During a recent conversation with Nerdarchist Ted he told me about a fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons game he ran. Each month Ted runs a live stream game sponsored by RPG Crate. Time was a factor for these sessions, which typically run about two and a half hours. Because the adventures included in the monthly subscription box are packed with content Ted streamlines things to adjust for his group and the time constraint but in the most recent session the game threatened to end before the party reached a satisfying conclusion. Ted felt in a pickle. An idea sprang to his mind, and he utilized player agency in a wonderful way as a solution. His DM tale stuck in my mind and I’d like to share some thoughts on how player agency can be an incredibly useful tool for a Dungeon Master. So let’s get into it and as bonus I pulled the video of Ted’s game. Enjoy!
What is player agency?
First it’s important to define what I mean by player agency. I like this explanation from a TechRaptor article Playing Roles: The Psychology of Player Agency:
“The term player agency is often used as a blanket statement to refer to such interactivity, but the term “agency” itself has meaning in both philosophy and sociology; basically, agency refers to the ability of a person to act, to perform actions in your environment. Player agency then, in its base form, means giving the player the ability to make meaningful decisions about their actions while participating in a game or event. So do you equip the big or small sword? Do you choose to be nice or amoral? Do you continue to walk forward or stop and explore?”
In tabletop roleplaying games like fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons we use the term player agency to describe the relationship between the players and the game. Player characters are the vessel through which players engage with the setting. A GM meanwhile manages every other aspect of the session from the weather to the whims of the gods. With this dynamic in place it’s not hard to understand how taking away player agency can have a tremendous impact. The GM already controls everything but the player characters — taking even that measure of control away begins to beg the question why the players are even involved.
We see player agency at work every time a GM asks what the characters do, or when players describe their characters actions and words within the context of the game. As 5E D&D continues to develop and evolve we’re seeing player agency expand through mechanical character choices too. Think of all the Unearthed Arcana material, the artificer in Eberron: Rising from the Last War or the subclasses in Xanathar’s Guide to Everything. A healthy chunk of text explicitly puts more agency in the player’s hands with advice on how to add depth and detail to your character’s personality through describing how your personal features and effects look and react to the world around them.
GM tips for using player agency
One of my favorite examples of using player agency as a GM tool comes from Ted yet again. Long ago, before I ever started working with Nerdarchy in any capacity and I was simply a big fan, Ted ran a game they recorded and put up on the YouTube channel. During the adventure the party traveled through the Beneath (their version of the Underdark) for a couple of weeks traveling back to their home town of Gryphongaff. Ted asked each of the players to describe an event they experienced during the journey. This blew my mind!
The passage of time in our 5E D&D games can be a fickle thing. I’ve heard the joke that a three day journey takes 30 seconds and a 30 second combat takes three hours of game time, something I’m sure most of us can relate to. I’ve also run into issues with players who feel compelled to account for every moment of game time. Skipping ahead to the next day, week or month sounds outrageous to these players — what if they missed an opportunity during the interim?!
Situations like this are a perfect place to use downtime, and there’s material to support the technical aspects of this in the Dungeon Master’s Guide and XGtE. But aside from any of this crunchy stuff, this is a fantastic opportunity to allow for expanded player agency. Putting time into the players’ hands to describe provides flexibility to explore new ideas that might have been glossed over during a game session. Does your character’s personal goal involve tracking down a mysterious figure, becoming a patron of the arts or patrolling the wilds around their beloved hometown? While it can be exciting to play out these scenarios in standard game fashion, player agency can be a powerful tool to progress these goals too.
Whenever a GM gives more agency to players, they’re creating an opportunity to get valuable feedback. In the few examples above consider how useful these situations can be. During the trek through the Beneath, characters could make new friends or enemies, stumble upon new locations or gain insights into things their characters are interested in. There’s no experience points involved, but there’s absolutely experience to be gained from this technique.
The heart of what I wanted to share regarding player agency comes directly from Ted’s RPG Crate game though, and the lesson is an incredible GM tip I’m going to keep in mind every time I run a game. It is especially useful in a scenario like Ted’s, running published material under time restraint. Ready? Here’s the tip: skip past content and simply ask the players to describe what happened during that time.
With time running short and a definitive end point to reach, Ted took the content from the adventure and simply put it to the players to describe how they handled things. What a terrific idea! Managing the material this way, does it really matter what the players say? They could describe encountering an ancient red dragon and the result is the same. Part of the prepared material is bypassed in order to reach the desired end point.
I can’t tell you how many situations this could apply to with great results. Consider the most basic 5E D&D game — a new party of 1st level characters. They’ve got an adventure hook to recover a McGuffin in possession of bandits currently holed up in a nearby swamp. You’ve only got an hour to play and players being players you’re afraid most of the time will be eaten in town talking to NPCs and shopping. Player agency to the rescue!
Ask the players to tell you something that happened en route to the swamp. To make it even more exciting use a random roll chart to get started. I’ll pull a book off the shelf next to me and find an example.
“Three awakened trees are looming over a fallen man, their branches raised to pummel him. One of the trees has two gashes in its trunk, clearly from the axe that is just out of the man’s reach.”
How does the party handle this situation? Maybe they avoid them by circumventing around the scenario. Maybe they defend the fallen man, or aid the awakened trees. Perhaps they create a teachable moment and every creature walks away with a deeper understanding. The point is player agency solves the problem of time constraint and moving things ahead. There’s no dice rolling and no mechanical consequences, and players get to engage with the game in a different way, collaborating together to tell their story.
On the GM side of things, expanding the creative space for players provides fresh ideas for future adventures too. Any of the scenarios described can come back around later. The ideas shared by players can have real meaning for their characters individually and as a group.
Ever since that moment years ago Ted and his group’s use of player agency profoundly affected me. That is when I realized my role as a GM is helping the players tell the story of their characters. I still design encounters and map out adventure ideas with salient points, but my No. 1 goal as a GM became celebrating player agency. Many of the most enjoyable and rewarding game sessions I’ve experienced came about through player driven game play and I encourage players to assert their agency as often as possible. A GM has plenty of opportunities to exert control over the game session. But there’s just as many times you can share the control with players and you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.