Bounding Emergence

By | January 31, 2015

Hello and welcome!

For the past two weeks, I’ve talked about how fudging randomized results makes randomization pointless in games, and about how the only difference between games and TV is the players’ ability to affect the outcome.  To be clear on that latter:  Emergent play is the only way to play explicitly because it’s the only way to guarantee that the players’ actions matter within the context of the game.  Otherwise, you might as well be watching a TV show (in which the popular characters are going to stick around to keep people tuning in) or playing a linear console JRPG (I’m looking at you, Final Fantasy).  In both of these cases, the story is crafted and the observer/player has minimal interaction with it – the story is “on rails,” and the player is being “railroaded.”

Which is great when you’re talking about movies and television and books, etc.  The expectations for those are “consumptive entertainment.”  The expectation for games is quite different, because games ask their players to invest time and effort in them.  For video games, that investment in time and effort is rewarded with seeing the cool graphics, nifty ending scenes, the feeling of victory, etc.  For board games and card games, that investment in time and effort is rewarded with victory straight out.  For tabletop roleplaying games, that investment in time and effort should be rewarded with the ability to impact the game world and change the story.

Tabletop roleplaying games offer a uniquely powerful opportunity for emergent storytelling.  Instead of a story being pre-programmed into a computer and limited at most to a few branches, you have humans interacting with other humans in all their unpredictable ingenuity.  Consequently, tabletop roleplaying allows you to see exactly what could happen once you get off the railroad and therefore play must exist off the railroad.  The players must have full agency within the game, and the GM (if the system has one) must not interfere by imposing his own will to force them into the comfortable confines of the story he has already created.  That explicitly defeats the purpose of tabletop roleplay.


Gamers are a clever bunch, used to pushing rules to their limits and finding the exact dimensions in which they can act.  The old adventure titles like King’s QuestMyst and Zork took advantage of this behavior by hiding interactive tchotchkes throughout the game: play became in large part about discovering the boundaries of interactivity.  Truly emergent play, where anything can happen, can be a dangerous or weird thing to hand to gamers precisely because they will rush headlong over the edge.  Because people (not just gamers) are an extreme bunch, for whom molehills can become mountains in short order.  This tendency is what leads occasional fudging to effectively be the equivalent of fudging all the time and railroading.

And one of the chief arguments I’ve seen against emergent play is that it will ruin the experience of themed play.  For instance, if I’m playing a western game, and aliens and zombies show up, now all of a sudden I’m taken out of the experience because the game has gone from a semi-realistic gunslinger wild west game to a Deadlands-esque weird west game.  I am no longer enjoying myself because this is not what I wanted to participate in, and now I’m dissatisfied.

Or, alternately, if I’m playing a sentai game where all the players are members of a Power Rangers-style squad and we expect to get in the giant robot at the end and win.  Emergent play means if I roll my dice badly enough, we might not survive to get in the giant robot, or the giant robot’s monster-ending sword swing could miss.  Experience ruined!

I’ll take care of the latter objection first: any game where the outcome is predetermined, and you’re largely interacting with the game to replicate all the feelings and mechanics of a scripted show, is not taking full advantage of the power of tabletop roleplay.  Such a game structure could be run just as effectively by a computer, because it is a chain of scripted events held together by interactive sequences that ultimately have no relevance to the outcome.  Which is awesome if that’s what you want to play!  But whether or not it’s a game that meets the expectations of being a game (and not consumptive entertainment) is another matter entirely.

For my purposes, such games do not meet my expectations as such.  For me, they might be fun for an evening’s entertainment, but I would have a nagging feeling within me that the victory at the end rings hollow, and that my own actions within the game are devoid of meaning.  It has always struck me that games with that much structure only offer the opportunity to add “wacky hijinx” instead of rewarding clever, goal-focused play.

Of course, I’m also all about the Emergence.  It’s what attracted me to tabletop roleplaying in the first place.  Let me tell you a story:

October 15, 1995, UNC-Chapel Hill.  I’m playing my first roleplaying game session, AD&D 2e, as a Neutral Evil Bard named Blackwolfe who has a wolf animal companion who is. . .black.  And he’s got a cool-ass scar over one eye, because that’s the short of shit you did in the 90s.  We’re an evil party who finds themselves dropped into Sigil, the City of Doors.  We make our way to a tavern.  So far, I’m thinking this is wacky, silly fun.  At the tavern, I order a raw chicken with the feathers on the side.  Because that’s the sort of shit you do when you’re fresh to roleplay.  I get the chicken, I take a leg for myself and give the rest to my wolf.

“Roll a Saving Throw versus Death.”

“WHAT?!  Did they try to poison me?”

“No, we have to see if you get Salmonella from eating raw chicken.”

“…you can get Salmonella in this game?”


Now this moment is, I think, the definitive moment for a fresh roleplayer.  The roleplayer has done something stupid, as you do, and has consequences levied upon him because of it.  Consequences he did not anticipate.  The young roleplayer’s reaction to this experience defines what kind of roleplayer he is, or if he will even continue to be one.  If his reaction is, “that’s dumb, I just wanted to eat something in character, and my character’s weird, it shouldn’t be a big deal”. . .that player would probably be very happy with more GM-ful, story-driven games.  If his reaction is “that’s dumb, I’m leaving,” then maybe roleplaying isn’t his forte.  My reaction was:


Because until that moment, I had never encountered a game where anything was a possibility.  And I embraced that, warts and all.  (I fortunately did not get Salmonella, though I also never ate raw chicken again. . .in a roleplaying game.  /sob)

Actions must have some form of consequence in order to be able to affect the outcome of a game and the game’s story.  Tabletop roleplay, unlike pre-scripted entertainment, truly allows our actions to have broader consequences that no one could have seen coming.  But just because actions have consequences doesn’t mean that any action is always available, and that any consequence can occur in response to them.  There is still a logic and structure behind emergence, or else we’re talking about a schizophrenic experience not unlike how some folks used to think the Chaotic Neutral alignment needed to be played in D&D.  That leads me into Directed Emergence:  the principle that just because emergent play can happen, does not mean that everything is fair game, and that variability of choice can bounded by set expectations without closing off the possibility of emergent storytelling.

Fully emergent play is difficult and can very quickly become ridiculous in a way that the players at a table neither like nor agree with.  So when preparing a game, it’s important to set the boundaries of expectation up-front.  Players should agree on the tone of a game ahead of time, and identify in broad terms what is acceptable and what is not.  Microscope already does this to some degree with its Palette mechanic, allowing certain things to be banned or explicitly made available during play.

Defining these boundaries does not remove the possibility for emergence, unless these boundaries also include a specific outcome (such as “the evil lord will always escape justice until you guys hit 20th level”).  Avoid that.  By setting these boundaries, and setting expectations, you are ensuring that emergence can still occur while maintaining the immersion that is key to good roleplaying experiences.  We already agree on so much when our gaming groups sit down at a table (ruleset, setting, books legal for play, who’s buying the pizza this week) that adding expectations is a minor affair.

We’ve codified this in Forthright by providing the Game Charter, which is explicitly present to set the expectations (both social and in-game) for and of players in the game.  This is a piece of gaming technology we swear by, because it helps circumvent arguments and vitriol during the game between players who had differing expectations from the game and their fellow players.  I’ve often seen where people tend to think that if someone else shares one similarity with them, they share more similarities (and the inverse, that someone who is dissimilar in one way is dissimilar in all ways).  I’ve been guilty of it myself.  But by using a Game Charter, we can help ensure that everyone is on the same page so that there are no difficult surprises later.

It’s always better to get things out in the open earlier.

So keep your games emergent!  Ensure your players’ actions matter, and set those expectations early!  These will all help your gaming group have a great time.