The Carta SRD and player agency
Exploring player agency via the Carta SRD
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Last week we looked at player agency in tabletop games, including two different models for what it means. If you missed that one, go check it out!
This week we continue looking at player agency and how it relates to the Carta SRD.
A quick review of player agency
Based on last week’s poll, most (58%) people felt that the CCI model of agency is the most useful one. It’s a model proposed in The Power of Choice: Player Agency in Tabletop Role-playing Games (Amauger, 2023), with just three key elements:
Choice: The player is presented with multiple options.
Control: The player has the ability to act upon the options.
Influence: The player’s decision changes the world of the game.
One reader pointed out in the comments that this is similar to one proposed by Chris McDowall in The ICI Doctrine: Information, Choice, Impact. I do like that the ICI has additional focus on the need for information when making a choice.
After just three iterations of our demonstration card game in last week’s post, we ended up with a grid of cards and a tiny bit of player agency. It started to look a little like the Carta SRD by Peach Garden Games:
The base idea is that players lay cards out in a grid, and then turn them over one at a time, exploring prompts and mechanics as they do. The game is a sort of boardgame / storygame hybrid, where players explore journaling prompts by physically moving their marker from card to card and looking up the results.
The system was built to make solo games that focus on discovery and exploration. As written, the SRD has no theme applied. It would work just as well for dungeons as it would spaceships.
Here’s how it works:
Shuffle a deck of cards with the jokers removed.
Draw 22 of the cards plus a goal card and a starting card, for a total of 24 cards.
Shuffle and deal out the 24 cards facedown in a 4x6 grid, with the Starting card face up.
Place the player token on the starting card.
Each turn move your player token to an adjacent card, revealing the card which is (usually) linked to a solo journaling prompt.
The object of the game is to get from the starting card to the goal card, while discovering cards along the way.
Viewed from the CCI player agency model, there is choice (i.e. multiple adjacent cards) and control (i.e. you can control where you move), but relatively little influence on the game world.
The Carta SRD also suggests two different modes to add some more complexity to the game:
Survival Mode: Instead of moving freely and without limit, the player must manage some sort of diminishing resource (e.g. food). Run out of the resource and the game ends unsuccessfully.
Collect Mode: Instead of just hoping to find the Goal card, the player must find additional specific cards before reaching the Goal. The player wins if they reach the Goal after finding X specific cards (e.g. items, clues, etc.).
Let’s consider how these two, simple modifications impact player agency.
The Survival Mode acts as a countdown timer for the game, something we’ve discussed before. This immediately adds pressure and urgency. Suddenly selecting the shortest path matters. Taking a longer path reduces resources and therefore has more influence on the game world.
The Collect Mode exists in opposition to the Survival Mode. One pushes the player toward a shorter path through the cards, while the other requires a longer hunt.
Dredge by Angel Eyes Games uses the Collect Mode:
Dredge is an exploration-based journaling game about sailing through an enormous lake known as the Wringwaste, hauling up mysterious items from its depths as you go, while struggling to regain the memories you've lost.
The interesting twist is that Dredge adds an adversary in the form of a Deep Hunter.
Two King cards are mixed into the deck before forming the grid, and the other two are set aside. Once the first King card is revealed, a monster called the Deep Hunter enters the game and will move one space closer each turn. If it catches your ship, you’ll lose items and perhaps your life, ending the game.
This creates some interesting choices for the player! They must find the Docks (goal card) and the required number of items. At the same time, the Deep Hunter will arrive at some point and start its pursuit. Selecting a path becomes more complicated as the player tries to balance collecting items, getting to the goal, and avoiding the monster.
The choices are still the same adjacent cards for movement, and the control (i.e. ability to choose the cards) is the same. The influence is greater, however, because the ship’s position influences the movement direction and distance of the monster.
It would be interesting to add some Survival Mode to Dredge as well, with a resource (e.g. rations or water) that add a countdown to the game.
There’s a monster in Apex Predator by Peach Garden Games, but unlike Dredge, this time you are the hunter. Some of the cards in the grid will provide monster tracks and others will provide advantages during your inevitable battle with the monster.
It’s interesting to see combat added to a system that is ostensibly built for solo journaling games, and it shows how small changes can greatly alter the feel of the game.
Some other ideas
The options for modifying and extending the Carta SRD are endless:
Use tarot cards instead of a poker deck to add more prompts
Start with a blank table rather than the grid, building as you go
Align the cards so each one is adjacent to six others vs. a standard grid
Add the ability to peek at cards or to flip some cards back to face down
Use stacks of cards vs. just one card in each grid position
Do games need agency?
I do think that, in general, games improve with increased player agency. More choices, harder decisions, and more impact on the game world tend to make games more fun. When designing a game, I think it’s worthwhile to ask, “How can I increase the player agency of this design?”
It’s equally important to remember that player agency (at least as defined above) isn’t always necessary to have fun. Solo journaling games like You are a Muffin and The Last Tea Shop essentially have zero player agency. You react to prompts, with the world of the game ticking away regardless of what you write in your journal. And yet, these games can be really fun and interesting experiences!
I’d also argue that games like Charades (ca. 1550), Pictionary (Angel, 1985), and even Just One (Roudy & Sautter, 2018) seem like they have little technical player agency. The players have few (if any) choices to make or control, and their actions have little to no influence on the overall world of the game. Players just react to the words they are given.
Having played Just One many times, however, it’s always a really fun game!
And perhaps journaling games have infinite agency, as you write and create the game world as you go!
Some things to think about:
Player agency is worth considering: When designing a game, I think it’s worth considering how player agency can be increased. This doesn’t just mean providing more choices, but rather giving more information about the choices and creating more impact on the game world from the decisions.
Player agency is more than its definition: The CCI and FADC player agency models are really helpful, but they aren’t perfect. Games can be fun and players can feel like they have control over the outcome without meeting the technical definitions in those models.
Simple SRDs are a great way to get started: If you’ve never made a game before, I highly recommend grabbing the Carta or Wretched & Alone SRDs. Both are simple and make it easy to extend them with additional mechanisms. Dredge and Apex Predator are good examples.
— E.P. 💀
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