Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Sandbox vs. Player Agency

What happens when people are allowed to do what they want? They do exactly that. What happens if you emphasize that fact? They start thinking that there are no (social?) rules at all and - in a worse case scenario - you'll get anarchy. Natural Story development: bye-bye. Without the proverbial golden thread to follow, everyone is on their own and the game can get dysfunctional within hours. I've seen it happening and today I want to talk about preventing those problems. Bring a cup of coffee, it's a long one again ...

The "True" Sandbox

My thoughts always wander back to Morrowind when pondering what a perfect sandbox looks like. I'm sure it's not the only example, but it's the one I know. In Morrowind you start as a weak level 1 character. Weak is crucial. There is a story line worth following, but it is useful (at some point even mandatory!) to "gather experience" before you are allowed back into the main plot. For that you are left with absolute freedom.

It's at that point in the story (at the latest) when we start experimenting with what we can get through with. Killing a guy in public? They'll come for you in force and that's nothing you would survive in the beginning. So: restart from the last saving point. Stealing stuff? Might work, but if they catch you, you'll at least loose everything you stole and make jail time or try to resist (and most likely get killed again) or pay them. Entering any kind of ruin or cave you may come across? Deadly beginner mistake. Again, restart from your last saving point ...

Over time you'll either get bored or you get busy working the challenges they offer for low level characters. If you do the latter, you'll have to talk to a lot of people. You start learning about the world and how things work. By choosing what you want to do, you get involved. You choose agency (like becoming an assassin, mage or drug dealer ...). With those choices you get drawn in even further. You gain opinions and positions towards those pixels.

And at some point you'll ask yourself what your character would do if given a certain set of choices. Not what you would do, but what the fictive collection of data with a face would do. At that point you are fully involved and invested in the game. You have gained in-game agency.

Morrowind being a sandbox in the truest sense, getting involved is just an offer and there is no guarantee that you'll get invested, too. But there is a very good chance. Because once you get involved and you start to care, you'll stay around even if you've reached a point where your character is independent enough to actually do what you tried in the beginning and get away with it. But you won't (as much), because you have better things to do.

The "True" Agency

What is agency*? Without any context it's basically the ability to do what you want because you are a conscious being. And that's just that: without any context. That's like, say, a free market. It's only a piece. There is a classic metaphor about three blind men describing an elephant. Each is touching a different part of the elephant and describing it as the real deal. They all are right, in a way. But still, they only describe the part they are aware of**.

The phenomenon described here goes a bit further than just agency, but it still illustrates the point: you can describe agency without context, but it still won't be what it actually is in a living environment, which of course offers choice but also limits it. To what degree this is true is, obviously, very, very debatable. And people will do so on a regular basis (anarchism has a very different idea of what we can do than, say, socialism or democracy ... and that's just one direction we could run here).
A problem of agency ... [source]
But at its core it's just that: consciousness allows us to recognize a choice and act according to it within the limits given by the environment.

Why the term "player agency" isn't cutting it

Some of the same goes for the term "player agency". Player agency is generally described as giving players choices and having that somehow expressed in the rules. It is as much a good example for how agency needs context as it is a bad example of how to create a functional terminology for our hobby.

Let's start with the "good" part. Players want agency at the table. They want a choice or ideally:
They want an agreed upon limitation and/or expansion of imaginable choices that relate to what they'd expect in a real life environment.
There's a lot of "what if" in there, like, what if we could cast spells or what if we were stinkin' rich. A role playing system can do that but still must be agreed upon, as opinions what constitutes a "real choice" might differ quite a bit from case to case (some people like Vancian magic, some don't, to give one example). You don't want to give your players the impression they've lost agency ...

Now for the bad part. I think "player agency" is bad terminology because it only describes part of the picture (that elephant again!). It implies that agency in a gaming environment is something individual, something like a right a (one) player has that needs protection. A perspective like this will, no, has to lead to misunderstandings and unnecessary discussions. 

The definition I gave a few paragraphs above illustrates the problem quite well, I think: no player is alone, they are part of a group. And every group will have a Gamemaster of sorts, so it's actually about all the participants of a game. But there is yet another dimension to the whole affair, as characters could actually demand agency on their own (a narrative agency, maybe?).

You might question the "demand" part here, but it's actually something quite common, as it is the form of agency a Gamemaster would summon on a regular basis when he says something like "A paladin wouldn't/can't do this or that, because ..." or "You can't do that because you just lost your legs ...". It's a bit abstract (and maybe worth a post on its own), but a characters imposed limitations will also to some degree mean a shared agency, which makes him an entity of both the player and the Dungeonmaster ...

Let's get back to my observations about Morrowind in the beginning. There was a palpable difference between the choices you'd do playing the game (do what you want: pure player agency) and the choices you'd have playing the character (accepting character limitations: in-game agency). The first held the danger of getting bored and losing interest, the second had a good chance of leading to immersion. Immersion is what I want in the game.

But to get this kind of connection in something as analogue as tabletop role playing games, you first have to accept that this kind of gaming is a collaborative effort first and foremost. And that strongly implies that the same is true for the amount of agency all participants have in a game. A player unable to accept that his idea of agency (a "right" granted by definition) might be disruptive for that very reason, should keep playing computer games.

Conflicting player agencies ... [source]
Sandbox versus Agency

To make matters even more complex, we have to consider how all of this not only works in the more traditional*** role playing games, but also how it works in a sandbox. "Traditional" first, I'd say. The core of the traditional game is purpose. Characters have goals, quests, backgrounds and clear bounds that help limiting choice in a gaming world in a way that puts an emphasis on the story told at the table. Different games explore different options of this for as long as the hobby exists, from completely scripted to completely DMless.

Still, the focus in all of those games is (arguably) to emulate genres into narratives and those narratives into stories. The rules are used to emphasize and limit choice to a degree, just like described above (the Paladin as class is always a welcome example here, but the same goes for the limitations of abilities in form, power and accessibility or limiting a game to genre conventions or the race-as-class approach ... take your pick).

A sandbox game is different to those traditional games in that it takes away as many limitations as possible, beginning by the world and going as far as designing rules towards the same principle. And that results in an abundance of choice, beginning as early as with character creation****. A game like this needs a conscious effort of collaboration to work. The DM should provide a strong sense of place and culture, so they know where they come from and a just as strong sense of the stories people tell, so they know where they are headed.

A bit crazy, but very concise ... perfect world building! [source is Pratchett, of course]
It just as much demands the players to get on the same page, to not (or not only, depending on the game) match and connect on a system-level, but more on a personal level (ideally as a group, but mainly character-wise). It is important that they as players agree on characters that allow them to tell the stories they all want told on the backdrop the DM is offering.

But it just might not be enough. The problem I've encountered a few times now is that if it's not the rules but the world players have to consult for guidance and quests, it also demands a level of involvement that many players aren't willing to invest readily*****. There is nothing wrong with that, actually, and I think it's something a system needs to address somehow. 

It's a bit like what I described for Morrowind above, but different in that group effort aspect. You meet Morrowind at your own terms and you either get along or you don't. But with a group it's far more difficult. The problem, in my opinion, is that it is accepted to limit a character's choices (because that's something you choose to do with the options you get) but not so much those of a player.

And this is where player agency rears its ugly head and smiles ... We are so concerned about limiting another person's agency, that we shy away as soon as it's just implied. Or people feel it's personal if they can't have their personal snowflake ideas realized of what the character should be.

It sure happens in other games, too. Especially if they come with point buy systems. But if you take away the traditional consensus that a certain type of stories is going to be told and reduce the character creation to being a platform for all kinds of possibilities, you will have that problem emphasized. And it will continue to be problematic as the narrative emerges from actual play. If you have strong personalities at the table pulling this, it can get outright disruptive.

The next thing you know is other players getting unsatisfied with the game.


I won't be the one changing the very popular term "player agency". But I hope that I was able to shed some light on another perspective regarding the issue. Tabletop role playing games aren't computer games and what is deemed totally all right when done on your own in a game, will be far more complicated to do in a group where you actually have to work together. I think it's important to recognize this if we are to formulate a working terminology for our hobby, as it's the only way to find a deep understanding of what we are actually doing here.

As far as agency in a sandbox game goes, I'll have to think more about how to root characters more in a world to limit player agency without limiting the freedom of the sandbox. It's that shared agency bit that I believe to be an integral part of every role playing game and it's something that needs to be agreed upon. How to do this is an entirely different matter. I've explored some ideas regarding this in the past, if for other reasons.

To make a sandbox really work it doesn't only need to breathe and grow, it also needs rules that root characters deep enough in the setting that a DM has enough agency about them to ensure player agency doesn't run amok in his campaign. Forcing players to accept limitations to their character (as they would anyway) is one way to achieve this. Another one could be to connect xp awards with certain behavior like cultural habits and so on. If a culture is well defined, it will simulate the social limitations we experience in real life and that will lead to acceptance regarding limitations to a players agency. It needs to happen.

The group and collaboration aspect is also something worth exploring further. Maybe it's not enough to tell people they need to find a way to form a functioning group, maybe it needs some sort of system, formula or rules, too. A form of contract, maybe? But all that needs more thought and will finally find its way here (and hopefully into Lost Songs of the Nibelungs).

More when I get there. Opinions, comments, experiences and ideas about all of this are, as always, very welcome. Please share your thoughts.

* Now, that's a deep bunny hole, I'd say. Start with Wikipedia, as they actually have some decent entries about the topic: here's the sociological variant, here the philosophical and here it's structure versus agency. Deeper yet would be reading this here essay about morale agency. Just follow the bread crumbs. Kant is in there somewhere and Descartes' Cogito ergo sum

** You could say now, that they are wrong because they don't realize that they only experience part of it ...

*** I might need to write a word or two about how I define "traditional" in this case: although you could argue that the first role playing modules strongly suggest an open world kind of approach (Keep on the Borderlands, Village of Hommlett and all that jazz), the preeminent style of play was more the more or less framed telling of stories (as evident in everything from AD&D onward, going as far as completely scripted adventures for the Dragonlance line). My impression that this is what is recognized as the "traditional" mode of play comes from seeing the problems players will have with an completely open world. For one, it is an easier mode to play.

**** Lost Songs of the Nibelungs has a character generation that establishes a characters bloodlines (the roots, if you will) and the connection to the other players. No classes, no direction, just a number of points to buy a selection of equipment, skills and advantages. Characters also start at level zero and will only as they advance find out what they are.

***** Yeah, well, sorry, it's one of those posts. What I'm talking about here is not only those players who only think about the game as they sit down at the table (although those are meant, too, of course). What I'm thinking about here is something that happened two times in just as many months now: players told me they had no other choice with their characters than to do what they did (in both cases I strongly disagree for the reasons stated above, as they ignored character agency and just saw what they wanted to do or the lack of choices thereof). In all those cases, interaction with the world would have helped avoiding character harm and/or death ...


  1. D&D is a game. Not just a game, but a game that is much like chess. The goal of the game is to strive to control the movements of your player's pieces, recognize when you are being led and find your way out before you are destroyed.

    In order for the game to function properly, the players, as well as the DM has to play, and both sides have to be able to choose their own movements within the context of the board that had been designed by the DM to be fair. If any of these elements are missing, then the game isn't being played.

    I think that the term Sandbox can be taken to the extreme, and all extremes are bad for the game. A bad DM will make all of the moves, and design the board so that the players are always reacting to his moves the entire time. Another bad DM will insist on the players making all of the moves, and he is just reacting the them. The dangers of both are obvious, and while not railroading the players is very well documented, not being railroaded by them is not. Well, I guess it is, only it is called "Monty Haul".

    I am of the school that the game must be designed. Going to an empty sandbox to play is chaos, everybody is doing their own thing and not really playing together, but simply playing by themselves in the same space. A properly designed gameboard should allow a proper game of chess to be played. Each side has decisions to make, there are places on the board which will allow the DM to get the upper hand and control the movements of the players, but there should also be places where the players can gain the upperhand as well. These places shouldn't be obvious, but found through exploration and luck.

    If we take a common setup, low level adventurers entering the dungeon layer of low level monsters. The monsters have the benefit of being the defenders. They know the area and have set up many spots where they can murder the aggressor. The players have the benefit of stealth and the knowledge that the game has begun. That is a fair board. It allows the players to make the first mistake, and the defenders have a chance to force the movements of the player to do what they want him to do until they make a mistake or one side is destroyed. If this isn't designed by the DM ahead of time, the dynamics of the game will be lost. Players can just kill their way to the boss and take his stuff depending upon results dictated by fickle dice. Yes, that can be fun, and we want that element to keep things fair, but if that is all we do, are we still playing D&D? I honestly don't think that we are. We are just playing PART of the game. Freewill and movement by both sides is required to keep the game interesting and playable for long-term play.

    That is my feelings on it anyway. But to further complicate things, the DM must hide his work. One doesn't want to focus on what is happening in the above text, this stuff is all hidden within the subtext of a story. We want to play a game without remember actually playing it, but living the events as they unfold organically. At the end of the day, D&D is complicated as hell!

    1. I mostly agree with your assessments. Thanks for adding your opinion! Your game definitely sounds like I'd have fun playing in it :)

      For some of my arguments I actuall had D&D in mind, but most of it comes from fiddling around with Lost Songs (which is - arguably - based on D&D, so there is that) and that has the unique status of being a play-test. So as I agree with you on the "extreme is bad"-part, I'd have to add that it is crucial for testing the game. I try to take myself as a DM as far as possible out of deciding anything and completely rely on the system to do the heavy lifting. It's a stresstest, really. The questions I want to have answered are what the system can do for a DM before he has to step in and at what point does it break down and cry.

      The interesting thing about this exercise is that patterns evolve that allow really useful evaluations what needs to change in the system before I have to change anything in my DMing style. Once this is done, I hope to go at this a bit more relaxed (or less extreme, if you will).

      The one point I disagree with is that you can't have a meaningful game relying on dice only. It's probably worth a post on its own and definitely a matter of taste, but it is very much possible. All you need as a DM is at least one overarching story (a random table of picaresque story development) and a stream of customized random encounters (you are in area xy and yz is something that could happen there) then you have to connect the dots as a DM, using the input the players give you, the flow of the story and the things that already happenend. Add weather, let season for a session :)

      It really works quite well, especially in a sandbox game (I think) as the tools that devlop the story do so around the players as they do whatever they decide to do. There are things that are better with preparation, though, and main feature among them is the dungeon. I'd still prepare it with a story structure in mind, though ... And it teached me another interesting thing: tension is a good tool to give a DM the time he needs to prepare a location. Basically you load a location with story elements and concentrate the developing plot points around it while they get close. Something I didn't do as much when I had the thing prepared in my folder!

      The good thing about D&D and sandboxes, btw, is the team and class structure of the early editions. it really helps keeping a group together and avoids to a good degree the problems I'm describing above.

  2. Your play-test sounds fascinating, to find a settings breaking point. Faith in ones system is definitely important to a long term world . . . or any game really, because when we design a short term world, it can always turn into something that we find that we really enjoy and we figure out ways to increase its capabilities.

    A DMless game, or one that has the DM simply an observer in events, part of me says it wouldn't work, but that is just my DM's ego talking, because another part of me fears that it would.

    Concerning dice and meaningful games, they are a required component to the game. I use them during prep, it is fun to make sense of random results, and it takes you to places where you normally wouldn't go. As a player, I have found that there are times to pick up your dice, and times when you should leave them alone. As a DM I have found that games that result in endless rolling are not all that fun to play. There must be personal decisions involved, there must be elements of role-play, and there also must be dice to do the grim duties that the DM can't, but it is usually the player's who prompt everyone to use them, and sometimes it is the DM's job. I do roll lots of dice behind the screen, but I think that a good DM knows when not to roll them.

    I look forward to hearing the findings from your experiment, and especially your thoughts on dice and gaming! Me, I go back and forth. I have added their use deeper into the process than I had in the past, and have been very pleased with the results. I had also found myself on one extreme of the spectrum, over-writing and keeping the random down to a minimum; it wasn't good for the game, I have more fun playing with the random than I ever did without it.

    1. Thanks again, Ripper! There will be more pretty soon :) Lost Songs won't necessarily be a DMless game, but I want to make sure that the tools I write for it do what they should even if a DM has a very different style to mine. That's why I try to take myself out of the equation as much as possible (which is quite hard, I have to admit).

      And you are right, everything needs to be done in moderation, same is true for the use of the dice at the table. But it's quite liberating to let the dice do the work while I as the DM have to find the right spin for the result. So I'd roll for the weather and I'd roll how the story develops, but I decide how that development manifests in conjunction with all the elements that are already established and the players decide how to handle all that (then: rinse and repeat). There's plenty of room for role playing!

      I will have a detailed example about a randomly evolving story line up in a few days (I think) and hope we'll get a chance to continue the discussion then :)


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