Creating Agency in an episodic format

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and thought it might be interesting to get other people’s take on this topic:

How do you go about giving your players a greater sense of agency over an overall direction of a campaign, given that the format and source material lends itself to a more episodic, somewhat railroaded approach?

For context, I have just begun season 2 of my campaign. The CO has just been promoted to Captain as reward for their successes, and I would like this new rank to come with a little more freedom for where he takes his ship. I don’t however just want to hand them the map and ask where they would like to go. Interested how others would approach this

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Looking from Starfleet Command perspective, a starship captain has some autonomy but is still obliged to obey orders.

Maybe present to them a choice of which department or direction is preferred: exploratory, supply missions, rescue, military or reconnaissance, diplomatic, scientific? it may be connected with your ship specialization, do you want to go to five-year mission to explore the unknown or maybe you have a fresh crew just after Academy and they need training and practice with more routine jobs.

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When considering player agency from a captain’s perspective, you might also ask what is player agency for their crew/officers. Of course there is a certain chain of command, but looking at this on meta-level, you have several players who have their opinions on where next mission should go. Maybe chief scientific officer wants to pursue some scientific theory, which is worth exploring in next episode? Or chief engineer wants to test new configuration of warp field core?

Ships have missions, usually assigned to them by admirals specifically or they might have broader missions like “explore the Shackleton Expanse.” Nevertheless, the captain and the GM know what to do. Sure, the captain may decide to take their ship to somewhere else, but this will likely cause disciplinary actions later.

From a TV show standpoint in the spirit of TNG, you would begin the episode by letting the captain know their mission for the day. The captain could then even narrate an appropriate log entry.

I would like this new rank to come with a little more freedom for where he takes his ship.

Depends on the overall mission of the ship. If its exploration, I would still assume that the ship is not just blindly stumbling around space but instead explores a region in a sensical pattern. So you could give the captain some options at the end of each mission: Continue to the class M planet, explore the Mutara-class nebula or chart the asteroid field. Then you can prepare an appropriate adventure. Maybe your adventure has nothing to do with the chosen location and you just modify the beginning to fit.

I don’t think Starfleet captains can just do whatever they want, like suddenly flying to Ferenginar without good reason.

To take an example from my campaign, the crew must visit 4 planets to uncover a mystery. While they could decide in which order to visit the planets, they were located in such a way that there was a “logical” order to visit them: Klingon space -> Talarian/Federation contested space -> Ferengi/Breen neutral space -> Romulan space.

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@Shran, sorry if I have misunderstood your reply, but it sounds like your solution to not always providing a GM structured railroady format is to provide a GM structured railroady format?

Theres a difference between giving a false appearance of agency (the choice to ignore the obvious intended order to still go to all the same places) and actually giving a little more agency. I’m already providing those kind of choices and allowing them to approach missions in whatever manner they see fit (we’ve already completed a 15 episode season, with episodes often taking multiple sessions), but I don’t subscribe to the idea that ships are getting day by day updated instructions from the admiralty, and such I’d like not be starting every session with a set mission I have forced upon them. Captains would have a level of autonomy amongst a larger assignment.

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The setting itself and episode structure implies a certain level of railroading. It’s not like you’d have them roam a sector of space and throw random encounters at them depending on which way they go and their whims. That style of gameplay is fine, but probably not in the best tradition of Star Trek.

You could easily give them a region of space to explore, something like “You’re the only Starfleet ship assigned to sector 73224. Go explore, catalog spatial anomalies, boldly go. And report back.” and then leave it up to the captain as to how to execute that mission, and then pepper them with interesting storylines and episodes as they perform toward that mandate.

Also talk to the players and figure out what sort of game they want to play, and also get their characters and their backstories involved. Star Trek is at its best when episodes have events that relate directly to the characters or are more about the PCs than some weekly guest star. Give them agency with subplots and B-stories that could grow into A-story lines.

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I mean that you could give the players choices that don’t actually affect the campaign is an option. Or you adjust your storylines to fit the choice the players made.

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This, would, actually, be pretty much a “Voyager”-Style campaign. ENT-Era Campaigns could work that way, too. So, in principle, there’s nothing wrong with it.

I completely agree with you that, compared to your average open world fantasy RPG, Star Trek is a more “roaded” environment. It’s not that everything’s on rails, but there actually are paved roads and traffic lights and it would be rather clever to adhere to traffic regulations.

I think player agency in Star Trek comes from their freedom of choice within their mission. Starfleet, as a military organisation, in my games would use Auftragstaktik (Mission-type tactics / Mission Command). So there’s a goal the player characters are expected to achieve and they’ve got a ship (and maybe specialised technology/NPC) to do so, but how exactly the goal will be achieved is up to them almost entirely. There are some restrictions, e.g. the prime directive, but in principle its up to the Captain and their crew how the problems will be solved.

Also, I agree that a huge part of the plot should be character-centric. Agency here comes from the freedom to individually react on choices.

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Player agency is, fundamentally, giving the players meaningful choices to make.

Player agency operates on several scales…

  1. Individual actions attempted
  2. Approach to the adventure’s key goals
  3. Selection of suitable characters
  4. selection of which adventure
  5. creation of characters for the fiction besides the PC
  6. natural consequences of actions taken

Individual actions - this is standard stuff. But the choices need to be at least semi-informed to be meaningful

Approach to the Key Points: let the players decide how to accomplish the goals. Again, this is standard stuff. Again, informed makes it meaningful.

Normally, character selection isn’t a meaningful choice in RPGs. But in STA, it definitely is, because of the SCC rules. Picking the right SCC for the tasks is a meaningful choice with natural consequences.

Selection of which adventure: If you prep 2, and give a “TV-schedule blurb” style precis of each, and then let the players vote… that becomes a huge level.

Selection/creation of NPCs: when players can decide who the opposition is, that’s a strong form of agency. It’s also hard to get right. One of my playtest sessions, Ben said, “I bet we’ll see him again” as a Romulan Tal Shiar agent fled (I used a whomping pile of threat to escape him)… so, next adventure, I replaced one adversary with said scenery chewing Romulan.

Finally, Natural Consequences. If a player has done something, it should matter. Tasks and approaches to goals have natural consequences immediately, but they also should have long term ones.

Keep in mind also: knowledge rolls imply backstory to fill in. If the player pulls off a Diff 5 knowledge action, they probably did some serious research in their past; let them have a durable trait about that research, but keep it narrow.

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one way to really enforce concequences of course would be a Deep Space Nine style game. where the players are based in a space station, or barring that are in a much smaller area. a small sabre class ship providing basic security etc in a single sector would work too.

Regarding choosing where to go etc you can always perpare a breifing package for the captain, task the ship to assign a particular sector and let him choose what order to do it. having perpared adventures for each location. the problem with this is you useally end up with a sense of false choice. although you can shake this up by having a few adventurs time dependant so that if you visit a planet early you find an artifact, if you visit it midgame you compete with the cardassians for it, and if you come too late, you have to track down the cardassian ship that already took the artifact.

I gave my players a long term mission (a 2.7 year round trip journey beyond the ends of the explored portion of the quadrant, and then placing a super powerful telescope-like device there) that I think combines a little bit of the flavor of Voyager (being so far from home) and TOS/TNG (exploring/episodic adventures.) Some of the decisions and characters in earlier games will then come back and haunt them in later games. For example, they basically tricked a rogue Klingon commander to gain safe passage, and he WILL figure it out very soon and confront them at the worst possible time with more photon torpedos than words.

I have done a thing where I emailed players between games with a private poll (e.g. would you prefer to do a time travel game or a mirror universe game) to help inform what happens down the road. Granted, that creates a possibility of a thematic “spoiler” but then you work in your own twists. But I know some GMs really dislike the idea of quasi-spoilers like that.

Not sure what you mean by “railroaded”. Afterall, Starfleet is a combined military/exploration/police force. But, you can do anything you want with your campaign. I give my players orders to “patrol sector 211” or whatever, and they go there. Assuming they pick up on the thread I am offering them, they have the freedom to pursue the leads or not. I have several adventures ready, which allows them to respond to the information they find.

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If their mission is “explore this region” of space, consider going with a hexploration style game. The Traveller system actually has a lot of good ways to randomly generate interesting situations and you can throw in your own prepped stuff where you want as well.

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I have considered this, but for my own use only. It could make estimating travel times easier, as well as be a repository of loads of info. However, I am concerned about such a map tying mt to a certain place and time - it might be useful to be a bit more freewheeling with time and distance.

I tend to have an overall campaign idea, but generally let the players decide how to accomplish their “directives”, given to them by NPC Admirals. That seems to be the best way for me. Havent had any complaints, except some think my main enemy is too powerful.

Off topic, but how do I post a new topic as a new member of the forum?

Under the title of this thread, click on Star Trek Adventures to bring you to the main STA forum, then on the right-side at the top you’ll see a plus sign with ‘New Topic’ below the user bar where your profile icon is.

i dont see that plus sign, maybe cuz i am new? i also dont see a section for non-game related stuff (such as forum-specific questions like this one). and i dont want to keep spamming this thread with unrelated content lol

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