Here’s a move from Apocalypse World:

When you go aggro on someone, make it clear what you want them to do and what you’ll do to them. Roll+hard. On a 10+, they have to choose:
• Force your hand and suck it up.
• Cave and do what you want.
On a 7–9, they can choose 1 of the above, or 1 of the following:
• Get the hell out of your way.
• Barricade themselves securely in.
• Give you something they think you want, or tell you what you want to hear.
• Back off calmly, hands where you can see.
On a miss, be prepared for the worst.

Apocalypse World (2nd Edition)

When you shove a gun in someone’s face and tell them to do something, they—not you—are the one who decides what happens next, even if you rolled a 10+.

It’s easy to imagine a game wherein the roll only determines whether the target has successfully been coerced, or wherein there is no roll, and it’s the target’s player (or the GM) simply states whether or not the attempt to coerce is successful, and the participants go back and forth freely narrating action and reaction. If you’re already comfortable with these models for playing out this situation, you might see Apocalypse World‘s take as interdicting the player’s agency—after all, the target might resist the attempt to coerce them and in another model of play, the player may simply decide to back off and do something else instead of pulling the trigger.

Here’s an excerpt of the Troika! initiative rules:

During combat, or at other times where it is important to know who goes first, you need to assemble the Initiative Stack. To do this get a container and a selection of coloured dice or other convenient markers (consider cards, poker chips, and so on). […] The GM removes a Token from the Stack at random, the colour or design of which determines who holds the Initiative and takes a Turn. […] If the End of the Round Token is drawn all Tokens, including the End of the Round Token, are put back in the Stack.

Troika!: Numinous Edition (3rd Printing)

An initiative procedure that is familiar at its core, but just different enough from the standard procedure shared by countless other games to draw interest. Perhaps because of this, this section is concluded by a paragraph entitled “Rationale”:

The random Turn length adds a degree of uncertainty where you never know how much time you have left. When actions are not taking place it represents hesitation, panic, or other incidental delays that can happen in a tense encounter where every second counts. The goblins have few Tokens because they are cowardly, not because they are slow; the dragon has many because it knows exactly what it wants, not because it is fast.

Again, interesting, but at its core very familiar: in combat—or other miscellaneous tense situations—you wait for the procedure to dictate that your turn has arrived and then you get to take and action or two.

A significant majority of tabletop role-play gamers are willing take for granted that in combat, you wait for your turn. If your ally falls to a blow, you cannot simply snap into action and come to their aid—at least, not until the game tells you that you can. This delay is so ubiquitous that it goes entirely unremarked upon in almost all game texts, which is why I find the “rationale” expounded by Troika! fascinating. The delay imposed by the initiative procedure is not simply a necessary abstraction over what is in essence meant to be concurrent action, but rather an actual in-fiction delay imposed by “hesitation, panic, or other incidental delays.”

The thing I find interesting about turn-based initiative procedures is that I don’t think I’ve ever seen their rigid structure as impeding or interdicting player agency. Whereas mechanisms that hand off agency to another player in unusual ways tend to draw a lot of attention with regard to their ramifications on player agency, initiative is taken for granted, regardless of whether it is imbued with an in-fiction rationale (as with Troika!) or presented as a naked game mechanism, and in all instances I can think of very straightforwardly determine whether a player has any agency whatsoever.

I choose initiative to pick on in part because of its ubiquity, even in otherwise very rules-light or minimalist games—games which presumably have cut as many mechanisms and procedures as their authors deemed possible—and partly because many games, even games that prominently feature combat situations, don’t have any initiative procedure at all. And to be clear, I don’t think there is any “right” way to do any of this—the element here that interests me is how differently these different approaches to play are perceived.

In my view, all games mediate player agency, it’s more a matter of where and how points of mediation manifest. This can be done in innumerable ways, explicit and implicit. Some prefer playing games where the expectations of mediation feel “natural,” almost imperceptible to them, while other prefer to really feel where a game is pointed and play with or against that tension. But whatever the design intent or the preference of the play group, some form of mediation of player agency is still occurring.

And as an addendum, I am very interested in seeing how a particular game design scene develops once a ubiquitous mechanism or procedure becomes perceived as auxiliary.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

©2023 Spenser Isdahl

Designed with WordPress