. I’ve got an image floating around based on the podcast description of an adventure site that I still need to get out.
While mentioning podcasts, I heard something on an episode of The Tome Show that got me thinking and questioning: “When did DMs/GMs/STs/whatevers become afraid of player agency, and who says there’s a finite pool of agency, so that when one side gains, the other side loses?”
This is something I’ve heard as one of the many criticisms of 4e. Players have more agency because they can point to the rulebook to gainsay some story decisions of the GM. To an extent, that’s true. It forces the DM to either be more creative, know their system better, or both. I never really had a problem with agency in 4e, as a DM, over the story or the rules. I’ve had problems with other DMs and whether or not they have a solid grip on the rules. And I’ve seen some truly terrible adventure writing, including from WotC… especially from WotC, but rarely have the rules themselves been the source of the issue.
More of what I’ve seen hasn’t been a totally broken system (although they’re out there) but rather broken subsystems, or issues with my own inexperience. I remember an instance, which I ultimately handled poorly, while running Villains and Vigilantes in which one player had that game’s version of the Green Lantern “solid illusions” power. The PC in question was like Dr. Manhattan to the rest of the PCs’ Watchmen. Basically, I couldn’t threaten him without killing the other PCs, or resorting to non-physical attacks (as he could use the illusions as armor), something at that time I didn’t have the creativity and sophistication to accomplish. I eventually stripped him of his power, rather brutally stripping him of a fantasy power to recapture my own.
There was one “campaign” I ran in high school in which a vampire merchant turned one of the PCs before the others killed the merchant. I therefore had a PC vampire taking up the old merchant’s schtick. Things got out of hand quickly, and we closed the “campaign” by the end of the afternoon. It was a couple of years before I ran another game. The PCs had more power (AKA agency) than I knew how to counter and challenge.
That situation had nothing to do with the rules and everything to do with my inexperience. When I started this part of the article, I really wasn’t cognitive of where I was going with the article, but I can see where I am being lead. It seems that the power issues we play out in our games are an extension of those we have in our real lives. They are the power issues we have between one another.
So the real issue isn’t whether you as DM or player have agency. The real issue is are you, the participant, willing to give up your “agency” to further the story of the game? I know the best games I’ve had were the ones where we all gave up some of our agency at some points to be handed by the other players more. Those games in which we all set our egos aside to enjoy the hobby. I’ve gone to the point of trying to actively give up my power to other players, especially younger players, like the Kids.
I wish I could offer more solid conclusions and advice. I can’t. I don’t know what creates another’s power issues, emboldens their ego, and might make them crave more agency than other players at any particular moment. I can only suggest players and GMs be more aware of their own behavior, and question their own motives for pushing for agency. Whatever way you go, it’s not the game; it’s the participants.
That’s all I’ve really got for tonight. It seems like it’s a pretty heavy discussion, and I doubt anything will come of it, but it’s something that’s been on my mind this week, and I felt the need to discuss it. Hope it’s fruitful for someone else out there.