Dice Tales: Preserving Agency

Roman twenty-sided die(This is the twentieth installment of Dice Tales, an ongoing series of posts about RPGs as storytelling.)


Going back to the issue of different kinds of challenges — the other big problem here is the preservation of player agency.

Let’s look at physical conflicts. There are fairly clear-cut rules for such things: if you take too much damage, you’ll suffer a penalty on your rolls for doing other stuff. Get grappled by the bad guy, you’re incapable of taking any actions until you break free. Etc. It may suck when those things happen to you, but by and large, players understand that that’s just how the cookie crumbles.

But what about mental or social conflicts? Take lying, for example: most games have some kind of mechanic for representing how well somebody can lie, and another for catching somebody in a lie. But the thing is, not all lies are created equal, are they? Some are more plausible than others, and it should be easier to get somebody to swallow something very close to the truth than a complete whopper. It should also be easier to put one over on somebody who trusts you than somebody who automatically doubts every word that comes out of your mouth. But whereas combat often has rules for modifying the numbers based on circumstances (it’s more difficult to hit a specific spot on your target; you’re X much harder to hit if you’re focusing on defense), other matters are not usually so codified.

And whether they are or not, players often have a harder time accepting the results of a social roll, especially when they have OOC knowledge that runs counter to what the dice say. Lies are a simple example; other kinds of influence are even more complicated. If you think about the anecdotes I related in this post, they involved an NPC trying to affect the emotional state of the PCs — either manipulating enemies into becoming allies, or provoking former allies to murder. Or let’s just run straight to the most uncomfortable scenario: what about seduction? How do you handle one character trying to get another into bed?

In that last instance, my honest answer is “to hell with the mechanics; nothing should happen that the player isn’t okay with.” No amount of “realism” or “game balance” is worth forcing that kind of uncomfortable scene or plot development on a player who doesn’t want it to happen. But thinking about seduction helps bring into focus the problems with any kind of manipulation, which is that you’re taking away player agency.

If you’re not familiar with that use of the word, “agency” is basically the ability to take action (in particular, meaningful action). Back at the beginning of this series, we talked about how no single person controls the story; player agency is central to the entire idea of playing an RPG. When you say an NPC has influenced a PC’s thoughts and feelings, you’re restricting that agency. You’re telling the player, your character has to believe this lie. They won’t attack this person you, the player, know to be your enemy. They’re going to accept the bribe, embarrass themselves in public, knuckle under to a threat. Even though you don’t want them to.

At least combat only affects the body. Social rolls affect the mind.

Some groups handle this by saying that PCs can use social influence on NPCs, but not the other way around. As a blanket solution, I don’t like that, because it basically guts the story, automatically ruling out a whole swath of interaction types that are frequently essential to any good narrative. Sure, there are limits to what one person can talk another into, but that doesn’t mean that talking them into stuff is impossible. So one option — and I use this extensively — is to tweak the mechanics. Few systems provide codified rules for bonuses and penalties on social rolls (and those that do are often cumbersome and deadening to RP), but the GM can make adjustments as needed, or even decree that a given result is impossible to achieve. So long as you trust your players not to say “my character would never do that” every time an NPC wants to talk them around, this can help.

It also helps to look for other ways to give the players input. Let’s take a bribe as an example: make the roll to see whether the NPC successfully bribes the PC. If so, rather than saying “you take X to do what he wants,” ask the player what kind of inducement would tempt their PC into accepting. If it’s money, how much? Or maybe something other than money? It could be drugs, it could be a political favor, it could be all kinds of things. When Dixie talked my Scion PCs into believing she was ready to turn over a new, non-racist leaf, I didn’t dictate to the players why they bought her lies; instead I encouraged them to pick something out of her dialogue that would be the thing they latched onto. They still had to go along with being hoodwinked, but they got to decide why they fell for it. When somebody manipulates them into putting their foot in their mouth, they choose the form of their faux pas. Etc.

That approach obviously requires you to have players who will work with you, rather than digging their heels in; or, from the player perspective, it requires a GM who won’t just present you with a totally stupid situation and insist that you find a way to swallow it, against all logic and reason. But keeping this kind of thing in mind can make the story richer, because it encourages everybody to work with details of the character and the story, rather than brute-forcing the result with mechanics. Persuasion feels less like hand-wavy mind control when you can point to the factors that made it work.

Of course, some games have actual mind control in them — magic powers that let you force someone to become your friend (at least temporarily), intimidate them out of attacking you, or even straight-up control their actions, turning them into your magical hand puppet. When it comes to this sort of thing, I’ll admit that I am exceedingly cautious of NPCs using them on PCs, because they leave no room for negotiation: it’s magic, it works on you or it doesn’t, and you have no choice but to go along in the way the power dictates. The worst is when it’s a PC using that power on another PC; this happens sometimes in LARPs, whose structure means there’s more PC-vs-PC conflict. As frustrating or upsetting as it can be to have the GM step in and take control of your character, it’s worse when it’s a fellow player. In my experience, many players will simply decline to use those powers on each other at all, because they know it can create such bad feeling. But even when it’s an NPC, it amounts to saying “you don’t get to play your character right now, because I’ve taken control.”

I won’t say that I never do it . . . but I save it for very important occasions, just like I try to be sparing with more mundane forms of manipulation. Ultimately, the GM and the players are the co-authors of the story, and you don’t want to strip somebody of their agency without a very good reason.


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About Marie Brennan

Marie Brennan is a former anthropologist and folklorist who shamelessly pillages her academic fields for inspiration. She recently misapplied her professors' hard work to the short novel Driftwood and Turning Darkness Into Light, a sequel to the Hugo Award-nominated Victorian adventure series The Memoirs of Lady Trent. She is the author of several other series, over sixty short stories, and the New Worlds series of worldbuilding guides; as half of M.A. Carrick, she has written The Mask of Mirrors, first in the Rook and Rose trilogy. For more information, visit swantower.com, Twitter @swan_tower, or her Patreon.


Dice Tales: Preserving Agency — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Dice Tales at BVC: "Preserving Agency" + The Once and Future Podcast! - Swan Tower

  2. Some of my worst gaming experiences come from situations where my control of my character was taken away. These were early experiences where I didn’t have the understanding (or often the language) to explain to the (male) GM why I was so bothered by what was happening. I’m much better about recognizing them now and speaking up and not caring if I’m ‘ruining other people’s fun’ by doing so.

    I have had this conversation with other women gamers. Many of them have similar stories of having their character agency taken away and being unable to express why that is an actual problem even when the rules allow it. I think there’s a fear of being called a spoil-sport that runs deep, and women gamers especially are often made to feel that they should go along with rules calls and plot situations that make them uncomfortable.

    • I’m lucky in that I’ve never really suffered that kind of problem — but I’ve also played in very few games where I’m the only woman, and I suspect there’s a correlation there. (Quite a few of my tabletop GMs have been women, in fact.) Even then, though, I know I’ve sometimes felt reluctant to speak up and admit that I’m just not enjoying a particular aspect of the game — not seduction, but other aspects — and that I need the GM to change it. There really is this feeling that you’re “cheating” when you say “I’m not having fun, can we please fix that.”