Active Player Agency – A Crash Course

You’re a new GM or maybe you’re an experienced GM looking for advice to engage your players. You’ve come to the right place.

GM jitters, running out of prep time, players losing interest are all obstacles that can be overcome if you stick to the basics of good story-telling by using the following Active Player Agency (APA) method of tabletop storytelling.

Active Player Agency

Tabletop games have one HUGE advantage over written story-telling: interactivity. The players participate and shape the story: all you have to do as GM is let them shape the story

Write down player ideas

When your players throw out cool ideas for plot points, when they postulate about NPC motives, when they muse on the origins of mystical artifacts, don’t let it go to waste!

Yes, the king really is under demonic sway…

Take notes on it, underline the coolest ideas that they come up with and incorporate them into the campaign; add a twist to a few of the ideas. If you can’t integrate them without breaking immersion, then just say:

That’s a really cool idea, I wish I’d thought of it.

Validate players for providing suggestions

This simple act of acknowledging player ideas validates their decision to participate in the game, it uplifts them, encourages their participation, and guides them to greater immersion in the game.

But the benefits aren’t just to the players, oh no. The main benefit is to YOU, the GM.

Incorporate player ideas into the campaign

When your players are invested, when they are throwing out ideas and theories, and when you’re writing them down, it makes your life easier!

You can spend less time preparing and more time thinking of how to integrate their ideas into the story. The former is hard: it means arduous mental labor starting from scratch, the latter is fun and allows you to focus on the best way to integrate the idea into your campaign.

Betray Expectations

Good storytelling is a constant yin-yang of betrayal and fulfillment of expectations. By integrating player ideas you’ve already provided fulfillment of expectations. Now it’s time to betray them.

Add a twist to their ideas!

If the players believe that the Mayor is Secretly Evil then give him a compelling moral crisis: his daughter has fallen in with a cult and she is slowly trying to brainwash him; it isn’t working, but the cult has forced his tacit cooperation by threatening his daughter’s life and the safety of the town.

Use NPCs with personality

If you’re going to role-play an NPC and PC interaction, make it memorable. Give your NPCs accents and quirks, but most importantly of all: give them a disposition.

Most of the time, their disposition and character traits should be straightforward and match what the players expect, but on occasion it’s important to betray expectations to make memorable characters.

Is the head of the Knights Olregourd an uptight, hardass battlemaster or is she silent and gloomy, approving of little and speaking in a voice just above a whisper. Which one will your players remember?

Use movies, books, and everything you can find for inspiration. 

Create characters that the players will love and hate on both sides of the allies and enemies divide.  In life we rarely hate everyone who works against us and rarer still do we like everyone with whom we work.

Which leads us to our last point:

Don’t make new NPCs when you can re-use them

A good story has a small cast of characters; when the cast of characters gets too long it becomes difficult to keep track of what’s going on and the audience, or in our case, the participants lose interest.

Building emotional investment takes time, energy, and effort; bring that emotion to the story with a NPC that the players already know.

I’m still relevant, baby!

If you can think of a reason that the captain of the guard should be the Stranded Hero that the PCs chance to encounter on the frontier, then go for it! 

This is an opportunity for you to re-use and flesh out your most memorable and impactful NPCs and save you time on creating new ones.


By using these 6 techniques you can reduce your prep time and increase player investment in the story:

  1. Write down player ideas
  2. Validate players for providing suggestions
  3. Incorporate player ideas into the campaign
  4. Betray Expectations
  5. Use NPCs with personality
  6. Don’t make new NPCs when you can re-use them

 All of these techniques make your life as GM easier, enrich your story, and provide a solid framework for any tabletop roleplaying system. 

By using the APA system you  can rest easy and wave those GM jitters away!


If you enjoyed this article you might also like GM’s Should Keep Player Death on the Table or the GM’s Guide to Travel.




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