Player Agency & Pacing
Posted by Bobby Archer
Today I’ll be returning to the well of Player Agency. This week, instead of tracing an issue across the Agency Scale, I’d like to spend some time dissecting one of the hardest parts of running a game where Player Agency is important: Pacing.
While pacing can be a problem even in the most railroaded games, the problem compounds itself when the shape of the plot is largely out of the GM’s hands. Even if a GM has filled in enough detail and concepts into a world and is nimble enough on their storytelling feet to fill in anything that he hasn’t thought of such that the players can move through it however they want, it’s a simple fact that all elements of a campaign are not going to be equally interesting.
A number of different times, I’ve played in games where the GM attempted a great deal of Player Agency. Often, they were built around similar scenarios: the PCs start as normal people and over the course of the campaign discover whatever magic, conspiracy, monsters, etc. that secretly exist. This is usually combined with a homebrew or modified setting or system. There’s a reason a lot of Player Agency works well with this hook: the players can explore the world, their powers, and whatever else is there at the same time their characters are.
Unfortunately, “normal people” have a lot of things in their lives that aren’t very fun to roleplay, primarily jobs. After all, these are the types of things that we roleplay to get away from. They shouldn’t exist in our fantasy lives too. If a GM isn’t careful, they can wind up wasting a whole session on mundane minutia while they wait for the players to try something and the players wait for something to happen.
This can even happen in games where the players know the world. Going back to an example I mentioned when talking about NPC death, exploring the lost city. The PCs in that game were essentially treasure hunters and so, once we got into the city, began exploring the first building we came to. We spent at least an entire session exploring that building, engaging in some combat with the furniture (don’t ask), and recovering treasure.
Well, not that last part. The building in question was a thousand-year-abandoned apartment building. Just about everything had rotted away and the inhabitants hadn’t had much of value to begin with. By the time we were done with it, all the players were pretty frustrated. We’d gone to a lot of effort and spent a good amount of real-world time and had nothing to show for it. No treasure, no plot, nothing.
So, why does this happen?
Because the GM thought the players knew what they were doing. While I wouldn’t say that this is always a mistake, this is always a mistake.
Seriously, though, players will inevitably try stupid, misguided, rash things. They do this not because they’re stupid, or because they’re trying to ruin the GM’s game, but because they don’t have the information that the GM does. They have no way of knowing for sure that their decisions are stupid or not. They don’t know what’s around the next corner or in the next building.
The GM does. And the GM doesn’t have to control the players to control the pacing. They can move events along to quickly get through areas that won’t be interesting. In the lost city example, the GM could have asked us how we planned to search the building, then let us know how it went. He could have even run the attacking couch encounter. While the GM can offer the players the ability to do whatever they want to and leave them open to the consequences of their actions, he doesn’t have to let them run through every step of plans which won’t lead to any fun, interesting, or engaging encounters.
In the lost city example, the building that took over a whole session could have taken only half an hour and moved further on to the more exciting parts of the chronicle.