Examining the Agency Scale

I’ve devoted a lot of time and space writing about player agency. In several of these posts, I’ve referenced something called the “Agency Scale.” Beyond referring to it as a gradient between strict railroading and sandbox-style freedom, I haven’t said much about it. Mostly I just wanted an easy term to abuse while I talked about roleplaying games.

But the more I include it in posts, the more I think it about it as a concept. Recently, I wanted to see if I could make a visual representation of the Agency Scale. I don’t know if it will have any practical use, but it seemed like fun.

It seemed like an easy enough task at first, simple scale with “Railroading” at one end and “Sandbox” at the other. Bing bang boom, done:

Well, that was easy.

Now to test it out. I just take a few varied example cases and see if we can map them out on the scale.

  1.  The GM has a set plot and refuses to let his players deviate. He is also willing to let his players die due to being overwhelmed in a combat.
  2. The GM is more than willing to let his players go off the rails. He even goes so far as to let them make up portions of the setting. He is also willing to allow his players to die due to bad rolls in climactic battles, but not in random, unimportant events. Lost or damaged items are always returned.
  3. The GM has a fairly epic plot set up and the players follow it pretty closely but are allowed to go off on tangents. The GM is more than willing to kill PCs or destroy important items.
  4. The GM has a set plot, but is more interested in the players interacting with the world and actively encourages them to treat the game world as more than a setting for their quest. He also isn’t afraid to TPK the players if they act rashly in important battles.

Done and done

This is good, as far as it goes, but as I look it over, I notice a few odd discrepancies. For instance, Example One is all the way on the left side of the graph for its railroad plot. However, the players are “free to die” if their tactics or rolls aren’t good enough. On the other end of the spectrum, Example Two offers an almost unimaginable freedom for the players to help create the world, both through their characters’ actions and through things they just come up with themselves. However, the PCs do experience some form of protection from their own stupidity and bad luck.

I could just try to average the various aspects of the games’ agency, but comparing these different influences and their effect on the overall experience is part of what I’m trying to do with this, so let’s make a second axis for elements relating to how much the players and their gear are at risk:

Now we’re cooking with gas!

Already this looks a lot more informative. As games move toward the upper right hand corner, they become more open and agency-related and as they move toward the lower left, they become more static and protected. What this’ll wind up being used for, I don’t know, but I really want to find a way to utilize it now. Let’s drop the points back into the graph and see how they look. To review:

  1. DM of the Rings: Railroad plot, character death a possibility
  2. Darths and Droids: Total sandbox world, limited protection for PCs
  3. Order of the Stick: Plot with some leeway allowed, PCs fair game
  4. The Gamers: Dorkness Rising: Plot, but with some sandbox action encouraged, PCs at decent risk

Also, as an aside, all of these examples are amazing works on their own (the original Gamers movie is also great) and, if you haven’t already, you should check them out.

I also added graph lines

Interesting…very interesting. I didn’t expect so much of this to wind up near one part of the overall graph, but I suppose that fictional representations of roleplaying are going to lean more towards the PCs being at risk. A more PC-protected game is going to be harder for an audience to be invested in. It would be interesting to see how this compares with games run in real life.

This line here

Another thing that sticks out to me is that the points on the graph seem to describe a line moving from the upper left to the lower right. This line is also perpendicular (or nearly so) to the directions I mentioned above. This would suggest that all the works along this line have roughly the same amount of player agency. This agency is simply expressed in very different ways.

Obviously, the placement of the points is somewhat arbitrary without some kind of unit of measurement, but for now I’m just enjoying playing with the information and figuring out what can be gleaned from it. The more I look at how these points are represented, the more ways I can think of to utilize it. A game or campaign doesn’t even have to be a single point. Games that start with a static plot to introduce the PCs to the world, but then open up to more of a sandbox or games where the PCs are protected most of the time, but come to be at risk in boss fights and other important encounters could be graphed as lines or curves on the scale.

I think I’m going to let this sit for a bit and come back to it later. I don’t want to keep building without having some time to reflect on what I’ve already done. In the meantime. feedback is most definitely encouraged.


Posted on July 30, 2011, in Examining Player Agency, Roleplaying and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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