Check for Traps
Judging the Game

Alexander Macris | 27 Apr 2010 17:00
Check for Traps - RSS 2.0

Given the above, I'd argue that the great enjoyment elicited by tabletop RPGs (and some videogames) is a result of creating a sense of agency among their players. In an RPG, by making choice X, the player can impose result Y, which is the essence of agency. And because tabletop RPGs are an experience shared within a meaningful social circle of friends and colleagues, result Y feels meaningful. In a real sense, in the context of our circle of friends, Nick really did save Erik's life last week. Moreover, because tabletop RPGs are enjoyed sequentially, in a campaign format, the number of choices made and the impact of those choices compounds over time. The game becomes more meaningful the longer it is experienced. This is why long-term campaigns are more fun than one-off sessions, and why playing with a bunch of close friends is more fun than playing solitaire or with a group of strangers. Sustained campaigns with close friends create a stronger sense of agency.

However, in order for a campaign to effectively create a sense of agency, the players must be able to make real (not faux) choices that have meaningful consequences on the players and their world. And that's a requirement which is, for instance, in direct opposition to storytelling, or making sure everyone has fun.

A Roller Coaster May Be a Wild Ride, but It Is Still a Railroad
Imagine that your party has only a few minutes to find the artifact that can close the gate to the abyss. The artifact could be underneath the dark citadel, or on the peak of the lonely mountain - but they don't have time to search both. Now, if you have real choice, the artifact is really in one location or the other, and your choice will determine whether or not you find it. On the other hand, if you have faux choice, then you only think you have choice. Whichever choice you make, that will be where the artifact is, along with an interesting, pre-scripted encounter of your level forcing you to fight to get it. So either choice is fun - but both are faux.

Many GMs never offer real choice, because the problem with real choice is that players can only be sure they have real choice when they suffer meaningfully bad consequences. And in the context of a tabletop RPG, that usually means permanent destruction of something unique - a favored henchmen, irreplaceable magic artifact, animal companion, or player character.

For a while, a skilled sleight-of-hand artist can maintain suspension of disbelief about the reality of choice, leading players on a roller coaster ride that makes them think they are making real choices and facing meaningful consequences. It's the same art that a skilled novelist can use to make us believe that a favorite character is in danger, even though he's not. But a never-ending string of perfect, dramatically appropriate, fun outcomes that defies probability eventually leads even the dimmest players to realize they don't have real choice at all. A roller coaster may be a wild ride, but it's still a railroad. And when the railroading gets revealed, the sense of agency dies, and with it dies the sense of fun.

Comments on