I Am a Free Agent!

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Buckle up for some bullshit.

Yeah, I know articles are a little behind. They are coming. I’ve got two articles following this one this week. One is a continuation of crafting and one is about planning the map for my Pathfinder campaign. This one is my one, monthly bullshit article. And it has to happen today. Because of reasons. Which will become important.

See, something came up the other day. Friday. And it has me thinking about something I’ve never really given much thought to before. Something I’m not even really sure how to think about. And something that, as far as I can tell, no one has thought about in a general sense before. But it’s also something that I – and many others – have thought about the symptoms of. I’m calling it GM Agency.

I know, right? That doesn’t sound like any sort of thing at all. Certainly, it doesn’t sound like a problem that’s worth blathering about for 3,000 words. Or however many I actually go on for. But, man, did it ever turn into an existential crisis. And not just for me. I almost took down another GM and indie game designer with it. I think he’s still rocking back and forth, huddled in the bottom of the shower, muttering to himself.

As is typical for my once monthly bullshit article, I’m not starting this with any sort of answer. I don’t think I’ll hit one before the end. This is just me thinking out the problem. But, I’m not even sure what the problem actually is. Or how to talk about it. So, this could be a mess. What I am hoping – and I know how frigging stupid THIS is to say considering what usually happens when I say it – what I’m hoping is to start a discussion in my comment section and see if the rantings of the disordered hive mind that is the Internet gamosphere manages through sheer luck to say the one combination of words that inspire me to see everything clearly. Because I am not counting on anyone else to figure this out before I do. I mean, come on. It’s me. And it’s the Internet.

Now, let’s go back in time to what touched this all off.

A Fun Game about Killing Giant Monsters

The story starts with my friend Jim McClure of Third Act Publishing. We get along because he’s a cold-hearted businessman like me. And we’re willing to admit that we’re shamelessly using each other to advance our own goals. And, recently, I’ve also discovered he’s got a pretty solid temper in him. Not like me. I’m one of those constant, seething volcanoes like Hawaii where I am in a permanent state of just boiling over. He’s like Mount Saint Helens. He’s a quiet, innocuous mountain, sitting pretty as part of the landscape, and then the postal service loses a bunch of books and KABOOM. He blows his frigging north face right off and wipes out several towns. I gotta respect that.

Now, you know his name because Third Act Publishing is the company that is actually selling and shipping and fulfilling the Angry book. You know, Game Angry: How to RPG the Angry Way. Get yours today. Anyway, thing is, his company has put out a number of games. Most of which he’s designed himself. Well, he’s got a new one coming. It’s on Kickstarter right now. It’s called Reach of Titan. It’s about a group of hapless hunters living in world of gigantic monsters. And their job is to bring down these fifty-foot mythical abominations to protect their little villages. Basically, it’s Monster Hunter meets Shadow of the Colossus. And it’s in its last couple of days on Kickstarter. So, you should check it out if that sounds cool to you.

Now, you know me: I don’t plug crap like this unless I’ve actually played it or unless it involves me in some way. And this is NOT part of a secret native advertising deal Third Act got in return for publishing my book. Angry don’t do that crap. Nope. I’m talking about because Jim asked me if I’d be willing to build one of the giant monster bosses for it. As a stretch goal. And he also provided me a playtest copy of the game – which I later discovered didn’t make me special because he’s giving the playtest away for free to anyone who wants it on his site – and some extra design notes. Since there are still aspects of the design being ironed out and since I was going to be building something for the game, I decided to run a playtest session and try the thing out. Which I did. It was a fun game. At least, the part where the heroes take down a giant pig and then a giant… uh… giant, that was fun. The parts where the heroes have to hunt down their pray and the parts where they interact with and build their settlements? That wasn’t part of the playtest.

Full disclosure: without seeing those parts, the best I can say for the game is it’s a pretty fun combat engine for fighting giant bosses who are more platforming challenge and puzzle boss than stat block full of hit points. And I’d definitely run a titan fight as a pick-up game or at a convention once I have the full game. Which I am backing. But I don’t know how it’ll handle campaign play without that other stuff.

The problem arose when Jim and I sat down for a game of virtual golf and got to talking about the playtest session I’d run. We talked about what worked and what didn’t. And then I dropped a bombshell. I told him I wasn’t sure I’d had much fun running the game. At least, the combat portions.

See, the thing is that the titans have their stats and actions divided between different parts of their bodies. And every titan has unique defenses and weaknesses. And to kill a titan, the group kind of has to take them apart in the right way. And a lot of that comes down to tactical experimentation. To trying different things, observing patterns, recognizing the dangerous spots, taking out lesser targets to limit what the Titan can do, and then ultimately dealing a killing blow. It’s like diffusing a very complicated bomb. Except the bomb is fifty-feet tall and you have to climb all over it while it tries to buck you off, kill you, breathe fire on you, or whatever.

Because of all of that, the titan’s actions are very limited by what the players do. It can target players in certain places and doing certain things, but not players in other places. And because of its puzzle-boss nature, it will always respond to certain things in certain ways. And all of that is very important to the way the game works. The titan has to telegraph its actions and behave consistently so the players can try out different tactics and develop a plan.

Now, I’m very aware of that crap. I’m aware of the play experience the game is trying to create. Hell, I’m all over that play experience. So, I didn’t want to go too far off script. I didn’t want to get creative. Even when the players took down the thirty-foot piggy in one-and-a-half rounds of cleverly stacking their abilities, focused fire, and lucky die rolls. I also didn’t want to go too far off script because you don’t go off script when you’re trying to learn a new system for the first time. As a GM, the first few times you run a game – especially one you’re trying to learn because you want to design for it – you run it to the motherloving letter.

In the end, though, the experience was one of running a bunch of nested if-then statements as if I was executing a computer program. It was, for me, highly mechanical. And the experience wasn’t helped by the fact that this is one of those games in which the GM doesn’t throw any dice. WHICH I WILL NEVER UNDERSTAND!

But, the funny thing is, this experience made me understand WHY I don’t like systems in which I don’t throw any dice.

Jim listened very intently to my criticism. We discussed it for a while. He talked about how he, as a GM, went off script when he was running one of the same fights I had run and how other GMs hadn’t encountered the same problem. But he also understood the issue. And he admitted he’d had other GMs with vague comments and criticisms that might stem from the problem and they just couldn’t articulate because they aren’t me.

That, by the way, is why I say I’m not sure I’d run a campaign of Reach of Titan. I’d eventually get bored running the titan fights as they are right now. If the settlement and hunting stuff are good enough and compelling enough to make me feel invested as a GM, I’d change my tine. But if all I’m doing is executing the titan program, that won’t hold my interest forever. Unless, of course, I’m the one writing the titans. Which seem very fun to create.

And then we were off and talking…

Trapped by the System

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve felt bound up by the system. A lot of the issues I ran into with the 4th Edition of Dungeons & Dragons involved this vague feeling like I was fighting with the system a lot. Like, I felt like the rules were contradicting me a lot. Now, that’s not a problem, right? I’m a GM. I’m allowed to override the rules. But there were a lot of instances when, as a GM, I’d have players pointing out the contradictions and I’d be in the ugly position of having to either back off or tell them no. And most of those contradictions turned on very nitpicky bits of mechanical semantical nonsense. Like whether or not you were your own ally or the fact that a specific power stating “when you shift,” means that you can’t use the power if you can’t shift because it changes shifts and isn’t an action in and of itself. Stuff like that.

And then there’s Dungeon World. Another system that doesn’t let the GM roll any dice, incidentally. See, Dungeon World – despite its reputation for being pretty loose and free and storygamey and shit – Dungeon World actually pretty heavily codifies the conversation at the heart of the game. You know, the one where the GM describes the world, the players describe their actions, the GM resolves their actions, and then describes how the world has changed as a result. With a strong reading of Dungeon World – A GAME I DO NOT HATE AND LET ME BE CLEAR ABOUT THAT – with a strong reading of DW, you discover the GM must always act in reaction to the players and the size of the actions the GM can take depend on the results of the players actions. That is, the GM makes “moves” against the players when the players present “little opportunities” and “big opportunities.” There’s more to it than that. And let me stress, I don’t HATE DW. It’s a fun game. It’s one of my convention go-to games because it’s so easy to pick up and play. But I have limited patience for it. Because if I run true to the game, my hands are tied somewhat by the system. And if break free of that, I’m wrecking what is, quite frankly, one of the game’s strongest points. Because it is really well put together and accomplishes exactly the play experience it promises. It’s good design.

It’s just not for me.

There are other games too. But this is not meant to be a list of every game that’s ever made me feel constrained as a GM. The reason I brought them up is that I know – I KNOW – that I can do anything I want as a GM. I can invent new rules and systems and stories. And as long as you understand the central core mechanic of any role-playing game, you can resolve anything. So, I know that my critters and NPCs and monsters can do anything I can imagine and I’ll find a way to handle it. But, there’s still a handful of systems I’ve run that have chaffed me. That I’ve felt leashed by. And I don’t know quite why. Or what’s different about those systems.

And, of course, there have also been particular rules and particular modules and subsystems and optional modules that have made me feel that way. It’s not just rules systems themselves. Some folks have asked me to look at products they’ve designed and I’ve said: “wow, that looks neat but I’d never use it because it feels like it’s limiting me too much.” I don’t want to give examples out of respect to the people who show me their work and because there are legal repercussions for sharing things about products in development sometimes.

The problem I was now in a position of having to give feedback on a playtest product. And the damned game designer was taking me seriously. Like, he was actually concerned about what I was saying. I mean, I was just one data point. But I was a data point he trusted. And as I kept spinning my wheels, trying to explain, he was starting to see vague shadows of what I was talking about. So, I owed it to him to figure out what the hell was actually causing this particular issue. What was it about the game and how it was presented that made me feel hemmed in? And to figure that out, I had to start looking back at other systems that had given me similar feelings of being anchored. The problem was I was getting nowhere explaining the issue.

But as I spun my wheels and we kept talking and talking, we realized that, at the heart of the issue, was something that we never, EVER talk about as gamers or as GMs or as game designers.

The problem was about Agency. GM Agency.

No. Stop laughing. Seriously. GM Agency. It’s a Thing. I Swear.

Look at all those shameless plugs. By the way, you can leave a tip by clicking the jar.

We talk a lot about Player Agency. And we rightly should. In my book, Game Angry: How to RPG the Angry Way – which you can buy from Third Act Publishing who is also publishing Reach of Titan currently funding on Kickstarter – in my book, I identified Agency as one of the three hearts of every role-playing game. If you want to know what the other two are, you can buy my book.

Agency is the feeling that your showing up to the game and making choices actually matter. That what you do affects the outcome of the game. Players need a sense of agency so that they feel like they’ve earned their victories and their defeats. And they get a sense of agency from being able to make choices and then having to live with – or die from – the consequences of those choices. Agency is actually a huge draw for table-top role-playing games. Agency creates that sense of open-ended freedom that TTRPGs claim as their exclusive advantage over video games, board games, movies, books, and comics.

But agency is a player thing. We don’t think about it from the GM side. And I think there’s two reasons for that. First, the GM is not a player. They are part of the game. They provide the agency. They don’t benefit from it. But second, the GM pretty much has all the agency anyway, right? The GM can do anything. The GM can’t be constrained by the system because the GM can rewrite the system. The GM can throw the system away. The GM isn’t a pawn of the system. The GM IS the system and the game is the GM’s pawn. Right?

I mean, as soon as I said to Jim, “the problem is one of GM agency,” my immediate reaction was to laugh that off. I backpedaled at once. I said it was silly. “GM agency, right? Ha. I was kidding. After all, I know I can do anything. I have all the agency. I have infinite agency. I’m Agent Smith and the game is my Matrix, bitch.” Right? Agent Smith was the king of the Matrix, wasn’t he?

But then, I stopped to think about it. And man, am I ever sorry I did.

So, I can do anything I want, can I? Really? How often do I really, seriously work outside the rules? I only work outside of them when there is a pressing need. For the most part, I follow the rules of the games. And when I do work outside of the rules of the game, I don’t do so lightly. I consider all sorts of factors in every decision I make. The game has to remain balanced. But more than balanced, it has to be fair. And more than fair, it has to appear fair. To the players. That is if I make a decision that I know is fair because I know all the details of the current adventure but that looks unfair to the players, that could be a problem. I have to operate on the perception of fairness. And that decision has to be consistent with all of the other decisions I’ve made that might be related. Because consistency is important. Players make their decisions based on the patterns they see. If the world isn’t a consistent world, they can’t make good decisions. So, already, I have some constraints on what I can and can’t do. And that’s just me trying to maintain a consistent, fair game.

But I also have to be careful not to do anything that would screw over the players. If there is something that is going to seriously hamper their ability to win, especially if it is going to cost the players something pretty serious, I’d better make damned sure the players can see it coming. And, more importantly, that they feel like there is something they can do about it. Or, at least, after the fact, they feel like they could have done something about it if they’d recognized it, which they realize they should have. I can have the leader of the powerful and evil assassin clan send out fifty of his best ninjas to kill the PCs, but… well… that’s unfair. They can only handle five ninjas. That’d just be screwing them.

You’re starting to see what I mean, aren’t you?

Remember Robocop 2? Remember when OCP fills Robocop’s head with over three hundred directives because they want him to be seen as a positive role model and a good public relations face of the company and he can’t function? It used to be he just had to “protect the innocent, serve the public trust, and uphold the law.” Now he has directives like “avoid destructive behavior” and “participate in group activities” and “don’t be overly sensitive to the hostility of others” and “don’t express your own opinions before you give others a chance to express their own first?” And suddenly, he couldn’t function. So, he finally electrocuted himself to erase all the directives in his brain?

Of course you don’t remember that. No one remembers Robocop 2. Fortunately, this is nothing like that. This is just a GM imposing a lot of criteria on every decision they make that is outside the rules. But there’s still a lot. At it comes down to a lot of don’ts. Don’t be unfair. Don’t be inconsistent. Don’t be unbalanced. Don’t screw the players. Don’t take the spotlight off the PCs. Don’t invalidate a core aspect of one of the players’ characters. Don’t rob the players of their victories or progress. Don’t rewrite a rule you don’t understand. Don’t add complexity to the game unless you’re getting something really good for it. And on and on and on. I’m not complaining, mind you. These are good rules. It’s just that, every time you step outside of the rules, there’s a field of landmines that you – as a GM – feel you have to navigate. Carefully. At least, if you’re a good GM.

Ironically, it’s good GMs who struggle the most with this crap. It’s like that old joke. I think it was Garrison Keillor. He noted that smart people tend to have lots of problems. That’s because intelligence isn’t actually practically useful for solving problems, but it sure as hell helps you recognize your problems. Basically, intelligence is like four-wheel drive. All it does is let you get yourself stuck in more out-of-the-way places. Good GMs worry about all of this crap. And so, they are afraid of the landmines. Crappy GMs just start playing hopscotch off the edge of the rulebook and don’t look back.

The moment GMs depart from the rules, they know they are in troubled waters. They are going to keep one hand firm on the tiller, one eye on the sky, and one eye on the shadows beneath the waves. And so, the ability to break the rules and override the system really doesn’t amount to agency at all. Not in a fun way. It amounts to agency in a nervous, panicky, “I am the only thing preventing the collapse of my game” freedom.

Imagined Constraints and Perfect Solutions

On top of that – and this is freaking unreal – on top of that, I was in the middle of revising this article for posting when I got into a separate discussion in my Discord server about how GMs can feel trapped by the rules despite the fact that game systems explicitly give you permission to break the rules.

First, there’s the fact that all human beings tend to see constraints where none exist. The classic example is the famous Nine Dot Puzzle, which you can see here. Basically, it asks you to draw four continuous lines through a set of nine dots arranged in a grid without removing your pencil from the paper. The only solutions involve going outside the boundaries of the nine dots. But most people struggle with the problem because they won’t draw their lines outside the dots. People are predisposed to constrain themselves.

Second, there’s the fact that we tend to pursue perfect solutions. And if the space of possible solutions is large enough, we’ll assume it must contain the perfect solution. So, if you have a big, complex book filled with rules. Like, say, hypothetically, the rules to some table-top role-playing game. And a situation arises that you don’t know how to handle, you’ll start by assuming the answer must be in the rules somewhere. At least, you’ll check there first. That’s going to have the best solution. And because you can’t memorize that entire book, you can’t keep track of everything that ISN’T in it. You will only deviate from the rules in the book – the perfect solutions – once you become convinced the rule you need doesn’t exist. And it takes a long time to search a complex ruleset for a rule that doesn’t exist.

All of that is to explain how GMs – good, smart GMs – can have a hard time breaking out of the rules and when they do break out of the rules, how they can feel quite constrained. And what happens then?

Does it Even Matter if I’m Here?

GMs are constrained. There’s no doubt about that. And most GMs prefer to work within the system whenever they can. It’s easier and our natural psychology pushes us that way. And that’s fine most of the time. Because RPG systems provide open-ended action-resolution mechanics that let any player or character or creature or monster or whatever do just about anything. In D&D, for example, if a goblin wants to swing from a chandelier and drop on a PC’s head, I can resolve that with Dexterity checks and Acrobatics skills easily enough. Even though there’s no specific rule for chandelier swinging and attacking from above, there’s enough tools in the system to allow me – as the GM – to resolve that within the system.

But imagine if goblins didn’t have ability scores or skills. Imagine if all the goblin had was an Armor Class, an attack modifier, a damage roll, and some saving throws. And maybe one little power. Like “Sneaky.” And “Sneaky” allows it to, at the start of battle, jump out of hiding and make one attack with bonus damage. And that was all. As a GM, what would you tend to do with that goblin? Make one ambush attack and then just start slashing until it was dead. That’s what I’d tend to do. And D&D 4E wasn’t quite that, but it was close. Monsters did have ability scores and skills, but they were heavily downplayed. And the abilities the monsters had were like “Sneaky” as I described it above. It defined exactly what the power did. And every power had a single, specific procedure and a single, mechanical effect.

Now, the monsters were tactically very well-designed. Their abilities were interesting and synergized well. They have strategies and tactics built right in that were easy to see and execute. Maybe too easy. Because, frankly, it was pretty easy to see exactly what every monsters’ correct move was at every point. There was no reason to think outside of the monster’s stat block. And the decisions to be made were pretty simple efficiency calculations.

And one day, I realized that a computer could run these monsters just as well as I could. I wasn’t making any really serious or interesting decisions. I was, at best, solving a logic puzzle. There was nothing unique about what I was doing. And after that, the only thing keeping me going was actually designing the adventures. For a while. I enjoyed planning adventures. Setting up interesting combats. Making new monsters. Designing new rules. But when it came to running the game, I was bored. At least, I was bored with the action parts. And this was freaking Dungeons & Dragons. If you find the action parts of D&D boring, you are playing the wrong game. Because action is the only thing ANY edition of D&D can really do. Everything else, it just kind of sucks at. Yes, I’m including 5E in that. 5E sucks if you run anything other than combat in it. Sorry.

And that is how I know this is a problem of agency. Because I felt like my presence at the game had no impact on how the game played out. If I handed my notes to any other GM, the game would go exactly the same. They would make the same dull decisions I made, respond to the players the same way I did, make the same tactical choices I did, and they would stay firmly planted inside the rules. Just like me.

And, honestly, Jim and I did pinpoint some of the specific things Reach of Titan was doing to make it feel the way it was. And we plan to talk some more about it. And, I want to stress this isn’t a game breaking problem. There’s more to RoT than just the fighting. And this is a very personal issue. I know that there are a lot of GMs out there who don’t feel the agency issue as seriously as I do. I’m only making a big deal about this because I’d never thought about GMing Agency and how it’s important to feel like you – as a GM – are having an impact on the game that is somehow unique to you.

So… What?

Okay, so here’s the thing: I think there’s more to this GM Agency thing than me picking a few nits with an indie game because I’m mad that it took my dice away. And yes, I mean both RoT and DW. Because I see, especially in the indie scene, a lot of attempts to reign in the GM’s authority. To make sure the GM remains subservient to the game and the players. Okay, I realize that sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory. It’s not that bad. But I do see a lot of games coming from a certain direction that work hard to limit what a GM can do. Mostly, it makes the game easier run and it ensures a certain type of play experience. Occasionally, it also seems designed to avoid the danger of power-mad GMs ruining the game. But I think that that last thing is an overstated fear and a load of bullshit.

And, you know, maybe it IS a bad sign when a game is designed so that only the players roll the dice. Because it tells you where the designer’s head is at. And if you think there is an issue behind GM agency, you maybe don’t want games designed from that particular rectum. I just don’t know how to begin talking about it. Or thinking about it. Or whether it is an issue for anyone else.

So, I’m doing something unspeakably stupid now. I’m asking for comments. Specifically, I want to hear from GMs whose experiences echo my own. Who have encountered games, systems, and rules and have felt constrained. Who have felt like a computer. Who have felt hemmed in. Trapped. And why. Of course, all I’m going to get is a bunch of whiny indie gamers who want to tell me to abandon my evil believe in the traditional RPG hierarchy and get on the right side of history and start calling myself a game trustee or master of ceremonies.

And, for the rest of you, I’ll be back in two days to talk about mapping the initial setting for a new Pathfinder Campaign based on zero plans. So, hopefully, you’ll forgive this crap.

118 thoughts on “I Am a Free Agent!

  1. It seems that part of the issue with these games is that they don’t recognize the GM as a type of player. They just see the GM as a part of the game itself. The game has to be fun for the GM or it won’t work or last, and if you just treat them as a program to run the game for the other (traditionally defined) players it will cause this problem.

  2. Here Greg Costikyan (designer of Paranoia among others) talks about what a game is and is not.
    https://web.archive.org/web/20080812015347/http://www.costik.com/nowords.html Could be you’re running up against the limitations of ttrpgs being toys and not really games. In a game you go all out against whomever you’re playing against within the rules (I.e.I’m ruling out cheating). In ttrpgs since you as GM aren’t really allowed to “go all out” (reductio ad absurdism: 500 ninjas attack you) you need interesting things to do while playing with the toy too.

    • I argue it’s still a game when you run it, just that GM’s aren’t playing the game while they’re designing it. They should probably try their hardest to win when playing it. In other words, the design hat should be on when you decide how many ninjas you send against the PCs. The “play to win” hat should be on when you’re playing the ninjas designer-you sent. In other words, the GM’s agency is proportional to how often they wear non-arbitrating, non-designing “hats.”

    • That article you quote says specifically that RPGs ARE games. The GM just wears two hats, when designing (the party can only hande 5 ninjas so I put exactly that amount) then when running(using those 5 ninjas to their full possibilities to try to win, therefore a game).

      • Unless you try to run a story. Suddenly, the five ninjas become a plot device to tell a story instead of, you as a GM, trying to “win” a fight. Any fight has to be fun, and part of the story. None of them have to be “won” by the GM. Our roles as GM is not to win, the GM wins if everyone enjoys their game (and the GM has to win too in that regard). We provide a framework (game, story, rules, etc) to allow everyone to have fun together, and share a good time.

  3. I’m not sure the problem I’m having in my campaign comes from a lack of GM agency, but I also find myself enjoying the planning of the game session more than the game itself.
    I figured it was because I tend to plan too much ahead, which means I end up playing the same game twice and I’m immediately bored, unless the players manage to get creative enough to spruce things up (which doesn’t always happen).
    It’s likely I am the problem (I’m not at all an experienced GM), but I wondered if there’s something else I’m missing or if it’s just too much planning that constrains me into following a dull path, instead of actually playing the game.

    • I’ve had pretty much exactly this experience. The session rarely plays out as exciting as it was in my mind, and my favorite sessions tend to be the ones I had only a rough outline for. Improvising is fun, once you’re confident enough to do it.

    • Interesting point. Because in games that give the GM less agency, your primary effect on the session occurs during the planning stage. Running code isn’t fun, but writing a code can be. So in, for example, Dungeon World, you can make all manner of cool “custom moves” and stuff, and that’s where you get to express agency by making interesting choices. But when it comes to running the game, you’re just executing the program that you’ve already written. Your agency disappears at the table.

      • The question then is:
        Should I avoid planning ahead and just rely on improvisation to have fun at the table, or should I keep having fun planning and just accept that the game session might end up a little dull (at least for the GM)?

        I actually believe the answer is somewhere in the middle, but I am not completely sure what it is.

        • I sometimes do one, sometimes do the other.

          I have plot beats in the overall story: a scene that is going to happen in some capacity, but I don’t know how the PCs will get there. Those sessions tend to be very detailed in planning, and they’re fun (as long as you don’t overdo them). These can be your big boss battles, set on the top of a live volcano, with fun traps, terrain challenges, etc, built into everything. You’ve got the villain’s monologue and death speech ready to go.

          And for the rest, I try not to overplan. You are stealing the player’s agency if every battle is unskippable (it sounds like you don’t do that, but this *is* the dark side of planning too much), if you know where they’re going to go next, and you have all of the storylines lined up in a row. Often my notes will be “skill challenge to break X out of a templar prison. If their plan has weak points, those are hard DCs. If they get 3 failures before X successes, they must fight to escape, if they get get X+6 successes, they get magic items.” And then I wing all the details in response to their plan.

        • Perhaps broader strokes. “The goblins need to find something shinny to impress their chief,” rather than, “goblins ambush the party,” so that you give yourself more ways to resolve the encounter. I can’t imagine no planning would create fun adventures.

  4. Well you did kinda point it out. The titans game sounds like something that shouldn’t need a GM (really, all you’re using a GM there is to keep track of the rules) and could just go with dice for randomization.

    The problem I more or less see is that it’s not a wargame like D&D. The GM doesn’t get to do anything (idk about DW though). And when the GM has no agency… Then why have a GM? Just limit your rules, straighten your game and don’t rely on a poor soul to handle your amalgamation of rules.

    Id still love to run a titan fight one or two times in my campaigns, but if they’re the equivalent of sitting players through puzzles, I’m not going to run a full game about that. I could just write it all down and make it GM-less. Because everything is constant. Because puzzle. If I’m going to show up to a game, it’s not to stare and see the story unfold. There’s videos for that. I’m going to show up to play.

    And without agency, tell me just how much does a GM play, outside of scheduling a few riddles for the players.

    Have you (recently) considered GMing and using a GMPC to get both points of view?

    • The GM is a player, too. He’s like the party leader. And if the GM isn’t playing, then well, we know what happens with players with no agency.

    • that game needs a DM so that there is someone that is not fighting the monster to run it’s attacks. because it’s a puzzle with input output instead of it just being a puzzle.

      Basically someone has to know that when the players are in this spot the giant uses the club attack, because the players can’t know that without it not being a puzzle anymore and you don’t have a computer to do it for you because it’s not a digital game.

      • You could make a card deck for events when you step in certain places for example. “When you step on X, draw a card from the deck / draw the red card.”
        And the red card says: “You hear a roar from behind the hill and footsteps coming closer. In 3 turns, draw the boss card.”

    • There is no such thing as a GMPC. They are NPCs and they are all yours. It is impossible for the GM to interact with the game from a player perspective because he holds the answers to the test. Sure you can run that Retainer or “torchbearer” the party hired in the last town, but it is still an NPC and if you, as GM, are participating in PC party decisions you are stealing agency from the players. You cannot be objective. GMPC is the dumbest concept ever uttered in TTRPG history.

  5. Isn’t this an out of game issue? I had a player once who argued with me because I made a judgement call on a roll at the table for another player that was outside the RAW. He wanted me to tell that player that he could not take that action. Same player once told me that 5E is bad because it gives the GM too much power. I know for a fact that this player previously played at a table before mine where the GM was a power-mad jerk. For him the rules were protection – they were a surrogate for the kind of consistency a good GM brings to the table. I think sometimes people want to play with their friends, but then their friends don’t turn out to be as friendly as they thought- or at least they aren’t as compatible with their engagements as they hoped.

    I think games designed to minimize the GM are at best trying to avoid telling the people who play them that they need to have mutual trust and respect to make the game work. The game is inherently social, and it needs that, or else it falls apart. At worst they’re trying to undermine the GM for nefarious (and silly) reasons, like rejecting the inherent oppression of the hierarchy. What they’re missing is that the hierarchy is important because it’s the GM’s role in the game – the GM’s niche – and that niche needs protection too just like other roles in the game. If any player, including the GM, doesn’t get to make decisions, they’re not playing a game anymore, they’re experiencing a simulation.

    For example, Candy Land and Chutes and Ladders are not games. Monopoly is barely a game, but the decisions are boring. TTRPGs are asymmetric games. The players and GM are playing two different, but complementary games, but the key is that both make decisions in accordance with their role in the game. When the GM becomes a bot, they’re not playing a game anymore. It would be like playing a board game where everyone gets to play, except one person is the designated rule reader and that’s all they’re allowed to do is read the rulebook when needed, otherwise they just watch the game happen. Or it’s a group choose-your-own adventure novel, like a book group except that everyone gets to talk about the book and decide what happens together save for the one person designated to read the story out loud. None of that sounds fun to me either.

    • So Monopoly, then. According to the official rules that no one actually uses, the banker is not allowed to have a piece on the board. They literally just hand out the money.

      • “Select as Banker a player who will also make a good
        Auctioneer. A Banker who plays in the game must keep his/her
        personal funds separate from those of the Bank. When more than five
        persons play, the Banker may elect to act only as Banker and

  6. One thing that stems from your article is that there seems to be different agency timeframe. Planning agency, and in-game agency. And I feel like they play very differently from one another.

    Planning agency is the freedom the GM have to create new systems, tweek the rules, create the plot, campaign, all of it. But it does come with the time to properly verify that you are not breaking anything. It is way easier to play with the mechanics of the game away from the table using the time required. Whereas, at the table, the GM has responsabilities the player have not, and without the catching net of the rules.

    I’m thinking aloud, but I think there is two kind of in-game agency. The safe, PC agency where you have to play within a very defined framework, and the freefall “content and/or adjucating creating” agency of the Game Designer, where you have to worry more about not breaking things. And the more I think about it the more I feel the GM’s job should not be reduced to the second part. GMs should have some ways to engage in a designed scenario without having to design.

    In a (well designed) encounter, you don’t want to hold yourself up. You want to be able to play the NPCs as creatures, not just mechanics. Make decisions in the thick of it if (when) the PCs do something unexpected. It’s why RPGs need a GM, after all. If you remove that, why not remove the GM altogether? Why not have only PCs?

  7. Completely hit the nail for me about 4E. I loved designing the adventures and setting up the pieces, but when combat hit I could have been replaced with a well trained monkey – check the list, execute proper predefined option, repeat.

    One thing I can say is that to a point constraints do serve to focus creativity. There has to be enough framework to hang your improvisations on. The ability checks in 5e provide a good example – far simpler than 3.X or PF’s cumbersome skill ranks, but just granular enough to have a solid indicator to say where any given critter gets a boost to what they’re trying to do.

    On-stat block special powers are tricky – on one hand you’re right that they feel like Programming. On the other hand, with no special abilities a creature feels like generic hit point sack number 5, or else you bloat the stat block with a bunch of flavorful junk abilities that might be flavorful but are pointless in 99% of situations you’d put the creature.

    Bare minimum framework from a game, I want to know what *all* creatures can try to do with a quick shorthand for seeing what a creature is good at, and I want each creature to have its *thing* that defines it as different from the other sacks of hit points in the next valley.

  8. I would approach this from GM-less players vs mechanics type of games.
    Surely enough, actions can be adjudicated and monster can be scripted so that no GM is needed. In zombicide, for example, each turn zombies advance X squares toward the closest player in sight, and if they can’t see one, take the shortest route to the noisiest place. You only need a GM if you want these actions to FEEL like someone else is fighting the player.
    Your DnD4 goblins are here : the player could take all the decisions, provided they understand how to optimize ‘sneaky’. But it wouldn’t feel like they earned victory against something. It works for brainless zombies but not for ‘clever’ foes who should not feel scripted, though they kind of are anyway.
    I think a game that needs a GM to feel like earning victory against something non-mechanical should give a lot of freedom to the GM, so that the something isn’t actually mechanical. Hiding your mechanics behind someone doesn’t make them less mechnical. Making them roll the dice won’t be enough to balance that.

    And second, there’s the pain of information management. If there’s some information someone has to know (but not the players) for the game to function, you’ll need a GM. Not just hidden and to be discovered : someone HAS TO KNOW. Then the GM should be able to make decisions based on it – being a hidden variable storage isn’t just non-fun, it’s abusive design : hey, you’re the GM, congrats ! Except well, you’ll only get to watch the game happen, but it needs you, but you can’t decide anything or it will break, but it needs you. Promise. But don’t do anything. Please. For the sake of the players fun.

    I don’t know specifically about Reach of Titan, but if you don’t need a human brain to run your game, just don’t ask for one. On the other hand, if you want to use one, make it matter. And not only to redesign stuff and run a modified version of your game. You want brains involved in running your game : use it.

  9. When I’m designing and running D&D games I frequently fall into the trap of viewing the players as customers. Like I’m delivering a game for them to play, rather than playing a game with them.

    I do enjoy the creative process and, of course, displaying my genius for my players to marvel at. Until I don’t enjoy it. Because I’m fatigued and the game feels like just more work. And I find myself relieved when a session gets pushed back due to snow.

    I want to get better at PLAYING the game as a GM. But that’s not the expectation at my table and, honestly, it’s not been my own expectation. I have a hard time even grasping what it means! Boy it sounds like more fun though.

    Thank you for talking about this, its helped me to start thinking a little differently already. I won’t insult you by suggesting that I have anything remotely like a solution for you. Good luck!

    • I identify with this quite a bit.

      In my case, my players are all very new (within 3 months playing) – so I have to pull punches like crazy lest they die doing basic stuff. I am slowly turning up the heat as they are getting the hang of the mechanics.

      As a result, the game is a product and the players are customers.

      • I mean, yeah you can frame it as the game being a product and the players are customers, but…why? Customer service is one of the worst and most thankless jobs to have. Why would I want to frame my fun hobby as something like that?

        Doesn’t the GM deserve to have fun too? If you’re not having fun being a GM, maybe you’re not a GM. There’s nothing wrong with that. But I guess if it makes you happy to be a DnD customer service provider, you do you. To me that sounds like a recipe for boredom and frustration.

        Try this frame: You are the conductor, the players are your orchestra, and the game is the music you make together. It’s not perfect, but it’s a better frame in my opinion than customer service.

        • The reason I framed it like that (the game being a product and the players being customers) is because that is they way I presently feel, and I did not have words for it until reading both this article and the post to which I replied. It is not my ideal situations, but I am enjoying what I am presently doing…just not to the level that I would like. I was not expressing an ideal, just the reality of how I feel.

          Reframing is a good idea, as is changing my approach. I don’t think I can get there until my players are self-sustaining – able to look at their character sheet and get a good sense of what it means. They are all so new – WHICH IS GREAT! – but they need help in figuring out the mechanics over and again. Also, none of them own the reference materials.

  10. As a new GM, only about a year of running a 5e campaign twice a month, where I feel trapped and constrained is the perceived acceptability of going outside the box. With so many resources available, via the internet, social media, etc. it almost feels like the players (at least mine) expect certain things, this creature has to react this way because everything I have ever read says so or there has to be a rule that justifies my (the PC’s) perfect choice to yield the most optimal outcome. When this result doesn’t happen it turns into a “well that isn’t the way it should have happened but OK…” which then reinforces my (the GMs) efforts to follow more closely to the expectation. While part of this certainly is an issue for the player to address and not only me as the GM, not conforming to it in some way creates a dissonance that can be hard to balance as there is persistent tension/second guessing that can take the player out of the game/story. Maybe this is a problem because I do not have the right group or I am not experienced enough, but trying to create an environment where the PCs enjoy and are engaged in the game at times leads me to a single response instead of enjoying and being engaged myself. I am working through some of the previous articles, so when I ultimately find helpful advice and direction, thanks Angry for the past effort and information and disregard my current ramblings.

    • This reminds me of the line in the first edition DMG about how players found to own the book should be considered “less than worthy of an ignominious death”. I know when I play I’ve been trying to question the DMs decisions about rules much less than I used to.

  11. I think maybe it starts with Designer Agency. To guarantee a certain play experience, the Designer uses different types of rules to impose harder or softer limits on GM and Player Agency.

    After the Designer is done, any remaining agency defaults to the GM. A good GM knows how to pass agency to his players; a bad one doesn’t. Games that try to limit the impact of a bad GM will remove some GM agency, which also ties the hands of a good GM.

    I had this experience running FATE, and after reading this article, I wonder if it was because vanilla FATE tries to guarantee that players have a high level of control (agency) over the game world.

    I’ve also played Gloomhaven, which has zero GM agency (there is no GM) and relatively low Player agency, but the game’s designer has clearly exercised a lot of creativity to deliver a very specific play experience.

  12. I might just be missing the complexity here. I think you’ve made it pretty simple. In fact, I’m pretty sure you’ve said this several times yourself. The DM is a player too. They need to be able to have fun, be entertained, make interesting choices, etc. If a game just has them on autopilot as far as interesting choices, or if a game is so constrained that they can’t flex without causing problems, then they won’t have fun. Think about team based arena shooters like Evolve or Breach. 4 players hunting a monster that just acts according to code is whatever. It’s been done a bunch. 4 players hunting a 5th player, or being hunted by that 5th player… That makes things interesting. Idk. Maybe I’m not on the save wavelength for the argument.

  13. I have 2 main thoughts about this:

    The first is that not all table top role-playing games(not just different game systems, but different games) are for every player, and one of the reasons is the way in which the system or the GM restricts agency. If someone really wants to play a Warforged in my Dark Ages inspired setting (or in VtM), they are going to be disappointed. On that note, some people do not like the lose PC control that comes from the Beast in VtM, or the sanity mechanic in CoC. And while restricting the agency of the players may result in the player not wanted to play the game(since this should be brought up in session zero) we, as GMs, recognize that it s for the betterment of the game that we are trying to run. GM Agency seems like an extension of that; their are games or systems that we would like to(or others want us to) run, whose mechanics restrict us in a way that just ‘does not feel right.’

    The second is a conversation I had with a more experienced GM I had at my LGS, about player choice. He argued that players do not really have choice, since once a player chooses to play a barbarian(or any other class), they no longer have any real choices about the game, because they will always have a first order strategy. I disagreed for 2 reasons: why people choose not to implement a first order strategy is often an interesting choice(though often detrimental to party), and picking the first order strategy is the main choice. I feel this applies to GM Agency as well: why the monsters do not execute their first order strategy is an interesting way for the GM to flesh out the world, and writing the notes, rather than executing them, is where real GM agency lies

  14. This is a very interesting idea. While I haven’t had time to fully digest this idea of GM agency, I’d like to share a few thoughts that popped into my head. The first is that I think this explains why, as a GM, I am always drawn to running adventures/scenarios that I’ve designed myself. I’ve always thought that it was because I could always run something much better if I intrinsically knew the motivations/rationale behind what was happening that I could rarely get from someone else’s pre-written adventure (although I would certainly steal ideas from a good number of sources, including modules). I’m sure that’s true, but now I’m thinking that the fun of presenting my own material during that game (a type of GM agency) also plays a big part. Another thought that came up while reading this article is that it might be worthwhile to revisit the “8 type of fun” concept through the lens of the GMing experience. For example, the type of pure procedural activity that you describe would seem to most problematic for a GM who values challenge as a source of fun. Without some alternative source of fun to replace/supplement that, it would be a very unsatisfying experience for the GM.

    • I second this. I’ve always shunned pre-written material. But then creativity is my most important “fun aesthetic”, and probably always has been.

  15. Your experience with 4E echoes mine. I walked away GMing that game largely because I felt a computer could execute straightforward battle plans and track buffs/debuffs better than I can, and that was the vast majority of what I was doing.

    I don’t have the same dice requirement though. I love running Numenera because, although the players roll all the dice, I have plenty of agency in creating GM intrusions that are exciting in and out of combat. The players get XP (or can choose to spend XP to block it) and I get to spice up encounters with the unexpected. It’s a system I enjoy.

  16. Planning is fun. But if everything goes as planned execution is redundant. The designers of Far Cry kept babbling about this idea as well as any designer of a stealth game worth his salt. The optimal course according to these guys seems to be plan->execution goes awry due to unforeseen or unlikely circumstances->adjust the plan->repeat.

    I remember that the times I had the most fun running a game were times where something like the above happened. Mostly due to lack of proper planning in my part. Because the other two “random” factors in a ttrpg are not so random at all. Players are painfully predictable and the dice, most of the time have a minimal influence in the grand picture of the session, at least in modern design.

    Maybe that is one of the reasons everyone seems to love the random tables of things. It gives an extra layer of unpredictability in the game. It kinda makes the GM to interpret a die roll like a seer of old rolling the bones of animals and humans trying to read the weave of fate. It requires some serious creativity to transform a 5 to an integral part of the story and the world.

    But the answer cannot be “come unprepared” or “more random tables”. Maybe it is a different interpenetration of die roll? People get all up in arms about the last one every now and then but it really doesn’t seem to be that important.

    I believe that all the sweetness resides the the “adjust the plan” portion. How well does a system handle that. Not only how easy does it make it but also how fun and how many opportunities does it naturally provide for an adjustment to be necessary.

    • I think you’re right about the appeal of random tables being linked to this issue. The same goes for things like reaction rolls and morale checks from older editions, as well as triumphs and despair in ffg Star Wars. How many “best stories” contain the words “so they rolled for it and, guess what? 1/20.”

      I guess the question might be how else can we get that feeling? And I think it’s player creativety, or at least unpredictability. But as you say, players are often agonizingly predictable (the worst offenders being the ones who want to ‘help’ the party stick to the GMs plan so they don’t ‘mess up the adventure’). How do you get players who will present you, the GM, with interesting challenges to respond to? And how do you do it while simultaneously avoiding the ‘wacky antics’ of players who take the concept of player freedom in the wrong direction? I’m not sure, but I think the way we run games definitely affects the way players approach those games, so there should be a way for games to be optimal for ALL the players, right?

  17. I think the problem is connected to something Angry wrote a while back about how there aren’t combat encounters, there are just encounters. Monster motivations allow for the DM/GM to improvise and roleplay actions but a robotic monster who attacks and fights to the death or a Titan that responds to any input with a predetermined output is a puzzle, not an encounter, unless something else is added. If the Titan is hungry and is smashing it’s way to a cities grain silos and it has children it wants to feed then the PCs can make decisions besides “figure out the best order to stab the Giant’s vital points” and the DM can make decisions about how the Titan responds. The battlefield can provide the DM opportunities to create decision points like “do you keep stabbing the Titan in the neck, or do you try to save civilians from the collapsing building?” I feel like I’m just paraphrasing old Angry articles so I’m done now.

  18. Its never exciting to fight with one arm behind your back.

    Have a system that gives you (as the GM) a believable amount of resources in a conflict (X amount of Goblins would reasonably be on a patrol); and now play them in the smartest way you can and go for the kill.

    Zombies get boring for the DM because they don’t get to make decisions, the more meta rules around being fair for the players makes more and more enemies into functional zombies.

    Decide if you want to play a game or recreate a story. In stories the heroes don’t die right out the gate to the first enemy they see, but they do in games (Dark Souls). What is the point of the conflict if they can’t lose? Why doesn’t the bad guy use all his resources? Why is he fighting with one arm behind his back?

    If its too random then stop playing games with huge critical hits and play something more strategic and predictable in which player decisions don’t get overruled by “one natural 20 and now you’re dead”. Make luck/karma a resource beyond health that lets players lose resources but escape. Stop assuming D&D D20 or bust, players are more accepting of 0.5% chance of instant death then 5% chance.

    OSR aimed to bring back the game to RPGs, this is why creating characters is so fast and random. The point is the prevent the player from getting really invested in a certain character until they get higher level and are dealing with bigger threats. Death in video games is still painful even if you just respawn in seconds, it is still a progress blocker and players really want to see want comes next.

    Games don’t need action set pieces like a movie does, games have uncertain outcomes. Uncertain outcomes are fun for the GM, stroking the players’ ego with X number of easy encounters per adventuring day isn’t.

  19. During all non-combat aspects I did feel like a free agent. In fact, those were the bits I enjoyed GMing. I liked thinking up NPC characters, and reacting based on what the players did and what I though my NPC character would genuinely do. I rarely felt constrained by any of this because it was all based on common sense. During combat, I don’t really care about being a free agent, and for 90% of it I would have been happy if I could have run it using an app. My players would only consider D&D 3.5, though, which meant there were limited automated tools for me to use. I was new to D&D/GMing so to start with I hated looking at a mess of paper stats and trying to work out what all the actual damage numbers were from that. Once I had learned the game a bit more, I hated working all those stupid stats out in my head or spending ages putting them in spreadsheets or macros so I could automate it. When running combat, all I want to think about is where I’m going to place my enemies and how they are going to react based on their natures: are they cowardly, brave, suicidal? what are they trying to get the players to do? Are they going to break and run? Instead I had to sit there with a mess of stats, never quite certain I’d got all the stupid numbers right, and then trying to decode the extremely badly written and overly complicated rules for grappling or being knocked down.

  20. This is why I don’t like modern games that have moved away from simulation and verisimilitude as the primary focus of the rules. The trend is to bake story and plot and narrative and behavior INTO the core rules… trying to make the gm’s job easier and force a particular play experience and “fairness” to the players… But at the cost of limiting gm agency. (That’s literally WHAT those rules do.)

    When all the rules do is help simulate the world, then it’s ON THE GM to insert plot and story and tone and all that. And the gm is free to run the monsters and npc’s and environment in any way that doesn’t outright break the underlying rules of reality. You’re left with maximum gm agency.

    The downside is that also means that the gm has to be good at all that crap, independent of the system. Because the system CAN’T do the work for you. And so we’re left to learn all the stuff that makes the game ENGAGING from…. well… HERE. And then we can incorporate it into our games. Not so good for new gms… But great for experienced gms who want maximum agency!

    Ultimately, I don’t think it’s a game design problem. It’s a business/marketing problem. How much hand holding do your prospective customers need? When it comes to the ACTUAL rules, there’s an inverse relationship between gm narrative support and gm agency.

    • Interesting view, I think it explains how I’m feeling.

      I’m still not very confident in my GM skills, so I rely a lot on the handholding of the more scripted playstyle, and I accept the lack of GM Agency because I don’t trust myself to make the right decision anyway.

      Like any form of guidance, a strict adherence to detailed rules and flowcharts can be an immense support to those who need it, but a horrible constraint on those who’d rather be free to express themselves.

      • My personal preference is to have a game that gives advice to the gm on how to handle certain scenes. Or lay out cool ideas for story and plot. But it’s just advice and ideas. It’s easy enough to use them or modify or just outright ignore it. It’s when that advice gets baked into the rules that it starts screwing with gm agency.

        But I suppose that kind of advice is more adventure design… So I guess my ideal is to keep story and narrative support out of the system rules. And include it as advice in the campaign supplements.

  21. And “Sneaky” allows it to, at the start of battle, jump out of hiding and make one attack with bonus damage. And that was all.

    maybe change these guys to Tucker’s Kobolds ,or something like that .

  22. To me it seems that part of the problem is not so much agency, but creativity. When you are restricted by the rules in a good game, they still allow you to create something new and unique (as art is always both creative and bound by rules). The monster fight seems to be *designed* to stifle your creativity. It’s similar to the difference between normal painting and painting by numbers.

  23. I had this issue when distributing treasure in both 3e and 4e. I know that technically I could put whatever treasure I wanted in ad adventure, and I felt incredibly trapped by the system, like if I didn’t follow the recommended wealth by level, or give out so many +X magic weapons by level Y, the players were going to fall behind the expected curve and have a terrible time.

    This was what sold me on 5e. Bounded accuracy and no expected magic item progression made me feel free to give out gold and magic items however and when ever I wanted… but at the cost of making gold completely worthless, which is almost as much of a problem.

  24. I’ve been running a table at my game store’s D&D Adventurer’s League weekly for about 2 years now. There is a weird thing, as I have some creative control over my games, but I do have more rules that sometimes feel like they tie my hands. I’ve only recently started running a non-AL table and the lack of the AL meta-rules is liberating. I had thought nothing of the rules until this taste of freedom, but now my Wednesday games are starting to chafe.

    I do like the guaranteed game. I always have a table on Wednesday, without having to fight to make sure I have players. They just show up, which is nice. Is hassle-free attendance worth dealing with AL rules? I dunno. I’m trying something different than just the long running adventures this month and we’ll see how it goes.

    (Oh, BTW, Game Angry mentioned a lack of small adventures. they exist for D&D, but they’re hidden inside of Adventurer’s league, tied to AL’s Seasons. They’re available on the DM guild website)

  25. Reading this article reminded me of one of the most engaging campaigns I ran (from a GM perspective) – a Spycraft (1.0) campaign where I used its mastermind and threat generation rules. Notably, the constraints of the system unlocked my creativity. Abiding by strict rules forced me to dig deep – which produced a rich story, an insidious mastermind, and a devious agenda. Nothing prevented me from creating this same villainous organization out of whole cloth or a blank canvas, but the limitations and obstacles imposed by the system were precisely what drove me to be creative.

    Orson Welles once said “the enemy of art is the absence of limitations” – but there’s also a corollary that excessive limitations suffocates art. And while running an RPG is more like facilitating an improv comedy group than writing Shakespeare, I think this tension still applies – RPGs need to constrain the GM (and the players, for that matter) in the right ways and amounts to achieve maximum creativity. Too much constraint, and the art has no form; too little, and it feels restrictive.

    These kind of tensions rarely have a silver bullet. Rather, I think it’s one more variable to consider in the core iteration loop of game design. In broad strokes, though, it seems that “meta-rules” – rules for how to create foes, design monsters, create new spells, etc. provide the most agency, while “micro-rules” can seem most limiting.

  26. This was my experience in the edition shift of 1st edition Spycraft to Spycraft 2.0. The designers of the 2.0 version decided that convention games, a la D&D’s Living Greyhawk, were the way to go, so they wrote a whole bunch of restrictions on what the GM could do into the rules to make the play experience consistent between GMs. Whereas in the first edition of the game the GM’s action dice were used pretty much exclusively to boost an occasional bad guy die roll, in 2.0 the GM had to spend his Action Dice to do things like allow the villain to escape or bring in reinforcement minions for the PCs to fight, or he could spend 4 at a time to make a scene a “Dramatic Scene”, which gave him a bunch of extra stuff his remaining action dice could do during that one scene to make the NPCs more powerful.
    Basically it turned stuff that should have been GM judgement when developing and running a scenario into a game mechanic with specific limits on what the GM could do, and I didn’t like it. I’m apparently not the only one, because whereas Spycraft 1.0 was pretty popular with a lot of splatbooks, Spycraft 2.0 pretty much disappeared after the core book was printed.

  27. I’ll offer a slightly different perspective, with hopes it’s still germane to the conversation.

    I am reminded of the French literature group OULIPO, whose primary philosophy is to impose constraints on chance in order to improve their creativity. This may sound strange, but they argue that most creative endeavors are stalled at the start: when staring at a blank page, how does one begin? Having a framework against which to rub provides creative stimulus.

    I don’t claim to fully agree with their argument, but rather admire its substantial merits. A favorite past-time of OULIPO is to design new (often mathematical) constraints, and then express something within that framework. Examples include playing with combinatorics (e.g., a famous poem in which the order of lines is completely re-orderable, resulting in billions of possible poems written out on one sheet of paper); omitting certain forms (e.g., /La Disparition/ (The Disappearance) by Georges Perec, a novel written entirely without the letter ‘e’ whose chief intrigue is its disappearance); or combining constraints from other media (e.g., an oral fugue, based upon the conventions of a musical genre).

    I mention them only because they rebuked the notion that one could simply stumble upon art: one needed to work, often against the rules of self-imposed, artificial constraints, in order to find out how to work with and within them. The struggle with GM agency feels familiar in the sense that there is some sort of constraining framework within which we (as GMs) make decisions. We can choose to break out, but often, as you poignantly describe, we are left adrift in a minefield—the blank page is dangerous. That said, sometimes a reframing or change is necessary: if one feels too constrained, perhaps one lacks the energy to continue creating?

    • Constraining a master creates wonderful works as they use their skills to circumvent or embrace the constraints. Constraining a beginner creates sadness and despair because they just get stuck. But working within the same constraints for too long is frustrating, and not good for humans to enjoy themselves. Running those Giant creatures would be fun for a week. maybe two weeks, but beyond that it’s just annoying.

      I once listened to a thing on constrained work that I would really recommend you also listen to but it was on NPR like 12 years ago so i have no idea where you can find it, but there was some improve musician (jazz? maybe?) that had to play on a crappy piano one concert and it became a super famous hit because he had to do weird stuff to make that piano work for him, and it made the concert unique and interesting instead of sounding just like every other concert he did.

      However if he had to use the same piano for all his concerts it wouldn’t be fresh and exciting listening to how this guy dealt with the bad piano, it would just be bad.

  28. You are onto it. It’s the difference between a Referee, and a GM. While Gary’s AD&D work implored us to be a referee, that was old school from war gaming and tournaments, in real life a GM wants and needs to be part of the play experience not just a neutral judge. As a player, I also want that from GM.

  29. I haven’t run Dungeon World, but I’ve run Monster of the Week, which is basically the same thing except the genre is Buffy the Cryptid Slayer driving cross country with her sibling Harry Dresden for 17 seasons of television, thwarting the schemes of the Cigarette Smoking Man and using the Power of Three. (Credit to Angry for the cross-IP confusion style.)

    Anyways, I think MotW doesn’t have the same issue with GM Agency that Angry describes with 4E and with Reach of Titan. In those games, you aren’t really making decisions for the monsters, but in 4E you ARE rolling dice.

    4E you make limited choices for the monsters, but roll dice to adjudicate the results of their actions.

    Reach of Titan, if I’m following Angry, you make limited choices for the titan, and the actions are adjudicated without the GM rolling dice.

    But with Powered by the Apocalypse games (like Dungeon World or Monster of the Week), you make very wide choices for the monsters, based on the situation, setting, what actions the players took, and how successful they were at those actions. You have a very side set of moves to take, and the results of those moves just happen. No dice involved.

    So my point is that PbtA might be the example that shows that sometimes the dice actually take agency away from the GM, in the same way it takes that agency away from players. A player can’t just decide he hits a monster, he has to roll to attack. And the same holds true for monsters in D&D. But it doesn’t hold true for monsters in PbtA. The GM has full agency to decide and establish the results of monsters actions.

    Whether or not placing that agency in the hands of the GM is a good thing is certainly a matter of taste. I think it works well in PbtA, but wouldn’t work as well in D&D for action resolution. That said, I’ve seen a number of GM’s eschew random monster tables and just decide if and when the party is attacked, or ignore treasure tables to just pick an item, etc.If I know 4 goblins are sneaking up on the party, I might just eschew dice and give them a Stealth check of 10+ their Stealth, and see if the party is alert enough to notice. And there’s a long standing tradition of fudging dice rolls behind a screen – not something I like to do myself, but another example of what I’m getting at to be sure.

    To me, those are examples of a GM repossessing agency from his dice.

  30. Shadowrun 5th edition.

    Hackers and Drone users.

    The problem is this: The mechanics of the game let these two characters operate at long range. Like, kilometers. So they’re alone, basically out cold, and operating to help the team.

    The mechanics of this are basically the player annoucing: “We want to win our main highlight, and never be threatened, ever.” Ok. That’s not helpful. Its really not helpful when you think of other things that the characters could encounter, like counterhacking, police, other criminals. Turns out being out cold (effectively), makes you an easy target.

    And so, GMs feel really bad that they’re forced into this role of “Well, the fictionally honest thing would be to get them when they’re all exposed, but that’s super unfair…”

    And it sucks.

    • The ancient argument on whether to attack a dying character.
      “The Troll would definitely choose to eat your face as you lie unconscious in front of him, but Raise Dead doesn’t restore missing body parts.”

  31. I’ve had very similar experiences with different games. I’ve played the demo of Reach of Titans over the weekend as well and actually proclaimed in the middle of it “Man, I whish I could roll some dice, too!”, only half-joking.

    I’ve also felt a similar way when reading some of the more restrictive “modern” games that sound like they don’t want to have a GM at all but did not find a way to automate the position.

    Similarly, I can’t quite wrap my head around why I don’t like it. I’ll keep thinking on this article for a while and might write something again, if I come to a somewhat statisfying conclusion.

    My gut feeling right now tells me that not rolling dice is not the issue though. I think it is linked, I think it is a symptom of what is happening, but those games would not be suddenly more fun just because you rolled a die.

  32. From your explanation I agree with you. It sounds like the Titans runs a bit like the bad guys in Gloomhaven or Mice and Mystics, but the players can’t know the patterns because figuring out the pattern is the objective so you need a person to do it. If there was more to the game for the “DM” to do then I might be interested, but if it was just fighting than that sounds boring.
    I love the agency of being a DM, and I do follow the rules for all the reasons you stated, but there is plenty of room to move in that space. There are many reasons I love to DM, and agency is one, but I also love being surprised by what my players do. If they always did just what I expected, and followed a railroad, I wouldn’t enjoy it as much. I love having to react and improvise, because it is a shared story and I don’t want to know how it will end – I want it to be a surprise along with them. Sure I know the big pieces, and I may have some expectations, but I count on their creativity to make the outcome unpredictable.
    This is also one reason I will slip certain items into the game to remove control from myself (crazy!). One example is the Bag of Beans. The characters choose when and where to use it, but none of us know what will happen until the bean is pulled from the bag. I have to adjudicate the result, but it is exciting because there is suspense.

  33. The most engaging part of running a game, in my mind, is controlling NPCs. In our out of combat. Making decisions for them and seeing the outcome. It’s a lot like running a whole bunch of PCs, but with a single striking difference. You’re not just trying to engage yourself, but also the players with your decisions.

    Sometimes I’ll put a lot of time into an NPC combatant. I want them to be interesting and dramatic. I get a bit attached to them. Then the PCs just smash them nearly instantly and none of that effort or attachment matters. It sucks, and it sucks primarily because I wasn’t able to create the experience that I wanted to create with that character, for me and for my players. But, I follow the rules, generally. Enough to be fair. I’ll sometimes moan about it later because it makes me feel better.

    That’s not even about constraining rules, specifically. It’s about the desire to play the characters and environment and create an experience for myself and my players. Anything that gets in the way of that makes GMing less fun.

    Which is why I want simple, expressive systems that make adjudicating any action simple. It’s why I’m such a fan of Savage Worlds. But I’ve had players tell me that Savage Worlds lacks depth. Just being simple and expressive isn’t enough for them, long term. They want granularity and a selection of special abilities. Exceptions based rules. And somehow, I feel constrained because I don’t want to think of my NPCs or environment through that lens.

    But I *can* do it. And special abilities are fun sometimes and can really add something to a monster or other NPC. But it’s better when those special abilities still follow consistent patterns, or are specific uses of a subsystem that I already understand.

    I think the key word here is “expressive”. It’s something to think more about.

    One last thought. The last step of the basic conversation is describing the new situation. But if the rules of the game have already described the new situation, it’s less interesting to do from the GM’s perspective. I don’t know if that has merit or not.

  34. The system that instilled pure dread in me was Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd ed. It was clever and stylish, but it had those colorful, handy cards and tokens for everything: abilities, spells, monsters, classes… Which means that I, as a GM, cannot introduce new elements into the system. No matter how much effort players spend researching a new spell, how many quests they complete and lore the gather – they simply cannot get it. Because there’s no card. Of course I could always scribble a proxy, but it would look so ugly among all those beuatiful paraphernalia, it would just destroy all aesthetics outright. I guess buying expansions, not desigining homebrew, was exactly what marketing strategy of the game was pushing me to do. I couldn’t bear the idea that I’ll be forever limited to rearranging existing building blocks which are set in stone instead of modifying everything as I see fit and creating stuff out of thin air.

  35. Why does someone who’s never GMed start GMing? Generalizing, either A) they think it will be fun or B) they’re in a group of people who all want to play a game that requires a GM. If a group of people view GMing as a task someone gets “stuck with,” then reducing the decisionmaking will make GMing less taxing prep-wise and in-session, and also make it easier for an inexperienced/unskilled GM to blame problems on the rules.

    Since the hobby has grown recently and TTRPGs are being created &marketed as commercial products, we can assume there are a lot more people in group B now than there were before, say, ~2010. More rigid game systems could be a way to address that audience.

    If done correctly, this has the added benefit of an increased chance of a designer’s game being run at a level of competence. The more specific the rules, the less it matters whether the GM is good.

    Also, because the industry’s trending more toward commercialization, designers could be taking less inspiration from classic-era TTRPGs and more from other media like video or board games – both because today’s designers are more likely to have grown up with those and because that’s the direction of mass-market appeal.

    Finally, it addresses a common TTRPG problem, which is that most TTRPGs don’t teach players how to play them in a fun way and don’t teach GMs how to GM them in a fun way. 18 minutes into his video “Bloodborne Is Genius and Here’s Why,” hbomberguy refers to it as Play Conditioning – making it clear how to play the game in a fun way as opposed to playing in a not fun way. Without the guarantee of a good GM, one solution is to narrow everyone’s agency and hope the GM is the type that isn’t bothered by it.

    • So essentially what you’re saying is that people want to play an RPG because it’s trendy, but don’t know what they’re doing. And the game doesn’t know how to teach them to do it properly. And actually they might just want to play a board game. And an over constrained game solves these problems. If I’m understanding correctly. Seems to me like you’re on to something.

      • I think all entertainment products that start off niche and get popular go through similar stages where they morph into something that’s perceived by executives as more appealing to more people, and some or all of the changes are found off-putting to the original audience.

        • For sure there’s money to be made, and making the game accessible by stripping out it’s identity works wonders. There’s less need to worry about the inherent social problems and people are likely to have success more quickly and with less required skill. I agree with your basic premise that looking at the market, it’s probably easy to lure the board game crowd to your TTRPG product if you provide an experience they expect, and that’s a big market that doesn’t necessarily overlap with TTRPG players (though often does).

          When does “off-putting” slide into “lost its identity” territory? One of the biggest problems with 4E was that fans felt it had lost its identity. 5E was a direct response to that and in many ways it’s a throwback to 2E. I don’t think this is just that the market is maturing and that gaming is moving on past the old guard. I don’t even think it’s that the market is necessarily expanding – the players who want this kind of experience don’t actually want a TTRPG, they want a board game that looks like a TTRPG, which is not the same thing.

          The core experience of TTRPGs is still very much in demand, and a simulation like Angry is describing here appears on the surface to emulate that experience, but in practice isn’t. There’s a sizable market for that kind of product, but it’s not necessarily the same market as the TTRPG crowd, and someone seeking a TTRPG experience is likely to feel a bit bait-and-switched by such a system. Or feel like it was fun short-term and then lost its luster. All that is summed up by: “It’s neat, but it’s not for me.”

          • Interesting discussion. What, in your opinion, does a TTRPG deliver that a board game doesn’t/can’t, and vice-versa? The most obvious surface-level difference between them is the possibility of an ongoing long-term campaign and the existence of the GM. But one-shot DnD games exist, and from a player’s perspective, does it make a difference whether the rules arbiter is a human or a Hypothetical Perfect Computer?

          • Yes, it makes a difference because there is no perfect computer. Video games use massive amounts of processing power and create really interesting and fun experiences, but they are still limited by their programming. If, as the player in something like The Witcher III (great game btw), I decide to climb a tree to get a look at the lay of the land…I literally can’t do it because Geralt cannot climb. Board games are no different. We accept the constraints of the board game because we know that it provides a fair and consistent experience, but those constraints ALSO prevent us from being able to do things outside those constraints. That can certainly be fun, I’m not saying board games are not fun.

            The TTRPG experience is different precisely because it has a human making the decisions about what is allowed and what is not whenever a player makes a decision. The interplay between player decision and world decision, and it’s open-endedness, is unique to TTRPGs, and those decisions as the world are what provides the fun of the game for the GM. It’s not a game if you’re not making decisions, it’s a simulation. If the GM is a bot, the players are certainly still playing a game, and maybe a fun one, but they’ll be much more constrained as if it were a board game. They will literally be unable to do some things because the rules don’t allow them to. The GM is not playing a game anymore in that instance, and that’s what leads to boredom – that’s a role that someone “gets stuck” with.

            This is why I personally don’t care about strict adherence to RAW – if you’re doing your job as a GM, and you make mostly fair and consistent decisions, then you’ll have far more options and far more interesting games than someone who only colors within the lines. Actually, now that I’ve stumbled on it, that might be a good analogy for what I’m trying to say. It’s like the difference between a coloring book and Bob Ross – one has strict rules, the other follows the rules as sort of guidelines to create fine art and happy little bushes.

          • I agree with Nox here, *maybe* from a short-term business perception jayholden is right. But, those kind of short-term decisions are also likely to kill a hobby in its entirety by stripping the essence from it. Kind of like the reason people born in late 80s and 90s listen to more old music than generations before because pop music now is too business oriented.

            Sure, the more scripted the game the less chances of the GM screwing up but good luck finding a GM who just wants to sit around and watch other people have fun while they just execute the rules. Games are by essence are interactive, and the GM is another player(albeit a very different kind), like I said below a good ruleset is the one that gives everyone a variety of options to play and a variety of choices, of buttons to push, tokens to play around with. For players that’s their characters and their abilities for the GM it’s the world.

  36. To the question of being restrained by the rules.

    I was as an Army person for 31 years. The regulations (rules) of the Army are very important and are often constraints on behavior. There were so many of them, so it seemed impossible to know them all. But when I was new, my mentor said that reading the regulations the rules should be prefaced with the following phrase,

    “Things generally go best when…”

    That meant that, if you didn’t know or follow the rules, you owed the Army the best possible outcome.

    I feel I owe my players the bet possible outcome. If it’s not in the rules, I try to make it work. And unlike the Army, if I flat out disagree with the rules, I can change the rules.

    Because I (too) AM THE GAME.

  37. It’s important to separate agency from rolling dice, as there are other ways to let the GM put his unique stamp on a game session. Numenera, for example, uses GM Intrusions as a way to let the GM nudge the story in certain directions. I’m sure there are other game systems out there that give the GM an alternative to dice rolling. You could argue that this is giving more agency to the GM because the GM is not at the mercy of the dice.

  38. I’ve had this problem but in my experiance answer is actually pretty simplesimple.

    Make your core system as simple as possible with a large tool box to add complexity when wanted. Also include ways to alter some of the core assumptions of the system.

    Strands of Fate 2e calls these deviations. Ways of altering the rules, (such as no narrative player mechanics) to create whatever ideal experiance you want.

    This is a lot of work for the designer, but is freeing for a creative GM.

  39. To me, that explains some of my unease with many mechanics. A kind of “Now, I’m forced to do something else because of the rules” feeling.

    For Dungeon World, it happens mostly when I need to make a move because the players didn’t roll well enough for a Spout Lore or a Discern Reality move. Or any time that there was a nice momentum building up and then, boom, a player failed a roll and now something must happen.

    I’m not sure how to explain it, but I feel that from a GM’s point of view mechanic that tie (some) XP directly to a character’s goal also limit the GM agency, somehow more than just a character’s goal would do. Aspiration in the Chronicle of Darkness and player story in Seventh Sea 2e. Like I NEEDED to incorporate those element for every players when I planned my adventure, because otherwise, I’m depriving players of XP instead of just making the adventure about something else.

    I haven’t play those games, but it reminds me of Angry’s opinion on Star Wars Narrative dice and Angry’s suggestion to roll for Icon Relationship Rolls at the end of the adventure instead of the beginning of the session.

  40. I sometimes do one, sometimes do the other.

    I have plot beats in the overall story: a scene that is going to happen in some capacity, but I don’t know how the PCs will get there. Those sessions tend to be very detailed in planning, and they’re fun (as long as you don’t overdo them). These can be your big boss battles, set on the top of a live volcano, with fun traps, terrain challenges, etc, built into everything. You’ve got the villain’s monologue and death speech ready to go.

    And for the rest, I try not to overplan. You are stealing the player’s agency if every battle is unskippable (it sounds like you don’t do that, but this *is* the dark side of planning too much), if you know where they’re going to go next, and you have all of the storylines lined up in a row. Often my notes will be “skill challenge to break X out of a templar prison. If their plan has weak points, those are hard DCs. If they get 3 failures before X successes, they must fight to escape, if they get get X+6 successes, they get magic items.” And then I wing all the details in response to their plan.

  41. For me, system should be a toolbox, rather than almost-a-game. And tools within it should vary – one-trick system that only does one thing (even well) will just end up shelved for inevitable need to go outside it.

    Also, on limitations: a good limitation is the one that makes we think how I can play with and around it, how it can be overcome or exploited, how it interacts with the game world, and what implications it creates, rather than just annoyance or frustration.

    Another important thing is an ability to be surprised – players finding clever creative way to dramatically change the situation is a miracle for both players and GM.

    In the end, it all seems very obvious – if the system limits GM self-expression in a major way, it’s not going to cut it. If it leaves GM braindead during the session, it’s not going to cut it.

    Come to think of it, GM agency is a twin to player agency – if there is no need for GM to adjudicate world reaction to player actions, it can only happen if player actions cannot influence the world in a non-banal way in the first place.
    Similarly, if there is no need for GM to create or adjust scenes on the fly, are players not being railroaded at the system level?

    I do not mean to say that problem of “GM agency” does not exist, but rather that “if your game feels like it does not need a GM, it probably already failed as an RPG in some place”

  42. Typically great article Angry 🙂

    I can understand and empathize with what Angry says, but I have never really felt the same way. I feel constrained by games in some ways, like I occasionally want to run a good “talking” adventure for some players who really like that sort of thing, but few RPGs handle that well (which is why I’ve house ruled almost every RPG I’ve run).

    After doing some soul-searching I think there are 2 things I enjoy about being a GM-

    1) I love watching my players think. I love seeing them come up with some incredibly clever solution I never dreamed up, but I also love watching them fumble around and over-complicate a situation beyond all measure.

    2) I love trying to help my players think better. I enjoy coming up with new situations, and changing things they have run into before, to try to teach them how to ask better questions and learn how to work together better.

    Honestly, replaying my favorite GM moments, I really like being the audience for my players, being entertained and frustrated in turns by them. Which is maybe why no system has ever really made me feel like I’m constrained on my side of the screen. I always have fun seeing what my kids are going to do next.

  43. I referee soccer games and I referee D&D games. The experience isn’t the same, but there are similarities, such as agency issues. I exist as a referee to maintain the integrity of the game for the players while they play with and against one another.

    As long as I am a referee, I cannot also be a player.

    • A GM is not just a referee. In team sports, the players of one team react to changes created by the actions of the other team (and vice versa). In DnD, the GM is both the referee AND the other team. Thus they also have to be a player, otherwise everyone is playing against a pre-set system (co-op board game) or they’re competing against each other (competitive board game) and it’s not really a TTRPG at all no matter what it looks like.

      The thing people are so concerned about is that if the GM is a referee that creates a conflict of interest if the GM is also a player and their goal is to beat the players. Rightly GMs that have this goal are not doing their job correctly, because they’re ALSO a referee responsible for the fairness and consistency of the game and if they abandon that role to win they’ve failed to deliver a TTRPG experience. By the same token, a game designed to minimize GM agency is not fun for the GM, because they are in essence overvaluing the role of the GM as a referee. If the GM is only a referee, it’s again, no longer a TTRPG experience, it’s become a board game (co-op probably, but maybe also competitive). I guess it comes back to what your definition of a TTRPG is, but I’m of the opinion that it’s a board game that looks like a TTRPG, not a TTRPG. If the world is scripted, it’s not really reacting to the player’s actions – it’s the illusion of agency. It may as well be a video game. A choose-your-own-adventure novel is NOT the same as DnD, even though you “play” by making decisions and it might be considered a game.

      Only when the GM is both creating a fair and consistent experience (refereeing) AND reacting as the world to the player’s actions in the world (playing) is it a true TTRPG.

      • The GM playing the other team is an illusion. The other team is the other players.

        You claim that if the GM is a referee then the game is a pre-set system, but that’s doing a disservice to referees in all forms. Being a referee requires a significant amount of subjective judgement, whether the game is D&D, soccer, or Magic: the Gathering. We wouldn’t NEED referees if the game followed a script or pre-set system. We use the term adjudication all the time in discussion of TTRPGs and it encompasses context and subjectivity, something pre-set systems do not have.

  44. We (GM and player) play games to have fun. Chutes and Ladders to 5E with Angry Hacks are played with other humans to have fun. Fun is not moving the piece or reading a sword for a Sneaky Goblin attack. The fun comes in the interaction. The Agency for the GM and the Players must be equal or one group is not having as much fun as the other. One group is acting with more agency.

    The reason a boss fight that you, the GM, designed is so much fun to play in a 5E game. You designed the boss to give you options, tricks, agency. You are interacting with the game equally with the players. Everyone is playing the same game. Everyone is using the same rules.

    A good game is a game in which the Player, The Banker, the Character, and the GM have equal agency and are interacting with the game and each other equivalently.

  45. It’s hard to separate the notion of agency from simply the number of options available, and perhaps from predictability.

    See, you can have limited options with high agency versus plentiful options but low agency.

    Also, predictability might be the crux of what you’re actually concerned about… but may be only obliquely related to agency and options.

    When I used to play WoW, instanced became boring directly in proportion to the skill of the players because a “good run” was often pure efficiency and very mechanical. It was brainless. The reward was not so much the play as the payoff in randomized rewards at the end.

    The times when the run itself was actually fun were when one or more players did some unexpected (and often frowned upon) things that caused problems and you had to actually deal with and solve in real time. Suddenly challenges presented themselves.

    When I was healing, for example, I preferred bad/sloppy pulls, or dealing wit players who didn’t understand aggro. It made me have to think and adapt, and even anticipate problems before they arose.

    It’s not like WoW provides a lot iof agency, nor even a lot of options, really. But just the probability of a novel problem presenting itself is an opportunity to exercise agency, even when severely limited.

  46. so if we are talking of GM agency then we are talking about GM decision points. In D&D that occurs everytime a player makes a decision as you figure out what happens next. I dont know the specifics of titans or DW but taking the dice away does not necesarily remove the choice but but does imply that its by fiat. or programming. Im drrrunk and spitballing but,, what are decision points for Gm and how do we invite the DM to action?

  47. I would add that 4e didnt feel like D&D at first. I felt it was a good game that wasnt that. After a while as I my campaign went on I was able to really start proffering choices to my players in story as well and all of a sudden it was really D&D

  48. You’ve once (or more often) said that RPGs are about making meaningful choices. In this particular example, the titan had no choice, for two reasons:
    1. Those PCs were trying to kill it, and there was no alternative. No begging and pleading for its life, no clever escape, nothing. Your choices were constrained by canon: by the story/combat you’d all agreed to play out at the table.
    2. There was always an optimal choice, tactically speaking. This is a problem that players have too, especially in combat, but really whenever the goal they’re trying to achieve is fairly straightforward: they’re going to use the approach that nets them the best bonus-to-DC ratio. Barbarian will smash, thief will sneak, wizard will cast.
    What makes RPGs fun is not getting to pull the optimal lever; it’s getting to make an interesting choice, and then seeing what happens. Often what happens surprises you, because the person narrating that decision *isn’t* you. That’s why the best part of being a GM is watching players break your game/story with creative actions you didn’t plan for, and then giving them surprising/wonderful/frightening situations in response, and for them to respond to.
    Anyway, this lack of agency during combat is just the nature of the beast, and a big part of why I don’t like combats to last more than a few rolls of the dice. Sometimes you have to roll to figure out the results of an activity in which there are no meaningful choices to be made, but those rolls shouldn’t eat up any more time than they have to.

  49. Player agency feels hollow if the GM does not have agency as well. Sure, the player can take whatever action they wish, but the world only has a set way of responding.

    It would be like if you modified Breath of the Wild to where Link can take any action the player wants. He can start a landscaping business, kiss a frog, or vandalize that old lady’s house. But then the game isn’t programmed to respond to those actions; nobody pays him for mowing the lawn, the frog still looks dead inside, the old lady still comments on how he’s such a nice young man.

    It would be like Zork; you can type anything you want, but unless you type the right thing, the narrator just says “Sorry I don’t know what you mean by ‘intimidate the troll by eating a hot pepper without breaking eye contact.’”

    Player agency is limited to the GM’s agency.

  50. In a small part, I think the issue is that you also want to role-play. I think you’ve said before that, among the many hats a GM wears, one of them is ‘role-playing ever character in the world except the PCs, including the monsters’. Even though combat tends to be ‘low RP’, it’s still a factor. If you have a system where combat doesn’t involve you doing that, you are no longer making decisions for characters, but executing instructions like a computer.

    You can still ‘make decisions for characters’ when you’re outside of combat, of course. But combat makes up the bulk of the playtime. If you spend most of your time in the game not roleplaying (and that’s an aspect you enjoy as a GM), then a system that takes that from you would feel restrictive.

    I would guess that the players who don’t see this as a problem might be the sorts of GMs who simply throw enemies at the players and fight to the last man. The sort that would prefer a Morale check system rather than arbitrarily deciding if some goblins will flee or not. They just don’t care about wearing the ‘Roleplayer Hat’ to the same degree or as often as you might.

  51. There seems to be some central tension around mechanics in regard to GM agency. As you point out, designing or re-designing rules is a lot of work. So, if mechanics are getting in the way, a GM is going to have a bad time trying to fix them as she goes in order to run the game he wants. On the other side, you need mechanics. If you don’t have, all adjudication becomes pure improvisation.

    So, no mechanics means GM has to work a lot in order to maintain consistency and provide interesting gameplay challenges. But a lot of mechanics means a lot of restraint on what the GM can do and how she can do it. I think the central question GM agency raises is on which aspects of the game the rules take out of the hands of the GM so she doesn’t have to care much about them, and which one they serve as a framework for the GM to express her agency while providing good playing experience.

    Let’s take DnD 5e. Most mechanics are centered around combat, so, in a sense, it constrains GM to make them a central part of experience, as she won’t have lot of tools to add deepness to non-combat encounters. It doesn’t mean it’s impossible, only that she’s going to have to design those tools herself (as pointed out in another series of articles, there’s not really a way to make satisfying crafting experience with RAW 5e). On the other hand, the existing rules provide a great framework for running tactical combats. They are streamlined in a way that you can still think about how to respond player’s moves while adjudicating them. Also, as this framework allows basic resolutions mechanics for nearly everything, there is still a lot of room to improvise unconventional maneuvers. As you pointed out, that’s where a big part of 5 e GM agency lies.

    However, if a GM wishes to run more narrative focused combats and doesn’t like the tactical part, it could really feel like it’s getting in her way. I mean, if you don’t like tactical combat, and therefore just play your monsters as brainless mobs auto-attacking the nearest foe, you may feel you are just “running a program”. Then, having mechanics that handle that for you could feel liberating instead of constraining, freeing brain space for handling other more appealing things.

    So I think GM agency has a lot to do with GM engagement. What are the game aspects, you, as a GM, like to control? Which ones doesn’t appeal to you, and would you like to be handled by the system without having to worry much about them?

  52. I think the best experience for a GM comes from clear, concise rules that allow them to use their creativity within them.

    For instance, I’ve always found playing intelligent creatures more interesting as a GM than playing animals. As a Necromancer, I can really go all out to kill the party, using any creative ideas I have (within the limits of the necromancer’s powers).

    However, if I’m playing a dumb beast I have to limit myself to their tactics. An animal won’t ignore their instinct, they will bite/claw or they will flee. No GM agency.

    While the concept of monster actions being triggered by PC actions is cool, it clearly limits the GM too much for Angry’s liking. I propose that the titan should always have a turn in which the GM makes intelligent decisions that benefit the titan, while forced actions could trigger between turns forcing the titan closer to the player’s will (death, imprisonment, dismemberment etc).

    This way, the players feel like everything they do has a predictable result, while the GM can still have decision points. Furthermore, the GM could decide that the predictable result will no longer happen once it hindered the titan to a certain degree.

    For instance:
    A red drake blocks the player’s path
    Player 1: I slash at the drake with my sword
    DM: Your sword bounces off the drake’s thick scales.
    Player 2: I shoot it with an arrow
    DM: The drake flies forward and bites your arrow out of the air
    DM: The drake flies towards the party, and takes a chunk out of Player 1’s arm (X damage)
    Player 1: I prepare to slice it’s belly once exposed
    Player 2: I fire an arrow directly overhead
    DM: The drake flies overhead to snatch your arrow, exposing it’s belly
    Player 1: I aim for the weakest point
    DM: You slice through the thinner armour like butter (X damage)
    DM: The drake flies up high and unleashes it’s firey breath upon Player 1 (X damage)
    Player 1: I fire into the air again
    DM: The drake ignores your arrow, having learnt it’s lesson

    Ideally, the triggered response would be more than playing fetch, but this was an easy example to type.

  53. Allow me to tackle this problem by another angle: I’m writing a modified version of the 5ed rules to make it more like an Old School RPG. One of the things I did was give special “maneuvers” to skills in with the players are proficient with. The Persuasion skill “proficient maneuver” is calling a truce, and if you succeed at the skill test, intelligent NPCs will give you a chance to retreat – they won’t attack the party for one round, given that the players don’t attack them. They can, however, heal themselves, prepare actions etc.

    When I was talking with a fellow GM about it, he HATED this power. He said that it robbed him from his “freedom” to play the NPC the way he wanted. In short, it was a power that mitigated his agency.

    So the question is: how much can the PCs actions impact on the actions of the GM? Put it in another words: does the GM has (or needs to have) full control of the NPCs?

    In a social encounter, the PCs actions determine the NPCs reactions: If they trust the PCs or don’t; are swayed by their rhetoric or dismiss it; if the stage show was a success or a major fiasco etc. The GM still can play that reaction in a bunch of ways, but is constrained by the result of the player action. In combat encounters, however, the actions of the NPCs are pretty much independent from the PC’s.

    On DW and, as you described, RoT, the number of “verbs” – the actions a GM can do – of the NPCs is fairly low. They can only act in a predetermined way in response of what the players do (or fail to do). And when a monster only has a few options to begin with, it seems like you’re just executing a program.

    The solution, I think, is to have a number of “possible actions” to each creature that gives the GM sufficient options to make interesting choices. In the specific case of RoT, a creature could have an array of 4-6 abilities that it could use on its turn, and as the players unutilized some parts of the Titan, the number of verbs would be reduced, but it would still be left with 2-3 actions possible that the GM could choose from.

    Also, giving an uncertain factor to the action resolution doesn’t hurt either! Give the GM some dice to roll!

  54. I feel like a computer when I have to run initiative for D&D 5e as is. I feel like I’m baby-sitting my players. Who refuse to use any of the variants that I vastly prefer. I love Angry Speed Factor, I would even settle for “popcorn” initiative because I’m not futzing with little cards or tracking turn order for supposedly capable adults who should be able to do that themselves. So certain computing mechanics can be shared among the table, and when they aren’t for any good reason I start to feel like a computer.
    Times I’ve felt hemmed in or constrained is harder to pin down. I’ll have to use examples, because I’ve already deleted about 1000 words trying to think it out. D&D5e, I ran two fights with the same group, each time they thought they were goners and were panicked.
    In the goblin fight I felt the outcome would be 100% their victory and I was able to cut loose and do everything I could with goblins features. And the players won. I felt good. But then I felt bad as they thought I might have been cheating in some way to cause them so much trouble with mere goblins. That felt constraining but not in a mechanical way. We needed to cry-hug and walk through the forest of our feelings while the game was paused.
    In the dragon fight, I did ping-pong them to 0 HP a couple times, for some reason they were less upset, I suppose because they thought it mechanically fair that a dragon was so powerful. As the dragon hit about half-HP and I felt like I should change tactics. The dragon could hide under water or fly out of range, but I felt like that would wipe them, a true TPK. So I sat the dragon in its hex and we played death-chicken until the party inevitably won. That felt bad for me, because I had to pull-punches. I couldn’t play the monster like a real character without worrying about making my snowflakes re-roll their characters.
    So shit. This is a hard problem to pin down. Don’t we need some uncertainty to make our choices interesting? Then don’t we want greater certainty that our players will survive, at least so that we can play our monsters enjoyably? And maybe this is a source of the fatigue I feel running a game which is so different from the excitement of planning the game. And what of that “lost” Di&D conversation with Brian Cranston about two opposing pools of dice; one for players to control their will and one for GM’s to roll the fates doled out by gods? Will this play into your answer?

  55. I’ve been giving this a lot of thought since you’ve posted it, and I’ve come up with a simple answer: anything that turns anyone involved in an RPG into a passive spectator is a bad idea. I mean, for a relatively long period of time, that is. No one bothers to wait 5 minutes for a character to do something.

    RPGs are interactive by design, ESPECIALLY the GM, who is used to be on the spotlight reacting to the players pretty much every second. Asking such a proactive person to take a backseat and just watch the players do something without their involvement is pretty much anathema to what RPG are. And no, executing a pre planned command like a computer isn’t interactive, that’s just like flipping a switch, there is absolutely nothing exciting about it. RPGs are all about making decisions, that includes the GM, reacting to a preprogrammed command isn’t one.

    • To expand into what I said above, a good rule system for a GM to handle the world has to meet the same conditions as a good system for the PCs: the PCs make decisions through their characters, in order for that to work the game must give different options(powers, spells and even level design) so they can interact with the world.

      Well, it’s no different for the GM, a good rule system must give the GM options to “play the world” so to speak. A system that doesn’t allow the GM to do that is like a character creation system that takes agency away from the players. It would be like coding that if someone attacks a bear then the Ranger MUST react inmmediatly with a certain skill or a certain way, instead of letting the player playing the Ranger decide how he wants to react. That takes away your agency, a core element of the game.

  56. You made the point in a previous article about player agency. More specifically, about how players need the illusion of choice even when there isn’t actually a choice. You said that as long as the players feel like their decisions matter the issue of railroading isn’t an issue at all.

    I believe the same thing is happening on the GM’s side of the table. You pointed out in the article that even though the rules of D&D specifically state that you can override them, you actually can’t (at least not all of them). There are many reasons to follow the rules as closely as possible, which does put a limit on what you can do. It just doesn’t feel that way.

    D&D does a pretty good job of making GMs feel like they really are in control of the entire game. When you play another game that doesn’t give you that express permission, you (as a good GM) realize that you don’t have the freedom of choice or even the illusion of it.

    In short, these games irk you because you feel railroaded as a GM.

    And ultimately, it’s not a problem for everyone. Some GMs are new and need the guidance, other’s may not actually want to be GMs but are forced into the role. So like you said, it’s not objectively bad, it’s just not for everyone.

  57. I think that GMs want to (or at least I as a GM want to) become immersed in their own game. And to have that immersion in the moment-to-moment combat. I like running my combats because I design enemies and fights that I think are cool and then I get to not only show them off, but play them out. Player agency leads to greater player immersion and engagement; there’s no reason to think that GM agency would work any differently. So a game that’s too constrained, inhibiting GM agency, inhibits GM immersion and engagement. And immersion and engagement can ebb and flow over the course of a game, which is why agency during design or non-combat parts of the game aren’t a substitute for agency during combat. You might be (and hopefully are) engaged during those other parts but the engagement won’t necessarily carry over.

    And having to go beyond the rules to make the game you want shouldn’t be something you have to do regularly, especially on the fly. The rules, as game designers seem fond of saying, are a set of tools to help you build your adventure. Well I don’t want to have to stop in the middle of combat to jury-rig a wrench because my toolbox is full of hammers.

  58. Since feedback was solicited:

    I immediately recognized what you were describing as the reason I never run prewritten modules. It feels like I am only here to execute someone else’s creative vision, just a butt to fill a chair.

    It may not be pertinent to GMing as such, but I wonder if this relates to some cases of lacking PC agency. Sometimes when playing with a bad GM, I have felt as if I am only here to be a butt in a seat to realize the GM’s vision, basically like they asked me to be one of their actors in a movie, not my own character in a game.

    If nothing else, maybe this can give us as GMs a lens through which to understand PC agency issues. That “I feel like I could be replaced with a bot” idea isis really sticking with me.

  59. A huge part of the reason I mainly GM PtbA games nowadays, is that D&D came with way too much restrictions for me as a GM. When done properly, D&D not only required a lot of prep on my side, but it also resulted in what felt to me as ‘running scripted events’.

    In DW specifically, I feel that as a GM I get much more agency during play than I do during a D&D session. It provides me with a pretty good guideline on what I can and cannot do, but allows for a lot of decision making on my side within that framework.

    • But as I see, Angry had a problem with DW because he cannot be proactive – only reactive. And the NPCs, at least in combat, have fewer action options than a monster in D&D, for example.

      DW is designed to have the GM “on the edge” about when his actions will take place, since it depends on player failure – but it’s fairly bland about the resolution of such actions

  60. Normally I abstain from comment sections, but you asked for input so rambling stream of consciousness input you will get.

    The first time I ran Dungeon World, I had this nagging sense of dissatisfaction with it that I couldn’t place at the time. Taking away the dice wasn’t the issue in itself. Dice are only interesting as a mechanism of driving difficult decisions, and D&D sucks at that anyways. It mostly amounts to finding your highest applicable numerical bonus and hoping you don’t roll badly. The way games like Blood Bowl incorporate dice is so much more engaging and interesting than in D&D that it’s honestly just kind of sad.

    The problem with Dungeon World was what taking the dice away represented. It said “these monsters are just another force of nature that will react to the players actions appropriately rather than another set of characters controlled by an adversarial agent.” Reacting to the player’s actions is a big part of GMing, but DW felt like it was saying that’s the entirety of what I’m supposed to do.

    The weird part about it was that I could have run that session in D&D or some clone of it and while it would have been different mechanically, the gist of the session probably would have played out mostly the same. The only real difference with DW was that I felt like the game was leaning over my shoulder and occasionally whispering “never forget that I own you” into my ear. Maybe I just wanted to feel more independent about making the same decisions.

  61. Angry you helped me a lot with rpg, it’s cool that now i’m trying to return the favor back XD

    I think the game you described is not lacking agency, but drama, the core essence of a true RPG experience.

    Imagine this scenario: after some rounds of combat, the titan was injury so hard that it start running in fear of death toward the PC’s home town, now pc’s have to make a plan to deviate the course of the run or kill the beast before it’s too late.

    Do you think that in a scenario like that, will you feel deprivated of agency? Do you think that dice and book keeping are the answers? Do you really think that one cool moves from the Brown Gorilla Pig could change anythin?

    Dear Angry, maybe i’m different from you, but what i understand, what you helped me understand in those years reading this blog, it’s that without drama, without a conflict, without hard decisions, there is no such a thing as a RP experience.

    The fact that the system is diceless can ruin the art of improvisation that a true GM like you could inject in a game session, but it’s your duty as a GM to create somethin specials, somethin that could go wrong, triggers and roleplaying opportunities, and if the system don’t incentives those, talk to the designer about the need for those.

    In the end of the day, we will not remember any cool attack, spell or moves, but the story that generate from them, the conflict and the decision the heroes have passed throught, the sacrifices and the victories… and crits, obviously..

    P.s. Sorry for the lack of english writing prowess

  62. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said “the experience was one of running a bunch of nested if-then statements as if I was executing a computer program.”

    Agency is about decision-making, and feeling like those decisions matter. If you are running a game where the GM just follows a flowchart (even a complex flowchart), you aren’t making any decisions at all so the question of them mattering isn’t even relevant. If you are running a game with clearly defined “movesets” where the optimal one is obvious OR they’re all about the same effectiveness, you might make decisions but they don’t really matter.

    I will say that the times where I’ve felt the most agency as a GM were when making decisions on behalf of the NPCs *outside* of combat in 5e, because while it may be better than 4e in that regard 5e still largely has monsters where your optimal decision is pretty obvious, so combat is more or less a flowchart once it starts (though at least I get to roll dice, which isn’t agency but I do like the sound they make). Outside of combat, though – NPCs can plot, they can react, they can betray… there are a lot more options for meaningful decisions.

    And that may be the solution to the issue with RoT. I think Jim wants to create a specific experience during combat, and I can respect that – but maybe there’s room for more GM freedom during the other phases of the game that’re less combat focused. Titans plotting on how to breach the wall, kidnap heroes, the sort of thing.

  63. I’ve GM’d games that felt they were so open ended I didn’t know where to start, or so chock full of mechanics I didn’t know where it ended. And I’ve played rushed versions of those games where I take the baseline that I can remember and adjudicate the rest. And sometimes I’ve had a game that was all of those things. Sometime the player, sometimes the GM.

    Games provide constraints for the players (and the GM’s / referee / Game-Executive if they have them).

    TTRPG’s let their Game Executive (sometimes thats the players as a group) decide which rules can be broken and when and the rationalization for why its okay to break those rules. Generally.

    Most TTRPGs offer some degree of both tactical and narrative freedom / decision making power.

    When you strip any of that away it doesn’t feel the same. The players feel it. The GE feels it.

    IMO thats what sums up GMagency – Narrative control, Tactical control, and constraint bending power.

  64. I’d say your observation that so many in the indie community are designing systems to limit GM agency is spot on. There are so many folks who seem to be afraid of GMs having authority over the games those GMs run. I’m saddened by it.

    I’m very much Old School, in that I view the GM as the authority on the game that GM runs. The GM uses the rule system to develop a personal game and has the authority to use the system as she sees fit. There’s a reason I’ve found few game systems I want to play among the stream of new games I see available every time I visit DTRPG.

    My task as a designer is to provide GMs with a system that they can use to create fair, consistent games. My task as a GM is to provide players with ongoing entertainment in a fair, consistent game. The more freedom I can build into the system as a designer makes the task of GMing much easier.

  65. I think that there’s got to be some kind of reason for you to get into your role too. You’re a player of the game with a distinctly different role from the rest, but you’re still a role player. You need agency just as much as the other players. I think the problem you’ve stumbled across isn’t so much a problem as it is an aspect of being a GM. Players need the freedom to play and have consequence and all that.

    The actual problem I think is all these newfangled games trying to limit the GM to a bot role. Generally speaking, as a GM, your consequences are the destruction or success of your game. These hemmed in systems having tighter constraints means that rather than having a toolbox full of neat things to patch up your game with while playing around, you now rest on a knife’s edge, and the slightest tilt in the wrong direction will break it, which isn’t fun.

    Sort of rambly, but I hope this helped even slightly.

  66. Ok, great minds here. I think I have part of the answer.

    I have been designing my own game system now for approximately 29 years. Still working on it. The main reason is what you mention.

    When you’re a game designer, you do and try everything, but you do so to try to have the maximum level of fun. How can I maximize fun for players and GMs? Pf + Gmf = 1/2 Gdf + a case of Jolt cola.

    The thing is and no one believes me on this is Game developers > Gms but without Gms game developers cannot exist. There are 1001 games on the market. How is yours different?

    Which brings me to my answer. And I found part of what I was looking for in Hack your game, in dealing with Tyler.

    If you don’t feel important as a GM, then stop being a Gm of someone else’s system and make your own.

    You asked this of players but, what is it you want to do? Are you wanting to hack someone else’s cause it’s easier than making your own? I know it is for me. 29 years and I have a Gm Agency crisis like once a year.

    • The real f$&%ing problem, as Angry might put it, is that many such games are imitating video games. Originally, oldsters like me went nuts for games like Temple of Apshai (go ahead, look up the emulator version) because it was kiiiiinda like roleplaying and you could do it immediately and you didn’t have to find other players. Other than that, it SUCKED. Computer limitations defined the directions the games would take.

      I see a lot of younger designers who grew up on (increasingly sophisticated) video games and think there’s no other way. Fact is, video games are NOT a starting point for RPGs. Period. Video games are an attempt to deal with computer limitations…which still exist, and in fact may be even more serious now (like hard drive space, we always want MORE once we see it). The best way to convince people that your crappy computer thing is interesting is by giving them a whole bunch of what the computer does well, to wit, incredibly complex spreadsheet-style systems. Class builds. Feats. Options. New classes (just collections of stats you may be able to use to exploit other game states). Designing a crunch-heavy system is a recipe for loss of GM agency. Because you are limiting yourself by imitating a computer. And in a very real sense, crunch players are making themselves slaves to a machine. Of course, this makes sense if you know it’s a machine (a board game) or, possibly, if you’ve never known anything else.

      Computers are terrible at providing meaningful choices, working with human passion as a motivator, incorporating surprise and variety, providing aesthetic judgments (awe, beauty) and improvisation. Games that work with those may feed your sense of agency more. And no, I don’t mean like DW: things like a well-done sandbox crawl (see the West Marches) may be more the thing. Game objects that serve as a foundation for player decisions and actions.

      • GMs struggle betwwen the paradox of be good game designers and good storytellers, and in a roleplaying environment these two can be detrimental each other. Our ultimate goal is to find the sweet spot between these two distant world

  67. You nailed it on the why I got bored with DnD5 so fast. You actually helped me figure out why I dislike some games and not others. (Yes GAMES, not just adventures)

    That would also allow me to point out an issue with some published adventures (any system) : if the writing is closed with a set railroad that the players have to follow, that means the GM can’t react “intelligently” within the rules to allow the players the freedom they deserve. Admitting that we consider an adventure / a story as a set of “rules” -> a framework that we follow as a GM.

    Other published adventures have smart writing that allow players complete freedom, while helping the GM actually evaluates the consequences of the players’ actions WITHIN the rules (aka trying to follow a story, instead of just throwing dice or random stupid random encounters). Those are those that I enjoy running as a DM : the players have total freedom to fuck up while I have some help adjusting the adventure/story to their idiotic/smart actions (mostly stupid most of the time). The most successful line in the regard is till Shadowrun which I fondly remember for the smart flowcharts based writing instead of dungeons. Of course the end result is the same : a flow of encounters. Shadowrun does it through the player actions. DnD does it through the map. Guess I know which one I enjoy…

    Rise of titans has an interesting value proposition, as a GM I would probably be fucking bored running more than one game once in a while. Speaking of which : how does the game go through “progression”, it does not make any sense to throw bigger monsters game after game after game after the players’ settlement, unless there is a real metaplot explaining why “bigger” threats would target specifically the players instead of other settlements ?

  68. Preach on brother Angry!!!

    Yes, I have felt like this about a number of systems, and I include D&D in them. I come from a background of GURPS, Cthulu & Palladium where freedom to develop, not only characters, but subsystems, mechanics and worlds were built into the DNA of the systems.

    Yes, there is always that core rule of “if you don’t like it, change it”, most, if not all RPGs include that, but some systems encourage tinkering under the hood a bit more than others.

    In my experience these are simpler systems, with simple core mechanics, that leave a lot of the resolution up to the GM. Take your Goblin on a Chandelier example. In GURPS, there’d be a DEX check, Cthulu would have an acrobatics check, and in Palladium I’d have a skill check, or a minus to the action in lieu of an appropriate skill.

    Bam! None of those systems have a specific mechanic, but there is enough detail about the character, beyond a stat block, and I know the systems well enough to come up with an on-the-fly calculation that “feels right”. I think that’s what you are getting at.

    One of the things I don’t care for about D&D 5th is that it “feels” video-gamey. Characters progress in limited ways, akin to how a VG character progresses, vs say GURPS, where I can grow a character literally any way I want. And the system can feel like it is on rails as far as what critters you can impose, the types of treasure that is handed out etc. As a GM that is restraining.

  69. So I played monster of the week for a bit and I experienced something similar.

    The game is designed around fighting monsters and so the moment that you actually stopped fighting monsters is when the game falls apart.

    Every mechanic in that game is designed around fighting monsters or hunting them. And as soon as you stop doing that there are no mechanics to help you figure out what to do.

    I started going off the rails and doing things that weren’t directly related to the monsters the game stopped helping me and started hindering me.

  70. I want to point out agency isn’t about who rolls the dice (player or gm), agency is about who can initiate the kind of actions that lead to dice being rolled and when they are allowed to make those choices. I want to compare a D&D-like core mechanic to the one in Symbaroum.

    This is my summary of the Symbaroum core mechanic: when there is an action (REGARDLESS if it is initiated by a player, by an npc, or part of the world) and that action’s success or failure has direct impact on a PC, the GM tells the player which mechanical stat to roll against to see how that action plays out. So in that system, the players are always ones rolling dice, but the GM still has creative agency to initiate any actions from the world.

    In the article’s example of the goblin swinging down from a chandelier, D&D 5e as written has the DM roll to determine the goblin’s success or failure to grab ahold and swing down at the player. If a dexterity check fails, the goblin can fail to grab ahold and hilariously crash. Ok, that can be fun, but dice arbitration at that moment robs the GM of some agency to say this goblin is competent enough to at least not crash like an idiot. In a Symbaroum-like system, the gm could decide OF COURSE it would be cool if this goblin grabs the chandelier and swings down. Now THE PLAYER rolls to see if they can dodge out of the way in time (or if someone else can cut the rope with an action they’ve been holding). In D&D, one could always hand wave the swinging goblin’s dexterity check; however, if a player needs a check in the same situation, there is very little RAW reason to wave it for the goblin. Alternatively, one can find systems which codify this difference between good tension for players and good tension for npcs. Players care about arbitration that affects them and theirs, and GMs prefer to maintain narrative control until a PC becomes involved.

    In summary, arbitration by dice robs everyone of some agency to interpret outcome, and provides the necessary mechanical constraint to turn the narrative into a game and make it interesting. The design question becomes WHEN is it critically important place mechanical boundaries on the narrative of the action. In D&D RAW, the answer is “when anyone takes an action that could succeed or fail”. In other systems, it is “when an action directly impacts a player, the player’s stats determine how it plays out”.

  71. The game rules are like a contract between the players and the GM. When everybody agrees to play a game, they agree to play by the rules. If nobody plays by the rules, you are liable to have the sorts of fights you had as a kid, where someone has plasma bolts that destroy everything, and someone else has a forcefield that blocks everything. And then you get mad at eachother and destroy your LEGO spaceships. It is possible that you don’t have rules, though, and everyone cooperates. Or very close, anyway. We call that improv. You have a few rules, mostly about how to not be a dick, and then you go and make stuff up and try to make a good story. And improv is fun! Improv games are a blast! But they’re not quite RPGs. Or we’ll go with that because they’re not what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about games with rules and GMs. And when you have someone responsible for everyone’s fun, they’ll be hesitant about changing the terms of the contract lightly. At least, if they’re responsible. So if a game has a lot of structure, and provides rules for the things the players are most likely to do, and the players rarely exceed those rules, a responsible GM will be unlikely to change rules often, and as a result ends up feeling like a computer could do their job. On the flip side, if you have games where the players frequently exceed the limits of the rules, or even games where the rules are just hazily defined, like one page RPGS, the GM will probably have to more frequently make snap decisions and go outside the rules. The game might provide some framework for the GM to follow, but the bulk of the decision-making will be done by the GM. This makes it harder for the GM to make and run games, but also makes it easier for them to make and run the games they want to make and run, because they are less bound by the existing rules of the game.

  72. One thing I’ve read fans of these kinds of indie games complain about is that D&D is TOO free — that it’s very hard to get people on the same page with it. I’ve definitely run into that problem myself, particularly if I’m trying to step outside the expected core experience of high-combat dungeon-crawling (which I usually am; honestly, I suspect my ideal “D&D” would give every character both a combat class and a noncombat class, and no, background may be a worthwhile concept too but it doesn’t count as a “noncombat class” because it doesn’t scale).

    Unfortunately, it sounds as though a lot of them go too far in the other direction — not just by constraining the GM too much, but by constraining the players too much too. They’re trying *so* hard to get people on the same page that the game has about as much creative range as a single drum. There’s a reason drums come in sets…

  73. A little late commenting on this one, but this article really spoke to me. The boredom at the table is something I’ve been struggling with in my now three-month-old 7th Sea 1e campaign. My other group is about to start back up playing Blades in the Dark with me running again, and so I’m in an interesting position that this article speaks to – trying to run two games at once, with disparate rulesets.

    7th sea is “crunchy” to a degree and the GM rolls (a lot), whereas Blades in the Dark is a Dungeon World offspring where the GM doesn’t roll a thing. But my desires are sometimes at odds thematically – 7th Sea, a swashbuckling adventure, feels mired in too many specific rules I’d love to do away with, while I want my sci-fi detective campaign of Blades in the Dark to have a more tactical feel to it.

    I do feel, very often, that I’m just a logical computer sequence at the table during play. Juxtapose that against being a player, it feels like the world is my oyster. I much prefer being a GM, because I love putting the story together and building the world (like you mentioned), but then find myself unhappy with my performance in more mechanical moments (always wondering why it didn’t *feel* fun). My players always tell me they had fun, but sometimes I wonder how that could be possible considering my feelings on how sessions go a lot of the time.

    Anyway, I think you’re on to something here, Angry. It seems the better a GM I’ve become over the last five years, the less fun I have actually running the game I obsess over throughout the week. Great article, can’t wait to see more on this topic!

  74. One thing I’ve experienced this with is that I have some players who really seem to not be able to accept that some tendencies of mine aren’t something I want subordinated in a session zero. I love world building, making really elaborate settings with specific themes and ideas- they don’t tend to be especially restrictive, but they do tend to make some pretty well defined statements about why this isn’t just generic fantasy-land, how it should feel… and those players have a huge problem with that. Like, its fine when they’re playing but if we ever talk about it we have this long conversation that essentially boils down to “your setting should be an anomalous blob of whatever we want it to be, something generic and inoffensive that doesn’t make any story demands of us, restrict any builds, or stop us from dropping the flavor of whatever game or anime we were into this week ” I find that it kills some of the pleasure in DMing for me, because I appreciate having the agency as a designer to make interesting things for the game. I kind of thought this article was going to be about feeling alienated by the impulse that DMs should be subservient to players, because I’ve been less interested in that as time goes on and more aware of it as a negative force in my GMing.

    • An emerging theme here is that players suck. (To get Angry about it.) You wanted to create something elaborate and beautiful, they want to be some witless anime caricature.
      I’m starting to believe that it’s all about groups, which is why RPGs will never become mainstream. They’re too much effort and have too many dependencies. When it works, it’s like sheer paradise, a literally indescribable aesthetic/emotional/even spiritual experience. When it doesn’t, it’s like being trapped in a dinner theater on the second layer of Hell. (Most of the time it’s just like being in a dinner theater. “Trapped” is probably [?] redundant there.)
      It’s not always possible to change groups, which is why so many games die. People are *starving* for groups that work, which is why Critical Role is so popular.

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