Unspeakable! Episode 11: Ryan Macklin of Backstory Cards, Fate, Paizo, and Mythender – Player Agency in Horror Games

Hosted by Adam Scott Glancy, Shane Ivey, and Ross Payton. Produced by Ross Payton.

Please welcome Ryan Macklin as our guest. Ryan is editor at Paizo Publishing, has been heavily involved in the Fate RPG and Dresden Files, published his own game Mythender, and helped develop Backstory Cards, now in their last few days of funding at Kickstarter.

Ryan recently wrote the Fate adaptation of the Achtung! Cthulhu, and we invited him to talk about player agency in RPGs. Of course we quickly found that in a topic that deep, just agreeing on the terms is half the struggle. We also have updates on tons of projects.

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0:45:27 PLAYER AGENCY IN HORROR GAMES: Old-school GM authority vs. newer story games where players influence not just their character choices but the course of the narrative. Trail of Cthulhu, tremulus, Cthulhu Dark, Realms of Cthulhu, the Fate adaptation of Achtung! Cthulhu. The things that make Fate difficult for horror — choosing to ameliorate the consequences of failure; easy recovery from stress and injury — and how those work in Achtung! Cthulhu.

0:59:20 WHAT DO WE MEAN BY PLAYER AGENCY? Players’ control over the course of the story? Controlling the flow of the narrative? Players’ ability to make choices in the game? Or is that character agency rather than player agency? Spending points in Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents. Railroading vs. giving guidance. The abstract vs. the concrete. Unspoken rules of the game. Anything that makes the players feel safe or releases tension. Inventing resources. The dangers of GM inflexibility and player overreaching.

1:12:45 CLUES AND CONSEQUENCES. Gaining information vs. inventing information, and the important limits of invention. Adding to the narrative, not overwriting the narrative. The implications of player agency on the sense of character competence and vice versa. The disrupting effect of spending resources to get out of consequences after the roll — or before the roll. The impact of gaining control over access to information vs. hoping to get it by luck. When not to roll the dice. (Converting Masks of Nyarlathotep to Trail of Cthulhu.) Nudging the players along or running with their diversions. Warning the players out-of-character that they’re going off the rails.

1:36:12 DO WE HAVE CONSENSUS? Small layers of player agency are effective — spending points to gain information, avoid rolling the dice, or shorthand your equipment list; soliciting scene details from the players — especially when they come with frightening consequences. But more overt mechanics often feel too disruptive because they change the mood of game-play from gloomy horror to pulpy action.


This episode’s music is “Nyarlathotep” by the Darkest of the Hillside Thickets, courtesy Divine Industries. Copyright 2012. Visit www.thickets.net.

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1 comment for “Unspeakable! Episode 11: Ryan Macklin of Backstory Cards, Fate, Paizo, and Mythender – Player Agency in Horror Games

  1. Lordsloth
    July 15, 2014 at 7:01 pm

    The Stars are finally right for Horrors of War? 😮

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