"You can always change your plan,
but only if you have one."
Randy Pausch
If you're a GM and you haven't considered the term 'Player Agency' then you might be causing a problem in your game. Player Agency refers to:
  • 1
    The degree of freedom and control that players have over their characters and the decisions they make within the game world,
  • 2
    The ability of players to actively influence the narrative and outcomes of the game through their choices and actions,
  • 3
    The fun part where the players mess everything up and redirect the plot through their consistently insane choices.
But here's the problem, 'Player Agency' is a planning nightmare for a DM, which is probably why so many of them struggle with it and end up 'railroading' their players. In some situations though, railroading is just fine, but if it happens too often or for too long, your players will become disengaged and restless.
a DM's tendency to heavily guide or control the players' actions and decisions in a way that limits their agency and makes the story feel predetermined or scripted.
The other option, "sandboxing", can be an issue as well as it can require a huge amount of preparation and can be overwhelming, especially for new GMs. Like many things that seem like polar opposites, we tend to forget that you can do a little bit of both and everything will work out just fine.
where the players are given a high degree of freedom to explore and interact with the game world in an open-ended manner, without the constraints of a predetermined storyline or narrative.
When building your world, consider what you have control of, and what you want your players to have control of... You have control of everything, but nobody wants to come to your game just to hear you read the wonderous lore you've prepared – that's what books are for. Your players have control of... choice and chance, and chance doesn't really count because they don't have full control of it! Nonetheless, the more you increase the opportunities for these to exist, the closer you move towards Player Agency. This can make it feel as though you are moving further away from a particular story path you had in mind, but this does not have to be the case. Not entirely.

Firstly, let's deal with Choice:
To simplify, let's define choice in two ways, Free Will and The Illusion of Choice. As a DM, your ability to create a balance between these terms is critical.
  • Free Will

    The agency and autonomy a player character has to make their own decisions and take actions based on their own choices, rather than being predetermined by their race, class, alignment, or backstory. This includes the ability to choose their own path, make moral or ethical decisions, and interact with the game world in a way that reflects their own personality and values.
  • The Illusion of Choice

    Refers to a situation where the players are presented with multiple apparent options, but ultimately all lead to the same outcome – which is bad. However, it can also refer to choices the players make that do not affect the plot but are still enjoyable – which is good.
When to use Free Will
Every session you plan should have important 'hinge" points, a wonderful term I first discovered while learning about historical events that could have very different outcomes if a single moment had swung history's doors in a different direction. When planning a session, I try to include a few of these, scattered and separated from the start of the adventure through to the important ending. It's not easy to do, but finishing a session or episode with a crucial hinge decision is great fun and makes everyone keen to come back and find out, "What happens next?"
Too many hinges makes planning a problem though because each one should lead in at least two directions, and can mean that a whole avenue of plans is quickly wasted (or hidden away for another time) which can make the workload of a GM challenging and unrewarding. So, hinges need to be important. They also shouldn't stall your game.

At the other end of this, are the smaller choices that can fill the gap between the big stuff. While these can create 'the illusion of choice' that can also still have an impact on the story, they probably won't – but they are still important to a player and help create the essence of agency in between the real moments!
Too Many Paths:
If you have one story hinge, you might have two possible paths. If you have two story hinge, each with two possible paths, you now have a total of 2 x 2 = 4 possible paths. For three story options, each with two possible paths, you have a total of 2 x 2 x 2 = 8 possible paths. So, for just 8 story options, each with two possible paths, you suddenly have a total of 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 x 2 = 256 possible paths.
When to use the illusion of choice
Use the illusion of choice for anything that involves 'flavouring' the characters like adjusting weaponry, clothing, armour, even a mount. If you're a gamer, think of this like the skins you can apply to some characters. Some of these things might well influence parts of the story, but it is unlikely they will redefine the story.

An ugly way of creating the illusion is to provide a series of choices that all lead in the same direction. This should be avoided at all costs as it makes the decisions made by the player irrelevant.

A better method of providing limited options while still making the decisions count, is to make the order of the options influence the follow on options. For example; perhaps the players have three shops to visit in order to procure items to solve a puzzle. Rather than have them do these in a predetermined order, have consequences for the order they choose. Perhaps one of the shops is now shut, perhaps one of them has now sold the item they were hoping to obtain. While the requirements themselves may not change significantly, the method the players must use to solve the puzzle does.
One more thing...
The last piece of the puzzle when it comes to planning is making sure you are keeping everyone involved. This does take planning, or great improv skills, but it doesn't have to be too arduous. It might just mean adding something to a scene to make sure everyone has an important challenge to attempt. The key word is 'challenge' though. Don't just give them a button to press, have something actively trying to stop them get to the button. Have something change if they stop pressing the button, or have the button lead to the next problem that needs to be solved. I use this checklist to remind me to check I have certain things covered:
Why would the characters take on this sequence of play?
Is there a personal reason they would need to do this?

If I can't think of a reason for the characters to get involved with this event, I need to make one or have a plan for if they choose to avoid it. This is also when I consider whether this event is a 'hinge moment' that is crucial to the ongoing storyline. If it is, I need to make that clear and create a clear reason for the players to 'opt in', or a consequence for avoiding the moment.
Short Term
How does this moment influence the character's short term situation?
What benefits or consequences can occur?
What fun situations can I put them in?
What dramatic moments are in play?

Separating the events occurring in your world into short term and long term makes it easy to focus on one moment while it is happening, and the other when the dust has settled. Short term events are the things that are happening right now - a quick chase scene to recover some shoes, a fight against a cunning assassin, a 'chance' meeting with a god.
Long Term
Does the short term situation link to the long term lore and current events?
Should it, or is this just an unrelated moment?
What is occurring elsewhere in the character's world that they may not be aware of?
Does the long term potentially affect the short term?

If you know what is happening in the extended universe, it can be easier to make connections back to seemingly innocuous short term moments - meeting thieves from your own guild, uncovering a ongoing enemy, connecting with the universal plot involving things well beyond the character's expected reach.
What is happening in this moment and how does each character have a part to play (actions, incoming information, specific roles, someone to save, someone to fear)
What is the planned order of events if the characters don't intervene?
What changes when they do?

Treat each event like a mini-game and jump between them if need be. Don't be afraid to introduce something new in order to create a purpose for each character, but always consider what will happen if they succeed or or they fail. Try to balance these events so they don't get bogged down - always a concern when combat begins! Aiming for each event to take no more than a few rounds is a good platform to build from, but will also help you make it clear when your players are in much bigger trouble than they think they are. If they have been used to solving everything quickly but suddenly they find it taking longer, they should figure out the stakes have been raised!
What ifs
What unique situations could occur that will make it look like I planned this all along?

This is my favourite part. What would I do if I was them? What do I have up my sleeve should I need to change the situation to make it more intense? There have been a few situations (the Fortress of the Orchestral Sands comes to mind) where I had multiple potential ideas and was lucky enough that I had considered what was happening elsewhere so that I could quickly create a new session in our breaks when I otherwise would've had no idea what to do!

These steps should help you think about how to create a fun session that fits in nicely with the rest of your world!
Any questions?
If you find anything wrong with this section, or if you have any questions about it, email us and we'll see what we can do!
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