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Glossary: What is Agency, and Why Does It Matter?

Dancing Lights Press

Continuing the tour of “fancy words” I throw around, today I want to talk about agency. My favorite tabletop roleplaying styles and systems support it. I’m in favor of design choices that enable it. So what is agency, and why does it matter?

In social science, agency is defined as the freedom people have to make their own choices. They are able to act independently, without being unduly limited or constrained. In my option, there are two ways that this gets expressed in tabletop roleplaying.

Agency-Forward Design

First, there is the design itself. I understand the rationale behind what I call “pick list” systems (i.e., your character is this class, so your choices in abilities are restricted to this list). I find them to be confining. Point-based creation systems are great. At some point, though, you end up limited by the abilities that you are given to work with. My preference is for Fate-style system where you have the ability to create your own abilities. In DoubleZero there is a skill list, but I also explain how they work and how you can create your own. The Hippogryph Codex will likewise offer both pregenerated abilities to select and serve as models, as well as instructions for making up your own.

Agency in design is also expressed through narrative control. I like systems that have hero points, or whatever term you want to use for them. No player character is absolutely beholden to a bad roll. You still need to spend them wisely, but it greatly reduces the odd that the character you put so much time and effort into developing is going to be shunted into out-of-character behavior. This also affects my views on random character death, how systems handle it, and whether player characters can be blithely killed off without the consent of the player.

Agency in Style of Play

This also factors into my preference for the term “guide” instead of “gamemaster”. I’ve had experiences with gamemasters who, rather than help me to find a way to do what I want within the rules-as-written, simply told me no. They used the power of GM fiat to limit, rather than support, player agency. The whole notion of an adversarial relationship between gamemaster and player forces people into a certain way of thinking, and influences the actions they decide to take.

Players are robbed of agency by the gamemaster role being an authority figure. It is an innate power imbalance. This will inevitably bring a slew of “that’s never happened at my table” comments. But there are also plenty of stories about how gamemasters abused their power. There are limited ways to affect that within system design, because people can and will play how they want. Changing a term, and emphasizing a different approach to the role, can still have some impact. The role of the guide includes supporting player agency.

About Dancing Lights Press

Dancing Lights Press publishes creative aids and story games that embrace a minimalist aesthetic in design and presentation. The spotlight belongs on the creativity of the players as they converse and collaborate on plot, worldbuilding, and character development. Roleplaying is an activity, not a book. Our titles are merely part of the delivery system.

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