Preparation and Player Agency in the Sandbox

A-Z 2014 PPlayer agency is a critical element of role playing games to me. One of the things that greatly dissatisfies me about most series of modules is how much they tend to need the story to progress in a certain direction. The label ‘Adventure Path’ itself rings player agency warning bells in my head — ‘path’ implies a linear relationship between the adventures.

The GDQ (Giants-Drow-Queen of Demonweb Pits) series of modules is often held up as an example of how a series of modules can be done well… but I have to admit that as much as they could be a wonderful example of sandbox adventures, they honestly don’t work for me that way. Individually they mostly aren’t bad, in that they presented as a situation, a problem to be solved. The approach to each one has some options, so there is some player agency involved in the situation… but from my perspective, there is little player agency about getting involved. The entire series is driven by “go here or else” and really no way to not find the next module.

Seriously. In G1 the clues to G2 are both in the same room, which is good for simulationist, not-bad-policy point of view, but bad for a player agency, enough-knowledge-to-decide point of view because the players can’t make a good decision if they can’t find the information. Choosing between walking to the next location or teleporting there is hardly, in my opinion, ‘agency’. That’s okay though, because if the players don’t find both hints in the same place the ‘nobles’ that sent them (on pain of death, as I recall) have scouts and spies that have found the frost giants (who live at G2, obviously) and can guide the PCs there. Or else.

G-D-Q graph
Not a lot of choices, really

Considering how much thought and planning is going into the Donnerkonig campaigns, all the layers of planning and how I have been mapping the campaigns, I can understand how it might seem like I am planning the story the players will experience.

I think this is not the case, though. The thought and planning is so I can offer more choices to the players. I can better prepare and provide at any point the information the players will need to make decisions because I have some idea what options are available and sensible. The methods used encourage me to not focus on any particular story, because I cannot plan for the PCs to reach any particular point at any particular time in any particular way. In fact, for my own sanity I have to set aside expectations of PC behavior. I can identify situations that may be present for the PCs to encounter, but otherwise I may know little about the approach, and thus must prepare in a ‘plot-free’ way. At no point do I need them to do specific things or “the adventure won’t work”.

On the one hand, it takes some more work up front, but with the right tools it actually isn’t too arduous. Even with the multiple layers of graphing relationship (setting, campaign and adventure levels so far, I should get to encounter level soon) most of my time has been spent describing what I’m doing. For the most part I have (and need) little more than a name and perhaps a few notes. As it becomes more relevant to my preparation I can expand on the elements that I will need.

For a small increase in preparation time and effort, I gain the information I need to enable the players to make informed decisions and choose their own paths. I believe the additional work enables player agency, rather than limiting it because it lays plans and groundwork and provides specific alternatives to choose from.

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