Saturday, June 1, 2013

Player Agency in the GM's Narrative


I don't normally talk about high-falutin' concepts like player agency and sandboxing (leaving that to others with a lot more to say on the subject), but today's post on Jeff's Gameblog gave me pause.

In short, Jeff points out that the infamous example of play in the Moldvay Basic D&D handbook, in which Black Dougal dies of a poisoned trap, is a pretty egregious example of the game master robbing player agency, with the DM going so far as to describe the PC's last words!

This got me thinking about the way I describe things in my games. As an adolescent, back in my early days of gaming, we maintained an extremely hard-line stance against the GM describing any kind of PC action. I remember getting reprimanded once for describing how a PC opened a door after the player stated he was going to go through it.

Things aren't nearly as stringent these days. I still game with a couple of my old players via Google+, and in our last session I described a character feeling a chill go up his spine during a moment of deja vu and there was nary a peep of protest at me contributing to the eerie atmosphere.

Those old narrative habits still largely hold true, however, and I think that's a good thing. It's all on a continuum, of course, and, certainly, describing a PC's last words is taking things more than a bit too far. (It also strikes me of indicative of the wargaming roots of D&D; in a miniatures game, an umpire describing and interpreting the effects of, say, a failed morale check on another player's unit, for example, is perfectly acceptable.) On the other hand, I like to have a little leeway in terms of interpolating involuntary responses or other "sixth sense" sorts of feelings or even small facets of behavior based on stated PC actions. I remember feeling frustrated in those early days of gaming by the outright ban on GM descriptions of PC narrative. A little wiggle room is nice sometimes.

As a post-script, the latest episode of Ken and Robin Talk About Stuff discusses, in part, advantage-disadvantage systems. In the course of the discussion, Ken and Robin make the point that many gamers (and I've met one or two in my own day) will happily take all sorts of crippling disadvantages of their own accord but balk at a system that takes any sort of control out of their hands through game mechanics, be it Call of Cthulhu's Sanity system, the Traits and Passions of Pendragon, or the Humanity of Vampire: the Masquerade. Oddly, my "agency-uber-alles" adolescent group loved all those games. Go figure.
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