Sunday, January 23, 2022

Thinking About the Concept of Player Agency and GM Prep

Thinking About the Concept of Player Agency and GM Prep
I'm in the bit-too-painful process of purchasing a new home and moving out of my rental into the new place, and this has really occupied my waking thoughts far too much. Literally when I wake up I'm thinking about where I'm at in the process and how much, or how little, time I have to do X, Y, and Z.

Last night I had a game and I am so ashamed to admit I fell asleep during the session. I wish I could blame the GM for that, but that's 110% all me. Last night I crashed hard and then managed to get up from the computer and crawl into bed.

I cannot quite recall my dreams last night, but they were definitely game related and when I woke up this morning instead of lying there telling Google to snooze my alarm while lamenting how much packing I need to get done today, I was thinking of adventuring. The ass-end of the dream I was having wasn't so much about being in an adventure (1st person), but playing in an adventure (3rd person). Definitely not as cool, but I guess my mind was trying to make up for what I missed out on last night.

So basically I'm half-awake, half dreaming of playing a RPG and at one point the GM is giving us an option for travel, basically left or right at the fork and I'm brought out of this sweet moment by the snoozed alarm...and my cat wanting to be fed. In that sharp moment as I'm pulled out of one world and into this one I get a moment where I question the fake reality of the previous decision and wonder if the choice to travel either side of the road fork is a railroad in the making.

As a GM I can tell you all my games are freaking railroads. To a large extent the player's thinking they have a free choice in their adventures is just part of the fantasy world I'm working to create. Now don't get me wrong, I do give the players choices, and they can easily veer away from the main adventure path I've planned, but they rarely get to adventure off of one of my paths...

In my opinion, the whole idea of free choice is a bit of a misnomer to begin with, even in the "real" world. People are creatures of habit and easily 95% of our life is predetermined, and that 95% is largely created by the 5% of decisions we actually do make. Odds are you're waking up from your bed, putting on an outfit you've work countless times before, and going to the same job you've done for who-knows how long. Just because you could "chuck it all" and go off on some wild tangent, maybe move to the hills and live off of the land.......that is the fallacy of free will/choice. You aren't going to, just because you could. Even if you did, you'd just be changing routines and soon enough every new day will be 95% just like your last.....

As a GM I generally try to anticipate the player's desires and prep accordingly. I like to use a defined game-world where I have a good map and a rough history setup. I have a rough plan of the "big strokes" of what is going to happen locally/regionally and when. The PCs can affect that and hopefully will, but I spend most of my time prepping for the path/direction the players indicate they are going to go. I'll spend a little bit of time on a backup plan, and usually I'll have some (at least one) small generic encounters/dungeons that could be mopped up in a single session or so for the times the party does exercise the 5% option and forge ahead instead of taking the left or right fork.

A HUGE part of my preparations is really streamlined by managing expectations. Knowing what is generically going to happen and being able to express that to the party, and being able to (hopefully) read the players and guesstimate what they're going to want to do.....

Another big part is making the players work for that 5% "free choice" deviation from the path set out ahead of them. When the players clearly indicate they want to travel down the road to the next big city, most of my work is going to be planning on that trip and the city. To keep the party "on the path", cut down on their ability to change their minds....on a whim. The adventure may call for a wandering monster check every hour (just for this example). After every check, don't ask the players if they want to continue down the road. On a straight path this gives the party eight chances to decide to say "fuck it" and go off cross country. Instead offer opportunities at natural decision points. If the road into the city has a single crossroad four hours in, then that would be an appropriate time to see if the players want to change their travel direction. The same would go for river crossings or when the party starts up after camping overnight.

Yes, the party could decide at any point to change their collective minds and head off in another direction, but the players are creatures of habit and usually will not deviate from their own decision to travel to their desired destination. 

As I see it most players/parties are more than happy with the illusion of "free choice" where they can do anything they want. A little nudging and the players will usually make one decision and then largely travel along that path until something major comes up. As long as they feel, or even just have the option, to change their minds (even though 95% chance they won't), then they will pretty much railroad themselves. 

Make GM prep a lot easier.....


  1. There's also the"don't be a dick" factor. If they decided to go to the capital last week, and the session ended before they arrived, you spent the intervening week prepping the city. If they show up for the next game and decide to explore the mountains instead, they're being dicks and you should tell them so.

    1. On several levels I agree, but if they headed tot he mountains and that wasn't my backup, then that's when I have them come across the mini dungeon....perhaps an old tomb that just got uncovered from a recent rock slide. If they don't take the bait then a wandering monster a bit too much for them steers them back towards the city or the tomb.....

  2. Baron Greystone hit an important caveat: There has to be a 'gentleman's agreement' at the table. Our game is a small sandbox. If the current adventure is wrapped up enough, the DM will ask "what do you want to do next session?" He needs to know, so he can prep. We have an obligation to tell him, and stick to it.

    That said, I've run "Schroedinger's Ogre" before (also called the Quantum Ogre). The players may head east out of town, or west -their choice. But regardless, I have an ogre encounter prepped. Now, from their perspective, they only know that they left in (X) direction, and had an encounter with an ogre. Perhaps if they went (Y) they wouldn't have had that encounter. They don't know. From their side of the table, they have the illusion of choice. I've found most player are happy with that illusion.

    1. I think it really does come down to the illusion and my point is a good percentage of that illusion is built up by the players themselves. While I want the player input and kind of want to ask what they want to do next, I try to refrain from actually asking the question ahead of time for prepping purposes. I want the players to think the world moves on with or without them......

  3. Well, to each their own, but illusionism makes for bad games IMO.
    If the players get ahead of you, you might need delaying tactics like those described to give you time to prepare. If you refuse to prepare what the player's want to do even when you have time, the players will notice. They may be too nice to say, but they will notice.


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