Player Agency, And Why You Should Limit Your Choices

I’m can already hear lots of people out there sharpening their knives after reading that title, or at the very least raising their bullhorns, ready to shout me down.  But I urge you to hear me out.

I’ve read lots of articles about the importance of player agency, and about avoiding the cardinal sin of “railroading.” There are also a host of articles and essays out there about how to be better at improvising, and articles full of advice for what to do when your players go off in an unplanned direction. There are a lot of great things in these articles -a lot of great things that I agree with. Railroading is a cardinal sin, improvising is important; players will go off in unplanned directions.

But there are some folks who put forth as sacrosanct the idea that players have a right to completely ignore plot hooks and adventure threads as they see fit. Because these things limit choice, and limiting choice is anathema.  This is where I start to take issue with the argument for player agency above all and at all costs.

“Railroader,” I hear you cry!

“How dare you limit my freedom,” you scream!

And you’re right. I, the dungeon master, shouldn’t limit your freedom. But sometimes you, the player, should.

Now, I’m not talking about limiting freedom when it comes to how players choose to overcome obstacles, and I’m certainly not advocating any sort of predetermination of outcomes without accounting for player choices. No, I’m talking about the game in much broader terms, pulling all the way back to the level of social contracts and the meta-game.

Imagine if you will this scenario. A group of friends gets together and decides that they would like to start a new Dungeons and Dragons campaign. One guy volunteers to be the Dungeon Master, because he’s had his eye on that new “Hoard of the Dragon Queen” adventure and thinks he would like to run it. Everybody thinks this sounds like a great idea. So the newly-elected Dungeon Master goes out and plunks down $30 for his nice hard-backed adventure book, and over the next week or two he reads through the adventure, and talks with his players about the characters they want to play so he can bring everyone together at the start of the adventure and sprinkle in personal details and hooks based on the backgrounds the players chose for themselves. Finally, the big day comes. Characters have been rolled up, snacks have been procured, and the players are all assembled at the table, ready to start their adventures together. The characters gather in a tavern, some roleplaying ensues, one thing leads to another, and in short order all of the characters agree – with their players citing the supremacy of their agency and their right to ignore any plot hooks or adventure threads – that they would like to charter a boat so they can go hunt dinosaurs in Tethyr.

Personally, I think that’s a dick move.

Sure, that’s an extreme example, but I daresay that it’s not without precedent. And, extreme or not, it would be a perfectly acceptable outcome to someone who honestly subscribed to the aforementioned school of thought. I should mention here that it’s also an acceptable outcome if the players and dungeon master agreed that they wanted to play a “sandbox style” game, and everyone knows from the start that very little or nothing at all has been planned.

But if it was discussed beforehand that your group would be playing a published adventure, or your dungeon master pitched his own idea for a campaign and everyone thought it sounded like a good idea, then you as a player should put forth an effort to limit your choices to ones that will lead in the general direction of the agreed upon adventure. I mention agreement several times, because that’s crucial to the whole process. Well before everyone is at the table ready to start the adventure, there should be plenty of discussion and consensus about what game your group will play and the shape your adventures will take.  And then once you’re at the table, everyone owes it to the group to generally stick to that plan.

I say “generally,” because once the game starts things can and should be allowed to change organically. But even with that being the case, I feel like players are always better served by expending their creative energies to come up with reasons why their characters would make choices and act in ways that forward the current story arc rather than coming up with reasons why their characters would make choices or act in ways that radically depart from the current story arc. In a good adventure, there should be plenty of ways your character can exercise freedom and make choices that enhance the story and synergize with what the dungeon master is doing. As a rule, put more effort into thinking about why your character would act on a plot hook rather than why he would ignore it.  In all but the rarest of cases, stating that your character would ONLY act in a manner that makes continuing the current storyline impossible is, in my opinion, a cop-out.

Either that or it’s a conscious rebellion against a terrible adventure in which you actually are being railroaded, or a passive-aggressive way of expressing dissatisfaction with some other aspect of the adventure. And if your problem falls into one of these categories then it requires an out-of-game solution anyway, and you’re just swinging at fences.  If your problem is a bad dungeon master, or a bad adventure, then nothing you do in-character is going to fix your problem.

But, you might be arguing, if you have a good dungeon master, she should be able to handle whatever choices the characters make! That’s true. If you have a good dungeon master then she is probably great at improvising, and could probably improvise one hell of an adventure about chartering a boat to hunt dinosaurs in Tethyr.

She could probably run an even better adventure if she were running something that she’d put a little more forethought into.

Again, I can’t stress enough that I’m not advocating railroading here. A good campaign should be able to flex like a rubber band, and accommodate plenty of player agency without “breaking.” And sure, a great dungeon master can stand on his head to spin the most non-sequitur of choices into his game, but a great player can help a great dungeon master out by not putting her into that position very often.


12 thoughts on “Player Agency, And Why You Should Limit Your Choices

  1. Great post. Railroading might be the cardinal sin for DMs, but derailing is definitely the cardinal sin for players. A player who refuses to play within the bounds of an adventure that were agreed upon is insulting the work that a DM has to do to prep a good adventure. They need to sit in the DMs seat once in a while and see how frustrating that is.

    1. Player angency can suck my left nut. It’s the “boy who cried wolf” crap that many players hide behind because some how the entire adventure wasnt catered to make them the center of the universe. Sure if you want to have a single player game with a GM go right ahead but most games consist of several other people playing the same game with you.

      Don’t confuse what I said with providing PC spot light. It’s something GMs need to do. But player agency? Those words are like nails on a chalkboard.

    2. It’s happened to me a few times where I’ve thought everyone was on the same page concerning the adventure or campaign or whatever, only to have one or two people show up with character concepts and motivations that were really incongruous with our stated intentions. It really can be frustrating. And I’m not even saying that they are “making their guys wrong,” but I am saying they are making the wrong guys for the game we decided to play. And if the majority of people made “the wrong guys” then we’re clearly trying to play the wrong game, and need to go back to the drawing board. I mean, I think an adventure about hunting dinosaurs in Tethyr sounds cool, but not if I spent the last two weeks reading The Temple of Elemental Evil.

  2. I guess I’m in the minority in that all I ask of the players is that their characters make sense and fit the game world. Occasionally I’ve set up a specific “starting point” that put some limits on those initial choices, but more often it’s been relatively wide open.

    Similarly, rather than railroads or rubberbands, I just run a “living world” – and I prep as I go and run off the cuff a fair amount. You don’t want to investigate the evil cult or the alchemist and thieves guild in cahoots running drugs or the whatever I’ve plopped in your lap as a lead, no skin off of my nose – just remember that they might come back to haunt you in some way.

    “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.”

    That’s the basic premise of my game, as well as a general examination of what exactly “evil” is I suppose. I’ve had players dive deep on the “fight evil because it’s evil” and I’ve had others who’ve dived deep on “make money to party – and nobody complains if I take money from monsters”.

    It’s not my job to provide the adventure (the players make it an adventure by how they play) my job is merely to provide the opportunities for adventure – be it fighting a dragon, stealing the idol’s jeweled eyes, white-water rafting, or forging a magic sword.


      1. Yeah, and I certainly don’t want to downplay the contributions of my players in this process at all. That’s actually, in my opinion, the biggest hurdle in a good game – getting the right group of people together. They certainly don’t all have to like the same things but they all have to want some crucial portion of their overlapping Venn diagram of desires. Some of players love metaplot, others just want to buy stuff, and others love to roleplay – as primary motivations. But they are all willing to indulge everyone else in their desires as a means to their end. I spent a number of years trying to “make groups fit” and finally realized that I needed to wait for the right collection of people.


  3. I think your thesis here turns crucially on the question of whether or not plot-based adventures such as the one you mention in your example, are fundamentally compatible with character agency.

    I myself happen to think they are not. A plot is nothing more than a pre-determined sequence of events. True, players may still have plenty of options in accomplishing goals within this sequence. However it remains the case that the very structure of a plot poses inherent limitations on the PCs. Because the sequence of events has been prepared in advance, plots tend to be pretty inflexible. Arguably they are the wrong medium to employ in a collaborative form of storytelling in which the narrative ought to be responsive to, and to a significant degree, emergent from, the choices made by the one’s co-narrators (the PCs).

    If you haven’t come across it yet, I’d recommend reading Justin Alexander’s post “Don’t Prep Plots”, which discusses this idea in more depth, and offers an illustration of an alternative, preparing “situations”.

    Also, here is a god example of how a situation can be adapted to the choices of the players.

    I would however agree with you that “if” all parties were agreed upon embarking upon a plot-based adventure, then it would be violating the norms of the social agreement, not to mention a waste of the DMs time and resources, to subsequently abandon this adventure.

    But why make such an agreement in the first place? If in fact plot-based adventures are less flexible and adaptable to the players and (arguably) require so much more prep time than situations, why use them at all?

    1. You make some good points about different play styles and adventure design styles, and I would agree that my argument makes some presuppositions, though I disagree with what you say about plot and player agency and their ability to co-exist, because the plot should change based on character actions. I will definitely read the articles you mentioned. I was primarily thinking about published adventures while writing this, but then also included homebrews that follow a similar layout or are heavily site based. As to why people agree to this style, I think there are a number of reasons, not the least of which being that they all want to explore a specific idea that someone had, whether that someone is their dungeon master or a professional game publisher. I think the Temple of Elemental Evil is a great site-based adventure, for example. And I think there are a lot of things my character can choose to do within the story to make it different and dynamic and fun – it’s just that one of those things isn’t deciding to go do Dyvers instead of Nulb, and I’m ok with that. There are plenty of things my character can do and would do, without having to be able to do everything he could ever possibly do, that make the game fun. I also think that sometimes, or maybe at least for some people, even though it can involve more prep work it can be easier for them to create a good adventure with plotting. I’m absolutely not saying that it is the only way to create a good adventure, and I’ve had a lot of fun playing more “open world” style games as well. I think there is room for lots of different styles of play to co-exist. Personally though, I like plot, as a player and as a dungeon master.

  4. Yes, remembering that we are playing a social game with a group of friends is important too. People who get too caught up in their own thing, whatever that may be, need to step back and remind themselves why we are playing,

      1. As long as you have learned from your mistakes. I do my best to do the same and I certainly have made my share of mistakes (on both sides of the screen).

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