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.
The most obvious thing that came to mind was the use of XP spigot by the GM to reward player action, or to discourage unwanted action. Climbing the level ladder to glory guides me!
The most obvious thing that came to mind was the use of XP spigot by the GM to reward player action, or to discourage unwanted action. Climbing the level ladder to glory guides me! A good GM will reward a Barbarian for being, well, you know. Or is the Agency more having a rewarding skill tree/system?
Well, yes and no, I think. On the one hand, you’ve pointed out an interesting way the DM can work with agency, and that is the use of rewards, be it XP, treasure, equipment, or something intangible like prestige or honor. If the players know an option will gain them or cost them something they value, a agency-type-1 DM can easily use that to give a dilemma some additional stakes. To use your example, in a system where a barbarian can earn XP for being impulsive and quick to rage, what happens when the DM sets up a diplomatic scenario where screaming a warcry and drawing steel will reward him but cost his party a chance at success?
The variant of World of Darkness I prefer to use has these baked right into the mechanics. Most characters have one or several negative or inconvenient traits, and associated XP or Willpower rewards for indulging them. This constantly sets up low-level dilemmas where players choose whether, say, my mad scientist will keep his self-destructive megalomania under wraps this time, or let it get the better of him yet again (and take a reward of XP and a burst of maniac energy). It’s one of my favorite things about the system, because it promotes player agency by providing players an additional incentive for acting like a flawed, tragic human (even if they may be, in point of fact, a vampire).
But, I don’t think agency can be done entirely mechanically. Mechanics can encourage certain playstyles, or provide weight to a decision, but they cannot determine which of the above playstyles a DM is using. Does the DM remind the barbarian that high-society eyes are on him, and going on a joyful rampage will satisfy his primal spirit now but put a black mark on the party’s record? Then it’s type 1. Does the DM pull a Spec Ops, let the barbarian go to town, and only reveal next week that one of the six people he hacked down in the process was the baron’s favorite daughter? Type 2. Does the DM begin a Hitman/Metal Gear Solid flavored vignette where only people who directly see the rampage take offense, and the rest of the party must concoct increasingly elaborate diversions to draw people’s attentions away from the barbarian’s killing spree? That seems like a type 3. Or does the DM just tell the barbarian he “can’t fight” until the point in his script where he’s already decided that the vizier’s assassins will “ambush” the party and the combat encounter will start? Type 4, and if you’re playing the barbarian you’re probably right to feel a little ripped off.