Character Agency: It’s not just a good idea, it’s the right thing to do

A picture of a woman cradling a marionette
Special thanks to for the use of the photo

One of my gaming beliefs is that every character should have agency. Frequently enough, however, I see games where this is not true.

In my opinion, every character should have their own story line and their own ability to do as they wish. It’s true that the filmic camera of our play may not include that character’s whole lifespan, but I feel as though you should be able to rotate the camera and follow the innkeeper as he goes about his duties, focus in on the midwife as she delivers another child, watch her travel out of the city to gather herbs.

This may be too much for many GMs to handle. I’m not asking for everybody to create multiple storylines for every character. I’m just asking for the fundamental design direction to flow towards agency for NPCs as well as PCs.

What does this accomplish? For one, it makes your stories richer. It also helps you handle players’ inevitable going off the map. For another it avoids cliche “Holy Light of the PC.” And finally it means that your players soon learn that there isn’t any such thing as a “throw-away” character.

People are not throw-away people. You may not be interested in the life of the baker across the street, the town watch officer, the clerk of court, the man who sells fish. That’s OK. Just don’t forget they are people, with their own motivations, desires, ideas, and agency.

Finally, making sure this is a part of your game means that you avoid marginalizing groups and being non-inclusive. There are no damsels in distress – a cliche that, to me, is right up there in offensiveness with “spear carrier.” Reducing someone down to a stereotype. Making the NPCs into a series of bonuses and penalties for the hero, nothing more.

Every baker can put down their rolling pin and pick up a quarterstaff. Every midwife can become a shaman. Every town watch officer could have been a veteran of a campaign where she learned all about rakshasas and knows just exactly how to kill them.

That’s what “agency” is – simply applying the same free will and personal power that PCs get to NPCs. It may seem difficult to accomplish, but with practice, you can empower them.

By the way, my adventure “Live and Let Dye” is full of NPCs with agency (one so much so that you might be better off having a PC play her) – if you’d like to take a read it is available for sale at Drive Thru RPG.