Player Agency & Emergent Storytelling

When I started this blog a few months ago, I picked the title “Save vs. Player Agency”. The reason is two-fold:

  • When people ask me what I emphasize as a referee, I tend to answer “player agency” and then a discussion usually ensues about what I mean by that
  • Some of my players note that their characters die a lot in my games, which I generally attribute back to the decisions they have made (there are exceptions)

When some of my gaming friends are asked what they emphasize as a referee, I often hear “the story” or something similar offered as a response. There is nothing wrong with this answer, of course, but I often wonder about it when it is given. I’d argue that most experienced referees emphasize “the story” at their table, but there are different forms of storytelling. The reason I say “player agency” and not “the story” is that I want the story told at my gaming table to be shaped by the players and to be significantly driven by their actions and decisions. It has been my observation, though, that some referees who say that they emphasize “the story” mean that they are prioritizing their story, the story arc in their head or in their adventure path. This is a very different form of storytelling to the one I personally prefer at the gaming table, which is emergent from the decisions and actions of the player characters.

That is not to say that I cannot enjoy playing with a referee whose emphasis is on telling their story as opposed to player agency and emergent storytelling. If their story is crafted well-enough that I can’t tell that I am not having a meaningful impact upon how it unfolds as a player, then there is nothing wrong with the game at all. As players, we only tend to use the derogatory term railroad to describe this sort of game when the illusion is broken and we work out that we cannot meaningfully affect the story as it unfolds before us.

I have sometimes seen this cast as an old-school vs. a “new school” dichotomy. I disagree, and the results of the OSR survey appear to bear me out. As recently discussed on Necropraxis, both OSR participants and non-OSR participants identify that they like emergent storytelling in their games. Both groups identify that they strongly dislike railroading, more than any other attribute of play mentioned in the survey.

The principle difference between OSR participants and non-OSR participants shown in this latest analysis at Necropraxis is that non-OSR participants like balanced encounters and OSR participants do not. I could make an argument that balanced encounters de-emphasize player agency, since to exist, player agency in a campaign must mean that players could make decisions which lead to unbalanced encounters. However, I think this argument would miss the context of the question. As encounters by themselves, most players prefer balanced encounters – but to OSR players this term may be loaded with connotations of prescriptive tables and challenge rating formulae from 3rd Edition. I suspect that asking further questions around this point would reveal that non-OSR participants do not believe that the game world should be “scaled” to their level like the CRPG Skyrim, and that OSR participants do not believe that low-level parties should be thrown into combat with high-level monsters without some broader rationale based on the internal logic of the campaign. Let’s set aside the issue of balanced vs unbalanced encounters then. On the issue of emergent storytelling vs railroading, both old school and new school players are alike – they strongly prefer emergent storytelling over railroading.

Somewhat surprisingly (at least to me), everyone, even OSR non-participants, seemed to be positive about Random encounters and Reaction rolls, which are mechanisms that weave juxtaposed outcomes into surprising sequence of fictional game events. This leads me to believe that positive attitude toward play designed to produce emergent (as opposed to planned) narrative is a broadly shared preference. It seems that Railroading, Alignment languages, and Dice fudging are universally disliked, with Railroading being solidly in full Dislike territory across all responses.

In my recent Pendragon campaign game session, a new player commented on the apparent complexity of the Winter Phase. We are playing with the Book of the Estate and Book of the Entourage and some modifications based on the late Greg Stafford’s personal website and collectively, these sources add detail and verisimilitude to land and family management. Unfortunately they also add book-keeping and time, and are not always consistent with each other and with the core game itself. Frankly, there are some mechanics, especially around maintenance and estate budgets, which need to be simplified. However, when I go about this simplification, one thing I will not be doing is removing the random tables for childbirth, deaths in the family, strange family events, and so on. Why? Because these random tables drive emergent storytelling. The Great Pendragon Campaign lays out the major events of the campaign year by year, but the personal history of each player’s knight and their family emerges through play and to a very large extent through these Winter Phase tables, year on year. I feel like the analysis of the OSR survey results support this decision too, even though most of the players in my Pendragon campaign are non-OSR participants.

4 Comments on “Player Agency & Emergent Storytelling

  1. I have recently been looking at Zweihänder and during character creation the player gets to make 2 choices. One is whether to replace a one stat with an average value, which is a non choice. If you rolled good stars you don’t need to but if you rolled bad stats you do. The other choice is pick one of a couple of weapons to get for free as starting equipment.

    Everything else is entirely random, even your race, profession and alignment. There is virtually zero player agency in the entire process.

    I really struggled with this approach and to create any kind of bond with my character.

    • No player agency but plenty of emergent story I suppose. Good example of the opposite case where randomness can be just as much of a railroad! I like having the option to generate a completely random character but I wouldn’t want to only be able to generate a character that way.

    • I suspect that it is worth distinguishing desire for agency in character creation from desire for agency during play.

      Personally, I actually don’t want much control over my character at creation, apart from maybe choosing broad archetype, because I get choice paralysis; I’d rather work with a set of largely random elements that I can use as an oracle to bring a character into focus rather than build from a blank page.

      I don’t think this approach is normatively any better than more choice-based character building (as long as the system doesn’t get too far into the realm of esoteric character optimization, which can alienate players unable or unwilling to do the character optimization homework).

  2. GMs create situations, players create story.

    Of course, that works best with proactive players. I’ve run some groups who really do expect the GM to entertain them for 4+ hours. I;ve even had a pretty open game fall flat one session when the proactive players couldn;t make it – I hadn;t realised until their absence how much I bounced off them as a GM. It was a pretty flat session.

    I think the relationship between player agency and emergent storytelling is worth exploring further, to be honest.

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