D&D is probably the most played roleplaying game at the moment. But how much freedom have players in D&D and how much is the player agency?

Few weeks ago my son asked me to run Out of the Abyss for him and his friends. I’ve played with him since he was 8 years old (he is now 13) and I’ve tried to introduce him and his sister to as many different kinds of roleplaying games as possible. We’ve played FFG Star Wars, Tales from the Loop, The One Ring, and other similar games, and of course two different editions of D&D.

“Sure, son,” I answered and started reading through the module again. I called up a game master friend who I knew had played through the module and ransacked his brain for ideas on how to make the whole module more teen-friendly and adjust the many crannies and nooks the such a vast storyline has. I also reached out to another friend of mine, who ran the module, to get even more ideas and thoughts on where the story could be abridged and made more accessible.

Some of you might think that these are teens and they don’t need any more help than is provided in the module. That’s a valid point. However, my goal is to make sure that these young players get the most out of the story and get a chance to encounter one or more of the demon princes and some of the most iconic D&D monsters.

Where Out of the Abyss excels over other D&D modules

All the new D&D modules have their pros and cons, and my favorite is Lost Mines of Phandelver, if for no other reason than it’s not a 20 level campaign, but a simple and decent story where the players get to know almost all aspects of a good D&D narrative.

Out of the Abyss is for PCs level 1-15, and as such the narrative has its ups and downs. Even if I was running the module for players my age I would still change a thing or five, that however is a whole different kind of article.

There’s one thing that Out of the Abyss has that’s makes it stand out for me. It’s not the fact that the players face all sorts of demons. It’s not that the PCs aren’t railroaded towards this or that end. It’s not the fact that the PCs slowly get a chance to rise from being enslaved to being heroes that save the Realms. It’s this part:

With this approach, encourage players to describe what their characters do – or even see and experience – during the intervening time. In addition to downtime activities such as crafting, characters have plenty of opportunities for interaction. If the players are handling the roles of some or all of their nonplayer character companions […] ask the to elaborate on the activities of those characters as well, filling in details as you see fit. Players can also suggest and spin out stories about things their characters have experienced during the intervening time…

Out of the Abyss, Chapter 2, Summarizing Travel, p. 30

Player agency and D&D

As much as I like D&D, there’s one thing that I don’t think I will ever say about D&D and that is that the system promotes high player agency. In fact, I think that this short passage is the first I’ve seen where game masters are encouraged to hand some of the narrative responsibility over to the players.

D&D is a game where the roles of the game master and the players are clearly defined, and in some ways that’s what makes the game so popular. Each participant knows exactly what is expected of her.

In many other games, like Tales from the Loop, the walls (or should I say the screen?) between players and the game master is not as clear and the game systematically tries to blur the lines. The same might be said about many modern games.

The game master’s freedom to make changes

Granted, you can add player agency to D&D games just as any other game, if you like to. I’m running a game set on Athas for one of my groups where we just implemented a system similar to the Force Point system in FFG Star Wars, where players can opt to use a light side force point to gain advantage to a roll, and where the game master can use dark side force point to grant disadvantage. The players can also choose to burn a point to have an even greater effect on the narrative.

As a game master you have this freedom, you can make whatever changes you like to whatever roleplaying game you are playing. D&D, as written, places the narrative responsibility almost solely on the game master, even the down time activities is decreed by the game master. Compared to games like the One Ring, Symbaroum, Degenesis – The Rebirth and many more, this seems to me like remnants of what roleplaying games once were. So, seeing this text in Out of the Abyss came as a breath of fresh wind for me.

The co-operative narrative

The benefits of a story that all participants take part in telling is you get players who are more immersed and invested in the story. It’s not just your story where they take on the roles of the main characters, it’s also their story. The players feel more empowered and in my experience most players like having more say in the way their characters interact with the narrative, the be the master of their own destiny.

A few weeks ago I started a game of Tales from the Loop. I created a setting, a few NPCs and locations, and handed the players this information before session 0. However, while we were creating the characters I gave each player a chance to create their own NPCs and define the relationship their character had with the NPCs. This fleshed out the setting even further and made it a whole lot more interesting. Once we started playing and the players had a chance to set up a scene for their character, we all got a whole lot better view of each character and the setting.

Letting go

Letting the game master reins loose can be a bit intimidating, I at least felt it a bit strange at first. Today I really like my players to feel empowered and to add to the narrative, either by interpret their own die rolls or describe the outcome, or by adding directly to the narrative, like in the examples mentioned above.

Naturally, it doesn’t suit all groups or games to have a narrative like that, and you should of course always strive to find a way to play the game the way that every player around the table likes it. If your players are used to the standard definition of the roles of players and game master and they like them just the way they are, that’s awesome. If you are interested in trying a co-operative form of storytelling, you could either try to take small steps in your current game, like giving your players more freedom in defining the down time, as is advised in Out of the Abyss, or if you are interested in taking it a step further, you might try some of the games mentioned above or any other game where player agency is high.