Yeah, I’m still thinking about agency.
A few days ago, a lovely review of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: The Adventure Game came across my feed. I hadn’t read the game in question—I’m not usually drawn to games based on established IP—but the review makes a very compelling pitch for it. But what really caught my attention was plea it makes to let go of game design dogma:
But the more time I’ve spent playing games, the more it sticks out to me when I’m reading RPG discussions, reviews, and other discourse that this division is present. That the strongly opinionated and verbose RPG connoisseur who’s making all these assertions about how this-or-that should have been done or what sorts of things should be prioritized or what’s deserving of an award… clearly does not actually play games very often, if at all.
Don’t get me wrong. Some of those folks often still have a lot of extremely valuable insights. They are your favorite designers, bloggers, and YouTubers, after all. In many ways, they are the ones who drive the medium forward. But it can be easy to become overly concerned with some made up ethos of design purity and a cohesive fidelity to high-minded ideals when you spend more time thinking about games than playing them.Bones of Contention, “Grave Trespass – Jim Henson’s Labyrinth: The Adventure Game“
This is where the subtitle of the blog post, “A Scathingly Positive Review,” begins to make sense. By this account, Labyrinth is a game that breaks all the supposed rules of adventure game/scenario design and yet, despite that, turned out to be great fun to actually sit down and play. And furthermore, this is posited as a gentle indictment—but an indictment nonetheless—of dogmatic designer types.
I struggle constantly with this exact divide. Seeing people talk matter-of-factly about games that I’ve played and enjoyed for years as though they are in some universal sense unplayable or even downright immoral in their construction has made various tabletop role-play communities very difficult to maintain contact with over the years. And again, these pronouncements are frequently made on the basis of some dogmatic formulation, not based on actual play.
Something the review gestures at a number of times, a number of ways, is the general contention that the game-play structures characteristic of the OSR/NSR design spaces not only facilitate certain modes of player agency, but enable the players to express agency at all, the corollary being that the absence of these structures equates to the absence of any means for the players to express agency. This bit, especially, stood out to me:
In my first campaign, there were 3 or 4 scenes that my players decided to ignore. I had to roll for a new one instead. And… what’s wrong with that? It’s not exactly a meaningful expression of agency in-game. But having the real-world agency to choose how you spend your evening together, and agreeing to do what everyone will have the most fun doing, is the single most important part of playing games with your friends. Why don’t we acknowledge that more when discussing game theory? We’re so keen to discuss the abstract, nebulous, theoretical game space that we construct and how to perfect it, but we forget that games are an activity conducted by humans.
Yeah, it’s true. If you don’t like the scene in front of you in Labyrinth, you can just reject it and ask for a different one. But who cares how that “weakens” the imagined scenario? I don’t really mind if that undermines the challenge, because we’re not just seeking a challenge. We’re seeking stimulation and creativity and laughter. You can claim that consequences are the root of true challenge, that a task cannot be meaningfully difficult to achieve in a game of make-believe without stakes to contextualize it. But the truth is that players set their own challenge merely by the very act of choosing to try things. The text’s offer of the 13-hour time limit as stakes is nice as a backup, but it never ended up being necessary. Because the players are already motivated to tackle each scene by their own desire to have a good time and do cool shit they can tell stories about later.
I couldn’t agree more.
Another Bug Hunt
And then, yesterday, another review crossed my feed: Idle Cantulary’s from-the-hip review of Another Bug Hunt, the new introductory module for the Mothership RPG‘s 1st edition core set. This review would have left a bit of a sour taste in my mouth in any event, but because the Labyrinth review was so fresh in my mind, one specific point of especially harsh criticism regarding the third scenario in the module—a delve into an alien mothership—immediately leapt out at me:
There are three routes in, and a final area. Two are harder to find, and one of those is clearly the deadliest; in the other two routes are traditional puzzles that can be used to resolve the scenario with player ingenuity. There doesn’t appear to be a benefit to searching deeper, and it’s not especially jaquayed in a way that will effect the final encounter. It feels a little fruitless, and might be better as a single complex rather than a series of routes, as most players won’t immediately realise how to use the traps to their advantage, or might miss one. The final encounter is weird, as if the android was waiting for the PCs to arrive for his surgery, but also has no need for them to be there, and also will turn on them after the surgery. The WES advice is the PCs will die but they put it there anyway because it’s in the world; I’m sorry, no: This is weak writing. A whole mission has no purpose but to reach this room. The players have been risking their characters for hours. You need to give them something to engage with at this point. There’s nothing here. Rewriting this final encounter, and adding rewards for finding the difficult routes in and hints regarding their existence, would make this a good scenario, but right now it’s not.Playful Void, “Bathtub Review: Another Bug Hunt“
What’s not described here is what the final encounter of this scenario actually entails: coming face-to-face with a being on the verge of transcendence to godlike power while surrounded by monsters, any one of which could kill the entire party. The players may freely converse with the being in question, they may launch an ill-advised attack, they may flee, or they may attempt any number of desperate tricks of their own devising to stop the rise of what is certain to otherwise become an existential threat. The possibilities feel endless.
On the one hand, I realize this review is explicitly pitched as unedited first impressions. But on the other, I’m astounded by the idea that someone would look at this and think, “Well, I’d have to jaquay the dungeon before I’d even consider touching it.” If the scenario as written doesn’t spark your imagination and get you as a game master excited at just the possibility of seeing what your player will do, I’m sorry, but I don’t know what would.
Does the scenario break a lot of the “rules” of OSR/NSR adventure design? Sure, I guess. But unless you’re running it for a group with extremely specific and well-defined expectations—certainly not first-timers—I can’t imagine that would matter in the slightest. This is an encounter after which the players, one way or another, will spend days wondering if they did they right thing. In other words, this is a scenario that feels like it is meant to be played, not simply read and analyzed.
Left or Right
There’s a lot of great writing out there about designing dungeons. If every dungeon was linear, or deciding to go left or right at a T-intersection never felt like a something that mattered, adventuring would get boring pretty fast. But something gets lost when you reduce the entire, vast scope of player agency down to just deciding how to navigate a dungeon. All the so-called “rules” of game design, module design, dungeon design, etc., are only useful insofar as they help create interesting situations for players to respond to in play.
Tabletop role-play can do so much more than give players the option of going left or right. The strength of this form of play is that the possibilities are only limited by the human imagination. I’m not arguing against the honest critique of game design and writing, but focusing only on that misses the point that these things come alive in play.