Agency is the character’s capacity to act, rather than simply have events unfold around them. The thing that makes the tabletop role-playing game (TTRPG) so neat is spreading out the agency among several players rather than having one person, an author, decide what every single character does or does not do. It is not evenly distributed in most TTRPGs; the DM/GM/Storyteller being responsible for most of the characters that exist in the fiction. It’s not appropriately called a “game” if the person running the show narrates the entire thing. Players, in order to be players, must be offered the opportunity to act. The kind of options for action that are available, and the consequences of those actions, remain the purview of the person running the game.
One way to offer players a chance to act is to present choices or dilemmas. Whether between two good options, two bad options, or one clearly good and clearly bad there is a direct choice: kill the werewolves and in doing so break your oath to the moon goddess, or let them sack the nearby village and deal with the displaced families afterwards. The DM who writes/runs these kinds of adventures probably reads up on ethical dilemmas and imagines how to weave it into a tabletop adventure for fun. Having dice and characters make things more fun than imaginary trolleys, after all. This is generally the style I like to play: I don’t get everything I want, but my choices and the choices of those around me matter in an important way.
Another way to do this is to offer deliberately blind choices. For horror games this usually means a choice between bad or worse, with no indications and/or possibly false indications to the players which is which. There really is no “winning” here, no solution to the problem or way to overcome the insurmountable. The choices the characters make are more about showing who the character is rather than what they can do to affect their situation. Although the game is interactive, the characters have a low degree of agency in the plot. If it sounds like I’m writing about this in a negative tone, it’s because this is a type of game that I find it hard to get into. It’s fine to run this game if the players know what they’re getting into, but possibly campaign-ruining if you have been running lots of heroes faced with ethical dilemmas type stuff and then want to show everyone that your new villain is really badass. It’s a fine way to run a game; I know what I am getting into when I play a game with “Cthulhu” in the name. I just don’t know a lot of people who can really get into that sort of thing and I’m a “maybe” at best.
The third is like a puzzle, sometimes literally and sometimes just functioning that way. There is one way to progress. The players need to solve for x. The only way to really lose is to give up, and the way to win is to find the answer (which could be a combination that opens a door or something less concrete like the identity of the person who committed a crime). This is something I can get into when it’s a video game, less so when it is a tabletop RPG, even less when I have created a character and a backstory. It just doesn’t mix well for me. If my agency is to be limited to things that solve the puzzle and things that don’t then I would much prefer to come in with a pre-determined character well-suited for the game to be played. I loved Portal and other such games, but I need my D&D or my WoD to be different than this.
The fourth way is where choices are basically made for you, which is where the word “railroading” has been a popular but possibly misleading way to describe what is happening. I’ve come to the belief that preventing a campaign from derailing is actually a good thing for a GM to do if the general consensus is that the game is intended to be consistent rather than absurd. That doesn’t necessarily mean forcing the players into a single course of action and making them feel more like their characters are being dragged along for the ride. This isn’t how any tabletop campaigns I have played in have been intended to run; it is what happens when a DM wants things to go a certain way so badly that they get a bit ham-fisted about it. I’ve done it as DM. It’s not a good way to go; the complete and total lack of agency almost never makes for a good game. If your group is doing something where the person running the event is more of an author than a game runner and encourages what amounts to audience participation, I guess this can be okay, but it’s generally the thing you want to avoid. And to be clear, prodding the players to leave the bus depot and explore the town after three sessions might qualify as “railroading” in the eyes of some, but that’s not at all what I am talking about here.
There may be more ways that agency in the form of choices for action may be offered in the TTRPG, but these are the four that I came up with in my conversation with the storyteller from my most recent WoD campaign that describe almost all of the TTRPGS we have played so far.