Good Grief (Player Agency vs. Character Freedom)

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As players in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game we often experience limitations to our ability to make choices due to the constraints of an adventure or the limits of a setting. Yet a common use of player agency is among the most disruptive and damaging behaviors for any session of the game, from one-off to years long campaign. The phrase “Its what my character would do!” is used as an anthem by players everywhere like a weapon. Make no mistake a player that hides behind this shield to be disruptive or to take action against the good of the party they are most certainly still exercising player agency. Despite claiming to be the victim of their character’s motives, the player is still in charge. Still there are legitimate roleplaying conflicts that character-focused players run into. Today we look at ways to roleplay around these conflicts and exercise player agency for the good of the game.

Player Agency vs. Character Freedom

It is funny how often a player who has their rogue daring charge into flanking position with a demon, risk exposure to the rotting dust of a mummy’s curse or stab the corrupt priest under the shade of invisibility only to scream “It’s what he’d do!” when they choose to have the character steal a treasure the entire party earned or otherwise violate Wheaton’s Law. Player’s often succumb to the temptation to let their characters “have the reigns” when it suits them to engage an action they want to do. Differing motives and alignments can be mitigated in a lot of ways. Consider the following:

  • One Note – Probably the biggest issue in disruptive player agency is the decision to favor one line of a character’s sheet or backstory to the exclusion of all else. In the real world people ofte become friends with people that drive them crazy in a half-dozen ways and yet despite hating each other’s movies and sharing different religions there is still more than enough territory that at then end of the day they are still friends. Even strangers might feel drawn to each other. Attraction, amusement or even morbid fascination can all go a long way toward breeding tolerance.
  • Full Days – Players often lose sight of the fact that there characters are often around each other for copious amounts of un-played downtime with explosive played conflicts or moments of tension and drama that get experienced. That being the case there might be a number of bonding moments, insightful research or moral contemplation that can empower character motives to harmonize with party needs. This use of player agency is one of the most underutilized tools in party synergy kit. A player can visualize a thousand reasons during off-screen time to engage, re-engage or change character motives. A missive from a mentor finally gets delivered, a revelation about a friend or loved one casts a party member in a new light, or a vulnerable moment occurs and the characters grow closer for it.
  • Long View – Character’s rarely have a low intelligence or a terminal condition and a devil-may-care attitude only excuses stupid for so long. In the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game the most powerful assets a character has are their fellow party members. The possibility of alienating even one of them over a single piece of treasure or NPC interaction is a risk most self-preserving creatures simply wouldn’t take. Despite desires for short-term victories of acquisitions a player is well served to remember the value of their peers.
  • Redemption (or Corruption) – One of the most powerful concepts in the spectrum of Good alignments is that of redeemed evil. A character with moral differences from the another character may seek to win them over to their cause. Bring them back to the light or drag them into the darkness. True redemption (or seduction) takes time. The relationship between players is a length time, but not much in the scope of a full lifetime. Giving up on a person after a few weeks or months isn’t all that realistic if that person is worth anything to the other character.
  • Big Picture – Even the most rigid paladin will experience moments of priority where the large scale benefits of battling beside evil to defeat a greater evil. They may not like it, they may vow to go after their “ally” when things are resolved. But if the only way to fight the eminent evil is compromise only the most stringent of Oaths or abusive excuses of player agency will stop a paladin for doing the right thing right now. The same goes for most other religious or Lawful characters.

When it comes to player agency, no one wants to give up power for their heroic alter-ego but don’t underestimate the sovereignty of the player to make sense of the character’s situation and keep them feeling in control. Don’t excuse player frustration and obstinance with good roleplaying–If it is damaging to the game as a whole, it is probably an exercise in egoism and self-centered disregard of the other people at the table. Friends and GMs will appreciate a friend that exercises agency to serve the game and the party.

Want more freedom for your players? Check out our offerings! Like the Book of Beyond: Spells of Boon and Burden or see our other products at:, drivethruRPG, paizo and RPGNow.

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