Player Agency vs. Narrative Control

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.

Numenera Quick Hits

Some quick impressions of Numenera from Monday’s game:

  • I like the mad-lib character generation. I might even steal it.
  • The names Glaive, Jack, and Nano for the character types aren’t particularly evocative for me.  Nanotech is the new phlebotinum and it already feels worn out.
  • Cyphers is a bad name for the one-use devices. The one thing they’re not is mysterious, since to make them worthwhile you know exactly what they do (I guess they come clearly labelled).
  • The hard limit of two Cyphers (or three if you’re a Nano with Expert Cypher use), while clearly a good idea to prevent characters from accumulating a huge pile of them and spending too much time staring at their character sheets looking for the right device to solve a problem, seems pretty contrived.  I’d prefer some kind of sliding scale of increased chance of mishap and wilder catastrophic failure.
  • Multiplying by 3 all the time is kind of a nuisance.  Not sure why it’s better to have everything ranked in difficulty 1-10 with bonuses and penalties applied to that number, but have to multiply by 3 to derive the d20 target.
  • Having the player roll both attack and defense vs. target numbers is fun, though our GM made a minor goof and had us rolling low for defense as if we were rolling the opponent’s to-hit against us.
  • The GM Intrusion mechanic is immersion breaking.  Personally I’d get rid of the choice to accept or spend an XP to reject _and_ the compelled give XP to another player; both those decisions can’t be made from an In Character POV, and the latter can’t even usually be attached to the fiction.
  • The game is an odd mix of broad strokes and fiddly details.  I’d prefer to stick to the broad strokes.
  • I think it would be nice to encourage more colorful character descriptions and abilities; the characters depicted in the game art seem much more exotic than what the character generation process turns out, though that might just be a failure of imagination on my part.
  • I’m not sure what I think of spending your stats (which are also your hp) for extra effort or to power your abilities; I am sure I don’t like spending XP for temporary bonuses.

I’m planning on playing in Jonathan Henry’s Numenera campaign once he gets that up and running, but what playing this did for me was make me want to work on a far-future science fantasy setting for Zap! more than run a game of Numenera myself.

Fate Accelerated Non-Review

Not a review, just an impression

I was flipping through Fate Accelerated at the game store yesterday, and it seemed like the mirror-universe version of my own SFX!  There are strong similarities (maybe because I played and hacked so much FUDGE back in the day), but almost every concrete difference I noticed was the exact opposite of how I like things to be.  Starting from the very beginning with the description of the purpose of this tabletop RPG being to gather around with your friends to take turns telling little parts of stories, through the FUDGE special dice, the use of names that need to be continually converted to numbers and back, and the damnable economy of points that need to be spent to actually have the fiction of the world have any bite, the meta decision whether to have a failure or a success at cost, negotiating back and forth over “compels”… I can practically feel the game staring at me, stroking its goatee and toying with its agonizer.

Anyway, you can currently get the pdf (or epub or mobi) version as Pay What You Want over on RPGNow.  If you ever wanted a game that has many of the elements I like (rules light, freeform chargen, resolution driven by genre-logic, shared responsibility for the details of the world) delivered in a way that makes me cringe, check it out.

http://www.evilhat.com/home/fae/

Fate Accelerated

Fate Accelerated

Basic Roleplaying d20 Hack

Since I can’t look at a system without wanting to hack it, here’s how I would hack BRP:

Replace d100 with d20.  That means Characteristic Rolls would be straight d20 vs. Characteristic, instead of d100 vs. Char x 5.  You’d have 1/5 as many points to divide among your skills (50 instead of 250, e.g.).

Rolls would all be “blackjack style”: roll as high as possible without going over (BRP used to work that way, at least for opposed rolls, and it’s still listed as an optional rule).  Hitting your number exactly would be a crit, a 1 would be a fumble, “Special” would be figured on getting close to your number (within X, where X ranges from 0 to 4 depending on your skill).

Why would I do this?  Well, basically because I don’t really believe variations of less than 5% add anything to the game, but the math with all the double-digits and multiplication and division is fricking annoying. d100 is really intuitive: a 51 is 51% chance… but that’s its only advantage. My experience is that players just don’t roll enough to discern the difference between 49%, 50% and 51%.  That means deciding whether to put 49, 50, or 51 points into a skill at character creation is a waste of effort, and tracking whether experience raises that by 1, 2, 3, etc is a further waste.  Call it 10 on a scale of 20 and be done with it.

Meanwhile rolling low is less intuitive than rolling high, but if you don’t use roll low w/d100 then checking for crit or special gets really ugly: you basically have to look at a cheat-sheet next to your skill every time.  d20 lets you say a 5% chance is the same as rolling your to-hit number exactly; that’s a little more generous than straight BRP, but it’s super-easy.

Zounds! is here!

Zounds! Cover

I’m thrilled to announce that Zounds! the Fantasy RPG is now available from RPGNow!  I feel like this is the best SFX! game yet.  It’s certainly the biggest in terms of content.

It’s also the first to have illustrations other than the computer graphics ones that I do… swiped from dead people the world over! (All public domain, that is.)

Check it out!