On the contradiction in player agency between OSR and 5E D&D.

OSR games ostensibly care about player agency as one of their core principles.

Player agency can be defined as players having full control and responsibility over their own characters that the GM cannot interfere with. Ways GM’s typically interfere with player agency are by railroading players to certain destinations, for example by forcing players to save the village even if they would rather run away from it. By using techniques like ‘quantum ogres’ in which whatever direction the players go in they will face the same encounter and by extension any form of illusionism where players are given a false choice. Or simply by the GM fudging a dice roll, so that the choice the player made to attack a deadly monster is obsoleted when that monster cannot kill them due to GM fudging.

OSR games frown on this and instead encourage play where players are able to make meaningful choices for their characters within the world. Whilst the GM still has responsibility over the world it’s up to the players what they do within it and the GM acts as best they can as a ‘neutral arbiter’ of the game.

As a result OSR games tend to emphasise game structures that facilitate sandbox play in the likes of hexcrawls and dungeon crawls. They utilise a lot of randomisation mechanics, such as random encounters, reaction rolls and random treasure and monster placement to encourage the GM to allow player agency and not pre-script game situations. The GM is often ‘playing to find out what happens’ much like the players are.

There’s an interesting juxtaposition between the amount of freedom and agency given to players in OSR games and the limited amount of power in terms of mechanical ability characters in an OSR game have compared to other editions of the game, which can at first glance seem like a contradiction.

For example in an OSR game character stats are often randomly determined in order, taking those character build choices out of the player characters. Beyond that OSR characters will have far options and mechanical abilities.

A Magic User in an OSR game will often start with just 1 random spell they can use per day and D4 hp. In 5E D&D a Wizard starts with about half a dozen spells, can infinitely cast 3 cantrips per day and can cast 2 level 1 spells each day, starts with at least 6 HP assuming an average con score, and gets additional abilities and skills conferred by their race and background choices.

If our game cares about player agency, why do OSR games give characters such a limited amount of mechanical options to exercise their agency? Would you not be more free in a game if you had more options as you do in say 5E?

Well, not quite.

For one building a character is not the same as having agency within a game itself. The character building occurs outside of the game, it can be a lot of fun turning all the bells and whistles to design a character but it has very little to do with actually playing the game of D&D where you actually have to make active decisions in the moment for your character.

At its extreme this level of character building actually limits agency because character builds require a certain ‘white box’ perfect scenario to work effectively. You have to make the assumption that the game will include a set of perfectly tailored and balanced encounters that your character can defeat. But if we are to set up those encounters in a game we’ll be railroading the players hard to enforce them, rather than utilising the aforementioned sandbox techniques like the random encounters where a player may face the likes of a Dragon which their build is not equipped to deal with because it can only function in a limited parameter.

Agency is further predicated on the players having meaningful choices within a situation. If a character such as a Wizard should always cast a cantrip like mage hand to inspect a potential trap, or always cast Leomuds Tiny Hut for the group to rest in, then the player only has the one choice within a situation. Extrapolate it to the increasing power level of characters in a game such as 5E with a wide range of powerful abilities and the game becomes one of pressing the correct mechanical skill or spell button to solve the problem rather than having meaningful choice within the world.

Abilities such as the Rangers favoured terrain obsolete whole portions of decision making for players as they ignore key wilderness survival mechanic, effectively hand-waving over the players agency in those situations. Yes the player still had the agency of choosing the Ranger as a class, but this is no different from the illusionist GM presenting the players two false paths and giving them the same encounter in both. It’s just extrapolated to mechanically encompass the entire system.

Furthermore when we add the likes of a skill and feat system into the game we are effectively limiting player choices by saying that only X class with Y skill & feat combination can do a certain action. Though 5E isn’t as egregious as former editions of the game in this regard it still includes both of these elements which factor into limiting player agency.

Skill systems in general can also limit player actions towards simply pressing the correct ‘skill button’ within an in-game situation rather than describing what their actual actions in the game are. Even if a player does describe their action if these actions are always just resolved via whatever arbitrary skill feels like it fits we come to a situation where all that really matters is the characters skill bonus in a certain area and players are discouraged from trying actions that they don’t have the required stats in , further limiting their agency.

So we see the more powerful characters are, the less agency players often really have beyond an illusion. This also causes an escalation in terms of the GM attempting to match the players increasing range of abilities, this escalation can only ever be enforced within mechanical terms and the GM ends up having to use railroad techniques like forcing the players into constant ‘anti-magic zones’ to make it more difficult for them to utilise their powerful array of spells and abilities to bypass decisions in the game. This makes it difficult to create organic situations for the players to deal with through their agency alone as the GM is constantly in a cold war of sorts with the players as they both build up their collection of arms, which often culminates in incredibly adversarial gameplay.

To contrast OSR game-play gives players a much more limited toolkit to play with but through that limitation they are able to come up far more often with varied and creative solutions to in-game situations as they cannot solely rely on their characters power level to carry them through and therefore have far more agency in how they approach situations within the game not being limited by the heavy mechanical restrictions within the system.

2 comments

  1. I never got that about the ranger. Surely you pick the class because you want to be GOOD at wilderness stuff, and that you want it to be an important part of the game. Instead, Wot Sea say “Cool bro, here you go you don’t need to use those rules you especially wanted to”.

    It’s much the same with synths in ALAN the rpg

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  2. I think this is more of a distinction between the culture of 5e and OSR players rather than anything to do with the rules themselves. 5e has a lot more new and/or casual players. Newer DMs are more likely to design a linear narrative game because they’re easy to make, and newer players are more likely to be satisfied by those kinds of games. OSR players are more likely to be veterans who don’t want to be railroaded, and OSR DMs are more likely to have the capability and inclination to develop a big sandbox game.

    But there is no mechanical reason why someone couldn’t run a linear game in OSR or a hexcrawl in 5e – the rules aren’t even that different. From memory, the 5e DMG doesn’t endorse dice fudging or quantum ogres, and has a fair amount support for sandbox type games, such as random encounter and treasure tables.

    I don’t agree with your argument that 5e giving players more spells and abilities means that they have less agency. Firstly a lot of abilities, particularly spells, have a limited number of uses per day. You might know the Knock spell, but still make the decision to try and pick a lock instead because you don’t want to expend a spell slot, or use the expensive material components, or because you decided not to prepare it that morning, or because you’re trying to be stealthy and so don’t want to cast spells with verbal or somatic components. Deciding when to spend your limited abilities, when there are an abundance of opportunities to do so, is meaningful agency.

    And secondly, a lot of abilities don’t have that specific an application. The mage hand spell isn’t a ‘check for traps at range’ spell – it has a general effect that can be applied in countless possible ways. Deciding how to apply the general effects of these spells in order to achieve whatever specific challenge the players face, is meaningful agency.

    And how far would you take it? “I would never put a shovel in my game because then the players would always use it whenever they need to dig a hole. It would take away their meaningful decision of whether to try and dig with their hands or fashion some kind of rudimentary drill…”

    The ranger’s natural explorer ability doesn’t let you auto-succeed on survival checks (except preventing you from getting lost I guess). It gives you a bunch of bonuses when travelling through your favoured terrain, which might make travelling through those types of region a more appealing option. But it doesn’t remove the risk of starving to death in the wilderness, it just mitigates it. I think this is true of most class and feat abilities – they don’t say “you can always succeed at doing this thing now”, they say “you are a bit better than other people at doing this thing – have advantage or a bonus to the roll”. And crucial to this discussion, I don’t think there is any real distinction between these 5e abilities and OSR class abilities. Just look at all the special skills that the OSE thief gets, for example.

    I agree that DMs building specific scenarios or encounters to constantly counter the party’s specific abilities is bad DMing. But again, I don’t think there is anything in the 5e rules that encourages this. 5e just gives a load of monster stat blocks with challenge ratings to indicate roughly how dangerous the monsters are. There isn’t a big sign on the Lich’s statblock saying “use this monster if you have a spellcaster in the party, its magic resistance will really fuck them up”.

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