The Vital Element and How to Handle It

Before I get into a full-fledged rant on failure, success, and how to combine them, I’m going to begin with what I consider to be the most important part of a role-playing game, the part that sets it apart from many older video games and all books, movies, and similar media.

The word we are looking for, my friends, is agency. Webster’s defines it as “The faculty of acting or of exerting power; the state of being in action; action; instrumentality.” Essentially, what it boils down to is the ability to make a difference. To have one’s actions matter to the storyline.

I was once asked what made a role-playing game a role-playing game and not just a “bedtime story”. In my opinion, this is what makes the difference. It’s not the dice—and if you really want to try to argue a dice requirement to someone who favors freeforms, Amber Diceless, or various forms of LARPing, I will cheerfully be behind you all the way with a bag of popcorn to munch on while said player reads you your pedigree. It’s not the table, it’s not the system, it’s the agency. As long as the PCs can change things—as long as there are paths to choose and places to jump off the rails—that’s the important part, and that’s what separates it from a console RPG or a guided bedtime story.

What this means is that places in which there isn’t a divergence, or isn’t a choice, should probably be if not avoided than at least hidden very, very carefully. And used sparingly. This is very, very important. If you’ve got two cutscenes in one session, in my opinion, you have a problem. (If you have one, I strongly recommend you not have one next week.)

It leads to the question, though, of how much power is too much. Particularly in the more epically-prone games, it’s easy to get into a mindset of “Anything is possible”, and that can lead to its own set of conflicts. If the GM isn’t interested in running a game in which reasonable resistance is window dressing, and the players want to be forces of nature (though honestly, where’s the fun in that?), there will be problems.

One could say that what the group needs, above everything else, is to answer a short list of questions.

  • What constitutes “impossible”?
  • Where does the balance between GM power and player power lie?
  • How important is plot?

For instance, I keep a pretty wide definition of impossible. I’ll keep to the world’s metaphysics for most of it, but if someone can give me a sufficiently good explanation of why something should be possible, I’ll give them a chance at it. Not a guarantee, mind you; just a chance. Similarly, I consider the balance to lie closer to the players than the GM, but only to a certain extent; I will not fiat, but I will not let them fiat at me either. And plot—well, that depends. I’m pretty permissive when it comes to things that would mess with my plans, since two of my best plots came from players doing something I didn’t see coming that completely wrecked my current plans. My core tenet is the idea that if I’m to fail, I want it to be on my own terms, not just Because the Script Said So. (After all, if it’s just my skills that are determining my success or failure, I can always go improve, or come up with new tactics and tricks, or in general feel like I’m trying to fix things for next time.)

So how do you handle the power balances? What does player agency mean for you? Where is enough enough?


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