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MASS Part Three – Agency and Fairness


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Or, How to empower players, and what exactly are they empowered to do?

Back to my original design principles, I wanted to look at the player / GM dynamic and try to address the binary. The direction I took was to look at enabling players to participate in a game in ways that better suited their own play style. I wanted to include options for play styles that were somewhere between the two key roles, as well as for people that don’t really sit well with either of them.

I looked at what this practically would mean. My starting point was to take the habits and play styles of my play groups and try to understand what each person was enjoying or getting from the game, and what they were contributing to it.

I had a number of players that were happy to just be players of the game. Not much interest in GMing, happy to participate in the game and have their character shine, they got into character and played out the game as much by the book as seemed reasonable. They rarely took the lead or initiated plots, but contributed or responded to situations, and enjoyed it. They were the easiest bunch to understand. I called them the Default group.

I recognized a number of players that got into character, and were able to role-play easily, who had high social skills and were able to deal with social role playing challenges with ease. They generally found it easy to come up with plans for action, and they commonly initiated their own plots. They would have the limelight often, almost instinctively. Often they would be GMs if given the opportunity, for their own games. I labelled this group Instigators.

Another group I found fit into the more classic Gamist definition. They were often keyed into playing the game system, concerned about min/maxing their characters and wanted to face challenges and ‘win’. Often they would highlight tactical or efficiency considerations, and have in mind instructions for not just their own actions, but the actions of others in the group. Not wanting to borrow too much from GNS I labelled this group the Contenders.

I have a few players who I enjoy having in my games, but who are generally not that into role playing, or have confidence issues with the group game format. They would sit back and only participate when directly challenged or their initiative was up. Or, they were watching the game unfold and offering suggestions when other characters were in the spotlight, but loathe to take the spotlight themselves. I labelled this group the Supporters.

And lastly, there were a few players that were just in the game for the giggles. Given the opportunity, they would make the game all about themselves, or would happily watch the game burn down provided that they had the chance to make a joke or play out a crazy idea that occurred to them. I labelled this group the Jokers.

I realized that when games fell apart that the play styles had been one of the contributing factors in the outcome. I also noted that some styles were more supported by classic game design, in particular Default and Contender for players and Instigator (and contender!) for GMs.

As a result I determined that I wanted to use these labels as a means of defining how I was going to support and encourage the channeling of the energy of these different styles into contributing to a better game. To make this determination come to life I decided to empower players to pick what style they wanted to play at any point in time, and give a specific game role to each of these player characteristics. Not to be restrictive, but to enable a player to play the game how they wanted with some rules support, and constrain the anti-social or destructive elements of the different styles. I realized I was thinking about having not just Character characteristics, but (malleable) Player characteristics.

Next I looked at the empowerment mechanics that I had knowledge of. They largely fell into the concept of partitioning GM authority and granting it to the non-GM players, in some controlled fashion. Some governed the game in simulationist fashion but gave a resource that could be used to change outcomes. Some few games basically removed the GM function all together and had the power distributed as fairly as possible among the players, allowing the natural dynamic of creative energy to dictate how much or little a player would participate. In the latter case it occasionally resulted in games where the game was mostly about the creation of the game itself, and then playing it had varying degrees of the classic model.

I fell into a bit of possibility paralysis, here. I took a step back and tried to think about what the aspects of GM power or role that I wanted to unpack actually were:
• Outcome facilitation and adjudication – being necessary as the final call on rules or supporting establishing a consensus.
• Describing setting and situation
• Controlling non-player character elements.
• Providing a plot, and challenges to be overcome.
• Impetus or creative energy to make the game come to life.

The default position in classic systems is that players have power over their own character specifically, and are responsible for their own impetus for that character, but are supported (and restricted) through their character sheet in terms of the options available. Some systems and some game groups support greater power in the other areas but this is variable. Taking the plot point or fate point concept, GM power over outcome facilitation as well as setting or non-player character elements might be affected or created as points are spent, but the core plot and challenges still come from the GM.

I noted that when players were looking for different outcomes from the same scenes a game system generally would prop up the Inter Party Conflict concept, often as something to be avoided. It would generally fall to pistols at dawn with characters as simulationist PVP enemies, and skill challenges, or whoever spends the most Plot Resource Points. This approach makes idea contention into a confrontation and generally facilitates or reinforces a ‘player vs GM’ dynamic, with resultant constraint in terms of player creativity.

In the end, I determined to try a new tack on the ‘partitioning GM power’ concept. I was triggered by reading game play examples using Dungeon World. I loved the idea that the GM didn’t roll the dice, and that players were in essence the creators of the story outcomes. This is a bit of a Segway into Part Four – Resolution Mechanics, but, in conclusion, I came up with a name for the ‘Player owned GM Power Resource’. I called it Agency. I determined to make this resource integral to the resolution mechanic as well as being integral to the concept of how fairness in the game was addressed.

On that last point - Given that most systems rely upon turn taking as a fundamental distributor for game participation, fairness is generally tackled by equal resource allocation. Unfairness creeps in when players have more system knowledge than each-other, and can leverage that knowledge to make their actions have more power than the actions of others, or where some players are more loud spoken or naturally social than others. So I would bypass this consideration altogether and make the fairness aspect apply to player time as director or influencer or participant in the game. I would give Agency a GM-like power across all dimensions, and then empower the player to use their Agency in whatever way they chose, be it to control their character and outcomes of their character actions, or add situation, plot or challenge elements, or even to dictate actions of other player’s characters – with dice to resolve contests – but to be supportive of enabling this kind of challenge in a way that was less confrontational. And the GM role in turn would become initiator of scenario, but then more facilitator and adjudicator, and fill in the gaps when none of the players take the floor, drifting away and back into the game as needed. I anticipated that this might evolve into GM-less scenarios down the track, but that wasn’t a key objective. The main point was to focus on empowering the players to play how they felt most comfortable across the spectrum of GM / Player options, even as more audience members perhaps.
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