Agency is the freedom to make choices. The ability to change the world around you, reaping rewards and suffering failures. In larp, there are several aspects to this subject, the most important being the balance between Player Agency, Storyteller Agency, and Game Health.
1- Player Agency
Player Agency is the ability for Characters in a larp to make meaningful choices that affect other participants and the world. Players need to feel as if their decisions matter. It is important that Storytellers not view this as handing out consequences or levying punishment. Agency is not a trap. Good story is created from results, not punishment. The actions of the Character can have negative results for the Character, but should be creating interesting stories for the Player to experience.
The best games create opportunities for Players to have experiences based on their interactions with each other and the results that naturally spring from them. Plot that grows based on their actions and reactions will grow investment and the feeling of being in a real world. Players should be encouraged to create their own goals and act on their motivations within the setting of the larp. Staff should support these stories and blend them into the rest of the setting.
Storyteller Agency is the room in-game for the creation of NPC driven plot. Staff must be careful to use these stories to provide engaging choices for the Players, but Players must also allow the Staff leeway to create them. As touched on in On A Roll episode 10, antagonists and similar NPCs need to be given the opportunity to soliloquy, but Staff needs to be careful not to abuse the opportunity to bend the rules in the service of drama.
The Staff of a larp must also communicate up front to the Players the expectations of balance between Storyteller and Player Agency. Some games can be all about the ride, the adrenaline of a series of well crafted scenes in which Players impact one other, but not the larger world or story. Others can be a grand sandbox, exploring the edges of what is and is not possible, but where resolutions are rarely as pointed and climatic. Most games fall somewhere between the two extremes.
3 - Game Health and Community Impact
All Agency is bounded - either by rules, community, or the setting. The most important of these is community. All participants, Storytellers and Players, must keep in mind the engagement and comfort of those around them. Create stories that draw others in and expand involvement in interesting ways and recognize the emotional needs of the community. Be willing to both deescalate heated Character versus Character conflict and willing to step aside when you have reached your personal limits. Never allow Agency to become an excuse for toxic play. Never force another member of Staff or a Player into a scene that makes them out of game uncomfortable or fearful.
Agency should also be bound by the rules and the setting. Staff should only bend rules to create more interesting stories and choices for the Players, and Players should only bend rules for game health. In both circumstances when the rules of the system are not strictly followed, all involved should be aware of the out-of-game decision to do so, being careful not to the abuse the trust of either the Storytelling Staff or the Players.
Agency should be bound by the larp Setting. Players can rail against the edges of a setting and appropriate behavior within it, but should understand if those edges move slowly. Other Players and Staff are involved in and interested in a specific style of setting and play. If a small group of Players or Staff shift the setting significantly, then agency is being removed from those that wanted to play in the original version of the game. This is not to say that setting changes are bad, but that Players and Staff must communicate the level that is possible and desirable. Departing from that level requires further communication between Staff and Players.
Agency is at the core of many roleplaying experiences. Participants need to feel like their choices matter, affecting the world and the other players. Players tend to prefer games that give them the greatest number of interesting and engaging choices, ideally feeling like their options are unlimited. However, Storytellers need to be given the Agency to create stories as well. Each group working cooperatively - never in opposition - to create engrossing worlds and experiences.
Jason Hughes is a co-Host for the podcast On A Roll he’s the former OST for the Underground Theaters Camarilla venue, a long-time gamer and larper.
All blog materials created and developed by the staff here at High Level Games