Agent 88

A title people totally won’t get.  I kept trying different Get Smart related titles, but they didn’t quite work for what I was going for.

Agency in RPGs.

I mostly hear or see complaints about lack of agency.  I’ve certainly played in games where I felt like I had no control over what my character was doing.  By games, I mean one game I can think of in 20+ years of RPGing.  I played in a Maelstrom convention game that was one of the awful games I played in, where the PCs were irrelevant to anything happening.

And, that’s the thing – “felt”.  There’s a world of difference between not actually having meaningful decisions and feeling like not having meaningful decisions.  Based on other things I hear or see, a lot of GMs have one-shots planned in the beginning and the ending and it’s just a matter of getting the PCs to the end after they do whatever in the middle.  Is that a case of having meaningful decisions or not?

In my experience, being railroaded is overblown.  HoR mods are structured and we all may realize they are to the point of following what the mods want you to do, but I have a hard time remembering any campaign play where I felt adventures were as railed as HoR mods.

Then, I don’t have a problem with being on rails.  I’m sure there are cases where even not being able to choose from different stations didn’t matter to me.  If I think about some of the side adventures in Princess Police, they were pretty much “get to village, kill stuff or decapitate zombies” and I really liked the side adventures.  I don’t have a problem with HoR mods having limited things to do, though it is nice when you get mods that do allow you to pursue your personal interests.

So, the reason I got to thinking about agency again is that I was thinking about the disconnect between my GMing style and what players are looking for and I got to wondering whether my problem is that I try too hard to give players more agency.  I can just picture Chris running Princess Police, especially early on, probably having the exact same perspective of “I have these story hooks and no one is impaling their flesh upon them.  *sigh*”

I would say most of the players I’ve played RPGs with in campaign play have wanted to be given clear objectives and the only deviance was in doing “wild and crazy” things rather than an interest in creating one’s own story arcs, helping to define the world, etc.  This being true even of players who say they want things that sound a lot like taking on some of the storytelling responsibilities.

And, so, throwing out hooked nets seems to work far less well than just coming up with a straightforward mission and executing on that mission, with the variance being the occasional personal interest … which is awfully like HoR mods.  I usually know exactly what the mod wants us to do and I will try to get in some shopping or kite-flying just to have a “character” and that can work well enough when the right kite-flying situ arises.

It’s not that there isn’t interest in doing something more than being put on the last train to Jigokuville.  It’s that matching up the GM’s attempts to allow for more sandboxiness (or whatever) runs into a player lack of grasp of how much sand there is and whether the tide will just wash it all away.  Oh yeah – an analogy so perfect and so imageriffic that it will transcend understanding.

Rather than speak in the abstract, even though only joy and weal comes from abstractedness, let me lay out an example where I see an inherent flaw in being a better GM.

In Rokugan 1600, session 2.3 had the party continuing an extended trek back to base with a stop in Dark Edge Village.  The characters have no particular goals in DEV, just waiting for the leadership to push them on to the next stop.  This actually reminds me a lot of Princess Police early on, except that campaign didn’t have more important people entouraging the PCs temporarily.  The players, similarly, don’t have any particular goals.  The party vampire (Chris, if you read this, Bird) is no longer the party’s problem.  The khadi who showed up in 2.2 is not emphasized as an action item for the party.  The aftermath of dojo deaths is nonexistent.

There’s just hanging out waiting for theater and listening to gossip about a Lion EM and an Utaku duelist planning on dueling.

When broken down like this, it’s clear to me that this isn’t ripe for player engagement.  When presented with similarly nebulous and not-relevant-to-my-PC milieus, what would I initiate?  Wouldn’t I just be waiting for plot to send me back in time or into a spirit realm facsimile of temporal displacement?

The Ikoma/Utaku subplot suffers from not being clearly relevant to the PCs.  Where I think I did a better job with a previous session was in having these sorts of “Whelp, that’s Rokugan” elements cross paths with the PCs to where there’s a feeling it matters.  While there’s a Unicorn PC, there’s no cost/benefit calculation to what happens with the two.

Touring DEV is similarly nonimpactful.  Rokugan is extremely detailed and I can pull setting from multiple sources, but, if you aren’t into Kakita or trying to be Emerald Champion or aren’t hung up on dueling (which this campaign downplays a lot), why care that there are shrines or the Calm Heart Dojo?  Now, there was some interest in the shrine to the Lords of Death because two PCs are into esoteric knowledge.  So, this wasn’t a total waste, but it brings up that players are hardly ever looking to be tourists.  They want action.  Or, they want to pursue some goal.

If the player’s goals don’t line up with the situation, then just left with action.

I have this tendency to think big picture.  Maybe I am inclined to much more beach than I think I am.  My interest in a world is in the world.  My focus, though, needs to get back to how the world matters to the players.

Now, not every player has the same interests nor does every PC have the same interests.  So, there is some room for providing for different activities, but I get so easily into the mindset of “Do you want to take the 11:20 train through Narnia or the 11:45 express?” rather than “Corpse to your right, corpse to your left, nobody wants to be corpse up the middle.”

Also, I have all of these elements I’m trying to incorporate and they just aren’t consistent enough to be impactful.  That a khadi has penetrated as far as the Unicorn’s Eastern border and is apparently on some mission is supposed to be a big deal, but why would the players care if they only encounter him once and their superiors are all “Time to head home and get back to warring.”?  Far too many elements are just not well thought out in terms of campaign impact.

Maybe Gen Con will give me an opportunity to brainstorm with a couple of the players on how to make elements that are supposed to matter matter more.  In turn, this can maybe get me to focus not on the 10,000 things going on in the background but on the 1.5 things that put PCs into situations that engage them.

And, maybe, that there is a two-front war will actually matter – I’m thinking the two best sessions so far have had nothing to do with the wars or the Northern Front enemies.

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