Player Agency is when as a player, your decisions matter… they have weight and consequences, and play out into the future in the game. Narrative Control is when the player can control what goes on in the world, including what the consequences are or whether to accept them.
As I view them, they are incompatible despite the fact that at first glance they’re both about allowing the players to have input. The problem is that the kinds of input cancel each other out. Weighing the decision whether the character should do X or Y in the game hoping for consequence A or B becomes pointless as soon as you can control whether it’s A, B, or something else. And if you’re controlling the consequences, whether creating it from whole cloth or picking from a list, any time spent on the decision that led to that point is a waste…you’re just slowing the game down by pretending to consider probabilities and chains of causation which in the end will actually be decided by you choosing the one you like (understanding that like might mean what you feel is dramatically satisfying and not necessarily what the character would choose).
Now, if you’re very careful and aware of the distinction it may be possible to have a game where you shift back and forth…only having narrative control over things that aren’t the consequences of the decisions you’re making, and only pondering and planning out your decisions in areas that have been placed beyond your narrative control. That’s actually kind of how SFX! games work: players have a lot of narrative control over details of the environment, but only as long as they don’t really matter. If you’re in a bar and want to hit somebody with a bar stool, that’s mechanically the same as hitting with your fists, or a chair, or a bottle so you have narrative control over whether there are suitable bar stools in the place. It matters only insofar as hitting them with a stool might insulate you from their electric shock power, say. On the other hand, whether hitting them is actually going to hurt them is completely out of your control and in the hands of the GM and the dice, so the decision you are making to try to hit them instead of any of the other things you might attempt (grab them, knock the gun out of their hand, distract them by throwing a drink in their face, run away, etc) is an important one that bears assessing and reasoning about the probable consequences.
This is why as a player I have very little interest in games that emphasize giving the players a lot of narrative control: it’s something that actively interferes with my favorite part of RPGs. I want a lot of player agency, but only narrative control in very limited circumstances, such as when creating a character, or perhaps between sessions deciding what’s been going on in the character’s life off-screen.
John Wick’s post Chess is not an RPG: The Illusion of Game Balance is making the rounds of the RPG blogosphere (I stumbled across it when Michael “Stargazer” Wolf wrote about it here) . I started to write a comment, but it blew up into an entire post.
I was suspicious when I saw Wick start talking about telling stories, since that’s not really what I think RPGs are about, but it’s a common-enough starting point for discussing them. Where Wick completely lost me, though, is when he proclaimed “The first four editions of D&D are not roleplaying games.” Sorry, but if that’s where your argument ends up, it’s obvious you need to reexamine your premises.
Riddick and the teacup is a terrible example of why weapon stats shouldn’t matter: the thing that makes the scene stand out is that we all know that a teacup is a lousy weapon. In a game without weapon stats, players will be completely unimpressed if you manage to kill somebody with a teacup because they’re aware that the rules make that no harder than killing with a gun or sword. They might give you points for style if it’s the first time anybody’s done that, but nobody’s going to conclude your character is a bad-ass because of it. Even having it built into your character “Can kill a man with a teacup” is less impressive than accomplishing it when according to the rules you need to roll two 20’s and then max damage to have a chance. And I say that as the designer of a game that indeed doesn’t have weapon stats precisely so that characters with the right kind of abilities can accomplish feats like that.
My take on balance is the only important form of balance is whether the players are all getting satisfactory amounts of time to do their things. It comes up in combat more frequently only because a lot of systems make resolving combat take a lot of time even in encounters that aren’t very important or interesting so the combat-oriented characters get a bunch of spot-light time simply because there is a combat. This leads to people feeling that everybody needs to be balanced in the sense of having a substantial role in combat when really what needs to be balanced is the amount of table time devoted to combat vs. other activities.
As for player skill vs. character skill in social tasks, I’m pretty firmly against the model where accomplishing a task is defined as entertaining/persuading the GM. The problem isn’t just that naturally some people are better at reading the GM and describing or acting out what they do in such a way to please the GM and get rewarded with a success, or that games of charming the GM into getting your way often narrows the scope of characters you can successfully play, it’s that games like that are almost always too predictable and cliched. Once you’ve grasped the GM’s sense of plot and pacing, everybody knows what’s going to happen most of the time. Games are much more exciting for everybody involved, IMO, when the outcome isn’t known before the die stops rolling. You may make the most brilliant rallying speech since St. Crispin’s say… but do the troops buy it? That moment when everybody at the table, GM included, are hanging on whether the universe is going to pop up a Yea or Nay result, is *the* moment in an RPG where it goes from being a form of clumsy collaborative fiction to an “it’s almost like you’re there” experience. That may actually be the crux of it: fiction you create, games you experience. Substituting the former for the latter every time there’s an important social interaction robs RPGs of their most compelling feature: the ability to experience fictive worlds.