Player Agency and Why Some Curses Are Total Garbage

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I promise you I’m not finished talking about Dungeons & Dragons villains, but something came up this week that requires my immediate attention and I will get right back to those as soon as I’m done with this one. Yeah, we’re going to talk about player agency in 5E D&D. I can hear people groaning already. The thing is, player agency has kind of lost its meaning in the midst of all of these discussions about it and I hear it used incorrectly as often as I hear it used right.

RPG game master player 5E D&D player agency
Whether you’re the Game Master or a player, play more games! [Art by Olie Boldador]

What player agency is not

Player agency doesn’t mean the players in question always get everything they want. It doesn’t mean everything they try is going to work. It does mean they get the opportunity to attempt it, but when your character attempts to stick a spear in someone’s neck and someone else blocks the attack, you don’t get to cry ‘player agency’ because it didn’t work.

in 5E D&D, sometimes you’re going to roll poorly. Sometimes plot armor is going to kick in and you just have to get over it.

What is player agency, anyway?

It’s the freedom to try. It’s free will. It’s the ability for a player to choose their character’s own behavior, to make their own choices. It is incredibly important, not only to keep the player characters in games characters, but for players to have fun in a game in the first place.

My 5E D&D group was playing in an official module recently (I’m not going to name names for the sake of not giving out spoilers) and came across a cursed magic item. Cool. I’m fine with cursed artifacts, in fact they can quite enhance the fun of a game some times.

This one sucked.

The effect was immediate and even though my Dungeon Master gave me a saving throw (the module didn’t allow for it) what happened next was just asinine.

“You gain the flaw ‘I crave power above all else, and will do anything to obtain more of it.’”

5E D&D player agency cursed magic item
A good guideline for adventuring: magic items with skull iconography are likely dangerous.

It even specified this overrides any conflicting character traits you already have!

It’s not even a curse, it’s just a thing that happens, which means there’s no built in way to cure yourself of it and it’s really up to the DM’s mercy whether or not you more or less lose your character for picking up a stick.

Hang onto your butts, because I’m about to tell you why that’s bullshit.

Telling players who their characters are and how to react to things is cheating

Yes, oh yes, it is. If you want them to respond a certain way, it is up to you to create the conditions for which they would react in that fashion.

If you want to make your players sad, you have to write a sad plot line. If you want to make your players angry, you have to present then with something that makes them angry. If you simply tell them “you are overcome with sadness,” you’re gonna get someone that goes, ‘My character wouldn’t be saddened by this.’ And they will be right.

You want to stain a character’s heart in evil and wickedness? You do it right and give them reasons. You offer them things. You test them at every turn and give them the opportunity to say ‘no’.

There’s a long history of cursed magic items in D&D

All right, so this speaks to the longstanding tradition in D&D that sometimes, you find objects that change your alignment and sometimes cursed objects are total crap. But you know what? That wording is pretty on the nose. Sometimes a cursed magic item is total crap.

When you make a character, you have a good idea of who they are. Some curses are fine. Sometimes, your DM is going to bestow a flaw and you’ll be glad to play to it. So you formed an addiction to something? That’s a great roleplaying opportunity.

Oh yeah, it totally can be, you get to play your character struggling with this desire they have. You get to play how it conflicts with every other trait you’ve shown up until this point. Giving a character something to struggle with isn’t a problem. Going in and changing everything about who they are? That’s a problem.

Let players’ motives be their own

Any time you say, ‘This is now the most important thing to you, more than anything else,’ you’re cheating. Especially if it’s late game.

My party was lucky. I was the one who picked up the staff and my character had a 20 Intelligence. She knew taking the opportunities right in front of her, right here, would block her off from a lot of others down the road and she was adamant it wasn’t worth it to bargain her way to the middle. It helped that she was a wizard who had recently met another extremely powerful mage who had never handed his strings to another entity proving it was possible to do it on her own.

It was still a load of crap. Up until this point her motives had been to protect the child in her charge and go and rescue her family. Emphasis on the former. She was willing to burn the world to the ground to save that kid, and frankly, if he’d been the one in danger she might have been tempted to take what was offered to save him.

There is no situation where these mental gymnastics should be necessary.

A DM’s responsibility is to make sure players have fun

It’s never okay to just decide, ‘You’re playing a different character now because I said so.’ If you want the characters to change, you have to earn that moment.

Any time you try to cut corners, your players are going to feel cheated and rightfully so. I was lucky. My DM was aware of how bullshit this entire situation was and didn’t try to press the point once I’d explained where I was going with it. He gets a lot of points for rolling with this situation as well as he did. He didn’t write this adventure, he was working with what he had at the time and I respect that.

I know plenty of DMs who wouldn’t have been so cool about it. At that point, you might as well just take control of the character, and that completely goes against the spirit of role play in the first place.

If you want characters to change, how do you do it right?

First, you acknowledge that you can’t make them. It is always going to be a player’s choice what is important to their character, bottom line. That’s one thing a DM has no business sticking their fingers in without the player’s consent.

You want something to matter to a character, you give them a reason to care about it. You want a character to start going to the dark side? Threaten the things they love. The trick is in paying attention to what the characters already care about.

I know, that sounds super obvious, but it’s not. Not every motivator is going to effect every character the same way. You watch, you see what kinds of things they love and what they hate. You pay attention to what matters to them. You pay attention to what they want.

Then you hold what they love over a fire. You offer them opportunities to destroy what they hate. You dangle what they want in front of their face.

And then, they are yours. By their own rules. Hoisted by their own petard. Willingly, and not just because you said so. Do this to a character, and they will give you everything you want and they won’t even be able to accuse you of cheating to get it.

And now for a shameless plug…

Still gonna try to keep this brief but I just want to talk about my current Work in Progress which I’m still hoping will come out around December (but no promises…yet!).

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I now return you to your regularly scheduled nerdfest.

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The North Seat 5E D&D Campaign Setting from Ethan Hudgens
D&D-izing He-Man's Power Sword for 5E D&D

Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

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Speculative fiction writer and part-time Dungeon Master Megan R. Miller lives in southern Ohio where she keeps mostly nocturnal hours and enjoys life’s quiet moments. She has a deep love for occult things, antiques, herbalism, big floppy hats and the wonders of the small world (such as insects and arachnids), and she is happy to be owned by the beloved ghost of a black cat. Her fiction, such as The Chronicles of Drasule and the Nimbus Mysteries, can be found on Amazon.

  1. Matt
    | Reply

    I don’t necessarily agree with you. Consequences of player actions are part of player agency, and messing around with cursed items has consequences. A simple mechanical curse, such as “always roll persuade checks with disadvantage if the target is an elf” is kind of boring, while “from this point forward you seek power at all costs” can be incredibly interesting. The trick is that the consequence has to be commisrate with the gains, if you are going to become mad, mad with power, then you should also have gained a not insignificant amount of power from the item, and there should be some way of exerting your will in a sort of struggle against the curse. Maybe a saving throw each time you want to make a decision that would decrease your power would be appropriate. But to just say “this effect sucks in every way and ruins gaming” sounds a lot like “I don’t want bad things to happen to me as a result of my actions”.

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