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Author: Graham

Not Good Enough

Just over eight months ago, at the end of April 2020, I wrote the “I’m back guys” part 2 to the post from August 2019. I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go with my first substantive new post. I saw a really bad take on gaming on Twitter and thought I might take the bait. Why not?

This is not that post. I mulled it over for a couple weeks, wrote a rough draft in the middle of May 2020, and then a murder in Minnesota changed the entire media and psychological landscape of the parts of the world I live in. It just didn’t feel right to be on my usual bullshit. I know that what happened was not new. That’s kind of the point. The uprising that followed, though, felt different than the last several times that the news blew up over a person killed by police. It was different in ways that I didn’t feel I could adequately describe in detail. I didn’t want to write something I would be cringing at in a matter of only days or weeks, so I didn’t write.

Then, in June of 2020, I started writing another post. More random internet dude’s musings about whatever he calls “philosophy.” Maybe I could parse out the highly intellectual nuances of why it’s morally good to stand up TO Nazis but not stand up FOR Nazis even if both things involve doing actions and saying words… tHe SaMe ThInG, amirite? Surely there was definitely a shortage of that kind of content online as the pandemic proceeded to give more and more people more and more time on their hands. Maybe I should get into podcasting now too?

Yeah. This is not that post either. It should come as no surprise that I rattled off another draft and never posted it, nor did I even record a scrap of audio. Deep dive into several old games I use as comfort food for my brain? Yep. Another Skyrim playthrough? Yes, definitely siding against the would-be revolutionaries wearing furry horned hats this time (it’s a bad look for 2021). More exploding internet spaceships? Definitely did lots of that in the second half of 2020. Casual space piracy doesn’t have as much of a “be a part of something bigger thank yourself” angle as participating in the larger scale campaigns waged in  sov-null space but it’s fun. I did play some new vidya games that were kind of cool, participated in some TTRPG online, but on the most part I did what most people did in 2020 – sat around staring at the screen, waiting for the world to restart so we could all get back to living again.

Person sitting at a computer
Ready for another day at work, job interview, night at the pub, board game party, or social event? Never before has this stock image been so versatile!

Every day, several times a day, I thought about writing a new post. Every time I thought about it, I could not even bring myself to open the site in my browser. Nothing I could possibly post would ever come close to being good enough that anyone (outside my closest social and family circles) would want to read it. Isn’t everyone’s mental and emotional fatigue at a high enough level already? And after all this time – almost a year and a half since any kind of regular activity! If I was going to quit this project, the least I could have done was announce it in a timely manner. Right?

Well, like so many things that I should have already had done long ago, I never got to either getting it done or deciding not to quit. I still wear my wannabe brand on my Twitter account and a few other places. It’s not going to just go away by itself. I’ve either got to pack it up, or get back into it starting with some new header images (on Facebook and Twitter) for a new era. If the latter, then I am going to have to accept that nothing I can write will ever be “good enough” for me not to feel like I tried and failed to show that I can create something worthwhile on the internet using words. I continue to find it very difficult to do that.

I can, however, rest a little bit tonight easier knowing that if any of my recent hot takes on Twitter are leading anyone to check out this website there will at least be an explanation for the lack of promised content and the regular behinds-the-scenes security updates are all caught up now. It’s not good enough, but it’s more than nothing.

Anno Quo Est?

I, the Draugr of the forgotten crypt, am slowly starting to move after collecting dust for several centuries. What year is it? What form of life disturbs my slumber after all this time? Cultists seeking a hideout? Bandits looking to rob an ancient grave? Oh, they’re going to find that the dead sometimes do fight back. Here it comes… wait, did it just unhinge its jaw and consume nine raw rabbit legs, a dozen carrots, a casks’ worth of potato soup, and two sweet rolls? By the nine! After all these centuries, my final doom has arrived. It is the Dovahkin, and it is purging the land of threats like the undead because it needs more money to pay for sawn logs and quarried stone to build its house.

OK, so I wrote the “I’m back” post about eight months ago and then, as I tried to swear not to, disappeared again right after that. I know that most of the people reading this will have some kind of opinion on why it’s not good or fair to judge myself based on completely arbitrary standard of “productivity” when it comes to writing these posts. These people are not wrong to question that, nor do I lack appreciation for what they seek to do for me as a person. However, that doesn’t inspire me to feel like this project of mine is any more alive than the dusty skeletons in my favourite fantasy games.

I tried, and failed, to restart my regular writing schedule in August of last year. I just could not find the time. It was that any time I could find for gaming; it was that it all got sucked into the playing rather than the writing about the play. Using games to temporarily escape the nearly intolerable levels of stress and anxiety from “the real world” lent itself better to starting a new run of Skyrim than it did writing blog posts about anything.

Hey Bosmer, are you ready to make Skyrim great again?

So what now? The world has always been changing, but we now find ourselves in a whole lot more change than we did in the fall of 2019 and early 2020. Whatever standards for “productivity” I should or should not have adhered to are now relics of a bygone era. But now something stirs in my tomb of escapism which can’t be ignored: the need to find a new way of being because the old way is gone. Just as the reanimated Draugr can’t simply ignore the would-be demigod in its midst, I can’t simply embrace the reasonable advice and normal impulses to give myself a break. Not to say I shouldn’t do that, but clearly that’s not the whole of what is needed.

In this excellent and timely video, Dr. Ali Mattu encourages us (at about 19:29 in the video, but please do watch the whole thing) to start with solving our immediate problems. Sure, it sounds trite and he immediately acknowledges that, but he goes on to offer more about how to go about it and makes a good case for it. One of my immediate problems is that in the period between my last post and right now as I write this, I have thought a lot about having promised and not delivered. Some days have been better than others when it comes to how much I have dwelled on the thought and/or how much negativity I was feeling when I did think about it. But even on the best day, the fact still remained that I had declared an intention to write more posts and I was not writing more posts.

Announcing an end to the blog would, in some ways, solve the problem of being unable to stop thinking about the facts about where I left off. This does not, however, seem like a good solution because there are good reasons to have a creative outlet. Formally closing one up without redirecting energy to something else doesn’t seem any more effective at making my life better than having a creative outlet on the shelf, ready to be used when I get around to it which seems like it will be never.

To tackle the problem all at once, I’d be writing something I could be proud of. Something with insight, something engaging, something that fills a need in myself and others, something that makes everyone forget how long it has been. That’s really hard to do if I am not carried to the right head space by inspiration. And so it makes it harder to log in and bash keys if I know it’s not going to be worthwhile.

Rebuilding the Temple of the Mythic Dawn in Starbound was a project of relatively tiny scale compared to other things I could have been doing, but perhaps it was a better project than trying to outdo the more ambitious builds with something I might not have been satisfied with. And yes, it is free and open to all citizens of the Protectorate.

So, in the spirit of solving an immediate problem, I am publishing this post despite the fact that it’s another self-indulgent ramble instead of the content I wish I was making. Like my recent last-minute entry into the official Starbound subreddit’s “museum” build of the week contest, I’m not going to try to write something grand today. I’m just going to throw this out there. I will be able to say that I logged in. I will be able to say that I wrote words. I will be able to say that I hit the publish button. That might not be very much, but maybe it will be enough for today.

The Six Months Hoist

It was just about eighteen years ago when I was a member of a youth parliament and we were to debate a contentious piece of legislation. It was not a hot-button issue or related to the events of the time. It was the internal bylaw which defined the age limits for the membership of the parliament. During this debate I could see that emotions were running high. I believed that the proposed changes were the right thing to do, but could also see that it was not going to be helpful to be more forceful in words. Perhaps there was some kind of procedural trick we could employ to end the debate for the moment, depressurize our emotions before resuming, but not defeat the bill and risk sending the message that the changes were not a good idea.

Aha! Right there in the standing orders: the six months hoist. We can take a little while to cool down and then move on to pass the bill, right? Wrong. Due to the way the Westminster system works, when a session of parliament ends all bills not passed are basically tossed in the bin. Being that our sessions lasted for one week per year, to move to adopt a six-month pause in one of our debates was to, essentially, pick up a pen and introduce a motion never to discuss it again. Or at least until a similar bill is drafted from square one, now with the baggage of having been recently voted down in its previous form. The pause button I was looking for simply did not exist.

The big change, if you are curious, was to define the age range to be 15-21 instead of 15-20 with an extra year available only to a 20-year-old who wins election to one of the four top leadership positions. It was the right thing to do at the time. It eventually happened, though too late for me. But that’s not the point of the anecdote.

On second thought, let’s not go to parliament. It is a silly place.

So why do I bring it up at the beginning of the eighth month of 2019, when my most recent post was close to the start of the second month of the same year? Because it was never my intention to disappear entirely. I had intended to follow up with the conclusion of the short D&D adventure I was running at the time before running more Full Steam Ahead. But one week turned into two, one month into two, and every week that I failed to post, the worse I felt about getting down to writing anything or even logging in to see if there was a comment to approve, an update to install, or traffic numbers to look at.

And so while I never got around to announcing the start of it, I am here to announce that my six months hoist is now complete. I have been running more D&D adventures that I will be unpacking in this space. There is more Full Steam Ahead in the hopper. I am getting into some other projects that are kind-of gaming-adjacent, and certainly things I can talk about from an intellectual perspective. I’ve been really getting into Don’t Starve Together despite my apparent inability to get my dedicated server up and running. I’m still alive and things are happening, but it’s going to take a few weeks for me to get into all of it.

This is not an apology. Saying sorry for not posting often enough is usually the last post on blogs that have been dormant for several years and counting. This is what trying to break out of a rut looks like. I started this project because I knew that going any further in writing and publishing starts with showing up, and so there is no time like the present to get up and get my head on straight.

A Successful Defence of The Knuckle

Glitterdoom is an adventure for 5th Edition D&D that I didn’t seek out. It came into my possession because it was included in the same gift bag as my copy of the Player’s Handbook and Dungeon Master’s Guide. It was an appropriate accessory, but nothing about the product description (you can read it on the page I linked to) really screamed to me “RUN THIS ADVENTURE, IT WILL CHANGE YOUR LIFE!” But after running two sessions (with different player groups) based on this little book, I have found that playing through Glitterdoom has made me feel very successful in doing what I want to do with D&D.

As I wrote about very early in this blog’s history, I’ve become quite weary of dungeon crawls where monsters lack any sense of self-preservation or motives of their own and only exist to wait for the players to arrive and then fight them to the death. I also feel like the true potential of the game is squandered when everything about a battle is reduced to numbers, even if there is a scripted “morale check” or something in the encounter notes that are provided to the DM. In a game that not only allows but often encourages the narrative to change in real time based on many different players making choices, what good is it for any of us to insist on limiting ourselves to running a meat grinder powered by dice?

In Glitterdoom I have found a group of foes that really make it easy to threaten the player characters with hostile undead monsters while at the same time avoiding tedious roll play. The Stone Ghosts are nasty creatures, but they exist for a reason other than waiting for some chumps to come fight them. The lore in the book is well-written but not especially innovative in its narrative. Dwarves grow too fond of their shinies, become too obsessed with mining, dig too deep, then doom their own civilization with an amalgam of greed and foul curses/magic. That is a tale at least as old as Tolkien. But that’s okay because this is written for games rather than for publishing as literature. There was just enough there to give me a good starting point from where I can start improvising. For the DM running a game, that’s better than a finely crafted story that doesn’t leave any space for making up a few things on the spot.

Steelhand Hall, as interpreted by the dungeon tiles I happened to have on hand at the time. This is not a meat grinder that churns out XP and dank loot.

This is accompanied with good mechanics; I have heard from players of both sessions I have run that the Stone Ghosts strike them as tough and dangerous yet not so far out of their league as to make the conflict pointless. Hearing that fills me with glee, as I often struggle to make foes seem like a genuine threat without being practically invincible. This adventure demonstrates what I consider to be great encounter design in being able to give me, as DM, everything I need on the page in front of me to present a difficult but not hopeless challenge to the power of the player characters to fight their way to victory.

There was one more thing I needed to feel successful in showing the Stone Ghosts as effective defenders of their home in The Knuckle. And that is retreat: using their supernatural abilities and home-field advantage, they have slaughtered other (off-screen NPC) adventuring parties. Neither of my player-character parties were killed because they were evidently a bit tougher, having been able to force the Stone Ghosts to withdraw but at such a heavy cost that they too find themselves unwilling to penetrate further into Steelhand Hall (the building that sits on top of the mine). In this, the Stone Ghosts have a purpose other than to wait for the players to arrive and fight. They are there to use whatever unholy means are necessary to keep intruders out of their haunted mine. In this they have suffered a casualty or two, but have largely been successful since Okkar Ironeyes led the first expedition to take place in hundreds of years. Who knows how long they can hold it together against the most recent group?

Whatever happens, I have already been successful in portraying a group of enemies as beings with their own motives and desire for self-preservation. I can feel confident in saying that because the players have indicated that although I only promised it as a one-off that they are interested in giving it another go. A DM knows they have done something right when the players are asking for more.

Annus Praxeos

This year-in-review post’s neologistic title is derived from praxis, which is a word that comes to English from Greek via Latin, meaning the practical application of learning. This time it is chosen not just as a reflection on the year past, but to set an intention for the year ahead.

In 2018 I have struggled a bit with the praxis of Almost Infinite as a whole. I spent a lot of this year coming up with bits and pieces of ideas for what I want to write about and not as much time turning those bits and pieces into coherent prose. Looking back on the list of posts for this year, I can see that Full Steam Ahead has done a lot to keep the updates coming and for that I am very grateful to m friend Alastair. This series really deserves its own description page, which is on my agenda for early 2019.

Almost Infinite is proud to continue Full Steam Ahead in 2019.

Looking back at what I have posted, I am happy with the fact that I have had the opportunity to talk about a variety of different kinds of games and have recently completed a series that is heavier on ideas than “this is the cool thing I am playing this week.” That’s what I wanted to do when I started this, and I can say that this year has been a success as far as staying focused on the original intention rather than devolving into a banal list of nerd stuff that Graham likes.

My intention for 2019 is to do more of the things I have been thinking about doing and talking about doing. That starts in six days, when I am scheduled to stop talking about how much I like the idea of running more TTRPG adventures and getting to the business of running some D&D. As the year unfolds, these are some of the things I intend to be doing with this little soapbox I have:

  • More about political games, especially what one might call the ‘meta’ rather than the nuts and bolts of how contests play out. To be as brief as possible about this: it’s going to be an interesting year in Alberta, Canada, and the world but the internet is already saturated with outlets for hot takes. I want to do something different, for the same reasons I play and write about odd and/or old video games and try to talk more about meaning and philosophy than about media and mechanics. I’m not going to pretend that I don’t have positions or personal biases but I really don’t think it’s worth any of our time for me to put on a partisan jersey and try to grab your attention away from more established opinion leaders. Not only am I unlikely to be successful in changing minds and votes, but I would honestly rather talk about ideas than specific outcomes of the contests we are likely to see in 2019. It is also the case that this blog has a geographically diverse readership, and I want to be able to speak to people who don’t live in or have a personal stake in (m)any of the places that are directly relevant to my situation.
  • I would like to continue what I started in the four aspects of a TTRPG series. That is, go deeper into the experience and ideas rather than just sharing war stories from the D&D table. That’s a fine thing to do, but as above, my intention is to look at a different angle rather than compete with the gobs of good content that’s already out there. My goal is to self-publish some sort of TTRPG resource on this site in 2019, though I haven’t nailed down what that is going to look like yet. What I do know is that it will relate to the praxis of putting the ideas I like to talk about into motion at the game table. I’ve always wanted to use the blog as a springboard to other projects, so this could be the first thing I do with Almost Infinite that isn’t strictly a blog post of some kind.
  • Try some new things with the site. Prose with pictures will remain the primary medium, but I’ve been wondering to myself and musing to my friends about looking at interactive fiction as a sort of crossover between game and literature. So in addition to writing about experiences with existing work, I might look at doing some of that kind of content on my own site as well.

So, as I prepare to take another cup o’ kindness yet for auld lang syne, I would like to thank everyone for another great year and express my appreciation for your taking the time to read the stuff we post here. It means a lot to know that people find value in our work.

December 23, 2013

Five years ago today I volunteered to drive a friend to her brother’s house, about two hours each way, so that she could spend Christmas with her family. When we got to the town we were headed to, before we found the house and went inside for tea I decided to ask her if she was interested in us being a couple. Today I am posting from where my wife and I are spending Christmas this year with her family.

For some people there are no special holidays at this time of year. Some of “the holidays” have already come and gone while other folks will be waiting another week or two for their holy days to arrive. For some, Christmas is a profoundly holy time while others are less moved by religion than by their love for the time of social and cultural celebration with loved ones. For some people this is a time of joy, for others it’s difficult. Whatever your tradition and/or disposition, it is my hope that every person reading this will find blessing in their own way as the wheel of the year completes another turn and the light begins to grow longer each day.

I’m back from holidays for a year-end post next Sunday where I will talk about some of the content you can expect to see in 2019.

Press W to Pay Respects

There is a meme out there about unnecessary interactivity. Press F to pay respects. Having heard people talking about Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture, I assumed that I would find it interesting as a story and uninteresting as a game, just like developer Chinese Room’s previous work, Dear Esther. I would say yes, both, moreso that I expected. I loved the story and the sense of place developed in the valley. I liked having the narrative broken apart and then discovered nonsequentially. However, I think that as a game, this could have been named Unnecessary Interactivity. It’s a lovely setting, but moving through it is very, very slow and the parts where you have to “tune” a memory are not adequately explained at first. Did I mention that movement is slow? The title of this post was inspired by my experience of the game side of it: I was asked to press a button but it didn’t make the experience any more meaningfully interactive.

This is the image I had hoped would capture my experience with the game.

By far the most frustrating part of playing this game was trying to get the image above. I was playing the game via Steam, in which I had remapped the “take screenshot” key to something other than the default. But that was before my hard drive failed and I had to reinstall everything, so I figured I could just alt-tab, reset the key binding, then go take the picture. Did you know that changing Steam settings while a game is running will force-restart a game? I found out in that moment, and then started to scream and pound on my desk. I was psychologically committed to finishing this game and writing a post about it. But I would have to do it all again, from step one, not even able to skip the long artsy intro. It turned out well enough, on the second try I had a much better time with figuring out how to “tune” some of the major plot point anomalies, but the fact that having to redo any part of it caused me such grief says at least as much about my experience as the picture that I intended to take.

As a plot, it was wonderful and interesting. As I described it to my wife, she had mentioned that it has been compared to the film Annihilation. So we watched that film the next day. These are very different stories, though I can see how they can be compared and contrasted, but because I had just finished Rapture and was watching the film because I wanted to know how similar or different it was, the strongest conclusion I could draw was this: Everybody’s Gone to the Rapture should have been a film. It would of course require a few subtle changes, but the best thing about Annihilation was that it was able to keep a good pace. It felt neither rushed nor frustratingly slow as Rapture. And no need to mash any keys on my keyboard in the vain hope of picking up a little bit of velocity.

Powers of Four: Decisions

This one has taken me a while to write up because I’ve made the mistake of conflating it with agency. It is related, but when we decided that this was an important characteristic of a tabletop roleplaying game I think we were at this point focused on what the GM/DM/storyteller does with those decisions. OK, so you’ve been offered some choices, made them, but where do we go from here?

This is where I might start taking about “sandbox” in opposition to “railroad” if I wasn’t getting tired of those metaphors. I admire those who could run a true “sandbox” at the RPG table; I am not someone who can improv everything on the spot without making a cliche collage. What I have done, and what we identified as typical of an “open world” video game RPG, is to offer a set number of areas that need not be done sequentially. This took the form of there being a castle with four towers and a central keep. Each tower was designed as a stand-alone dungeon with opportunities for players to make choices and face the consequences. In the end, I could have done a better job of making those consequences have more impact on the finale, but it made a big difference to have towers 1, A, i, and α rather than 1, 2, 3, and 4. It means a bit of work on the DM’s part (especially when balancing 4e encounters was the order of the day; one would have to be ready to run four different encounters rather than one), but I think it was one of the best decisions I have ever made in the DM’s chair.

Continuing with the video game metaphors, we also identified the Rockstar/GTA style of “open world” where there is a point A and a point B, but you can take any path through a grid of streets to get there. This does not mean there are no boundaries, because the storyteller still needs to be able to describe interesting things at each point, but it’s probably the most preparation-intensive way to do it when you’re playing a system like World of Darkness. It’s something I would like to try more of, though limited time and patience for being sufficiently prepared is a bit of a daunting challenge.

And then when it comes to the “railroad” the video games we thought of were the Legend of Zelda style (see the fishbone diagram I mentioned in the main post) and the Bioware RPG style, which is more of a curved line with many branches. You can play a lot of the game out on the branches, but there is a main arc to get back to eventually. In a Zelda type game, there are diversions, but there really is only one way forward. These more straightforward modes of progression can offer different levels of agency, but there is a much better defined way to measure progress in the plot. These work well when planning time is at a premium and I certainly don’t mind being “railroaded” especially when the other choice is to bang my head against the wall because I can’t guess what the DM secretly wants me to do/find. Many of our games end up falling somewhere between those, and that’s been OK even though it can sometimes make previous choices feel less important.

So, again, as in all of the rest of the series, I am not here to say that one way is better than any other, just that there are some that have worked better in some situations for me and my group than for others. I hope that this series, mined from the notes I took from that one particularly interesting conversation I had a few months ago, is something that you have found worth the time to read. Alastair returns next week with the next episode of Full Steam Ahead.

Powers of Four: Characters

At the beginning of this series we identified the following four types of characters rather than types of players in a tabletop RPG:

  1. A fantasy version of the player themself as a whole person
  2. Pretending to be something the player wishes they could be, but aren’t
  3. Playing a part of the player’s personality, but magnified to become a defining trait rather than a smaller facet
  4. Taking a theme and running with it as a part of a carefully crafted narrative

When inviting people to play a roleplaying game you should know if any of these aren’t going to work. Where the consequence of failure is character death, and this happens frequently, players who play themselves may be a bit too invested in their characters to enjoy it when they make one bad roll and that’s it. This is also the case when the player wishes to be integrated into some kind of grand plot arc. D&D is, so far, the best game I have played for types 1 and 4 above. The rules make it relatively easy to make characters into heroes.

The problem I find with this is that the path of least resistance for the DM is to present weak challenges and keep the XP spigot wide open, allowing the player characters to take a walk up the gentle slope to godhood. It gets tedious and is ultimately uninteresting to me when there is a shower of rewards without significant risk. It is, therefore, a challenge for me to run an interesting game for people who love to play these characters because introducing the risk of death or irrevocable failure is at odds with huge investment in a single character. It’s a challenge worth taking, I think, because wanting to play those characters is a valid desire for those players and I like diversity at the table. It just can’t be taken too far; if someone wants a pure power fantasy I won’t recommend joining any of my tabletop adventures or campaigns. At the same time, I will refrain from the rocks fall, everybody dies sort of excess sadism unless I warn characters beforehand that I am running something in the spirit of Tomb of Horrors.

That moment when you find out that this fictional world doesn’t revolve around your own character.

Type 3 represents the characters I typically play, which lends itself to some investment in the continued life and success of the same character. At the same time, it means that I should be able to part with a character (or see them completely fail) if my player-ego doesn’t run too high. This, and the wish-fulfillment type 2, can work in D&D but are also a little more suited to World of Darkness where characters are not 100% disposable, but are usually far from gods-in-the-making even with a few extraordinary abilities. Trouble arises when the desire to be the most powerful or the sleaziest man alive overrides the spirit of cooperation required for any group of players to function. I find that these are the easiest types of characters to write for as a DM as long as the players are willing to be flexible and show restraint in their expectations. I only find it challenging when I am the player who really needs to be doing more of those things.

Type 2 is, I think, the only thing that really works in an OSR meat grinder that the “evil DM” wishes to run. You simply can’t go into a game where character death happens at the snap of the fingers with a carefully crafted backstory and emotional investment. I don’t mind playing these, but definitely need to know ahead of time that I am NOT to play a character that I truly care about. I’m probably not going to run a whole lot of this with my regular group, but will for one-off events like Extra Life.

What I am trying to say here is that there is no right or wrong character type for a person to want to play, but that we have had some friction when we try and cram characters of type 1 and 4 into games that just don’t support that kind of investment. Considering character types is just another way to “know your audience” when thinking about starting up a game.



Powers of Four: Agency

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.

Your agency is your capacity to act. Threatening the Froggit is not necessarily an effective course of action, but you can try it without getting blocked by Undertale’s game mechanics.

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.

Toriel doesn’t quite grasp the concept of agency here. Yes, the human acts when they flip the indicated switch, but any apparent alternate actions are blocked in favour of the one intended for the player.

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.