How much choice?

I’m finishing up my read of The Creation of Narrative in Tabletop Role-Playing Games and I am determined not to go into my thoughts on it too deeply until I’m done. One of the things Jennifer Cover says however has stuck in my mind and, as my internal editor will murder me if I talk about a book I haven’t finished, I want to talk a little bit about player agency.

It’s safe to say that players of Tabletop RPGs can have more narrative agency than players of computer or platform RPGs, but I think that “can” is really important here. The wildly successful Paizo Adventure Path model is making a statement about how much narrative agency a lot of players are looking for, and, quite frankly, it’s not much. The Adventure Path promises an interesting and engaging story, but the trade-off is that the players will walk the path laid out for them by the books, as put forward by their GM. That, in my mind, makes the AP only a step or two away from a Choose Your Own Adventure book – even when there are multiple roads to Rome, how free are you if all the roads still lead there?

But is that even a bad thing? The AP definitely falls on the storytelling side of the telling/chasing divide, but as long as we’re all entertained, how critical is it that my character can’t really go haring off to explore things that beyond the scope of the adventure? Is it enough to know that I could do so theoretically?

This relates even to GMs who write up narratives for the PCs to interact with. If I present a villain and a dastardly plan, I do so with the implicit understanding that thwarting said villain’s plan is how we’re going to achieve a game session or three that will prove enjoyable and satisfying for everyone. How much choice do players need to have for them to consider that they have agency? Do they need to have absolute freedom? What about freedom of option in negotiating obstacles? In interacting with GM characters?

As I’ve mentioned before, some games turn this absolutely on its head. Houses of the Blooded, as well as the derivative games John Wick has written under the same engine, make narrative control dynamic, meaning the GM could well be wasting their time in developing too much story. Is Pathfinder and D&D’s dominance of the RPG market a nod to tradition or an indication that players are only interested in having so much agency in exchange for a lively narrative? Interestingly, what might this portend for computer RPGs, like Dragon Age or The Witcher? Such games give an illusion of narrative agency, but it’s definitely an illusion – the player’s options are constrained by the code and the game engine. On the other hand, how real is the agency in a game like D&D, where a d20 spends a lot of time telling you that you’ve come up short?

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