When people talk about player agency, the conversation is usually in the context of the GM being the one who decides how much freedom and agency a character in the party has. What often flies under the radar though is that player agency is not completely decided by the GM, the other players in the party play just as important of a role in deciding how much a player can do in a campaign.
When player agency is applied in a GM context, the trade off is that the more freedom the GM gives the party, the more agency the party has at the cost of the GM losing control over the game and the ability to keep their story on track the way they thought. When it comes to player agency applied in a player context, the opposite effect is present, the more freedom the players gain from the GM, the higher the chance that the party will restrict each other’s agency.
To put things into perspective, here’s a story from one of my brother’s own campaigns:
The GM was running a Warhammer Fantasy game and put specific emphasis on exploration in the campaign,. This gave his players a significant amount of freedom and agency in directing their path and the story. Within the campaign, my brother played as a traveling artisan with aspirations to establish his own version of the silk road.
At first my brother and the rest of the players were thrilled that they were able to travel the world and make real decisions, but as the game progressed, the agency and freedom that the players were given turned into a double edged sword, eventually biting back.
While my brother’s character was focused on the social aspect of the world and more humble level aspirations, other player’s in his party looked to become stronger and gain higher level career advances. With the agency they had in directing the campaign, the adventures the party started going on devolved into majority rules. Since two of the player characters (half the party) shared similar aspirations in gaining power (one through exploring chaos and the other through looking for lost magic), the party often found themselves going on these adventures as the two players coordinated their player agency together.
It wasn’t long until my brother found that he had no agency in being able to create his trade network and even began to be phased out of the party as the spells and chaos energy the other players worked towards meant that they would just always roll better than him with their bonuses. Despite him being the “face” character for the party, it was easier for these players to just use their spells or their power to charm, trick, or intimidate the NPCs in their interactions.
Despite the GM explicitly giving the players a high amount of freedom, the agency they were given was directly cut short by each other’s different ambitions and actions. Now obviously, the GM could have done more to assist the other half of the party. Despite this, the point still stands that a player’s agency is just as susceptible to the party’s actions as the GM’s decisions. If you aren’t careful, you as a player could be directly hindering another player’s enjoyment and ability to play the game how they want.
When considering your own player agency keep in mind the actions and aspirations of other players. Whether you want to set up your own silk road, discover lost magic, or look to exact your revenge from someone who’s robbed you, a player’s agency and aspirations typically align into four categories. While TTPRGs are different from other games in certain aspects, the Bartle Test still shares some similarities and can be extrapolated to TTRPGs. The Bartle Test of Gamer Psychology looks to categorize players into four categories for what they look to in a game; Killers, Explorers, Socializers, and Achievers.
While this test does not directly match up with TTRPGs, we can extrapolate these categories into relative playstyles and agency for TTRPG players. Killers may be those who seek out combat or have a mission to slay a certain foe. Explorers might be those who seek to explore ancient civilizations and artifacts or delve into the wilds or the world. Socializer agency may fit into players who wish to join or become the leader of their own organization. Finally, Achievers can apply to those who seek to operate on behalf of a master or look to gain a form of fame in the world.
Even though video game RPGs have their own unique game aspects, the same idea stands that TTRPG players also generally fit into categories when deciding on what they want to do in a campaign.
Whether you’re a player or GM, be sure to keep in mind what type of category the rest of your party falls into and what type of agency and actions they’ll want to take in the campaign. Now this doesn’t mean you have to always consider the rest of the party’s ambitions every time you want to make your own choice, keep in mind on how often your character is making the decisions or having the rest of the party follow your path. As a GM, while obviously players want agency and be able to make meaningful decisions and follow their own character’s story and not just the campaign, railroading the party isn’t always a bad thing.
Taking control of the story and guiding the party towards certain choices can be a good tool to implement the party’s ambitions into the campaign and give each player their adventure to work towards their own goals. Take note of the adventures you’ve run so far and try to categorize them into those previous discussed categories to see if one or two categories have been favored over the others. If you see this, take some of the agency back in your own hands and try to guide the next few adventures towards the other categories to let the rest of the party shine.
Player agency isn’t easy to balance and shouldn’t be a set level. Too little agency and the players will feel like they’re just following the campaign and not being true to their character. Too much agency and the players may end up hurting each other by inadvertently restricting each other’s choices and ability to follow their own character’s true feelings. When a party of players is formed, there is an unspoken contract that players recognize that for some adventures they’ll have to take a backseat for another player to shine. When too much freedom is given to the players, this contract is at risk of being marred.
Player agency should be an ever-flowing dynamic to keep a balance where players can feel free to follow their own ambitions without having to significantly impact the rest of the party.