Thursday, January 12, 2012

Agency

This is a topic I've talked about before, but given a small conversation in my online campaign yesterday, I thought I might take another shot at it.  I could say, I'm going to take another shot, but instead, I ought to say, I am taking another shot.

Things were going along as usual, with the players saying, "I will" do this or that, and I griped about it as usual and a brief discussion popped up.  I promised to write a post and we buried it for the campaign.

Butch made a good argument that the future tense is common in every day life:

"Consider the difference if a co-worker says, 'I'm going to lunch,' and your reply is: 'I'm going with you.' (whether you like it or not) or 'I'll go with you.' (if it's OK with you) The difference between 'I go to the bar' and 'I will go to the bar' may be subtle, but in my mind, what I'm saying is, 'Assuming I can, I go to the bar.'"

Then James C. followed with:

"As the arbiter of all activity, nothing takes place without the DM's approval."

And although I understand perfectly why both players feel this way - indeed, that they are even trained to think this way - I have to say that they couldn't be more wrong.

These are two different issues.  The first, that from Butch, is the issue that I tried to handle in the linked post above, but I think I got too clever and missed getting the point across.

D&D is a game played with words, and as such, exact words are important.  In fact, the words themselves are meant to take the place of actions - they're not, therefore, merely expressions, they are surgical indications of exactly what the character does, and at the moment the character does them.

The reason this is usually not so is because of the way in which, generally, players approach their character's actions.  There is a very, very strong tendency on the player's part to compress time and leap way ahead in what actions they take.

What do I mean?  Let us say that the players have just left a given dungeon.  They're loaded with loot, they're tired and beat up, and one will say, "We will return to town."  Take note of the future tense.

This is working into Butch's point about the conditionalism of stating the character's action.  He can't guarantee they will get back to town, so it is better, he argues, to put it in the future tense just in case you don't get back to town..

But I argue that the REAL problem is the choice of words - specifically, the choice of verb.  The verb return itself implies something that has already happened.  You can't return until you've gotten there.  The verb, and not the question for permission, is what defines the necessity of the future tense.

Consider an alternate verb:  "We head for town."  Simple, resolute, and in no way dependent on the DM's permission.  If I cock my head and lift my foot, I have, without question, "headed" for town.  I may get stopped on the way, but getting stopped will in no way change the fact that I did, beyond a doubt, head in that direction.

Players constantly pick verbs which are intended to compress time ... which is something they learn from DMs who either fail to do so, or who suck at doing so.  I can't express how many times I have to hold up a player, on or off line, who rattles off the fifteen things they do once they arrive in town, as though these things can all be done at the same time ... and all expressed in the future tense, of course.  "Town" has its own particular issues where it comes to D&D.  "Town" all too often means "safe zone" or the "nothing can happen to me there" zone, and players treat it that way because they are trained to do so.

But understand ... it is one thing for a player to remark to his friends, "When I get back to town, I'm going to have the biggest steak" and another for the player actually in town, telling the DM, "I'll have the steak," and then marking the cash off the player sheet.  We talk like that to the server, because we know the steak will be arriving at some point in the future - but if the future is now, the verb should also be now.  "I eat!" is a verb I rarely, if ever, hear a player use where it comes to provisions.  It is always, "We will have a day's provisions" - never, "we eat a day's provisions."

I originally made the point that players adapt this sort of future-tense to describe their actions because they've learned it is a way to side-step the reality of actually doing a specific thing in the moment of doing it.  If I speak in the future tense, I have one last chance to avoid getting axed by the DM.  I can fall back on, "I didn't say I did it, I said I was about to do it.  I haven't done it yet!"  This is the permission element both Butch and James alluded to.

So an experienced gamer will develop phrases and ways of speaking that improve one's chances of survival.  Everytime you make a definitive statement - "I turn the knob" - you risk death.  Better to say, "I will turn the knob."  You might still get killed, but every bit of an edge helps.  Besides, one time in ten it will force the DM to ask back, "You turn it?" which is a red flag.  The DM will never ask that question if the red knob were perfectly safe, so the smart player backs off and says, "Oh, wait ... maybe not."  And another inexperienced DM misses that chance to kill a player.

The desire is to have the players speak only in verbs which as players they can be absolutely certain of doing - no matter what freaking permission the DM offers.

This is where I take umbrage with James' statement, because the DM is NOT the arbiter of ALL activity.  The players are entitled to absolute agency in performing actions they can perform.  No matter what, they can always 'try' to do things.  They can try to return to town.  They can try to turn the knob.  Even if the player is held, frozen, magic jarred and soaking a delusion potion through their skin, no matter what the fuck the DM has to say about success, the player can still TRY.  So long as the player indicates that they are trying, the DM can stuff his or her fucking permission.  The player doesn't need permission to try.

All things being equal, the player is perfectly entitled to take a wide variety of actions.  They can cast a spell ... they may not be able to discharge the spell, or complete the casting, but they can damn well begin the casting and the DM can just suck it up sideways.  If there's nothing immediately in the vicinity of the player that would stop the player, the player can and indeed must be acknowledged to have completed the casting, for those are the rules of the game, which the DM must abide by every bit as much as the players.  If the player picks up a sword, and there's no fundamental reason time and space has been altered regarding this particular object, then by ZEUS and His Green Apple Trio, that fucking sword is picked up.  And that is how it goes.  There ain't no future tense about it - the player enacts upon his or her agency to alter the world with the words that player uses, and the DM is not empowered to stop the player.

Naturally, some swords cannot be 'picked up.'  But then there better be a damn good reason why the player's agency is thwarted ... and the player better have the right to pound his or her fist on the table and demand that answer be a good one when it presents itself, or hell should break fully upon the DM's head.  Because Player Agency is not to dismissed lightly.  Agency is the soup and crumbly crackers of this exploitation, and without it there is no damn game.

So exercise a little agency.  Put it in the present tense.

13 comments:

Andrej said...

I do understand your perspective, Alexis, I'm just not buying it entirely. I buy it mostly, just not entirely.

My own somewhat limited experience is that a player saying "will" does not try to weasel out of the stated action, it's just another way of saying "I try". Maybe around my own table and when we were much younger we could have argued 30 minutes and then 30 days on what was actually implied by use of the future tense, but by now we have naturally subscribed Butch's interpretation. The trust and mutual enjoyment is just there and given the limited amount of time we have to play these days, nobody wants to spoil it.

That said, I do agree with you on the need for precise words and taking all actions in their proper sequence. I do try to use the present tense, now, when typing my actions. I will continue to do so.

One last thing in the spirit of precise language and the role of the DM: I did say he or she was the arbiter of all activity. Meriam webster defines such as:

: a person with power to decide a dispute : judge
2
: a person or agency whose judgment or opinion is considered authoritative

If there is no conflict or special condition to arbitrate, there is no need for an arbiter. There is, indeed, no loss of player agency at all.

Alexis said...

The definition missing there is "the power to ordain at will." But point taken.

Butch said...

I agree... I can't imagine this:

PC: I will turn the knob.

DM: As your hand closes on -

PC: Wait! I didn't say I did it, just that I would do it. First I will cast Detect Trap.

If a player did try to weasel like that, the only appropriate response would be:

DM: I will smack you.

Nasira said...

This has me thinking of my time playing Diplomacy, telling people that I CAN do something for them, and then not doing it. It's not lying.

Sharon Kerr-Bullian said...

To say that without agency, there is no game is not quite true, I think. In some settings, or with some characters, a lack of agency can add to the feel somewhat.

By approaching it with a writer's mind, I can use words, including indefinite future verbs, to great effect and feel in a game.

Playing in a Game of Thrones setting has certainly made me more precise choosing how to state what my gaming characters are doing.

I played a character, Rychard, who was a stronger fighter with words than with a sword. It was entertaining the way that character waffled on using many many words to vaguely say something another character would say definitively in just a handful of words. His phrasing seemed very clumsy (at least diplomatically) when he stopped using the indefinite future tense as a shield; but no less precise. People were so used to his silver tongue saying only as much as he intended to say that many characters were put completely off-balance when he stated something bluntly.

I used the indefinite future to describe his actions when my Game of Thrones character was unsure of his actions, or when the character was trying to make others believe he was unsure of his actions (or the reasoning behind the actions. Wheels within wheels, this character.)

The choice of phrasing did sometimes spur other characters to action to try discover what my character was up to, which was most useful to my character and his allies, as they could discover a lot about what various NPCs were planning by watching the ensuing race to uncover clues that weren't there.

At no point did I use the indefinite future tense to say "oh no, I take that back, he's not actually doing that" to the DM. Whether I used the present, future, or indefinite future tense, if I said "Rychard (verbs) something", I meant it, and suffered any consequences accordingly.

Not all people use the indefinite future to weasel their way out of difficulty in-game. I think you have to use your judgement based on how well you know your players when choosing how to arbitrate this at the table.

Lord Thanatos said...

I think part of the reason players use "I will" instead of "I am" is the resistance to completely role playing their character. All of us try to get into our character. I'd say the majority of us insert our own personality traits, whether conscious, or unconscious, into our PC. Maybe its the character we think we are, or possibly what we wish we were like. Either way, we create these imaginary dopplegangers and infuse them with a little of our essence. But when it comes time to actually play, its not US that are in the dungeon, searching for adventure, its our puppet avatars, doing our bidding. Players gain a sort of God status, like Zeus looking down from above, manipulating humans for his own enjoyment.

We do care about our characters, and want them to avoid death for as long as possible. "I will" statements are spoken in third person, talking about oneself in a disconnected fashion. We're not 100% the character, but we're IN CONTROL of the character. "I will" feels like programming. You wind up the character, then set him loose. I think the few players that use "I am" statements have made a leap in role playing. They are no longer looking down on things from above, they are at ground level, experiencing it as it happens.

Alexis said...

Lord Thanatos,

That is genius. I hadn't considered it, but bam, that is just pure genius. I do believe you've nailed it better than I could.

Sharon Kerr-Bullian said...

An interesting perspective, Lord Thanatos.

I was talking about this post with my husband, and he had another perspective to offer that I thought worth sharing.

His perspective was that people use "I will" as a way to be polite to the DM, and the other players. In online roleplaying, there is this generally held expectation that one does not affect another character without that character's permission. This goes hand in hand with the general concept of the social contract the majority lives by every day, but is expanded in roleplaying to not only include the player, but his or her character as well. By using phrases that might sound as though a person is asking, rather than telling, it is a way to remain polite, and thus avoid offending one another at the gaming table. It may be that you expect a certain frankness that some players find uncomfortable due to their social experience, Alexis?

Alexis said...

If you're suggesting that persons in the western culture have become such snivelling worms that they have to invent grammatical habits in order to obtain 'permission' to have something they supposedly control do what they supposedly want that character to do, then the players are not the only ones that are 'uncomfortable.'

Bad enough when a player wants 'permission' from a DM, but when a player needs 'permission' from everyone for speaking their minds, wow ... let's just shoot our culture in the head, okay?

I don't buy that explanation, for this simple reason: my offline players. They use future tense too, but they'd laugh and mock you for suggesting they were doing it to gain permission from anyone. Since they throw things at me, and insult each other constantly, it's rather clear in their exhuberance that the gaining of permission isn't one of their issues.

Could be a habit, sure ... but yeeeeesh, seriously? Mr. co-worker, I will join you at the bar because if I am going to join you at the bar, you might not give your permission.

Gad.

Sorry ... please extend my apologies to your husband; please accept my inability to express myself in terms that require any sort of permission. Perhaps that's why I scare the living hell out of everyone.

Sharon Kerr-Bullian said...

Wow, Alexis, you weren't kidding when you said you were "the grouchiest old school DM". It took me a day to think over how to write back to you in a way that wasn't a knee-jerk reaction. So, here it is:

A sample size of what, sixteen people, at the most, if you've got a couple of offline games going; all of them presumably your friends, and thus a skewed sample, is hardly a representative sample of the population. You've said before that when people get sick of gaming your way, they tend to leave and find someone else to play with, so of course your gaming group will take on a certain character that matches with your own.

"If you're suggesting that persons in the western culture have become such snivelling worms that they have to invent grammatical habits in order to obtain 'permission'"

That is precisely what my husband and I are suggesting has happened with the precious little snowflakes raised by helicoptering suburbanites in their homeowner association controlled access neighborhoods.

These kids grew up with parents who always said "No! You can't do this! You can't do that! You might hurt yourself! No, you can't have peanuts, some kids are allergic to them, what if you are?" When they finally get offline, out from behind the shield of internet anonymity, and into a situation where they're expected to be proactive, it breaks their precious little brains, so they flounder for a way to keep the authority figure, the DM, happy, without overstepping a boundary they're unsure of, so they resort to timid language like the indefinite future tense.

The urban kids don't have it half so bad; they have a want-take-have attitude that would work well in D&D, if they could handle the math without a damned calculator. What happened to the education system?!

As to my own sample size: I'll admit, I haven't gamed with a whole hell of a lot of people either. I have sat there at a table at a sci-fi/fantasy/gaming convention, in a very stuffy costume, and interacted with god knows how many hundreds of people in a day, probably thousands over the extended weekend.

Alexis said...

Well Sharon,

In the first place, I've been playing for 30+ years, so I think I've had a larger sampling than just 16.

In the second place, I can't recall ever having said that when people get sick of playing the game my way, they tend to leave and find someone else. You'll have to find that quote for me.

I think somewhere along the way you lost your point, that you're a bit too in love with your sociological/youth generation theory. You're throwing a lot of words at it, but nothing I can see sticks.

I just don't see causality.

David said...

This hang up concerning the future tense doesn’t make sense to me.

I agree with it; I think that players (and the DM) should describe actions in the present as much as possible. The problem comes, at least for me, when the DM ignores the clear intention of the statements in favor of making an unimportant grammatical point. You feel that the clarity of avoiding will statements is critical. All we have is verbal communication so it must be precise. I feel that the flow of the game and the trust between players is more important. Of course I haven’t been blessed with players or DMs who attempt to abuse the future tense as a way to test for reactions or weasel out of things.

Instead the future tense is mainly used as either an unthinking influence of everyday speech or a means of indicating that the player making the statement wants to compress time. In everyday conversation we often use the will construction. For example, “I’ll get the door.” Is unambiguous in real life as others around you can see if you mean in the real future (you don’t move) or in the ongoing present (you move to the door as you say it). As you said there is some problem with this in a game as the only description we have is verbal. Yet I have a hard time forcing players out of the game to rephrase their comment when, by its very nature, I feel their comment shows how much they have entered into the view of the characters as real people.

Some of the contention might come down to a preferred playstyle. I find a constant reference to everything in 3rd person is awkward as a player (since the DM must play many roles there is little choice but to use 3rd person so as to keep all the actors straight). If I’m playing a character Alex then saying “Alex does foo,” and “Alex attacks,” on and on grates on me. Using 1st person can slow things down as it leads to talking as the character at times (and thus some statements using the dreaded will, instead of summarizing their actions but I prefer that to the impersonal moving of pieces around feeling I get from 3rd person all the time. The exception to that might be online play but I haven’t attempted that in at least 12 years.

BTW, I haven’t forgotten the comment about compressing time. I see no problem with having a player use a will statement as a way of indicating that they are interested in moving on. If everyone agrees time moves forwards. If someone has an action or event that means time shouldn’t move forwards they can interrupt the action. “We’ll go to town,” Is functionally equal to “We head to town.” For that matter, “We are going to town,” is also functionally equal in my mind. I don’t see permission entering into it; I see it as a statement of narrative intent. The player is announcing that they have no have no interest in the narrative until that action is complete or interrupted. “I’ll have a big steak,” is a statement that the actual interaction with the server and the eating establishment is not of interest to the player. “We will have a day’s provisions,” just means that the players don’t want to detail that action. Unless something unusual happens in connection with eating either the steak or the provisions it’s just bookkeeping let’s move on to interacting with the parts of the world the players care about.

Alexis said...

Sometimes, David, you have to let the DM decide what's important.