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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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Glossary: Why I Won’t Let Go of Theme

Dancing Lights Press

If you’re at all familiar with my work, you know that I try to shoehorn literary theme into everything. Some people find it off-putting. They have unpleasant memories of high school English class. The people that get it, though, they really get it. So I thought I’d take a moment to explain why I won’t let go of theme, and why it’s going into the Dancing Lights Press glossary.

Narrative theme is the central topic of the story. It’s what it’s about. For a tabletop roleplaying adventure, it’s what’s driving the action. The theme can be a single concept, like “love”, “revenge”, or “betrayal”. It can be the conflict of two opposing forces, like “humanity versus nature”, “individuals versus society”, or “order versus chaos”. Having a theme means having something to say, and that in turn gives me insight into villain motivations and the types of obstacles I can throw against player characters.

There are two categories of literary theme. One or both can be used. Thematic concept is what the work is about. An adventure with the theme of war will look at all of the good and bad elements, the reasons wars begin, what happens during a war, and how they can be ended. Everything in the adventure, or the campaign, is built around the central thematic concept of war.

Thematic statement is what the piece says about the topic. It is a stance. With the theme of war, the statement might be that it’s regrettable but sometimes necessary. It could be that war is horrible and terrifying. Whatever the statement may be, it definitely allows you to figure out the characterization of villains and supporting characters, and how various obstacles should come across.

Why I Won’t Let Go of Theme

Even if you just want to kill orcs and not think, theme is useful. Your adventures will be more interesting. Encounters will be less random. Characters will have a greater sense of purpose. I’m not saying that you need to turn your campaigns into great works of epic literary. Theme is another tool for your worldbuilding and adventure design toolbox. If you give it a chance, it’s a pretty great tool.

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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Glossary: Homage and Pastiche

Dancing Lights Press

Two more words I use a lot are homage and pastiche. Most tabletop roleplaying games are engaged in one or the other. They might not acknowledge it. They may not even know it. It’s still a fundamental cultural cornerstone of the hobby.

Homage

An homage is a tribute to something or someone as a show of respect. It comes from the French word hommage, which in Medieval feudalism was the oath of fealty sworn to a lord. In modern usage it’s an allusion to another creator’s word. This can be a dedication to a person whose work inspired you, a sly reference, or the use of specific stylistic references associated with another creative work. It is not, however, trying to directly copy or closely imitate the original work.

Delta Green is an homage. It references and pays tribute to various Cthulhu Mythos authors without trying to imitate their style. Mutants & Masterminds is an homage. The tropes of superhero comics are used on a high level and in a loving fashion, but they’re not trying to directly copy DC or Marvel. Shadowrun is an homage to both the straight-up cyberpunk genre and Tolkienesque fantasy. It’s not trying to be either, but celebrates elements of both.

Pastiche

A pastiche is a deliberate attempt to imitate the tone and style of another work, or even an assortment of works. It’s mean to reflect an appreciation of the earlier work. Another word with French origins, it shares the same root as pâté and essentially means to mix ingredients together. It might be tonque-in-cheek, a winking acknowledgement that the creator is knowingly aping someone else’s style, but it’s always done respectfully.

Call of Cthulhu, at least the original version, is meant to be pastiche. It was a conscious effort, with the sanity system and such, to recreate the mood and outcomes of Lovecraft stories. Traveller is pastiche, because the setting is meant to evoke any number of Golden Age science fiction novels. You can go through an pick out bit of H. Beam Piper, Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and others. Early Dungeons & Dragons was pastiche, albeit in distinct chunks. The magic system, commonly referred to as Vancian magic, was a recreation of the way things work in Jack Vance’s Dying Earth novels, and the whole aesthetic of thieves imitates Fritz Lieber’s Lankhmar.

Homage and Pastiche

Knowing these terms matters for two reasons. First, we need greater acknowledgement that tabletop roleplaying culture is remix culture. Like a lot of fandom, we are celebrating creative work that we love and keeping it alive. The way we’re doing this is by creating original works of our own.

Second, by being aware that we’re creating an homage or pastiche, we can do it better. We can consciously create tributes that elevate the original works without simply being a copycat. The things that really take off in this hobby are the works that have this level of awareness, and use it effectively. The stuff that feels bland and more-of-same is the stuff that doesn’t seem to know that it’s operating in this creative head space.

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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Glossary: I Use the Word “Relevant” a Lot

Dancing Lights Press

This goes hand-in-hand with “context“, because it’s about defining a moment. I use the word “relevant” a lot as an unspoken rule. All it means is “this applies to the current situation”. To tie it together, relevance can create context and vice-versa. It applies equally to systems, creative efforts, and group management.

It’s an important term because it comes back to the I-need-a-better-name-for-this Three Pillars of character, worldbuilding, and story. They all provide context for one another, but not every element of each is relevant to the others. Telling the guide “my character should be able to tie knots because their parents worked on fishing boats is relevant. The character should be able to do it, so either they can in spite of the oversight on their character sheet, or there now has to be a story explaining why they can’t. Character, worldbuilding, story.

At the table I’ve needed to invoke relevance far too often. In the middle of combat, a player whose character was in no position to climb anything had a question about the climbing rules. How is that relevant? It isn’t. Save it for another time, and get your head back into what’s going on. A lot of table talk isn’t relevant, and as most roleplayers who’ve been around for any amount of time know, table talk can be a huge problem.

So, relevant is now in the official Dancing Lights Press glossary.

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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Glossary: Why Context Matters

Dancing Lights Press

Today’s glossary word is context. The circumstances surrounding an idea or event allow it to be better understood. Changes the circumstances, and you change the meaning. I’d like to take a moment to explain why I think context is the unspoken game stat.

Let me start with a simple example: a soldier. In tabletop roleplaying terms we can look at the fighter character class, or any number of archetypes and templates from a myriad of games. There’s a collection of abilities there that allow us to define whether a character does or doesn’t fit the definition of a soldier.

But a soldier can be many things. Sometimes they can be a defender, acting nobly and selflessly to keep innocent people safe. At other times a soldier can also be an invader, killing innocent people and destroying things. They can act as liberators or invaders. They could defend an ideology or impose it on others against their will. That’s context.

There’s a reason I harp on context. I believe in what I used to call the Three Pillars: Characters, Worldbuilding, and Story. I’m not wild about the term “three pillars”. A better term hasn’t grabbed me yet. Those elements are equal, though. They act upon each other and provide context. Characters are in turn shaped by the setting and the adventure. Adventures play out differently depending on the characters and the setting. Settings are perceived, then, through the lens of the stories set there and how the characters are affected by them.

So goes it with rules as well. The main job of a guide is to determine what skills and abilities apply. They determine degrees of difficulty, and assign modifiers. What the character is trying to do, what they looks like in relation to the genre and tone of the setting, and even whether it’s “in character” character for them to be doing that all have to factor in. That’s why I put so much emphasis on the notion that context has to be considered every step of the way.

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.